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The Devil in David Berkowitz

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Berkowitz at NYPD headquarters, August 11, 1977.  

The city panicked. People turned in relatives, neighbors. Women, alerted that Sam preferred brunettes, dyed their hair or bought wigs. It didn’t matter. Weeks after the letter to Breslin, Sam killed again. The victim was Stacy Moskowitz. “My daughter was blonde,” the victim’s mother, Neysa, lamented. Then, a couple weeks later, in August 1977, he was caught, tripped up by a traffic ticket, a pudgy, 24-year-old postal worker with a boyish face, seventies sideburns, Elvis-ish dark hair, and an eerie, apparently indelible half-smile.

Son of Sam was sentenced to 365 years in prison, which should have kept him out of the public consciousness for several lifetimes. But in prison, an amazing thing happened. The infamous serial killer became a holy man, holier because of his evil past. He’s now at the center of a growing Christian mission. His humility, his piety, his charitable, Christlike heart inspire Christians around the world—one African is even named after Son of Sam. (He’s Kwaku Berkowitz.) Fellow Christians overwhelm him with letters. They pray for him and crave his advice, his spiritual insight, his fatherly guidance. He produces videotapes and journals, gives interviews to Christian radio shows. David—he hates the words “Son of Sam”—works as a pastor, walking the prison halls with a Gideons Bible and a calling from God. He’s battling Satan, he says, his old friend. And David is sure Satan’s afraid of him, because David knows all his tricks. The monster who terrorized New York is now apparently on the road to redemption. “I’m heaven-bound and shouting victory,” he tells Christian audiences.

“How ya doin’?” calls David as he strolls toward us with a little wave. The apostle, I notice, has an accent from the Bronx. MaryAnn and I wait in the visitors’ room of the Sullivan County Correctional Facility, a large tiled room that resembles a high-school cafeteria. David pulls up a chair at our assigned spot, places his aviator-style glasses on the knotty-pine table, a product, by the look of it, of the prison shop. David still has the belly, but he’s middle-aged now—he just turned 53—his face rounder, softer. And he’s balding. The remaining hair is nearly white. Son of Sam looks harmless, like the aging postal worker he might have become.

“I don’t know how long you’re planning to stay,” David immediately tells me. His words are sharp but not the tone. He is wary.

MaryAnn, I know, has already pleaded my case once to David. “When she feels the Lord’s hand, she won’t compromise,” Jimmy had explained to me. Now she intercedes again. “Tell David what’s on your heart,” she instructs me. Dutifully, I begin a rambling disquisition about David’s changed heart, his redemption, I say, using a word MaryAnn likes.

“Oh … okay … okay,” David says, pausing mysteriously between words.

To get through the metal detector, MaryAnn had removed the metal cross from around her neck. But she carried in her red-leather Bible, which she pushes toward David. She tells him to share from Scripture.

“MaryAnn is director of operations,” says David good-­naturedly. “I’m glad she didn’t bring her bullhorn.”

And so, at our little prison-made table, Son of Sam starts to lead a Bible-study group. He flips to Romans 15:13. “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost,” he reads. I extract a few sheets of paper from a pocket along with a half-pencil. David thumbs to Psalm 34:6. It’s the psalm that inspired his conversion, the linchpin moment in the latter-day Son of Sam. David’s conversion story opens in a prison yard twenty years ago with the protagonist in despair: “I had nothing left to lose because I lost everything. I was an utter failure,” he believed.

“Hey, Dave, do you ever read the Bible?” called an inmate, his identity now lost.

“No, I never read it,” David said, and the inmate gave him a Bible.

One night, alone in his cell, David fell upon Psalm 34 and began to pray: “God, you know, I can’t take this anymore.” He prayed and cried and then suddenly, he tells me, “the idea that I could be forgiven entered my life.”

David says the proposition of forgiveness initially troubled him. “I thought, Maybe you’re not forgiven,” he says. “An inner voice said I’ve done too many bad things.” Three years later, in the prison chapel, a pastor read Micah 7, the verses about a God who “delighteth in mercy.”

“It was as if he was talking just to me,” says David. “Right then it just hit me. Something lit up inside me. Inner chains were broken in me. I realized God had forgiven me.”


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