40 Years After 'Son of Sam' Arrest, Detective Reveals How Cops Finally Ended His Reign of Terror
"We had a psycho out there and he had to get caught," retired Detective James Justus told InsideEdition.com.
“Well, you got me.”
These were the words uttered by David Berkowitz on Aug. 10, 1977 — the day the fear gripping New York City finally came to an end.
Berkowitz, who became known in the tabloids as the “Son of Sam” and the “.44 Caliber Killer,” killed six people and wounded seven others in eight separate attacks between July 1976 and July 1977.
The manhunt dedicated to tracking him down would become one of the most extensive in the history of New York City.
Forty years later, with Berkowitz serving his life sentence out behind bars, key figures in his arrest are recalling how it took a $25 parking ticket to finally bring him down.
“We had a psycho out there and he had to get caught,” retired Detective James Justus, who was assigned to a special task force to catch the killer, told InsideEdition.com in a rare interview. They operated under the notion that “he is going to screw up somewhere,” he said.
And Justus was there to connect the dots when he did.
In the summer of ’77, Star Wars sent lines of moviegoers snaking around city blocks, punk rock was exploding at clubs like CBGB's, and hip-hop was expanding beyond the Bronx. But some disco clubs, which had been dominating New York City’s nightlife, were empty as its patrons were afraid to go out.
In a number of attacks throughout the previous year, a killer had been shooting young women and couples in the early morning hours as they left clubs in the outer boroughs.
“The girls were scared out of their living daylights,” Justus said. “When he was doing his thing, people didn’t want to go to clubs because people felt that they were the next target.”
The killer would seek out young women, many with dark hair, or couples in parked cars on lovers’ lanes.
“He was out there, girls were dying, and they were cautious and went out in groups and changed their hair color,” Justus said.
The killer first struck in the Bronx on July 29, 1976, shooting 19-year-old Jody Valenti and killing her friend, Donna Lauria, 18, in front of Donna’s home after they had left a nightclub.
Three months later, he struck in Flushing, Queens, as Carl Denaro, 20, and Rosemary Keenan, 18, were hanging out in a car. Denaro was shot in the back of the head but Keenan was unharmed.
Then in November 1976, Donna DeMasi, 16, was sitting on her friend Joanne Lomino’s porch in Queens after a night out in Manhattan when a man approached them.
“He came up and asked questions; he pulled out a gun and shot,” DeMasi, the youngest of Berkowitz's victims, told InsideEdition.com. “I never saw him before. He wasn’t with anyone else.”
The bullet struck her neck and grazed her spinal cord. She spent a month in the hospital and had to re-learn how to use her left side. Lomino, then 18, was left paralyzed. The two women are no longer in touch.
When DeMasi returned home, she said police remained outside her house.
“I was scared,” she recalled. “I was sleeping in bed with my parents.”
At first, cops did not connect the attacks, thanks in part to the level of crime unfolding across the city.
That year, 658,147 serious crimes were reported in New York City, the worst year on record at that point.
According to a 1977 report in The New York Times, 1,798 serious crimes or felonies were committed every day in 1976, at a rate of 75 an hour. It meant that the city’s crime rate was six times higher than the national average.
Many of the crimes were attributed to high unemployment amid the economic crisis, a reality that left the NYPD and its resources stretched thin.
As 1976 turned into 1977, the murderer struck again in Queens. That January, he killed Christine Freund, 26, as she sat inside a car with her 30-year-old fiance, John Diel, who survived the attack.
Investigators found the bullet that struck Freund had been fired from a .44 caliber Charter Arms Bulldog revolver. At the previous crime scenes, .44 caliber shell casings had also been found. It appeared the attacks might be the work of a serial killer, leaving authorities and the press to dub him "The .44 Caliber Killer."
"My fear was that the guy doing the shooting was a cop,” Detective Justus said, citing ballistics tests that determined how the bullets were fired. “He used a cop stance to shoot."
The casings weren’t the only connection. The killer appeared to be targeting women with shoulder-length brown hair and young couples. Experts at the NYPD concluded there was a “direct link” between the crimes, Lt. John Powers of the 8th homicide zone said at the time.
