Forty-five years ago today, August 10, 1977, Son of Sam’s year-long reign of terror on New York City ended with the arrest of a 24-year-old postal worker David Berkowitz. Throughout a year of carnage that resulted in the shooting deaths of six people and the maiming of seven more, the shooter snuck up on his victims in the dark. Nobody knew where he’d strike; everyone feared they could be next.
Adding to the terror were taunting letters to the police where he branded himself “Son of Sam.” “‘Go out and kill’ commands father Sam,” he wrote to New York Daily News journalist Jimmy Breslin. “He’s the only killer I ever knew who knew how to use a semicolon,” Breslin commented.
A parking ticket led to his eventual arrest. The following day, the police and media revealed the face of “Son of Sam” as David Berkowitz. With his chilling grin, shock of unruly hair and piercing eyes, we expected to see a monster and we did.
Perhaps our first impression would have been different if we had seen his picture in another context without the “Son of Sam” label. We’d observe a shy, pleasant young man, maybe a bit awkward, with soulful, intelligent eyes, someone with more depth than his appearance would suggest. That is the David I have come to know.
In May 1978, Berkowitz calmly pleaded guilty at his trial. But at his sentencing hearing a few weeks later, all hell broke loose as he had to be carried from the courtroom screaming, “I’d kill them all again!”
He was sentenced to serve six consecutive life sentences and went inside only to re-emerge some 20 years later to appear on “The Larry King Show” in 1999 and proclaim he was a new man in Christ.
The interview was replayed in 2002 to a much larger audience after random sniper attacks gripped the Washington, D.C. area. That later broadcast profoundly affected me and, most especially my husband, born one month before David in 1953 and also raised in the New York area by loving, adoptive Jewish parents before becoming Christian.
King introduced the segment with the tease, “What makes someone become a mass murderer?” But he didn’t get the answer he wanted. Quite the contrary, King talked with a perfectly reasonable, thoughtful man who had no interest in titillating the audience with stories of his crimes. All David wanted to talk about was the redemption he’d found in Christ.
“I’ve learned to just be content and accept the fact there are things that happened in the past that I deeply regret with all my heart. I know I can’t change those things,” he said. “I have to accept the punishment that was meted out to me. And God has given me the strength to endure from day to day.”
When asked about the cliché that all prisoners find religion, David answered, “I’m sure there will be doubters.” He refused to go where King wanted to lead him and doubled down on his message of God’s forgiveness for all who repent of their sins and rest in the assurance of Jesus.
Compared with interviews we see today on cable television, David’s appearance on “Larry King” was unremarkable, many would say boring, but not to those of faith.
My husband and I began corresponding with David several years ago after discovering his Arise and Shine website where he has posted regularly since 2004. “Having this platform has allowed me to show both people of faith and anyone else who might be interested in what God is doing behind prison walls,” he said.
From ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Son of Hope’
David continues to have no interest in talking about SOS – the acronym for his past self. Instead, he only wants to share the Good News from the “Son of Hope,” his new identity in Christ.
God placed him in prison for a reason. It’s his appointed mission field filled with people who need to know God’s love, he says.
Working from inside prison walls, David serves in ways that those of us on the outside can never do. He’s walked a painful journey of regret, shame, and remorse while carrying a heavy cross of the harm he did to many. And their pain is much harder for him to bear than the temporary inconvenience of being locked up for the rest of his natural life.
“I am haunted by what happened and how I wish from my very soul that those crimes and the loss of life could be undone,” he shared. He is particularly troubled that SOS continues to get so much airplay in crime shows, which routinely are broadcast around the anniversary dates of the crimes.
Dedicated to a Life of Service
In prison, David deals with many men at various stages of the same journey he’s been on. He finds the media’s portrayal of the incarcerated as people who hate society and the police to be “exaggerated” and “to a degree, done in ignorance.”
“Guys in here play the macho role but go through tremendous struggles inwardly. A lot of guys cry on their pillow at night,” he said.
Once sentenced to prison, people are forced to reflect on what they’ve done to themselves and others, he said.
“They’ve thrown away their lives, destroyed their relationship with family. And that’s when regret sets in and they seek an understanding of why they are in the mess they’re in. Here’s the chance to share the Gospel because the Bible says Jesus came not for the righteous but the sinners,” he said.
David knows that it is not through works that he is saved, but through God’s grace. Yet he faithfully does “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” as recorded in Ephesians 2. For the past 35 years as a believer, he counsels and ministers to fellow prisoners and reaches out to the wider world via the internet, his active correspondence, and through occasional presentations, like a keynote address before the Annual Suffolk, Virginia Leadership Prayer Breakfast.
In reading a recent post about his life behind bars, he describes it as one simply devoted to God, prayer, and service.
“Our fellowship loves our country and when we gather for our prayer meetings, Bible studies, and weekend worship services, we pray for our leaders, for crime victims, for the military, and for America’s streets to be safe,” he said.
His mission field is important not just for those like himself who are paying a lifelong penance to society, but for others who will eventually leave prison.
“The success of prison ministries is not only in the saving of that individual’s soul, but must be measured by how much is saved when he or she reenters society and hopefully never reoffends,” he said. “When an incarcerated person becomes ‘born again’ and repents from and renounces their criminal ways, they can go on to become a productive, law-abiding person.”
“They will reenter society as a changed individual and not re-offend, thus saving the government not having to rearrest, indict and reincarcerate them. And it will spare many from becoming future victims,” he said.
Content in All Circumstances
David Berkowitz has long accepted the consequences of his crimes and continues to suffer the trials and tribulations of prison life. Yet he is content in his circumstances and rewarded by fulfilling the work that God has given him.
Whether one is confined in jail or walking free, David’s journey in faith speaks to us all. “I was actually in prison before I came to prison. I was in mental and spiritual bondage,” he said, reflecting that this is the condition of any unrepentant sinner.
“I’m the first to say I don’t deserve forgiveness. I don’t deserve mercy. I deserve death,” he shared. “I’m just trusting what the Bible says and putting my trust in the Lord Jesus and His promise of eternal life and forgiveness of sins.”