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The Devil in David Berkowitz

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David’s Christian fame crossed over in 1999. That was the year David’s past, repurposed as part of God’s plan, attracted Larry King, who did an hour-long interview from prison. The attention snowballed. Other big Christian groups lined up: Trinity Broadcasting Network and, in 2004, Focus on the Family, which sells a CD of its interview with David.

As word of David’s testimony spread, he was also working with African ministers, sending Bibles. And ordinary Christians increasingly sought him out.

The letters pour in. David receives five, ten, sometimes more, a day. People write that they’re praying for unforgiving victims’ families to get over their bitterness. And they write of their own troubles, as if this serial killer were the one person in the world who could understand their loneliness, their disappointments. Some identify with David. “I wanted and planned to kill my ex-boyfriend,” wrote one young woman, whose letter from David apparently pulled her from the brink. David grew especially close to one troubled 17-year-old from Long Island. “Hey Berkoman!” he wrote, then told David that he was “insanely depressed … I can’t stand life any longer.” He wanted David to pray for him. “I don’t care what you’ve done in your past,” he wrote, “I think of you as a dad … you are like the best role model ever! ... When I pray for you, I feel loved … I want a life like you are living today.”

It’s mid-afternoon, the fourth hour of our visit, and the visitors’ room at Sullivan Correctional is nearly empty. In the center of our little table, MaryAnn has stacked eighteen single dollar bills. “Make sure David gets fed,” Jimmy had instructed. He had in mind the vending machines lined up in the back of the room. Food has always been a way to David’s heart. Prisoners aren’t permitted to touch money, so MaryAnn urges me to buy David some lunch.

We walk shoulder to shoulder toward the thicket of vending machines. David, paunchy and bald, wears a not-quite-clean white polo shirt tucked into bright-green, elastic-waist pants, and spotless white sneakers. He looks like a middle-aged civil servant ready for retirement, the uneventful future he sometimes imagines for himself if, as he puts it, “all this hadn’t happened.” I slip money in a machine. David delights in all the choices. There’s a machine with flavored waters. “They didn’t have this before,” he says. He selects a Nathan’s hot dog, and breaks into a smile. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen his perp-walk photo by now, the one with that unnerving smile. I wonder how it could have escaped me: Son of Sam has dimples.

At our table, David eats his hot dog, gripping it with those murderous hands (the thought never disappears). Is the new version the sincere one, as his religious friends insist? “A Christian can tell,” Chuck assures me. Or does Sam’s appetite for the spree lurk inside? Is Richie still controlling the grudge within? There is, in David’s life, this disturbing symmetry: Once he was Satan’s devoted soldier, and now he’s a celebrated man of God. Who is he, really, beneath the goofy postman’s grin? When I raise the topic, David nods indifferently, and, as a holy man should, offers a Bible verse. “And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not,” he reads.

David says that sometimes he imagines a life outside of prison. “Everyone does,” he says. If he ever gets out, David’s Christian friends see him running a church. “He has the ability to pastor,” says Rich Delfino of New Jersey, an ex–sheriff’s deputy and ex–drug addict who is David’s Bible-study partner. (“There’s never a time I haven’t learned something scripturally from David,” he says.)

David, though, can’t see himself at the head of a church. He’s already MaryAnn and Jimmy’s pastor. And he’s the inmate pastor, which he finds exhausting. “Guys are very needy in here,” David says. Plus, he sometimes works as a peer counselor in the mental-health unit, a $2-a-day job that he also thinks of as part of his ministry. “I’m gentle with guys,” he says. “I’m a big brother, a helper. I see myself as a caregiver.”

When he imagines life on the outside, David tells me he thinks of becoming an Evangelist, a minister traveling to schools and prisons. He could reach out to kids, though the thought of traveling freely must be an enticement, too.

“But God had another plan for me,” David says softly, cutting off the thought.

To leave prison, he tells me, “God will have to do a miracle.” Perhaps the Lord himself will preside over David’s release. “Suppose the Old and New Testaments, and all that is written therein is true?” David asked me. If so, then there is the Rapture to think about, the foretold moment when God will take his chosen home. David sometimes imagines the day that God plucks him from his elastic-waist prison greens. “Jesus is going to come and take his people out of the world,” David told Lisa. “One day, that trumpet is going to sound and we’re going to be gone.”


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