Across 13 months of 1976 and 1977, fear over the Son of Sam murders perpetrated by then-unknown serial killer David Berkowitz gripped the citizens of New York City. Six women and men were shot and killed in three of the city’s boroughs in more than a dozen seemingly random attacks. The crimes spawned one of the biggest manhunts of the city’s history.
Tabloid newspapers battled for the latest information as daily sales soared. “It had absolutely everything going for it as a tabloid perfect storm,” Sam Roberts, the Daily News city editor in 1977 told the New York Times of the media frenzy. “It was an ongoing, unfolding crime story that New Yorkers were genuinely terrified about.”
Here’s a timeline of one of the most infamous killing sprees in modern history:
July 29, 1976: The killer attacks his first victims
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The shootings first attributed to the killer who would become known as the Son of Sam occurred in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx. Two women, Jody Valenti and Donna Lauria, 18, were sitting in Valenti’s double-parked Oldsmobile when a man approached the car and fired three bullets. Lauria was killed instantly and Valenti was shot in the thigh before the man walked quickly away. Valenti described her attacker as a white male in his thirties, approximately 5-foot-8 and about 200 pounds, with short, dark, curly hair.
October 23, 1976: Two more people are shot but survive
Carl Denaro, 20, and Rosemary Keenan, 18, were shot at while sitting in a parked car in a residential area of Flushing, Queens. Both survived, but Denaro was struck in the head by one of the bullets. Police would later speculate Denaro may have been mistaken for a woman due to his shoulder-length hair.
November 27, 1976: A couple is attacked by a man in military fatigues
Following a late movie, Donna DeMasi, 16, and Joanne Lomino, 18, were headed to Lomino’s home in Floral Park, Queens when they were approached on the street by a man dressed in military fatigues who produced a revolver and shot each woman once. Their attacker fired several more times before running away. Though shot in the neck, DeMasi survived without permanent injury. Lomino was shot in the back and was paralyzed.
January 30, 1977: Another attack with seemingly no motive
Christine Freund, 26, and her fiancé, John Diel, 30, were shot as they sat in Diel’s car in Flushing, Queens. Panicked, Diel sped away. He suffered minor injuries but Freund was shot twice and later died in hospital. Like the previous attacks there appeared to be no motive, but following this murder the police made the first public acknowledgment that the attack bore similarities to earlier incidents – all victims were struck with .44 caliber bullets and the assailant appeared to be attacking young women with long, dark hair. At the time, police said they were looking for multiple suspects.
March 8, 1977: A college student is attacked in a the same area
Returning home in the evening after college classes, Virginia Voskerichian, 19 — who lived in the same neighborhood where Freund had been attacked — was shot in the head and died instantly. With local newspapers the Daily News and New York Post now reporting on the shootings on a daily basis, it was revealed at a press conference two days after Voskerichian’s murder that police strongly suspected the same .44 Bulldog revolver had been used in the attacks.
April 17, 1977: The killer announces his identity for the first time
In the early hours of the morning, Valentina Suriani, 18, and her boyfriend, Alexander Esau, 20, were sitting in Suriani’s car near her home in the Bronx when they were each shot twice. Esau died at the scene and Suriani later in hospital. For the first time, the killer announced his identity via a handwritten note left for police at the crime scene in which he referred to himself as “Son of Sam” and promised the killings would continue.
May 30, 1977: A columnist receives a handwritten letter from someone claiming to be the killer
Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin received a handwritten letter from someone claiming to be the shooter. Within, the writer namechecks one of the first victims, Lauria, warning Breslin to “not forget [her] 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 was signed “Son of Sam.” The Daily News presented the missive to police and 10 days later published a redacted version in what would become one of the paper’s biggest selling issues ever with more than one million copies sold.
With reports now circulating that the victims all had long, dark hair, women in New York began cutting their hair short or employing bright dyes to alter their appearance.
June 26, 1977: A couple is attacked outside a club
After leaving a disco in Bayside, Queens, Judy Placido, 17, and Sal Lupo, 20, were shot while sitting in Lupo’s parked car. Both survived their injuries with Lupo reportedly telling the police he and Placido had been discussing the Son of Sam killer only minutes before the attack.
July 31, 1977: The first attack involving a victim with blonde hair
Robert Violante, 20, and Stacy Moskowitz, 19, were shot in Violante’s car while on their first date. Volante would lose his left eye, Moskowitz would die 18 hours after the attack which was the first to take place in the borough of Brooklyn and the first involving a victim, Moskowitz, with blonde hair.
Days later an eyewitness would come forward claiming to have seen a man with what looked like a gun minutes before the Brooklyn shootings, and that other police officers were writing parking tickets in the same area that night. A search revealed one of the ticketed cars that night belonged to Berkowitz, who was already being investigated over complaints of harassment to a neighbor.
August 10, 1977: Berkowitz is arrested and confessed the next day
Berkowitz, 24, of Yonkers, N.Y. was arrested in front of his apartment building. Police had investigated Berkowitz’s car and discovered a rifle in the back seat, maps of the crime scenes and ammunition. Waiting until Berkowitz left the apartment building, police arrested him as he sat behind the wheel of his car. A bag containing the .44 caliber revolver was recovered next to him, and a smiling Berkowitz reportedly said to the arresting officer, “Well, you got me.”
The following day Berkowitz would confess to the shootings, claiming that Sam was a demonic spirit who spoke to him via his former neighbor’s black Labrador. Berkowitz also told police he was responsible for 1,500 fires set around the city. He was 23 at the time of the first murder.
May 8, 1978: Berkowitz pleads guilty to the murders
Berkowitz withdraws an insanity defense and pleads guilty to the six murders, being given six 25-years-to-life sentences for the crimes, and for which he would be denied parole ever since. Following his arrest, Berkowitz made statements that he had been part of a violent cult that aided him in carrying out the attacks and murders.
Though no hard evidence was uncovered to support the claim, many still wonder if Berkowitz was acting alone. According to Jim Rothstein, a retired New York Police Department detective who was working on the vice squad during the Son of Sam killings and investigated suspicions a satanic cult was behind much of the violent criminal activity during the 1970s, Berkowitz “didn’t do all the killings.”
“Once they locked up Berkowitz and blamed him for everything, they said it was done,” Rothstein told A&E Real Crime. “But Berkowitz was just the guy who took the rap. It was a much bigger thing.”
“I see that people will never understand where I come from, no matter how much I try to explain it,” Berkowitz told CBS News in a rare 2017 television interview. “They wouldn’t understand what it was like to walk in darkness.”