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What Rupert Wrought

The Post was initially slow to react to the story. But after getting his clock cleaned day in and day out by Jimmy Breslin and the Daily News, Murdoch jumped into it with a vengeance, throwing his fellow countryman Steve Dunleavy into the hunt for Sam. Lanky and pasty-faced with a gravity-defying pompadour, the 38-year-old Dunleavy had come to New York via Fleet Street ten years earlier. He drank vodka tonics with the expat journalist crowd at Costello’s on the East Side, but Dunleavy was different from his fellow hacks at the bar. Aside from his right-wing politics, he was, as Mario Cuomo described him to The New Yorker many years later, a real New Yorker at heart: “He’s feisty, he’s resilient, he’s self-made, he stands up for what he believes in, and he can even, on occasion, be charming.”

As of July ’77, Dunleavy had been at the Post for less than a year, but he already had a reputation. “Steve drank a lot and fucked a lot,” remembers his managing editor, Robert Spitzler. Legend has it that one winter night, after doing quite a bit of the former, he and a Norwegian heiress were engaged in the latter when a snowplow ran over Dunleavy’s foot. He was so busy pumping away that he scarcely noticed. “I hope it wasn’t his writing foot,” Pete Hamill quipped.

Dunleavy went after the Son of Sam story with a similarly single-minded lust. Along the way, he produced a few legitimate scoops and yards of grisly, overwrought copy. What he lacked in police sources, he made up for in imagination. One day Dunleavy took a tape of the Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze” to an “audio expert” on Madison Avenue who amplified the lyrics. Someone was apparently singing, “Help me, help me, help me, Son of Sam,” in the background. LYRIC MAY YIELD SON OF SAM CLUE, explained the Post headline.

By the middle of July, the NYPD’s Son of Sam task force was receiving a thousand tips a day. Every hour, a thousand more callers couldn’t get through because all twelve hotlines were busy. Women were naming husbands, ex-husbands, and boyfriends as suspects.

The Post wasn’t quite breaking news, but its fevered attempts to do so forced the Daily News into playing the same game. On July 28, the day before the anniversary of the first attack, the News advertised Breslin’s Son of Sam column on its front page. Breslin dedicated the column to the killer on the occasion of “his first deathday” and resurrected the letter the killer had written him almost two months earlier, quoting one especially newsworthy passage: “Tell me Jim, what will you have for July 29 . . . You must not forget Donna Lauria and you cannot let the people forget her either. She was a very sweet girl but Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood.” Breslin couldn’t help wondering: “Is tomorrow night, July 29, so significant to him that he must go out and walk the night streets and find a victim?”

The Post answered the following day with a page-one story headlined GUNMAN SPARKS SON OF SAM CHASE. Not until the penultimate paragraph did the reporter, Dunleavy, admit that the police determined that the gunman was definitely not the Son of Sam.

The following night, the killer struck for the eighth and final time. The victims, a secretary named Stacy Moskowitz and her date, Robert Violante; both were 20 years old. As the night wound down, the couple left Jasmine’s, a disco in Bay Ridge, and drove to a service road off the Belt Parkway. They got out of Violante’s Buick Skylark and walked over a footbridge leading down to the shore.

A full moon illuminated the New York Harbor, and the necklace of lights along the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge sparkled in the distance. A few minutes later the couple returned to the car. The .44-caliber killer emerged from the bushes of a nearby playground. Moskowitz was dead in a couple of days. Violante survived, but he lost one eye and most of the use of the other.

At the time, NYPD detectives were tailing their twelve best suspects, seven of whom were former cops. All of them were a safe distance from the site of the attack. What’s more, the killer had ventured into a new borough, and the victim was, for the first time, a blonde. To the Post, the leap of logic was easy. NO ONE IS SAFE FROM SON OF SAM, blared its August 1 front page. Dunleavy and Breslin both filed “exclusives” with the families of the victims. Breslin’s name had been enough to secure his interview; Dunleavy had followed the victims’ parents into the hospital at 4 A.M., donned a doctor’s smock, and posed as a bereavement counselor. “When I held their hands and hugged Jerry and Neysa Moskowitz,” he wrote, “I was stunned, shattered, and angry.” Over the next several days, the Post outdid itself, reporting, among other far-fetched things, that the Mafia had joined the hunt for the killer and serializing a suspense novel that “prefigured Son of Sam and—some believe—may actually have been read by Son of Sam.”

On August 10, the police finally apprehended the killer, David Berkowitz, in Yonkers. Murdoch’s Post ran its banner headline—CAUGHT!—in red. Inside were sixteen stories and 36 photographs, as well as the first in a series of installments from another gory crime novel “that might have inspired” the Son of Sam. The paper sold more than 1 million copies, nearly twice its average daily circulation, prompting a proud follow-up story the next day: “Kids who usually bought comic books bought the Post and tourists snapped up souvenir copies to take back home.”

In his first summer at the Post, Murdoch received one other gift from the gods—a mayoral race of historic moment. It was a crowded field, headed by the weary incumbent Abe Beame and filled out with feminist firebrand Bella Abzug, a cerebral lawyer from Queens named Mario Cuomo, and the Harlem eminence Percy Sutton. Given this competition, nobody was paying a lot of attention to another entrant in the race, Ed Koch, a journeyman reformer from Greenwich Village.

Tall and exceptionally unathletic-looking, with wide hips and narrow shoulders that looked even slimmer beneath the unflattering cut of his three-button Brooks Brothers suits, the 52-year-old Ed Koch often wore the teasing look of an uncle who was about to pull a penny from behind your ear. The writer and critic Michael Harrington described it as the expression of a “diffident, somewhat lovable schlemiel.” He had abandoned his first mayoral effort, in 1973, after just seven lonely days on the stump.