Inside the Terror that Gripped New York City During 'Son of Sam' Killings: Read PEOPLE's 1977 Cover Story

"PEOPLE 50 Years of True Crime Stories" looks back on a half century of the best mysteries and mayhem

<p>Hulton Archive/Getty</p> People 50 Years of True Crime Cover; New York City serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the

Hulton Archive/Getty

People 50 Years of True Crime Cover; New York City serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the 'Son of Sam'

PEOPLE is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a look back at the best of a half-century of true crime stories.

For a 13-month period in 1976 and 1977, the streets of New York City were terrorized by a killer known only as the "Son of Sam," the monicker he gave himself in taunting letters he wrote to the police and media during his killing spree. The killer, who struck in the city's outer boroughs, mainly targeted young women with shoulder-length, dark hair. His reign of terror brought the city to its knees, compelling many young women with similar appearances to the victims to dye their hair and get pixie cuts.

He murdered six people and wounded seven others before he was ultimately identified and captured. Police tracked him down because of a parking ticket issued near the scene of his last attack and identified him as David Berkowitz, of Yonkers, who told police he'd been ordered to kill by a demon who'd communicated through a barking dog. When he was arrested, he asked officers, "What took you so long?"

Now 70 and in prison serving a 365-year sentence, Berkowitz remains a haunting figure in the New York City history. Below, read "Son of Sam Stalks New York" in full, from PEOPLE's June 20, 1977 issue, and pick up People 50 Years of True Crime Stories on  Amazon and on newsstands now.

It was bitter cold, just after midnight last Jan. 30. Johnny Diel and his girlfriend Christine Freund sat in his 1976 Pontiac Firebird on a deserted street in Forest Hills, Queens, waiting for the car to warm up.

They had just finished dinner after seeing Rocky, and Johnny, a 30-year-old bartender, was looking forward to some partying. Leaning toward Chris, he kissed her and said, “We’re going to the Masonic dance.” She replied, “Okay, hon.”

Turning away, he revved the engine three times, then was stunned by a deafening crash.

Chris slumped against him without uttering a sound. “Chris! Chris!” Johnny shouted, putting his arm around her and pulling her down on the seat. Then he saw blood on his hand and heard the crack of another shot as a .44-caliber bullet ripped into the dashboard next to his head.

“All of a sudden,” he remembers, “there was no sound. I opened the door and ran down the street with my hands over my head screaming, ‘My girlfriend’s been hurt!’ I never looked back. I was too afraid. I never saw who did it.”

Related: The Moment the 'Son of Sam' Was Captured by Police 40 Years Ago, Ending His Murder Spree: 'You Got Me'

Four hours later Chris Freund, a 26-year-old Wall Street secretary who planned to announce her engagement to Johnny in only 15 days, was dead of a bullet wound in the head.

She had become the sixth known victim—the second to die—of New York’s .44-caliber killer, an elusive phantom who has become the object of one of the biggest manhunts in the city’s history.

Since last July 29, the murderer, believed to be a young man in his 20s or early 30s, has struck six times in the Bronx and Queens, killing five and wounding four, including an 18-year-old woman who is now paralyzed from the waist down.

Several of his victims were shot while sitting in parked cars; others he simply met on the street. Most have been young women with shoulder-length brown hair, and he has shot them with a powerful “Bulldog” revolver held combat-style—his knees bent, both hands on the gun.

<p>NY Daily News Archive via Getty; AP Photo (2)</p> Victims of 'Son of Sam': Donna Lauria; Christine Freund; Virginia Voskerichian

NY Daily News Archive via Getty; AP Photo (2)

Victims of 'Son of Sam': Donna Lauria; Christine Freund; Virginia Voskerichian

Related: Survivor of the 'Son of Sam' Speaks Out 41 Years Later: 'I'm One of the Luckiest Guys in the World'

“He’s an opportunist,” says Deputy Inspector Timothy J. Dowd, who heads a task force of some 50 detectives combing the city for the killer.

“He kills the person he has the opportunity to kill. It’s an unplanned planned crime. Here we have a man we don’t know, who has killed a lot of people, and who is unusual in the sense that he’s not finished," he says. "We would like to find some way of inducing this man to call us. It’s like hostage negotiations. If you don’t have the guy talking to you, what can you do?”

Dowd, 61, a veteran of 37 years on the force and more than 1,000 homicide investigations, was called into the case in April after the killer left a rambling hand-lettered note near the bodies of his two latest victims. In it the murderer described himself mysteriously as “Son of Sam” and warned police he would shoot it out rather than be arrested. 

<p>NY Daily News Archive via Getty; AP Photo</p> Victims of 'Son of Sam': Valentina Suriani and Alexander Esau; Stacy Moskowitz

NY Daily News Archive via Getty; AP Photo

Victims of 'Son of Sam': Valentina Suriani and Alexander Esau; Stacy Moskowitz

Recently the case took an even more bizarre turn when Son of Sam sent a chilling four-page letter to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin.

