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The Devil in David Berkowitz

The way the man once called Son of Sam sees it, Satan and Jesus have long been fighting for his soul. Thirty years ago, when he killed six and terrorized the city, the Devil was winning. But now Berkowitz says that Jesus has the upper hand. And a growing flock of renegade Christians believe he’s an apostle of the Lord.

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One crisp, early-summer morning, MaryAnn and Jimmy Skubus and I are holding hands at a Starbucks—they’d extended their hands and, taking the cue, I grabbed them. MaryAnn says grace, blessing our scone and marble cake, then turns to the subject that’s brought us together. “David is so different from what everyone thinks,” she says. “He’s a special person.” David is David Berkowitz, better known as Son of Sam, and, in one sense, everyone knows that he is out of the ordinary: He’s the most famous serial killer in New York history.But what does MaryAnn mean, David’s special?

I pick at the scone. Jimmy, a big-boned, easygoing ironworker, attacks the marble cake.

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“Am I going into this, Jimmy?” MaryAnn asks. She seems on the verge of some big emotion.

“Why not?” he says and shrugs his powerful shoulders.

As far as I can figure out, Son of Sam hasn’t spoken to the press in seven years. Yet reports filter out that he has a new outlook and a new set of friends. And so when MaryAnn introduced herself to me as “a good friend of David’s”—we bumped into each other at the courthouse where David has a legal matter pending—I was encouraged. Perhaps MaryAnn and Jimmy can tell me about the new David.

Unfortunately, at Starbucks, MaryAnn, 48, tall and skinny, seems stalled in her tracks. She’s got this intense look on her face, and an intense outfit. She wears a black motorcycle jacket, black motorcycle boots, and black motorcycle gloves. There’s a pastel-colored band circling her head, a kind of homage, I learned later. The headband makes her think of Jesus’ crown of thorns. She stares at Jimmy. “Oh, Jimmy, these are heavy things,” she says.

Jimmy nods, encouraging her.

“It’s hard to say,” she begins. She leans forward, turns her electric-blue eyes on me, then announces, “I have the call of a prophet upon my life ... It’s wild because it’s self-proclaimed. There’s nothing I can do. I cannot escape. The Lord will defend me in it.”

Then she adds, “That’s how I knew about David the minute I saw him.”

“What did you know about David?” I ask stupidly.

At first, MaryAnn explains, David was not a person for her but a number. “The Lord had given me, shot into my spirit and I could never shake it, the number 44,” she explains. Years before she met David, she’d even named her dog 44. “Periodically I would get the number 444, which was like the perfection of the number.” MaryAnn didn’t understand at first, but later the meaning became crystal clear. She says, “It was the identification of David Berkowitz.” Initially, the press called him the “.44-Caliber Killer,” because his six murders were committed with a .44-caliber pistol. Then two years ago, she ran into a guy she knew at the local Shop Rite, a Christian like her. They started talking, and soon he invited her to visit David in prison.

“When David walked in [to the visitors’ room], I knew,” she tells me.

Again, I wonder, “What did you know?”

“There’s nobody bigger than this guy. Oh, my God, this guy is an apostle of the Lord.”

David Berkowitz, the Jewish serial killer, an apostle of Jesus?

“It would be a prophet that would know,” MaryAnn assures me.

Leaving Starbucks, I hand my business card to Jimmy. Later that afternoon, I call MaryAnn. “Jesus is Lord,” MaryAnn answers. She seems very excited to hear from me. There’s apparently been a sign; in MaryAnn’s world, there are no coincidences. Jimmy, she explains, noticed the magazine’s address on my business card: 444 Madison Avenue.

“This is probably the guy we should be working with,” he told MaryAnn. (If that weren’t enough, the Starbucks bill came to $12.44.)

Then MaryAnn asks me if I want to meet David. “Thank you, Lord,” I say aloud after I hang up.

To most New Yorkers, Son of Sam is still the iconic figure of evil. Thirty years ago, he began a reign of terror, killing six and wounding seven over the course of a year. With the city’s newspapers trumpeting each attack, he terrorized New Yorkers as no lone criminal has ever done. (no one is safe from son of sam, said a Post headline at the time.) Sam targeted young female strangers—white, college-bound prizes of the middle class. At times, he seemed to court the city. He believed, as he later put it, that “people were rooting for me.” After nearly three months without an attack, he wrote Daily News columnist Jimmy Bres­lin: “I am still here like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest.”


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