Monday, October 02, 2006


In 1977, crazy weather drove New Yorkers insane all year long.

An extremely cold winter gave way to a burning hot summer. Then a July thunderstorm sparked the worst blackout in New York history. The entire police force was ordered to report for duty but few off-duty cops bothered to show up. Those that did got a taste of true fear when their patrol cars, crawling down blackened streets, were pummeled by bricks and bottles and the occasional round of fire. Patrol car headlights blinded bad New Yorkers who hit the streets for the biggest looting spree in city history. One Brooklyn mom was not pleased when she plugged in the family's newly acquired air conditioner and nothing - just the same hot air blowing in from the darkened street. She let the unit drop out of the window and yelled at her son to get out there and come back with good merchandise next time. Maybe the greatest hit of the night happened up in the West Bronx were 50 new Pontiacs were stolen from a poorly defended dealership. At Rikers a dozen inmates escaped under the cover of darkness.

A lover’s lane serial killer, who had been discharged from the army for refusing to carry a gun, decided that it would be a good idea to stay off the streets that night. Son of Sam was the big story in New York for most of the calendar year. The .44-caliber killer, a postal clerk and former auxiliary police officer, was a man of few words, but when Harvey the Labrador retriever talked, he listened. The result was no joke as 6 young men and women were killed and the lives of survivors and family members were ruined. In the extended media frenzy and general hysteria leading up to the arrest in August, detectives on the hunt for the killer were followed by television crews and newspaper reporters. A tabloid newspaper war, fueled by Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post in January, benefited from the story of a lifetime. In May, The Daily News got the goods delivered right to Jimmy Breslin’s mail box in the form of a personal letter from the fugitive.

Son of Sam grabbed the headlines but a plague of pimps and prostitutes, drug dealers and drug addicts, car thieves, muggers, rapists and killers were also out there working hard alongside the famous slayer. Criminals with special skills included cabbie killers, bank robbers, art thieves, pickpockets and lowly petnappers. It was a year in which fumbled robberies competed with botched investigations. A large population of especially heartless predators favored elderly victims. Some of the city’s baddies preferred the subways, others stuck to Times Square. At a time when one or two major crimes were reported every minute, it should have come as no surprise that a local gun group offered a $200 reward to victims who killed their assailants. Vigilantes in all five boroughs were ready to answer the call.

By 1977 the famous South Bronx fire plague had moved on to newly-minted slums like Bushwick, Brooklyn. A few of the blazes were undoubtedly caused by exploding boilers and bedtime smokers, but arson was all the rage. Over the July 4th weekend the Fire Department decided to take a holiday and ignored 1,000 Brooklyn alarms (all but two were false). The department’s statement that this was not the usual procedure did not reassure many.

Conspiracy enthusiasts were not alone in thinking that the biggest criminals in New York City in 1977 were not deranged serial killers or Con Ed management, but city officials themselves. It was no secret that the city had cut services to select neighborhoods, those that politicians would never live in themselves. An amazing local government policy of “planned shrinkage” was the product of a famous Daniel Patrick Moynihan memo suggesting that something called “benign neglect” would be an effective way to downsize big bad cities. But New York City was way ahead of the Senator. In the sixties, the city had a plan to clear slums all over town. Slum clearance might sounds worse than planed shrinkage, but that program was incredibly thoughtful compared to what elected officials cooked up in the seventies. In 1977 voters were amazed to discover who they had elected right there at home, and what the gang was up to.

The Federal government, too, had plenty of tricks up its sleeves. The Labor Department botched a memo to employers reminding them that they must consider hiring alcoholics and drug addicts, just as they must employ “blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.”
Washington had New York City in mind when they issued that flattering directive. New Yorkers wished the goverment would put the city back on the pay-no-mind list. In 1975, President Ford famously told New York City to drop dead: by 1977 it seemed to New Yorkers and rest of America that, indeed, the city would be lucky to see 1978.

The big stories of 1977 were really big. Son of Sam and the blackout had staying power. Other, lesser known disasters came and went.

High above Grand Central a helicopter faltered on its landing gear causing a spinning rotor to break off – hacking through a crowd of waiting passengers before flying down to Madison Avenue and slicing an unlucky pedestrian to death.

A hijacked bus slammed through a fence at JFK and closed down the airport for 4 hours as it crisscrossed the tarmac followed by a convoy of police cars. Two of the victims thrown from the bus were a woman, shot in the back of the head, and the driver. In a bad year for bus companies, another incident involved the theft of a Greyhound bus by two 14-year-olds who took it on a joy ride through New York City streets. Later, in a feeble effort to defend themselves from ridicule, the company protested that they didn’t know the bus had been stolen from a parking lot, watched by a security guard, until getting a call from the cops.

Studio 54 opened in midtown without a real liquor license. When Son of Sam’s capture was announced there hysterically by Steve Rubell, he joked that Berkowitz "would have never gotten in here."

