“Do you feel personally threatened by the .44 Caliber Killer because you have long dark hair?” That’s the question Channel 11 News reporter Jeff Kamen posed to various women on the streets of New York City 40 years ago during the Summer of Sam.
“No, not at all,” one woman told Kamen. “I’m afraid to do anything,” said another. The tone of the video may feel creepy and strange, but having dark hair was, of course, a legit concern for women in 1977 when the serial killer known as the .44 Caliber Killer and, later, the Son of Sam, remained at large. David Berkowitz, then a 23-year-old postal worker, was eventually arrested on August 10, 1977, and convicted of second-degree murder in 1978.
The news clip above is part of the documentary The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel this Sunday, July 30. In the footage, Kamen, a reporter who covered the trial, asks women on the street if they’d thought about cutting or dyeing their hair to avoid being targeted, since Berkowitz’s female victims notably had dark hair. As Rolling Stone noted in their piece, “How Son of Sam Changed America”:
Everything about the case was bizarre. Berkowitz wrote taunting, typo-ridden letters to the police and the press, seeming to relish in the terror that gripped the city in the wake of each attack. Because he was targeting primarily young women with dark hair, sales of wigs reportedly skyrocketed.
In 2016, The New York Post, which was itself largely responsible for promoting much of the Son of Sam hysteria, interviewed a survivor, 59-year-old Jody Valenti, who said, “It took probably about six years of my life to be able to get in a car at night.”
The Lost Tapes will also take a look at the role media played in exploiting the fear and playing into the killer’s sick game. A press release for the special—yet another notch in the true crime TV trend—describes the atmosphere of fear in New York during the Berkowitz manhunt:
Berkowitz had already struck five times before the police were able to confirm that the bizarre shootings were all committed by the same individual, and the documentary features rare press conference footage of Police Commissioner Michael J. Dodd announcing publicly that the murders were connected and carried out using a .44 caliber Charter Arms Bulldog pistol. It wasn’t until Berkowitz struck for the sixth time on April 17, 1977 that he left a note promising to continue killing as the “Son of Sam.”
Berkowitz’s method of stalking the streets at night, murdering brazenly, was incredibly difficult to track, and the NYPD formed a 200-person task force, Operation Omega, to bring him to justice. Attacking young couples in different sections of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn meant that no neighborhood was safe during his rampage, and police and the public had no idea when or where the “Son of Sam” would strike again.
A parking ticket led to Berkowitz’s eventual capture. Perhaps the detail you remember most about the case is that he said was involved in the occult and blamed his neighbor’s possessed dog for telling him to carry out the murders. When Berkowitz appeared in court to enter his guilty plea, he was overheard telling a justice, “I’m an excellent shot.”
If you’d like to continue down this grim rabbit hole, here’s a 2013 piece that involves a prison visit between Berkowitz and criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn, who was writing a book about our fascination with serial killers.
To add to the dark Son of Sam nostalgia, there’s also an Investigation Discovery documentary airing August 5, Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer, in which Bonn posits that the public misunderstood Berkowitz’s mental state. “I don’t believe David Berkowitz is a psychopath,” says Bonn. “Out of his troubled childhood evolved this evil persona. In regards to whether he was born or made, he was made. Compare this with Ted Bundy who was a born psychopath.”