“Sam’s a thirsty lad,” the killer wrote, “and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood.” Then, ominously, he added, “I love my work. You will see my handiwork at the next job.”

Hoping to forestall that lethal possibility, Dowd and his men have been examining the letters for clues. With the help of psychologists and psychiatrists, they drew up a profile of the killer, describing him as a paranoid schizophrenic who is “probably shy and odd, a loner inept in establishing personal relationships, especially with young women.”

Police would like the city’s Department of Mental Health to throw open the records of all psychotics answering the killer’s description but have been frustrated by legal restrictions.

“This right-of-privacy thing is a real pain,” Dowd has observed. “We’re not asking for diagnoses or anything; we’d just like to know if anyone’s treated this guy.”

Related: Inside Son of Sam's Life Now: Born-Again as the 'Son of Hope' and He Doesn't Want to Leave Prison

So far Dowd’s men have pored over thousands of arrest records, checked out more than 2,000 phone tips, run ballistics tests on some 60 handguns, examined more than 100 handwriting samples and conducted more than 1,000 interviews.

They have canvassed mental hospitals, cabdrivers, tow-truck operators (on the off chance that the killer had an accident fleeing the scene) and all known owners of registered .44 revolvers.

They have researched the backgrounds of all the victims, hoping to find the common thread that might unravel the case. And they have hypnotized at least two of the survivors of the shootings in an attempt to unearth details they might have forgotten.

Public Record A letter from David Berkowitz taunting the police
Public Record A letter from David Berkowitz taunting the police

Dowd, who holds a master’s degree from New York’s Bernard Baruch School of Business and earns more than $40,000 a year [about $225,000 in 2024 dollars], sees the manhunt more as a nuts-and-bolts bureaucratic exercise than a slam-bang cops-and-robbers adventure.

“We follow an orthodox type of investigation,” he says. “We do it thoroughly, and that means we cover the field. If some policeman catches this guy on a routine stop, our investigation ends. But we don’t wait to get lucky. We prepare to get lucky.”

Even with the inevitable drudge work, morale in the special unit remains high.

“Inspector Dowd expects us to get the job done,” explains Det. Bill Clark, “but he’s fair, and he puts out a lot himself. I have never worked on a case where I have seen so many people so motivated. I went to the hospital to see the girl who is crippled, and I can identify her with people in my own life. These are innocent girls.”

Working seven days a week, often up to 16 hours a day, Dowd tries to spend most of his off-duty time at home with his wife and four children, aged 13 to 25. He never tunes in to Kojak.

“I don’t like to watch crime stories,” he says. “You have to get away from what you’re doing.”

With Son of Sam still at large, of course, getting away has become more of a problem. “Our phones are lighting up like a Christmas tree,” he said after the killer sent his letter to Breslin. “It’s worse than we’ve ever seen.”

But in spite of the fact that as of last week his men had no firm leads after months of investigation, Dowd is confident the case will be solved. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll get this guy,” he says. “All we need is a direction. All these things are going to seem so simple when we solve it, we’ll wonder why we didn’t see it at once.”

NYC David Berkowitz in 2003 (mugshot)
NYC David Berkowitz in 2003 (mugshot)

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Johnny Diel may wonder too. Often on a Saturday night Diel finds himself heading back to the Forest Hills neighborhood where Chris Freund—his girlfriend for seven years—was gunned down.

“I don’t think this guy deserves to live,” he says. “I keep hoping he’ll see my car again and stop to look at it. Chris was the first girl I really loved. It’s like you got something that belongs to you, and somebody comes and takes it away. And in this case you can’t do nothin’ about it. Now I just hang out with guys from around Ridgewood, Queens, where I live. Most of them are married now.”

Whenever he thinks of that January night—and he thinks of it often—the pain and the anger overwhelm him.

“I say to myself all the time, ‘Why did you go out there? Why didn’t you go someplace else?’ But it’s too late. I go to the cemetery twice, three times a week, and I try to bring Chris red roses every week. I stand by the grave, and I say to myself, ‘Could this be possible?’ Then I walk away, and I know that it’s over.”

On Aug. 10, 1977, David Berkowitz—aka Son of Sam— was arrested after a 13-month murder spree. A parking ticket finally led police to him. A postal worker and Army veteran, Berkowitz pleaded guilty to six counts of second-degree murder and seven counts of attempted second-degree murder.

While he initially said he’d been commanded to kill by his neighbor’s dog Sam, he later admitted the story was a hoax. In 1987 he converted to Christianity and in 2002 became eligible for parole. It has repeatedly been denied. Now 70, Berkowitz is an inmate at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in New York’s Hudson Valley.

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