Saturday Night Fever (and Nunzio) were filmed in Brooklyn. Diane Keaton followed up her role in Annie Hall with another movie that might as well have been set in New York, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Rocky was finishing up its long run when George Lucas released Star Wars. Roots drew the largest television audience in history. And a long list of great bands made stops at Madison Square Garden and elsewhere in New York during a once-in-a-lifetime year for music fans.

One guy who probably didn’t make it to a lot of shows was a famous cult leader whose followers included Carole Burnett and Bernadette Peters. He spent two months trying to revive a dead body in his Upper West Side apartment before jumping from his 10th floor window.

Joe Torre took over early in the season as manager of the New York......Mets. The Yankees, staring Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, surprised everyone and won the World Series for the first time since 1962. A classic, although ultimately anticlimactic, pennant race also featured the Red Sox and the Orioles. Earlier in the summer baseball's All-Star game came to New York and fans were treated to one of the largest gatherings of Hall-of-Famers in history. And in his final season, Pele starred in soccer’s best year ever in the U.S., as the Cosmos drew huge crowds to Giants Stadium enroute to the title. The world’s other best known athlete, Muhammad Ali’s performance at Madison Square Garden made it clear that he should follow the Brazilian legend’s example and retire. Seattle Slew became the second triple crown winner of the seventies. A two-year-old named Affirmed was also in town that year dueling with Alydar at the Futurity. (Affirmed made it back-to-back triple crown winners in 1978).

NYC 1977 will take a perverse look back at the year and the city. In 1977, there was no time to talk about the crazy weather. No one could believe what New York City and its inhabitants had concocted for themselves. NYC 1977 tells the whole story, from January 1st through December 31st, with all the bloody details left in.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

SON OF SAM (Klausner)

More than 300 New York police officers joined an increasingly hysterical search for the killer. Many of the cops were as solid as any you see in a television drama. Some were not. There was the promise of glory, promotion, and money for the policeman who broke the case. The intra-force rivalries became ferocious; that is not something the glorifying television shows display.

Two New York tabloids, the morning Daily News and the afternoon New York Post, were struggling for circulation among those people who did not choose to read The New York Times. The News had been losing readers for a decade. The Post was under the new stewardship of the Australian press adventurer Rupert Murdoch.

Berkowitz sold newspapers. On the day of his capture, the Daily News sold 2.2 million copies, 350,000 more than usual. The Post, which headlined the word Captured in red ink, saw its circulation jump from 609,000 to one million.

Our touchstones are violence and ineptitude, greed and ambition and David Berkowitz’s erupting psychosis. The consequences do not advertise the glories of American society.

A fire of fright was burning: they fanned it.

The public responded by buying newspapers and yielding to panic. According to police calculations, your chance of becoming a homicide victim in New York on any given night was about 600,000 to 1. Your chances of being murdered by a stranger was about 2 million to 1. Your chances of being done in by any given killer, however maniacal, are so small as to be incalculable. But as the terror peaked in New York City, nearly 5000 people a day made frenzied telephone calls to their local precincts. The wall between civilization and anarchy is neither so high nor so sturdy as we comfortably assume.

David Berkowitz, born Richard Falco, became “The .44-Caliber Killer” on the front page of the News and the Post (and later of The New York Times). That is, to be sure, as much a label as a name, but it is a catchy label. In a bizarre way, it speaks of Madison Avenue. How do we package the product? We need a label.

Berkowitz possessed a doggerel skill at wordplay. During his thirteen months of murder he coined such phrases for himself as “The Wicked King Wicker,” “The Chubby Monster,” and “The Duke of Death.” David Berkowitz’s most famous name was created after his sixth attack, which took place on the northbound service road of the Hutchinson River Parkway in the Bronx. On that night, April 17, 1977, he killed both Valentina Suriani and Alexander Esau. He wrote a letter, on dime-store stationery, which he left in the street about ten feet from the victim’s car. “I am deeply hurt your are calling me a wemon (sic) hater,” Berkowitz’s note to Captain Borelli began. “I am not. I am a monster.” Then Berkowitz composed the single sentence that would make him the centerpiece of thousands of headlines. “I am the Son of Sam.”

The buildup had begun for two things: first, the publishing of the killer’s letter and second, in a tortured twist of journalism, Breslin’s reply. Reporter Donald Singleton had worked for two days on preparing a teaser. The article opened with a piece of the original letter:

“Don’t think 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. Now the void has been filled.”

Singleton wrote that the police had confirmed that both the Breslin letter and the note left at the April 17 killings were the work of the same individual. Taking great care to continue the buildup of the coming Breslin reply, Singleton dropped this tidbit: The killer looks forward to meeting Breslin “face to face someday of perhaps I will be blown away by cops with smoking .38’s.” The article ended with the statement that Breslin planned to answer the Son of Same in the next day’s edition.

On Saturday June 4th the entire first printing was sold out within an hour of hitting the streets and, by the end of the day, more papers had sold than ever before.

