“You got me. What took you so long?”
Those were the words uttered 34 years ago tonight when the police finally caught up with and arrested David Berkowitz—aka the “Son of Sam”—perhaps the most notorious serial killer to ever stalk New York City.
Berkowitz, also known as the .44 Caliber Killer (for his preferred choice of weapon), had grown up in the Bronx to adoptive parents. His adoptive mother died when he was thirteen and he had restive adolescence.* He joined the army in 1971, was discharged three years later, and returned to New York where over the next few years he began to fall deeper into mental illness. He began setting fires; when the police searched his house on August 10, 1977, they found a diary claiming credit for hundreds of arsons. Some experts believe he may have set over 1,000 fires.
In 1975, he turned from arson to more personal attacks. On Christmas Eve, he stabbed and injured two women with a hunting knife, the beginning of a murderous crime spree that would last almost two years and culminate in eight shootings and six fatalities. It is too easy in retrospect to glamorize killers like Son of Sam—the American public seems to have a morbid fascination with murderers—but let’s take a moment, instead, to remember his known victims:
- Michelle Forman (stabbed with hunting knife; survived)
- Unknown victim (who was with Forman, survived)
- Donna Lauria (murdered)
- Jody Valenti (survived)
- Carl Denaro (survived, but with a metal plate in his skull)
- Rosemary Keenan (survived)
- Donna DeMasi (survived)
- Joanne Lomino (survived, but rendered a parapalegic)
- Christine Freund (murdered)
- John Diel (survived)
- Virginia Voskerichian (murdered)
- Alexander Esau (murdered)
- Valentina Suriani (murdered)
- Sal Lupo (survived)
- Judy Placido (survived)
- Stacy Moskowitz (murdered)
- Robert Violante (survived, but blinded)
The summer of 1977 was a volatile one in New York not only because Berkowitz had eluded capture. As we write in Inside the Apple:
[T]he city was plagued by countless other problems. For one, it was nearly out of money. The famous 1975 headline in the Daily News—“Ford to City: Drop Dead”—summed up the city’s problem in trying to secure a federal bailout. Even the election of New York-friendly Jimmy Carter in 1976 hadn’t helped much. The lack of funds meant that necessary city services were always on the verge of being cut. When John Lindsay was mayor, he’d tried to brand New York “Fun City.” When the city vowed to cut the police force, cops handed out flyers at the airports telling tourists it was now “Fear City.” The flyer recommended they not go out after dark and that they not ride the subway at all. The city made cuts to the NYPD nonetheless. Thousands of other jobs were lost, too. When city sanitation workers were furloughed, the entire department went on strike, causing massive amounts of garbage to pile up on city streets. Despite building projects like the World Trade Center, which were supposed to provide a new economic stimulus, the city had lost a record number of jobs since the early 1970s, with little end in sight.
The subways, strewn with litter and covered in graffiti, were the only affordable option for many New Yorkers. However, the budget gap meant that token prices shot up from 35 to 50 cents, a move necessary just to keep the trains running.
In the Bronx, five thousand apartments burned down every year, the result of persistent arson. The theaters along 42nd Street, once home to some of Broadway’s greatest theaters, had instead become XXX movie parlors; indeed the number of places to buy pornography had gone up by 2000% in a decade.
Then, on the night of July 13—just as the city was beginning a terrible heat wave—the power failed, plunging the city into darkness. That night, portions of the city erupted into looting and arson: over 1,000 fires were lit and more than 1,600 shops were looted. It was the worst disturbance in the city since the Civil War Draft Riots and the most widespread. No borough was exempted—from the Bronx to Bensonhurst the burning and robbery lasted well into the night. In the end, a congressional committee estimated the damage at $300 million dollars, though some guessed the real toll had been closer to $1 billion. By the time the power was restored a day later, over 3,700 people had been arrested.
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Read much more about New York in the '70s in