Everyone has something to offer, even serial killer David Berkowitz the “Son of Sam”

Dr. Scott Bonn,David Berkowitz,Serial Killers

I contend that in his own way David Berkowitz is a contributing member of society behind bars where he will remain for the rest of his natural life.  I have been corresponding regularly with David Berkowitz in prison for some time.  David is a born again Christian who spends most of his time working one-on-one with emotionally disturbed prisoners and also reaching out from his prison cell to comfort physically and emotionally ill people around the world.  He has quite a following.  This is his story.

Better known to the public as Son of Sam, David Berkowitz is an infamous 1970s New York City serial killer who killed six people and wounded several others. He became legendary because of the bizarre letters that he wrote to the police and news media throughout his killings, and due to his explanation for committing the attacks.  He claimed to be driven to kill by messages sent from demons in the form of howling dogs.

David Berkowitz, born June 1, 1953, was the adopted son of Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz. The family lived in a middle-class home in the Bronx. The couple loved their son yet David grew up feeling rejected and scorned because of being adopted.  He was told that his natural mother died while giving birth to him.  This became the source of intense guilt and anger in the young Berkowitz.  Around the neighborhood he developed a reputation for being hyperactive and a bully.

Pearl Berkowitz died in 1967 of breast cancer. David was devastated and became severely depressed.  He viewed his mother’s death as a grand conspiracy that was designed to destroy him.  He began to fail in school and spent most of his time alone. When his father remarried in 1971, his new wife did not get along with the young Berkowitz.  The newly married couple moved to Florida, leaving 18-year-old David behind.

Berkowitz joined the army but after a disastrous three years he left the service. During that time he had his one and only sexual experience with a prostitute and caught a venereal disease. When he returned home from the army, he found out that his natural mother was still alive and that he had a sister. There was a brief reunion but, eventually, David Berkowitz stopped visiting them. His isolation, fantasies, and paranoid delusions progressed into full force and he lost touch with reality.

On Christmas Eve, 1975, Berkowitz’s self-reported demons drove him into the streets with a hunting knife to find a victim to kill. Later he confessed to plunging a knife into two female victims that first night, one of which could not be confirmed.  The second victim, 15-year-old Michelle Forman, survived the attack and was treated for six knife wounds. Soon after the attacks, Berkowitz moved out of the Bronx to Yonkers. It was in his new home that the Son of Sam was born.

Howling dogs in the neighborhood kept Berkowitz from sleeping.  In his troubled mind the howls were messages from demons ordering him to kill women. Berkowitz later said that in an attempt to quiet the demons, he began to do what they ordered.  His neighbor, Sam Carr, had a black Labrador named Harvey that Berkowitz also believed was possessed. He eventually shot Harvey but that did not stop the torment because David believed that Sam Carr was actually Satan.

Throughout his murderous rampage in the summer of 1977, Berkowitz wrote letters to the police and news media, including legendary reporter Jimmy Breslin.  In those letters Berkowitz introduced himself as the Son of Sam and claimed responsibility for his murders.  Berkowitz was caught in August, 1977, due to a chain of events stemming from a parking ticket he received at the time and place of one of his murders.  After being evaluated, it was determined that he was competent to stand trial. He pled not guilty and ultimately received a 365-year prison sentence.

In 1979, Berkowitz was interviewed by legendary FBI profiler, Robert Ressler. Berkowitz told Ressler that he invented the Son of Sam stories so that if ever caught he could persuade the court that he was insane.  He said the real reason he killed was because he felt resentment toward his mother and his failures with women. He found killing the women to be sexually arousing.

Berkowitz is currently housed in Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York.  In 1979, there was an attempt on his life.  David refused to identify the person(s) who had attacked him with a knife, but he suggested that the act was in retaliation by a cult he once belonged to.  David bears a permanent scar from the wound that took 52 stitches to close.

In 1987, David became a born again Christian in prison. According to his personal testimony, his moment of conversion occurred after reading Psalm 34:6 from a Gideon’s Pocket Testament Bible given to him by a fellow inmate.  He is now deeply remorseful for his murderous past.  David believes that God has forgiven him for his terrible crimes and he now calls himself the “Son of Hope.”

David has written a memoir titled, Son of Hope: The Prison Journals of David Berkowitz, published by Morning Star Communications.  He receives no money from the publication, and a portion of the proceeds go to the New York State crime victims board for distribution to the victims of his crimes.

David Berkowitz believes that he belongs in prison and has no interest in parole, although he is periodically eligible for review; most recently, earlier this year.  However, David will never be released from prison and he knows it.  He claims that his only desire is to serve God from prison and to ease the suffering of others in any way he can. He knows that he can never undue the harm he has done in this lifetime.

David gets no compensation or incentives for his work with troubled inmates.  He claims that his work with others is the joy of his life.  I believe that David is sincere in his convictions and I can see that he is helping people.  I believe that no one, not even the former Son of Sam, is beyond redemption.  Who is to say that even the worst among us do not have the capacity to do some good?  The Son of Hope is an inspirational story of change and spiritual rebirth.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Please send me your comments below or email me directly at docbonn1@gmail.com.  Follow me @DocBonn on Twitter.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. 






