Warning: this article touches on subject matter that some readers may find distressing
Infamous serial killer David Berkowitz is the subject of the new four part Netflix documentary series, The Sons of Sam.
Between the summers of 1976 and 1977, New Yorkers were terrorised by random shootings that took place in their city, in which six people were killed and seven others were injured.
The killer taunted the police and press by sending letters mentioning the crimes in which he called himself ‘The Son of Sam’. When he was finally arrested in August 1977, The Son of Sam turned out to be 24-year-old ex-army soldier David Berkowitz.
His letters – including the initial letter in which he first called himself The Son of Sam, that was left for the police at one of his crime scenes – feature heavily in the Netflix series. Journalists and investigators believe they hold clues to Berkowitz’s true motive behind the shootings, and could even reveal, once and for all, whether Berkowitz acted alone or (as he has claimed) he was part of a satanic group intent on causing chaos through murder.
Read more about The Sons of Sam true story.
What did David Berkowitz’s letters say?
Berkowitz wrote letters during his killing spree detailing his motives, beginning with the Son of Sam letter that he left at a crime scene in April 1977 for the police to find. He was also believed to be the author of a letter sent to newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin the following month, and may have also been behind a series of threatening letters written to his neighbour, Craig Glassman, around the same time.
Following his arrest in August 1977, Berkowitz continued to write letters about his crimes and motives, including one to the New York Post in September 1977, as well as notes to journalist Breslin and author Maury Terry, whose investigation into whether Berkowitz killed alone is the main focus of The Sons of Sam documentary.
The Son of Sam letter
The first letter police received from Berkowitz was the ‘Son of Sam’ letter. It was discovered on 17th April, 1977, near the bodies of Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani, who had been shot while sitting in Suriani’s car in The Bronx.
The hand-written letter, partly written in block capitals, was addressed to New York Police Department captain Joseph Borrelli. In the letter, Berkowitz taunted police for their inability to catch him (“Police – Let me haunt you with these words: I’ll be back! I’ll be back!”), and also wrote about why he killed.
“I am the ‘Son of Sam’,” he wrote. “I am a little ‘brat.’ When father Sam gets drunk he gets mean. He beats his family. Sometimes he ties me up to the back of the house. Other times he locks me in the garage. Sam loves to drink blood. ‘Go out and kill’ commands father Sam. Behind our house some rest. Mostly young – raped and slaughtered – their blood drained – just bones now.”
The Breslin letter
In May 1977, New York Daily News journalist Jimmy Breslin received a handwritten letter from someone claiming to be the serial killer. Breslin showed the letter to police before it was published, and they believed from its contents that it had been written by someone with knowledge of the murders.
The letter – with a few portions deleted at the request of the police – was published in the Daily News, and became one of their biggest selling issues. The letter began: “Hello from the gutters of NYC,” and went on to mention one of the victims of the first shooting attributed to Son of Sam – Donna Lauria, who was killed on July 29, 1976.
“… 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.”
The letter also included some “names to help you along” – names that some believe indicated the killer didn’t work alone (though others think they are just more names Berkowitz gave himself). They included “The Duke of Death”, “The Wicked King Wicker”, “The Twenty Two Disciples of Hell”, and “John Wheaties”.
Berkowitz letters to Maury Terry, Breslin and more
In the years since his imprisonment, Berkowitz has continued to write letters, and others written before his arrest have also been uncovered.
While he was living in Pine Street, Yonkers in New York in the months leading up to his arrest, Berkowitz wrote threatening letters to his neighbour, Craig Glassman. They included the words “You have been chosen to die. Craig I curse your mothers grave,” and “We will kill you. We will murder you.” Glassman died in 1990 after writing a book about his involvement with Berkowitz, and his adult daughter now visits Berkowitz in prison.
In September 1977, the New York Post received a letter in which Berkowitz referred to demonic possession and also hinted that he was not the only killer, writing: “There are other Sons out there, God help the world.”
Berkowitz further pursued this claim in letters in 1979, when he posted a book about witchcraft to police in North Dakota who were investigating the murder of Arlis Perry, who had been killed in 1974. In a series of letters, he claimed there was a link to his own killings and a possible satanic cult, but this has since been dismissed by police.
He was also in communication with Breslin, who noted “He’s the only killer I ever knew who knew how to use a semi colon,” referring to the punctuation skills in Berkowitz’s notes. Some of the letters Breslin received were featured in Spike Lee’s movie about the crimes, Summer of Sam.
Maury Terry, meanwhile, received a diagram from Berkowitz detailing his escape route from the scene of one of the shootings, and letters from the serial killer including one from 1981 in which Berkowitz wrote, “I am guilty of these crimes. But I didn’t do it all.”