“Hello from the gutters of NYC, which is filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood, Hello from the sewers of NYC which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of NYC and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood of the dead that has settled in the cracks.” This was the extent of the letter published that day but more was sure to come. They intended to milk the letter for as long as possible.

Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of New York City and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed on the dried blood of the dead that has settled into these cracks. Hello from the gutters of New York City, which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. 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.

Sam’s a thirsty lad. He won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood. Tell me, Jim, what will you have for July 29? 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 sweet girl. Not knowing what the future holds, I shall say farewell and I will see you at the next job? Or should I say you will see my handiwork at the next job? Remember Ms. Lauria. Thank you.

Here are some names to help you along. Forward them to the Inspector (Dowd) for use by the NCIC Center. They have everything on computer, everything. They just might turn up, from some other crimes. Maybe they could make associations.

Duke of Death.
Wicked King Wicker.
The twenty-two Disciples of Hell.
And lastly, John Wheaties, rapist and suffocator of young girls.
PS, drive on, think positive, get off your butts, knock on coffins, etc.

Broken Flower Page 118 -

It was warm outside, but David was not responding to reality. Before leaving he zipped on a heavy new ski jacket and pulled a brown knit stocking cap toward his ears. In ten-degree temperature he had dressed lightly when he hunted and found Christine Freund. Now, in pleasant weather, preparing to hunt once more, Berkowitz dressed as if he were setting forth across the tundra.

He would drive to Queens again, to Forest Hills. “I picked Queens because there are a lot of pretty women there. It seemed to me that Forest Hills was where the prettiest ones were.”

He parked the Galaxie on Tennis Place, a narrow winding street just to the west of the tennis club. Familiar ground. Stepping from the car, he considered where he was. The West Side Tennis Club and the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium lay to his right. Chris Evert, a pretty girl, had won the US Women’s Open there that preceding fall.

For an hour he roamed a small expensive community called Forest Hills Garden. Looking into the houses, David thought they were privileged and secure. Then he saw a slight, attractive young woman walking toward him. She had a rather long face framed by dark-brown wavy hair. She wore a tan maxicoat and dark boots, so he could not see her legs. Although the came from behind her, David saw that she was carrying notebooks and what he took to be school texts.

The young woman’s name was Virginia Voskerichian. She was indeed a student, as Berkowitz surmised.

Berkowitz thought the young woman approaching was “really beautiful.” When they were a step apart, David pulled the .44 out of his pocket. Virginia Voskerichian stopped and made a soft cry of terror. She raised her schoolbooks in front of her face as if to protect herself.

David fired once and hit Virginia “somewhere in the face.” He was becoming more professional – which is to say more deadly – with his gun. “I only fired once, because once was all I needed.”

Virginia tumbled into the bushes that bordered the sidewalk. She died instantly.

David began to run back to his Galaxie. He saw a man in dark clothing – a fifty-nine year old civil engineer who was the first witness to see David leaving the scene of a murder.

“Hi Mister,” David said. The startled man did not respond.

Three plainclothesmen were riding in a tan Plymouth on 69th Avenue, which intersects Dartmouth Street three blocks from where Virginia Voskerichian lay. According to one of them, they noticed a young man running, then slackening his pace when they came into view. They thought he was trying to look inconspicuous, which made him an immediate target of their interest. But they were assigned to street anticrime, not to Borelli’s task force, which meant that they were not on the lookout for anyone who might be linked to a series of killings. Besides, the killer did his violence after midnight and it was only 7:32. If such a man would prowl that evening, it would be closer to midnight. The plainclothesmen weren’t attuned to the possibility that this figure and the murderer might be one and the same. They were on the lookout for purse-snatchers, muggers, car thieves.

The Plymouth edged toward the curb and stopped. “Might as well check him,” said a plainclothesman, indicating David Berkowitz. Coincidence – the kind that is hard to believe when we encounter it in nineteenth-century novels – now worked in behalf of David.

The officer seated in the rear swung open the door of the Plymouth. He was about to step out to question Berkowitz. The policeman and the killer were within ten feet of one another. Suddenly the plainclothesman froze. A call was coming in over the police radio: “Report woman shot on Dartmouth, near 71st.

David was so close that he could hear the voice of the woman dispatcher.

The plainclothesman scrambled back into the car. A siren sounded. The tan Plymouth accelerated away.

The plainclothesmen had not associated the man in the ski jacket on this mild March might with a woman who had been shot three blocks away.

David does not remember feeling fright. Rather, he says, “Satan was creating illusions.” The police sensed something when they stopped the car, he says, but failed to react because they must have decided what they saw – himself – “was an illusion.”

By the time Berkowitz reached his Galaxie he felt secure. Tomorrow he would go back to work at the Post Office in the Bronx and no one would suspect what he had done.

Excerpt from Son of Sam LAWRENCE D. KLAUSNER McGraw-Hill 1981