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Posted on June 22, 2012, in Serial Killers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this entry. I know of a young man whom my daughter dated for a year. He’s now 23. This young man is deeply DEEPLY disturbed. Here’s a summary of his beliefs: He believes his dreams are actual recurrences of his life. Those dreams cause him to believe he is living particular days or years for a second (or 3rd) time. Whatever he dreams…my daughter leaving him, for instance…he is supposed to change everything before it happens again. Kind of like the movie, “The Butterfly Effect”. He’s beat her up on a number of occasions. He believes his friend is actually SATAN, much like your subject, here. He told me that he’d sold his soul to the ‘Devil’ and is doomed for eternity. The ‘devil’ being his friend. The young man is currently on anti-psychotics…or at least, hes supposed to be…for this disordered mind of his. This young man bears a definite similarity to Mr. Berkowitz chosen story, except, in this case, the young man really IS insane.

    He has found my daughter’s number again and again, though she keeps changing it on a regular basis. He keeps contacting her…6 years later… He shows up out of the blue, to where she is going. Meets her there to apologize, express his undying love for her, or what-have-you.

    She doesn’t believe getting a restraining order will change anything. I’ve instructed her to do so anyway. This kid truly scares me! My hands are tied in this, other than in advising her. I can’t get a restraining order FOR her, since she is an adult. His mom? She doesn’t believe her son is sick, other than the fact he’s on treatment meds. She doesn’t believe he’s delusional or dangerous, though she DOES believe that we are awful people to suggest such a thing. She babies (literally) and coddles him on a regular basis.

    I don’t know if a person can change that drastically even after becoming “born again”. Humans are humans, with or without Divine intervention. Patterns learned in childhood become ‘conditioning’, and are nigh impossible to break free from. We can learn better behaviors, but it’s in the ‘instant gratification’ that Mr. Berkowitz expressed as reasoning for the murders, that I doubt he would be free from being drawn to. One thing that is different…he knows he’s done wrong, and isn’t seeking parole. That is commendable.

    I don’t know if I would accept help from this man, even though his attitude these days, seems to be a 100% turn-around. A disordered mind breeds chaos in others. I’ve lived through a year with a psychopath (or one that fits ALL criteria), and I’m still…one year later…still dealing with the effects he’s graced me with. Great post :)

  2. I enjoy your blog immensely, thanks. My first reaction to this post is skepticism. I have read change seems to be a universal constant, but has this man changed in the manner he portrays himself? I don’t know. Can people “beyond redemption” be responsible for some “good”? I think yes; but it depends how one defines “good”. Assuming this were not an issue, I still believe yes. The question is, is it intentional? Hitler was in some way responsible for the improved status of women in the developed world following ww2 – mostly because men went to war, and women to the factories, to prove they were equal; but this was not an intention of the man, but a result of the way the human spirit responds to adversity (…yes, the same spirit that oppressed women before this adversity). Nonetheless, my point is that though god/the universe does work in mysterious ways, not so psychopaths. Given
    the constraints of this man’s situation, I think a functional behavior analysis may reveal that the payoff/benefits for being outwardly “good” explain his current behavior: he’s probably after power in the form of trust, influence, less restrictive access to whatever he wants, etc.; and the only way I can see he can get these things is by improving his reputation.
    If he’s never been psychotic and uninfluenced by drugs, it’s hard to believe in his sincerity. I think we often get into trouble with reality when we want to believe in possibility: we then give birth to illusion.
    I agree with people who say psychopaths manipulate reality through sleight of words and smokescreen.

  3. Excellent post. I agree that, despite Berkowitz’s crimes, he can still do good for the world. I would never feel good about him being out of prison and, as you write, he is aware he’ll never get out. But I am pleased that he appears to have found peace and joy. All human beings deserve this.

    But this post also reminded me of some suggestions for a possible future entry or two here on the “Ask Doc Bonn” blog. I have been curious about your thoughts on “murderabilia,” for one thing. Is it a harmless hobby for those interested in true crime, or is it ethically questionable?

    I’m also interested in your thoughts on whether or not you recommend anyone attempting to forge a pen pal relationship with serial killers. For instance, you write to Berkowitz…but you’re also a criminologist and expert on criminal behavior and motivations. So I wouldn’t worry about you. But do you think most other people are treading on dangerous ground when they attempt to become friends with killers or other infamous criminals?

    Thanks, Doc.

  4. By the way, that’s my real name…
    I’m ok if you prefer not to publish my reply, its just an opinion, but I wonder if you’d consider a functional behavior analysis on this man’s acts of selflessness… I’m assuming this person has some kind of personality disorder, and just like the next guy, I also want to believe people can heal from a Personality Disorder such as Psychopathy. But given this man’s history it’s hard to believe he enjoys helping others. Yes there’s findings which indicate ASPD lessens after 40 or so, but your suggesting a motivational change to accompany the behavioral one!
    I would appreciate a response.
    Great blog. Thank you.

  1. Pingback: “Monster Dearest: Our Macabre Fascination with Serial Killers” Tell me what YOU think! « Doc Bonn Blog

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