NEW YORK (AP) — For a year, David Berkowitz terrorized New York.
The papers called him the “.44 Caliber Killer.” In taunting notes to police and a journalist, he called himself “Mr. Monster,” the “Son of Sam.”
When the police finally got him, 40 years ago Thursday, the man behind the killings was unmasked as a schlubby civil servant with a boyish face and a dopey smile.
“I remember the courtroom was packed to the rafters. And it was almost like the air was taken out of the room when he walked in,” said Richard A. Brown, who was the judge who presided over Berkowitz’s first court appearance, the day after his 1977 arrest.
The room fell silent, except for a wailing cry from the mother of victim Stacy Moskowitz.
Brown looked at Berkowitz and was surprised.
“He was sad sack,” said Brown, now the Queens district attorney.
A pretrial report had recommended Berkowitz be released without bail because he had a steady job as a postal worker and ties to the community.
“Request wasn’t granted,” Brown said as he paged through his yellowed personal file on the case this week.
Six people died and seven were wounded, sometimes horribly, as Berkowitz stalked the city, targeting young women and couples sitting in cars.
Fanned by news reports, and Berkowitz’s own loquacious letters sent to newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, the “Son of Sam” saga whipped up fear. Young people turned down dates or parties to stay home. Since the killer appeared to favor women with long, dark hair, women cut or dyed their hair.
Brown, who lived in Queens, said his own two daughters were scared to leave the house.
“The city was just gripped with fear. Stores were closed early, there was no one on the street, it was like nothing anyone had seen,” he said.
Donna Lauria was the first victim, shot and killed July 29, 1976, in the Bronx. But it wasn’t until after the fifth attack, on March 8, 1977, that police put the pattern together; ballistics tests confirmed that one gunman was responsible for all five shootings. By then, three young people were dead and four others had been wounded.
“I am a monster,” the killer had written. “I am the ‘Son of Sam.'”
The New York Police Department formed a 200-person task force to solve the crime. Many undercover officers worked all night on the streets, hoping to catch the shooter in the act.
But it was routine police work that cracked the case.
When a witness reported a strange man on the street near the final shooting, police checked traffic tickets that had been issued…