The murder of Donna Lauria on 29 July 1976 was one of around 20,000 murders in the US that year and did not merit a great deal of attention in New York, especially as it happened in an area of the Bronx in which the Mafia held power.
The city’s cynical journalists paid little heed to the killing, assuming perhaps that she had seen something or said something which had annoyed La Cosa Nostra.
Two more murders were committed, and several other people seriously injured, before a press conference at the NYPD’s headquarters at One Police Plaza on 10 March informed the nation that the same .44 calibre revolver had been responsible for the murders of Miss Lauria, and Virginia Voskerichian, a 19-year-old Armenian-American, who had been killed two days before.
Police Commissioner Mike Codd said the gun had also been responsible for the murder of Christine Freund and two other shootings in the Bronx and neighbouring Queens.
The New York tabloid press seized on the story and within days everyone in the city was aware of the existence of the man known at the time as The .44 cal Killer.
In the early hours of 17 April 1977, David Berkowitz blasted to death young lovers Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani (pictured above) and left a handwritten letter in the middle of the street nearby, addressed to Captain Joe Borelli, the deputy chief of the task force, which had been set up to hunt down The .44 calibre Killer.
The sender of the letter claimed he had been ordered to kill by his father, Sam, who he said was a vampire. The letter was not released to the public and only a handful of journalists were told of its contents.
One of them was New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who dropped several hints about it in his articles. On 30 May 1977, Berkowitz sent Breslin a letter and the Daily News published it and dubbed the killer ‘The Son of Sam’.
The summer of 1977 was sweltering and the heat only helped to raise the tension on the streets.
In the early hours of June 26 a young Italian-American, Sal Lupo, left the Elephas disco in Queens with 17-year-old Judy Placido. They sat in Sal’s car nearby and Judy said “This Son of Sam is really scary. The way that guy comes out of nowhere. You never know where he’ll hit next”.
Suddenly the car’s window exploded and the couple were hit by three bullets from a .44 revolver. Sal staggered out of the car and ran to the disco for help as the killer fled.
Miraculously neither Sal nor Judy were badly injured, and four weeks passed with no further incidents – but the detectives were no nearer finding out the identity of the killer.
On July 31 1977, Stacy Moskowitz went out on a first date with handsome Bobby Violante.
Son of Sam’s hunting grounds were known to be the Bronx and Queens so the young couple (who had been to the movies to see New York, New York) thought they were safe when they pulled up under a streetlight in a lovers’ lane in south Brooklyn just before 2:00 am.
Stacy and Bobby were kissing in the front seat when the windows shattered and she jerked forward. The gunfire had burst Bobby’s eardrums. He also lost his left eye and much of the vision in his right eye, but he survived.
Stacy was taken to hospital and surgeons fought for 38 hours to save her life, but their efforts were in vain and Stacy became Son of Sam’s sixth victim.
But Berkowitz made a mistake which was to prove his undoing . . . He parked his Ford Galaxie next to a fire hydrant and was given a parking ticket by an eagle-eyed police officer. When he returned to his car around 2:20 am he was spotted by a local woman, Cacilia Davis, as he tore the ticket off his windscreen and threw it in the gutter.
When Ms Davis came forward her statement was initially ignored by the police, who had been told by other witnesses that the killer was fair-haired and driving a yellow Volkswagen. She was also told no parking tickets had been issued that night.
But Ms Davis persevered and 10 days after the shooting police finally unearthed a ticket which had been issued to a Ford Galaxie, registration number 561 XLB.
The registered owner was David Berkowitz, who lived at 35 Pine Street in the northern suburb of New York. When armed police swooped on Berkowitz as he got into his car (pictured above), they demanded to know who he was. He smiled maniacally and said, “I’m Sam”.
He was taken into custody and confessed to all six murders and several other shootings during a 30-minute interview. Detectives quizzed him about references he had made in his letters to Sam.
He claimed he had been ordered to commit the murders by a near neighbour Sam Carr, but said the messages were passed on by Carr’s “demon dog”, a black Labrador called Harvey.
The Carr family knew of Berkowitz and suspected he had been responsible for shooting Harvey (who survived) and hurling a Molotov cocktail through the window of their home.
Several court-appointed psychiatrists disagreed about whether or not Berkowitz was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. But it did not matter because he pleaded guilty to the murders and was jailed for 365 years and sent to the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York.
After his conviction, Berkowitz admitted the letters, and references to “demon voices” from a dog, were a hoax and attributed the killings to a loathing of women caused by his own sexual frustration. But he has never fully laid to rest another theory which has many proponents, including the mother of his last victim – Neysa Moskowitz believes Berkowitz was involved in a coven, which carried out the killings as part of an occult ritual.
The theory was given considerable credibility by the findings of investigative journalist Maury Terry. He believes the coven was called the 22 Disciples of Hell and says it also contained Sam Carr’s sons John and Michael, both of whom loathed their father.
Terry pointed to the text of Berkowitz’ letter to Captain Borelli, which referred to both the 22 Disciples of Hell and John “Wheaties”, who was referred to as the rapist and suffocator of young girls. John Carr’s nickname was “Wheaties” and he closely resembled a composite picture of the gunman involved in one of the shootings.
But John Carr was found shot dead, in February 1978, before Terry was able to interview him. Scrawled on the skirting board next to his body were the words SSNYC – surely they stood for Son of Sam New York City. Michael Carr also died mysteriously.
In October 1979 his car ploughed into a streetlight as he drove towards Manhattan. His sister, Wheat Carr, is convinced he was either driven off the road or had his tire shot out.
The District Attorney of Queens, John Santucci, was so interested in Terry’s findings that he agreed to reopen the Son of Sam case. But to date, no-one else has ever been charged in connection with the crimes.
Berkowitz himself will only say of the killings “There were others who knew about them and urged me on. But I carried out the killings. I take full responsibility for my actions”.
In his letter to Governor Pataki, Berkowitz wrote “In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have, with God’s help, long ago come to terms with my situation and I have accepted my punishment.”
Berkowitz remains an enigmatic character who is regularly interviewed on US television and continues to make front page news in The Big Apple. He announced in 2011 that he would not seek parole during his next opportunity in May 2012. He said in a two-page letter to Fox News that he had “no interest” in parole, thanks to forgiveness by Jesus Christ.
“I have no interest in parole and no plans to seek release,” Berkowitz wrote. “If you could understand this, I am already a ‘free man’. I am not saying this jokingly. I really am. Jesus Christ has already forgiven and pardoned me, and I believe this.”
He also said that he had “deep regret and sorrow over my past criminal actions.”
Carole Weaver, a spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Parole, said Berkowitz had been a model inmate with just one minor infraction.