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David Berkowitz, who terrified New York between the summers of 1976 and 1977 by shooting strangers, usually young women, often sitting in parked cars, in eight separate incidents, and who claimed responsibility as “Son of Sam” in letters to the police, shot his first victims in the Bronx on this date in 1976. (The Christmas before, he had used a knife in an attack on two young women, a crime not noted until after his arrest.) Berkowitz was born in 1953 to a Jewish mother who surrendered him as an infant for adoption. Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz, owners of a hardware store, adopted and raised the boy, whom journalist John Vincent Sanders would describe as “somewhat troubled. Although of above-average intelligence, he lost interest in learning at an early age and began an infatuation with petty larceny and pyromania.” Berkowitz lost his adoptive mother at age 14 and joined the army four years later. He began his killing spree two years after his honorable discharge. In his letters to the police and to reporters, and upon his arrest, Berkowitz made claims of “demonic possession” and appeared mentally ill, but he refused an insanity plea, confessed to his crimes, and attempted suicide while in custody. Ultimately Berkowitz was found competent to stand trial and was sentenced to several consecutive life sentences. He converted to Evangelical Christianity in prison in 1987 and began calling himself “Son of Hope.”
“Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. Hello from the sewers of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks. J.B. [Jimmy Breslin], I’m just dropping you a line to let you know that I appreciate your interest in those recent and horrendous .44 killings. I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and I find it quite informative. . . . You can forget about me if you like because I don’t care for publicity. However you must not forget Donna Lauria and you cannot let the people forget her either. She was a very, very sweet girl but Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood. Mr. Breslin, sir, don’t think that because you haven’t heard from me for a while that I went to sleep. No, rather, I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam. I love my work.” —David Berkowitz
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.