Forty years ago, it was a violent crime spree that not only terrorized the nation’s largest city but riveted the entire country, a murderous rampage by an elusive serial killer who came to be known as “Son of Sam.”
Last Thursday night in New York City, close to where some of the vicious attacks on innocent civilians took place, Smithsonian Channel premiered its hour-long documentary “The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam,” scheduled to air on the cable network this coming weekend.
Guests packed the theater at the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca to watch the latest installment of “The Lost Tapes” series, which chronicles landmark events in American history by using media reports of the time, rare footage and home movies or videos — and no narration or re-creations.
The “Son of Sam” murders began on July 29, 1976, but at the time, no one recognized that one of the most infamous serial killing sprees in U.S. history had begun. Much of New York City then was a crime-ridden cesspool. The city was tallying about 800 murders a year, including brazen killings on the subway system, so the slayings, although shocking because they involved innocent young people with their lives ahead of them, didn’t seem completely aberrant in the milieu of 1970s New York.
It wasn’t until the killer struck five times — mainly targeting young couples in cars late at night in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn — that investigators linked the crimes through .44 caliber ballistics evidence and announced that they were connected. The New York Police Department assembled a massive task force to catch what they then called the .44 Caliber Killer.
Along with his bloodlust, the murderer began craving further notoriety and wrote letters to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin and other reporters, calling himself the “Son of Sam.” The fear he engendered caused many New Yorkers to change their daily habits to avoid being out on the streets.
Meanwhile, the nation was mesmerized by the media frenzy surrounding the manhunt, which finally ended more than a year later when a woman tipped police about walking by a suspicious man in her neighborhood, and also recalled seeing a cop ticketing a nearby car for parking next to a fire hydrant.
After the screening, WCBS-TV 6 and 11 p.m. news anchor Kristine Johnson led a panel discussion with producer Tom Jennings, NYPD investigator Bill Clark, Lawrence Klausner, author of “Son of Sam,” a book based on the tapes, documents and diaries of convicted killer David Berkowitz, currently serving a life sentence in New York’s Sullivan Correctional Facility — and remotely, one of the hordes of journalists who covered the story at the time, Geraldo Rivera. (Rivera was piped in for the panel via Skype from Nevada, where he had been covering the O.J. Simpson parole hearing earlier that day for Fox News.)
“The screening was a tremendous success,” Jennings told me afterward via email. “The audience appreciated our no-narration, no-interview style, allowing them to experience what it was like to be living in New York in 1976 and 1977. The Q&A panel afterward showed that interest in this story remains very strong. I think part of that is because the story is a defining one for New York and the nation during the 1970s. And part of the fascination is the fear that makes people wonder, could something like this ever happen again.”
Many people in the audience wanted to know why it took police so long to capture Berkowitz. One questioner, Queens Chronicle columnist Lloyd Carroll, asked Clark, one of the lead detectives on the case, if it would be possible for an urban serial killer to go undetected nowadays in a post-9/11 world where there is high-tech surveillance, social media, and everyone has a camera in their pocket or purse. He agreed that it would be almost impossible, yet also noted that modern DNA crime scene technology would not have helped much with the Son of Sam investigation.
“Detective Clark talked about how Berkowitz was unfortunately very good at what he did. There were almost no clues left behind,” Jennings said.
Author Klausner told the audience that in writing his book, he learned that the police were beyond frustrated. He said police would go home at night and hear their friends and family ask them over and over, “Why haven’t you caught him?” He said the pressure on the police was intense.
Jennings said Rivera, who was then a reporter for a local New York station, talked about how the Son of Sam story came about at a time when New York City was in chaos. “The city was in financial chaos. During the Sam murders the city was thrown into darkness during a major blackout [in July 1977]. Crime in general was out of control. He talked about how the Sam murders scared the entire region — and the country — because the killings were so arbitrary … that it could happen to anyone, at anytime, anywhere,” Jennings said.
All told, six people were killed by Berkowitz, and seven others were critically wounded by him, including a young man who was blinded and another who was paralyzed due to gunshot wounds.
The documentary incorporates many TV news “man on the street” interviews filmed at the time, during which most subjects express fear, but also epitomize the noted moxie of native New Yorkers. Press conferences with grieving parents of the victims are also featured, where in many cases, their inner strength shines through their sadness and anger.
“We were aware there’s a line you don’t cross,” Jennings said in a phone interview, commenting on the victims’ parents. “They were willing to talk to the media about their grief. Part of the legacy is there’s evil in world and it can happen at any time for no good reason. The people who went through it — the survivors, the family members — we tried to be sensitive to them, and choose parts that told the story while trying not to exploit them in a way that felt tabloid-y. They were part of a tragic event. Their story still deserves to be told.”
Also noted is the casualness in some of the television news coverage, including a reporter shown standing outside the house where two young women were shot the night before. “Today, it would still be a crime scene and treated differently,” said Jennings. “Not only had police already processed the scene but media could walk up and report on it. Life was different then. One thing I like to do is compare and contrast what’s the same and what’s different — the cars, the hairstyles, the clothing. But fear is fear and if this would happen today people would still be afraid because it was so arbitrary.”
So what is the takeaway of Son of Sam, four decades later? Jennings noted it’s like something Breslin said on a New York talk show during the manhunt, a clip aired in the documentary. “He was talking about how police work is most often shown as ‘Hollywood,’ cops rolling up with guns drawn, but how do they catch one of the worst murderers? Some clerk goes through parking tickets. My own opinion is that we become so reliant on technology to solve all our problems, but look at how Son of Sam was solved. Sometimes you can solve something in the simplest way, by going through records that might lead to the person committing the crimes. This was some guy in an office, not going through them on a computer, but on paper. That is a legacy to remember. Our cell phones aren’t going to solve crimes. Sometimes it takes human instinct, which hasn’t changed since 1977.”
(“The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam” airs on Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, July 30, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)