“Once we realized we had a serial killer, the pressure was on,” Detective Justus said. “The heat was on and the heat was on the NYPD.”
An NYPD task force comprised of officers and detectives from all five boroughs was set up.
As the task force came to fruition, the killer struck again, killing Columbia University student Virginia Voskerichian, 19, as she was walking to her Queens home.
The attack took place just around the corner from where Diel and Freund were attacked months earlier.
In the weeks leading up to his next killings, the murderer sent letters to New York Daily News journalist Jimmy Breslin.
He started his correspondence by saying, "Hello from the gutters of NYC," and promised there would be more deaths because he felt compelled to kill.
In April 1977, he made good on that promise, killing two more people, 18-year-old Valentina Suriani and 19-year-old Alexander Esau, in the Bronx. He also left behind a letter that police initially withheld from the public.
The letter, written in all capital letters and loaded with misspellings, taunted the NYPD and one of the ".44 Caliber Killer" task force members, Capt. Joe Borelli.
“ATTENTION ALL POLICE: SHOOT ME FIRST- SHOOT TO KILL OR ELSE. KEEP OUT OF MY WAY OR YOU WILL DIE! PAPA SAM IS OLD NOW. HE NEEDS SOME BLOOD TO PRESERVE HIS YOUTH,” he wrote in his letter to police.
“I LOVE TO HUNT. PROWLING THE STREETS LOOKING FOR FAIR GAME-TASTY MEAT. THE WEMON OF QUEENS ARE Z PRETTYIST OF ALL. I MUST BE THE WATER THEY DRINK. I LIVE FOR THE HUNT-MY LIFE. BLOOD FOR PAPA. MR. BORELLI, SIR, I DONT WANT TO KILL ANYMORE NO SIR, NO MORE BUT I MUST, "HONOUR THY FATHER."
He signed off the notes “Son of Sam,” a moniker that made it to the media.
His next attack came in June 1977 when he shot Sal Lupo, 20, and his friend, 17-year-old Judy Placido, in Queens. They both survived.
With fear clutching New York, it suddenly plunged into darkness as a blackout covered the city from July 13 to July 14.
Riots, looting and fires broke out across each of the five boroughs. The city, already in economic peril, was now facing a major catastrophe.
Fifteen days after the blackout ended, he struck again just after 1 a.m. on July 29, 1977. It would be his final attack and the only one in Brooklyn.
It was at that shooting that police would give themselves a key piece of evidence that led to his bust: A parking ticket.
“There was a full moon that night,” retired NYPD officer Michael Cataneo told InsideEdition.com. “Every cop says with a full moon, something crazy is going to happen.”
Cataneo and his partner, Jeff Logan, were patrolling Bath Beach, Brooklyn, which at the time was a predominantly Italian neighborhood.
“It was a hot, humid night. Mike and I were doing a midnight tour. We went up a block adjacent to a park,” Logan told InsideEdition.com. “We noted what cars were where. We figured it was a date night.”
After a patrol of the area, they returned to the cars and began writing summons on vehicles that were either double parked or at a hydrant. One of them was a Ford Galaxie LTD.
After jumping back in their vehicle, the officers got a call on the radio: "Shots fired!"
The call was close, and Cataneo and Logan were the first to respond to the grisly scene.
“We get down there and you could smell the cordite in the air,” Logan said.
“We see a car there,” Cataneo said. “The driver was alive and his door was open and he was laying on the ground.”
They were looking at 20-year-old Robert Violante, who had suffered a head wound. Stacy Moskowitz, also 20, was inside the car with a head wound. The couple was on their first date.
They called for backup and Cataneo began treating the victims. He said Moskowitz, who was still conscious, began telling him what happened. To this day, Cataneo has never publicly revealed what she said to him that night.
Meanwhile, Logan searched for the shooter in the park but found no one.
“I got back to Mike. He said to me that the female didn’t realize she was shot,” Logan said.
Neighbors came out of their homes with towels to help the victims until an ambulance arrived.
Violante survived but was left legally blind after being shot in the left eye. Moskowitz later succumbed to her wounds in the hospital.
