With his neatly knotted tie and strained half-smile, the young boy looks just like any other kid forced to pose for a school picture. But behind those dark eyes lies a terrible secret. Little does the photographer realize that his subject will grow up to become one of the most infamous killers the world has ever known.
Richard David Falco came into the world on June 1, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York. His mother, Elizabeth Broder, was embroiled in an affair with a married man, and it was three years into the relationship that she gave birth to the baby boy. Apparently afraid that her lover would leave her, she put the child up for adoption when he was just a few days old.
Soon, though, the baby was taken in by a Jewish-American couple, Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz, who lived in the Bronx. Now renamed David Berkowitz, he proved to be a difficult child. Although he was said to have had higher than average intelligence, Berkowitz quickly began to misbehave.
While he was a young boy, Berkowitz’s school career was marred by bullying and petty crime. Then, when he was 14, his adoptive mother succumbed to breast cancer. And after his father remarried, Berkowitz took a dislike to his new stepmother. Wanting to escape his troubled home life, then, he enlisted in the United States Army at just 18 years of age.
Three years later, after a stint serving in South Korea, Berkowitz was out of the army and searching for his birth mother. Eventually, he managed to track her down – but the reunion wasn’t what he was hoping for. In fact, when Elizabeth told Berkowitz about his illegitimate birth, the young man fell into a pit of despair.
Heartbroken by the news, Berkowitz abandoned his birth mother and turned instead to violent crime. On December 24, 1975, he committed his first vicious attack. Wielding a hunting knife, he stabbed teenager Michelle Forman, hospitalizing the girl. At the time, however, Berkowitz escaped suspicion and then fled to Yonkers, a city just north of New York.
Unfortunately, the move did nothing to allay Berkowitz’s thirst for blood. In July of the following year he traveled back to the Bronx armed with a pistol. There, he came across teenagers Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti in a parked car and opened fire. And although Valenti survived the shooting, Lauria died at the scene.
Berkowitz had committed his first murder, but it certainly wouldn’t be his last. In fact, it was the beginning of a killing spree that would go on for almost two years. During this time, Berkowitz terrorized the population of New York with his attacks, earning himself the nickname the .44 Caliber Killer.
By April 1977, Berkowitz had racked up another two murder victims and wounded several others. Targeting young women and couples, he would fire at them from a distance and then disappear, leaving police baffled. Then, on April 17, he fatally shot Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani while they were sitting in their car. This time, however, he left a note behind.
When police arrived on the scene, they found a letter written in block capitals in a childlike style. It was addressed to Joseph Borrelli, a captain in the NYPD. And in it, the author claimed responsibility for the murders and threatened to carry out more attacks.
The letter was also the first time that the nickname Son of Sam appeared. What’s more, this moniker soon made its way into the newspapers covering the case, and in New York, fear of the mysterious serial killer reached new heights. Indeed, noting that all of the previous victims had long dark hair, many women even took to chopping off their locks or dying them a lighter shade.
Meanwhile, the shootings continued. On July 31, 1977, Robert Violante and Stacy Moskowitz were sitting in their car in the Bath Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. Suddenly, a man appeared and opened fire on the vehicle, fatally wounding Moskowitz and badly injuring Violante. But this time there was witness to the shooting: a teenager named Tommy Zaino.
Finally, the police were able to get a description of the killer dubbed the Son of Sam. And they soon experienced another break in the case. Cacilia Davis, who lived close to the scene of the July 31 shootings, saw a man acting suspiciously near a ticketed car. His behavior frightened her, and when she ran away she heard shots being fired.
At last, the police had a solid lead. Methodically, then, they investigated every vehicle that had received a ticket in the neighborhood that evening. Among them was a yellow Ford Galaxie belonging to David Berkowitz. And when they located the car, they found maps detailing the crime scenes, a rifle, and a note addressed to police inspector Timothy Dowd.
Now, they knew that they had their man. On August 10, 1977, Berkowitz was arrested outside his apartment building. Quickly, he confessed to the shootings – but the case was about to take a bizarre turn. Apparently, he claimed that the Sam referred to in the letter was Sam Carr, an old neighbor. According to Berkowitz, Sam’s dog was possessed by an ancient spirit and required the sacrifice of young girls.
That said, although he behaved erratically during his court appearances, Berkowitz was deemed fit to stand trial and then was sentenced to 25 years behind bars for each murder he’d committed. Facing life in prison, he was sent to the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Yet while he was there, Berkowitz’s life took another improbable turn.
In 1987 Berkowitz claimed to have converted to evangelical Christianity. What’s more, he began referring to himself as the Son of Hope and refused to attend his parole hearings. Instead, Berkowitz stated that he deserved to spend the rest of his days in prison.
Then, in 1990, Berkowitz was moved to Sullivan Correction Facility in Fallsburg, NY. And while there, he began to make some bizarre statements. According to Berkowitz, he had joined a satanic cult in the spring before the murders started, and its members had persuaded him to kill. Indeed, he went on to claim that he had only been responsible for three of the Son of Sam murders and that cult members had committed the rest.
Moreover, although most experts have dismissed Berkowitz’s claims of a satanic cult, some believe that the Son of Sam may indeed have acted with an accomplice. As public suspicion of the official version of events grew, then, the Yonkers police department reopened the case in 1996. It remains open to this day.
Today, Berkowitz is imprisoned at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County, NY. He continues to appear repentant for his crimes. Indeed, he has a website filled with Bible verses and written apologies to his victims. It’s a far cry from the terror once wrought by the Son of Sam. But has Berkowitz really changed his ways? As he looks set to remain behind bars for the rest of his days, the real truth may never be known.