On August 10, 1977, 11 days after his last murder, David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, was arrested and later sentenced to six consecutive 25-years-to-life terms. More than 40 years later, this serial killer, who murdered six people in New York City from 1976 to 1977, remains one of the most notorious murderers in America.

Berkowitz named himself Son of Sam and claimed to be obeying orders from a demon

Throughout his murderous rampage, Berkowitz taunted and insulted the police in the handwritten letters he left at his crime scenes in the New York boroughs of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. These letters were widely publicized in media accounts and struck fear into the lives of New Yorkers. In a letter he left near the bodies of Alexander Esau, 20, and Valentina Suriani, 18, addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borrelli, Berkowitz called himself “Son of Sam” for the first time. Later in his confessions, Berkowitz revealed that he was obeying orders to kill from a demon, manifested in the form of a black Labrador retriever “Harvey” who belonged to his neighbor “Sam” Carr. During questioning, Berkowitz stated, “He told me to kill. Sam is the devil.” Demons, murder, and terror led to intense media coverage of the case and Berkowitz relished the spotlight. He was able to elude one of the strongest police forces in the world until NYPD homicide detectives detained him on suspicion of eight shooting incidents on August 10, 1977.

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On May 8, 1978, Berkowitz pleaded guilty and confessed to his crimes, including six murders as well as nearly 1,500 fires he had set in and around New York City and was sentenced to six consecutive 25-years-to-life terms on June 12, 1978. Berkowitz’s sentencing hearing was dramatic—he tried to jump out of a window of the seventh-floor courtroom upon hearing the judge’s decision.

Son of Sam eventually became Son of Hope

Despite his story of devils, demons, and possession, numerous psychological evaluations declared Berkowitz “competent.” In the 40 years since his arrest, Berkowitz has retracted his possessed dog “Son of Sam” story—claiming, “It was all a hoax, a silly hoax” as seen in his March 20, 1979 letter to his psychiatrist, Dr. David Abrahamsen. He has also made statements that he was a member of a violent satanic cult that orchestrated the murders along with fellow cult members John and Michael Carr (the sons of the demon dog’s owner Sam Carr). Berkowitz has also become an evangelical Christian. Instead of “Son of Sam” he now prefers “Son of Hope” as seen in his book, Son of Hope: The Prison Journals of David Berkowitz (2006) and featured on his website (run by his supporters because he is not allowed access to the Internet) On the website, he provides an apology to his victims and their families and claims: “I was once a prisoner, but now I am free.”

David Berkowitz in 1995

David Berkowitz studies the Bible in jail in 1995
Photo: Spencer A. Burnett/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

Son of Sam laws prevent criminals from profiting from crimes

Decades later, the Son of Sam case continues to draw significant attention due to the extreme nature of Berkowitz’s crimes, his claims of demonic possession, and his ability to taunt and elude the NYPD. As a result, Berkowitz has been offered large sums of money for his story. However, nearly all states — including New York — have since passed laws, sometimes known as “Son of Sam laws,” that prevent convicted criminals from financially profiting from books, movies, or other enterprises related to their crimes. Although there are numerous media renditions of the Son of Sam case, Berkowitz does not receive any royalties or profit from any sales of his works or the works of others.

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Berkowitz continues to write from prison

In 1996, Yonkers police reopened Berkowitz’s case. Due to a lack of significant findings, the investigation has been suspended but remains unclosed. In prison, Berkowitz continues to write journal essays on faith and repentance as well as contribute to school-based projects for students in psychology, criminology, and sociology who want to learn more about the criminal mind and the criminal justice system. Although he has been up for parole on numerous occasions, he has been consistently denied release. Berkowitz is currently serving his time in a maximum-security prison in New York.

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