David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, killed six people and injured a further seven between 1976 and 1977. At the time, he claimed he was hearing demonic voices but later blamed resentment towards his mother and women. The purpose of this case profile is to understand the attributes that led to his offending and in particular, the psychological theories that best fit Berkowitz. I intend to focus on his childhood as playing a major role in his disorganised, violent and sadistic career, using a variety of research articles which are limited, as well as newspaper articles and case reporting to establish a profile.
I have come to the conclusion that although Berkowitz does not perfectly fit the psychopath, it appears he suffered from a conduct disorder and can be best described as an excitement arsonist, paranoid schizophrenic, and hedonistic visionary serial killer. To enable a better understanding of Berkowitz’s behaviour, he appears to also fit the categories of the collective behaviour, communitarianism and positivism theories with both biological and psychological traits shaping his personality and actions.
On the morning of July 29, 1976, two young women, Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti, were randomly shot whilst sitting in their car, which left Lauria dead and Valenti injured. It was the start to the serial killer’s campaign, targeting random women for assassination. Each time would involve a Charter arms .44 Bulldog handgun.
This followed with the shooting of Carl Denaro in October 1976. He survived the attack but required a metal plate to replace the portion of his skull that was missing. A month later, Donna DeMasi was shot in the base of her neck but wasn’t badly injured. Her friend Joanne Lomino wasn’t so lucky when she was shot in the lower spine, which resulted in her being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Christine Freund was shot dead in January 1977, seconds after getting into her boyfriend’s car. Two months later, Virginia Voskerichain was instantly killed when she side-stepped a man on the footpath to let him pass. The man raised a gun to her head and fired.
In April 1977, a young couple were sitting in their car when they were both shot. Valentina Suriani was killed instantly and her boyfriend Alexander Esau died two hours later. The killer left a letter at the scene, addressed to Police Captain Borrelli, calling himself the Son of Sam. Borrelli was one of the key members of Operation Omega, which was established to investigate these crimes.
Police believed they were looking for a, “paranoid schizophrenic, who may have considered himself possessed of a demonic power” (Bardsley, 2012). It was also believed that the killer was a loner and had difficulty with relationships, particularly with women. A letter addressed to the Daily News Reporter Jimmy Breslin, revealed partial fingerprints which was of no value for finding the suspect until after Berkowitz was apprehended.
By then he’d shot and wounded young couple Salvatore Lupo and Judy Placido, before his final attack in July 1977, which killed Stacy Moskowitz and permanently blinded her boyfriend Bobby Violante.
Police had received several pieces of information implicating Berkowitz as a potential suspect but it was a parking ticket that became his unfolding (Sanders, 2002).
On 12 June 1978, Berkowitz was sentenced to six life sentences with a maximum term of 365 years behind bars.
Definition of Offence
Working alone under the guise of demonic voices that instructed which victims he was to choose, Berkowitz would shoot each victim with a Charter arms .44 Bulldog handgun before returning home. Many of the victims were sitting in their car when they were attacked and all were strangers he’d never met. Prior to this, he claimed to have lit 1,488 fires in the vicinity of New York City.
Minutes before the final attack on the night of July 31, 1977, local woman Cacilia Davis was walking her dog when she realised she was being followed. She managed to rush home safely. As she did, she heard the sound of, “pops or something that sounded like firecrackers,” (Bardsley, 2012) but took no notice until the next morning, when she was made aware of the next Son of Sam shooting. Davis was the first witness who got a close look at the man before she rushed home, a face she would never forget.
On August 6, police were called to a fire at the apartment block where Berkowitz lived. Craig Glassman, a male nursing student and volunteer deputy sheriff who lived directly underneath Berkowitz, had a bucket of gunpowder and .22 calibre bullets set on fire outside his door. Glassman thought he was being targeted because he often wore his police uniform, which led Berkowitz to hate him. He’d received a number of threatening letters and showed them to the police upon contacting them about the fire (Bardsley, 2012). Police now had their suspect. The final toll was 13 victims including six inflicted with fatal wounds (Sanders, 2002).
History of the offender
Richard David Falco, also known as David Berkowitz, was born in Brooklyn, New York on 1 June 1953 (Sanders, 2002). He grew up in a middle-class suburb with, “doting adoptive parents who showered him with gifts and attention” (Bardsley, 2012).
His poor Jewish birth mother Betty Falco, already had a daughter when she became pregnant with Berkowitz. He was a by-product of her long-time affair with married man Joseph Kleinman, who threatened to leave Falco if she didn’t give him up for adoption (Leyton, 2001: 206).
Berkowitz was always big for his age. He also felt different and less attractive than his peers (Bardsley, 2012). Research has continually found that, “peer relations make unique and essential contributions to each child’s social and emotional development” (Bagwell, 2004) and, “one of the strongest predictors of later involvement in antisocial behaviour is early rejection by peers” (Dodge, 2003). There is no evidence of Berkowitz maintaining any close friendships, particularly during his childhood. Like his adoptive parents, he was not socially active (Bardsley, 2012) and this appears to have contributed significantly to Berkowitz turning to a life of fantasy.