When an exhausted Cataneo returned to police headquarters, he says he filed the summonses he and Logan took that night, one of which would help end David Berkowitz’s reign of terror.
Days after the final shooting, an eyewitness who lived in Bath Beach said she’d been walking her dog before the attack and saw a man with what looked like a gun. She told the police that there had been officers on her block writing parking tickets.
After the final shootings, Justus said he went through the parking tickets filed that night. As he ran through the summons filed, he said he came across one, for $25 and assigned to a car that was parked in front of a fire hydrant. It had a registration from Yonkers, N.Y.
He also saw Berkowitz’s last name, which is Jewish, which he found strange since the car had been parked in an Italian neighborhood.
“It didn’t sound right and I called Yonkers PD to get info on the guy,” he told InsideEdition.com. “As luck would have it, Wheat Carr was the dispatcher."
Carr’s father, a man named Sam, lived behind Berkowitz. She said Berkowitz had once shot her father’s dog. “She said he was crazy,” Justus added.
Justus, who spoke to other Yonkers police officers that day, said he just had a feeling about Berkowitz.
“Something about it told me this is the guy we are looking for,” he said.
He said he filed his detective’s report, had it signed by his commander, and then informed the homicide department. The next morning, August 10, homicide detectives went to Yonkers to question Berkowitz —without Justus.
“Homicide didn’t want a non-homicide detective to get the collar,” he claimed.
That morning, Berkowitz, a postal worker, was leaving his apartment when detectives approached him.
“Well, you got me,” Berkowitz told them.
They also spotted a Ford Galaxie LTD, which matched the description of the car on the parking ticket. Inside the car they saw a semi-automatic rifle and .44-Caliber Charter Arms Bulldog revolver.
Berkowitz, a veteran, was arrested and confessed to the killings. He said he’d been planning to attack the Hamptons, a popular, affluent seaside resort, before the end of the summer.
He claimed he had been given orders to kill by his neighbor’s dog, the black Labrador retriever he’d once shot. The dog survived with the bullet lodged in its backside.
Overjoyed at Berkowitz’s arrest, authorities held a press conference to deliver the good news to the public.
“I am happy to announce that the people of the city of New York can rest easily this morning because the police have caught the person known as Son of Sam,” then-New York City Mayor Abraham Beame told reporters.
On May 8, 1978, Berkowitz pleaded guilty to six of the murders and was given six consecutive 25-years-to-life sentences.
He is now serving out his sentence at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He spoke exclusively to Inside Edition in 1993 from Sullivan Correctional Facility.
“In the summer of 1977, I first realized the devil was alive,” he said in the interview.
After converting to Christianity behind bars, he now goes by “Son of Hope” and runs a website offering his preaching services and prayers.
“As I have communicated many times throughout the years, I am deeply sorry for the pain, suffering and sorrow I have brought upon the victims of my crimes," Berkowitz, now 64, wrote in a statement on his website. “I regret what I've done and I'm haunted by it."
"I feel people can change. Let him change in jail,” Donna DeMasi, one of his 1976 victims, told InsideEdition.com. “He is never going to come out. I will never see him and never have to see him and I am thankful.”
With Berkowitz behind bars, New York City began a recovery process from the fear he once inflicted.
“This is New York City; we are never normal,” Justus said. “But it took a lot of pressure off. The clubs started getting more people.”
Cataneo echoed the sentiment.
“It was a sigh of relief for everyone,” he said. “For what he did to all those people, he is lucky he didn’t get a death sentence. He should die there.”
As for Berkowitz’s victims, his incarceration didn’t end the terror.
“It was a horrible, grueling, terrible experience. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” DeMasi said. “The fear has never left me. I still have that fear today… I still look over my shoulder.”
But, she added, “it doesn’t stop me from doing anything."
Justus believes that the case helped change how police work was carried out. Afterwards there was a better flow of communication between precincts and within the NYPD and the boroughs, he said.
As the retired detective looks back on the anniversary of Berkowitz’s arrest and his role in it, he praises the work carried out by his colleagues.
“I am not a hero, just a worker,” he said. “It was a team effort. This wouldn’t have been done without a team effort.”
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