Friday, August 10, 2012

This Day in Criminal History (“Son of Sam” Spree Ends With Arrest)

August 10, 1977—After round-the-clock tips and endless footwork, after 13 months, six people dead and seven wounded, after countless screaming tabloid headlines, the “Son of Sam”—a serial killer who had held millions in fear—was arrested as a result of the simplest of reasons: a parking ticket.

Two days after the murder of the latest victim, Stacy Moskowitz—whose shooting, because it broke the pattern of young blonde women shot in the borough of Queens, had brought the entire city of New York practically to a fever pitch of terror—an eyewitness told police she had witnessed a suspicious-looking man not long before in the vicinity of the crime, ripping a parking ticket off his car.

That sent police on a frantic search of every parking ticket issued in the area. When detective Ed Zigo followed up the lead on one-- issued to a yellow Ford Galaxie—he had one question he couldn’t shake: “What is a Jewish guy from Yonkers doing parked in an Italian neighborhood at two in the morning?''

It turned out the car was registered to a 24-year-old postal worker, David Berkowitz, who claimed his neighbor’s Labrador retriever had ordered him to kill—pursuing his victims in lovers’ lanes or on quiet streets, appearing seemingly out of nowhere to aim through car windows or at close range with his .44 caliber pistol. On the 10th, Berkowitz was outside his house when the police appeared, with guns drawn. The scent of mortality he had inflicted on others for over a year now clung to him.

“I am the 'Monster' -- 'Beelzebub' -- the chubby behemouth,” one of his notes had taunted police. “I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game -- tasty meat. The wemon of Queens are prettyist of all. It must be the water they drink. I live for the hunt -- my life. Blood for papa.”

It’s impossible to convey to people who were not born yet or even not then in their teens during the “summer of Sam” the dread engendered by Berkowitz. The sale of guns and locks soared. Because all his victims, till Moskowitz, had been long-haired brunettes, young women took to cutting their hair or dyeing it blonde.  Her murder, because it broke with his usual M.O., led The New York Post to announce: “No One Is Safe from Son of Sam.”

The murder, apprehension and incarceration of Berkowitz brought to the surface questions of tabloid irresponsibility. The New York Daily News had become part of the story when Berkowitz sent one of his letters to the paper’s star columnist, Jimmy Breslin. The paper showed it to the police first, then published only part of the message. But involvement in the story made Breslin’s editor, Mike O’Neill, uncomfortable. “I would not argue that everything we did was exactly the way I would have liked,” he later told The New York Times.

No such qualms existed for Rupert Murdoch, who had recently acquired the New York Post. Only a few weeks before the Moskowitz murder, the paper's coverage of New York's blackout left the overwhelming impression that a race war was about to break out in the city. Now, for the second time that summer, he displayed to American readers the sensationalistic coverage that had, unfortunately, made him a force in British journalism. At one point, the paper printed excerpts from a novel that, they claimed, “might have” set the Son of Sam off on his rampage.

As time went on, the chosen instrument for Murdoch to get into the circulation sweepstakes was fellow Australian émigré Steve Dunleavy. Several years ago, when the hard-drinking, wenching Aussie retired, friends and rivals recalled him as displaying a kind of raffish charm. That is really far too kind to someone who scoffed at other members of his trade as overly beholden to the “Columbia School of Journalism.”

For all the profession’s many, many sins, all too much on display in recent years, it’s useful to be reminded that it was Dunleavy and Murdoch, not they, who breached one particular wall: common decency. After one of the later Berkowitz shootings, Dunleavy entered the hospital where the victim had been brought, donned scrubs so he could pass as a surgeon, then found and interviewed the victim’s family. Concerns that normal, decent people might have had—about assuming a fake identity, breaching hospital security, intruding on victims’ relatives in a time of stress and grief—were brushed aside in an effort to get a story.

When Berkowitz was captured, the paper managed to smuggle out of prison a photo that ended up on the front page. The headline: SAM SLEEPS. Never sufficiently explained was how the Post managed to penetrate security at the correctional facility.

Those who have followed the scandal in Britain over the News Corp.’s use of intercepted cellphone calls--and of how News of the World bribed Scotland Yard officials-- will find the paper’s role in the Berkowitz case all of a piece with later events. "Half truth, half speculation" is how one biographer, Thomas Kiernan, described "Murdoch journalism" for the PBS Frontline documentary, "Who's Afraid of Rupert Murdoch"? 

The publisher brought malleble Fleet Street ethics to this country, and America has not been the better for it.

(The image accompanying this post shows the second page of the first “Son of Sam” letter.)

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