His neighbours remember Berkowitz as a nice-looking boy with a, “violent streak, a bully who assaulted neighbourhood kids for no apparent reason” (Bardsley, 2012). This aggressive nature may have been prominent reasons for being rejected by his peers (Bartol, 2011: 31). Berkowitz was also known to have been hyperactive, which can be linked to being “more argumentative, inattentive and disruptive than others, and generally having poorer social skills” (Bartol, 2011: 32). ADHD is frequently linked with conduct disorders (Offord et al, 1991), sharing traits such as stealing, fire setting, being difficult to manage and cruel to people. He was very difficult for his adoptive parents to control and, “began an infatuation with petty larceny and pyromania” (Sanders, 2002).
When Berkowitz was 14, his adoptive mother Pearl died of breast cancer. It devastated him. “His grade average nose-dived, his faith in God was shaken” (Bardsley, 2012), and he imagined that her death was a higher plan to destroy him, leading him to become even more introverted.
In 1971, his adoptive father Nat remarried someone Berkowitz didn’t like. The newly-wed couple moved to a retirement community without him, leaving Berkowitz to drift through life without any purpose or goal. “He just existed until his fantasy life had become stronger than his real life” (Bardsley, 2012).
Berkowitz joined the Army for three years, serving in South Korea and, “was an excellent marksman, particularly proficient with rifles” (Bardsley, 2012). During this time, he converted from Judaism to the Baptist faith, after hearing about Jesus for the first time. He soon began to lose interest in religion. Interestingly, it was said that, “the way in which Berkowitz kept changing his religion is indicative of his lack of identity” (Davies, 2012). Shortly after an honourable discharge from the Army in 1974, Berkowitz was thrilled to be accepted by a group of guys who was heavily involved in an occult. Satan soon filled the gaps in his life.
Berkowitz found his biological mother and half-sister, who welcomed him into their lives. For a while, things were happy but Berkowitz began to drift away and made excuses for not coming to visit. “The discovery of his adoption and illegitimate birth,” was described as a primary crisis in his life, shattering his sense of identity (Leyton, 2001: 187). “Anger and frustration with women and a bizarre fantasy life, started him down the road to violence,” (Bardsley, 2012) after leaving the army.
Before the murders began, Berkowitz had lit 1,488 fires in the city of New York and kept a diary of each event (Bardsley, 2012). The Excitement arsonist, “craves attention and finds that setting fires is one way to gain such needed excitement” (Holmes, 2009: 109). He was never caught for the arson attacks until he was arrested for the killings but by keeping a diary, it appears it would ensure him some attention and credit for the fires. “Most arsonists like the feeling that they are responsible for the excitement and violence of a fire… they control events in society that are not normally controlled” (Ressler, 1993). Those who lit frequent fires were found to have a personality that was, “merging into a state of unreality” (Holmes, 2009: 107).
Berkowitz was beginning to lose concept of reality due to the demons in his head. For a time, the fires appeared to enable him to experience a sense of relief and even exaltation (Holmes, 2009: 107) but again, this was only for a short period of time as his urges began to develop. He began to feel dark, locking himself in his apartment and only leaving for food. Berkowitz began to feel that the world was against him, or at least, laughing at him.
Around Christmas 1975, Berkowitz later claimed, “that he was giving into the demons with the hopes that they would stop tormenting him if he did what they asked” (Bardsley, 2012). By Christmas Eve, he was in a crisis, both mentally and emotionally. He left the house with a knife to find a victim the demons would choose, which left 15 year old Michelle Forman seriously wounded. The attack managed to pacify him. Berkowitz claimed to have attacked another victim prior to this night but the victim was never identified. His intention was to murder Forman but it didn’t go according to plan, as he didn’t expect the victim to scream. Shortly after, he purchased a firearm and became successful in his desires to murder (Klausner, 1981).
Due to the nature of his killings, Berkowitz can be classed as a disorganised murderer, which lists traits such as: socially inadequate, unskilled worker, sexually incompetent, living alone as well as lives and works near the crime scene (Bartol, 2011: 32). Surprisingly, a minimal interest in the news media is a characteristic of this category. This is the opposite of Berkowitz, who appeared to enjoy the coverage to the point of following it closely and even wrote letters to both the police and a journalist. During his incarceration for his crimes, Berkowitz was allowed to compile a scrapbook of all his newspaper articles, which enabled him to keep his fantasies alive (Bardsley, 2012).
After Christmas, Berkowitz moved to a two-family bedroom house in Yonkers, a city on the Hudson River in Westchester County, New York. The owner’s German Shepherd would howl frequently and the neighbourhood dogs howled back. Berkowitz envisioned demons were living with the dogs and, “the howling was the way they ordered him to go hunting for blood – the blood of pretty young women,” and the owner, “became General Jack Cosmo, commander in chief of the devil dogs roaming the streets of New York” (Bardsley, 2012).
The barking began to take its emotional toll on Berkowitz, in addition to the demonic voices that would never stop. “Many serial killers create the notion of some kind of ‘sign’ or ‘message’ that incites them to kill” (Davies, 2012). It was soon taking over his life, to the point of preventing him from sleeping, which almost caused him to crash his car upon returning from work one day (Bardsley, 2012). Lack of sleep is believed to adversely affect the brain, causing changes in thoughts and behaviours.
Once Berkowitz was assessed in prison, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, characterised with delusions that persist for more than one month with, “anger, resentment and sometimes violence accompanying these false persecutory beliefs” (Bartol, 2011:212).
Three months later, Berkowitz moved into an apartment nearby. His fantasies continued to develop. Berkowitz believed that a black Labrador in the apartment block called Harvey, was taken over by a demon. He failed to kill the dog with a Molotov cocktail, so Berkowitz shot it with a gun. In his mind, the owner of Harvey was, “the host of a powerful demon named Sam Carr who worked for General Jack Cosmo” (Bardsley, 2012).
When Berkowitz called himself the Son of Sam, it was the demon living in Sam Carr to which he referred to. His defence psychiatrists believed that his difficulties relating to people drove him further into isolation and the isolation was a fertile ground for wild fantasies.
Psychologist Robert Hare (1993) describes psychopaths as, “social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plough their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets”. It has also been noted that, “many psychopaths have no history of serious antisocial behaviour” (Bartol, 2011:179). Although this doesn’t fit Berkowitz’s profile at all, Cleckley’s checklist (1976) appears to be more relevant including traits of: lack of remorse or guilt, unresponsiveness in interpersonal relationships, failure to follow any life plan, impulsiveness and antisocial behaviour.
Berkowitz shares the traits of a hedonistic serial killer, experiencing sexual gratification as a reward for his kills,” returning to the crimes scenes to relive the experience. “He would become sexually aroused by the stalking and shooting of women and would masturbate over it” (Bardsley, 2012). On nights where he didn’t find a victim, he would return to old crimes scenes to relive the past events, finding these erotic. These killers are known for receiving, “sexual pleasure from such interaction with a helpless victim” (Holmes, 2009: 119).
He can also be classed as a geographically stable killer, finding his victims in the localities of the Bronx and in particularly, Queens. In addition, it appears he was a visionary serial killer due to actions propelled by demonic voices urging him to kill. Berkowitz later admitted that he, “feigned his psychosis in the hope to avoid prison,” (Abrahamsen, 1985). The real reason for his actions was, “out of resentment for his mother and because of his inability to establish good relationships with women” (Bardsley, 2012). His only sexual experience was with a prostitute in Korea, which led him to contract a venereal disease as a result. “The fact that his only sexual encounter with a woman had such a negative outcome, is likely to have made him angry” (Davies, 2012).
It may be possible that at the time of the killings, Berkowitz was propelled by demonic fantasies but after his arrest, he had time to think in perspective and was removed from the environment where his psychotic thinking took place. This may have made him feel embarrassed and led him to claim his motive was something more abstract. At the time of the killings, Berkowitz appeared out of touch with reality and in psychiatric terms, he was psychotic (Holmes, 2009: 119). “While Berkowitz was not technically insane when he committed murder, he had a very troubled and emotionally unstable personality” (Bardsley, 2012).
Characteristics of the collective behaviour theory include the idea that crime can be committed for risk, adventure and fun but is sometimes taken too far (White, 2011: 72). It is possible that the so-called demonic visions motivated Berkowitz’s yearning for excitement. The Communitarianism Theory is also relevant to Berkowitz, “the cause of crime lies in a combination of social and psychological factors” (White, 2011: 72). He was unable to adjust to the social norms of right and wrong, as well as having no adequate or appropriate social connections.
This reinforces attributes of the positivist theory, which depicts criminal behaviour being, “shaped by factors such as physiology, personality and social upbringing” (White, 2011: 56). Offenders are different from each other and their traits vary. Treatment is usually required, “since they are not necessarily responsible for their criminality” (White, 2011: 56). If the demonic visions were true when they occurred, it is difficult to place him squarely responsible for his crime. Perhaps when he began receiving treatment whilst in custody, he was able to acknowledge that his visions were perhaps ridiculous and as he began to heal, he found it continuously difficult to rely on the notion of it ever occurring.
Many biological factors that appear relevant to understanding Berkowitz, include his early childhood behaviour difficulties, aggression and being socially inept. It is difficult to compare him with his birth mother, as very little is documented about her. Likewise, psychological traits go hand in hand with his apparent, limited self-control and, “patterns of early socialisation may have negatively affected (his) social development” (White, 2011: 58).
The case of David Berkowitz makes for an interesting analysis, as it is difficult to depict a concrete profile of his psychological traits. There are some characteristics of his behaviour that appear to fit parts of the psychopath and more predominantly, the paranoid schizophrenic, hedonistic and visionary serial killer profiles.
The demonic voices he claimed to act under, is plausible at the time of the killings but although this was rejected during his imprisonment, it is possible the treatment he received with the opportunity to reflect on his actions, made him feel responsible enough to reject these absurd claims.
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Bardsley, M. (2012). David Berkowitz: The son of Sam. Retrieved from the Crime Library Web site: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/berkowitz/letter_1.html (UNAVAILABLE!)
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