New Yorkers who lived through the “Summer of Sam” remember like it was yesterday. Hell, most Americans feel that way. For a year, young women with dark hair, and some men with long dark hair, avoided the shadows of parked cars. Lover’s lanes were empty. A serial killer was hunting strangers with a .44 caliber pistol. He seemed like Satan himself. Headlines screamed that no one was safe. Investigation Discovery’s Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer brings those memories back in a fast-paced assault on the senses.
The two-hour documentary commemorates the 40th anniversary of the capture of David Berkowitz, the ultimate villain whose spree left six young people dead and seven wounded during the Summer of Sam. Son Of Sam: The Hunt For A Killer interviews the NYPD detectives, from all boroughs, who worked the case, the survivors and the victims’ families. Each of the people interviewed remember the details with such clarity that the pain appears fresh.
Many of the details are familiar: the letters to The Daily News’ Jimmy Breslin; the warnings to stay out of parked cars, but some details are new to the audience. Everyone remembers waking up one morning to find that the .44 Caliber Killer, a name already etched in our minds like the Boston Stranger or Jack the Ripper, became the Son of Sam. What we didn’t know is that when Mayor Abe Beam revealed the size of the snub-nosed Bulldog pistol’s bullet to the media, it frustrated the cops investigating the case. The patrolmen and detectives had to walk a fine line between what they had to keep hidden and what was in the public’s interest to know. We know the importance of that now because there are hundreds of forensics cop shows. But that is all in the abstract of fiction. This documentary explains exactly what was at risk by giving out the details.
The story is told chronologically. It starts in a two-door Oldsmobile where 18-year-old Donna Lauria was sitting in the Bronx, and ends in a light-colored Ford Galaxy in Yonkers. Parked between those cars is an impossible journey to a truth that a fifteen-minute addendum video throws doubt on. It takes on the theory that Berkowitz didn’t act alone. As tempting as that could have been to the director and writer, it is unnecessary to the peril and drama that drives this piece.
As random as the facts are in the case itself, the documentary is assured. With some input from NYPD Psychologist and profiler Harvey Schlossberg, the filmmakers build a psychological profile of Berkowitz mainly through the, sometimes horrifically painful, testimony of survivors Carl Denaro and Robert Violante. It is put together by Detectives Captain (Ret.) of the NYPD and head of the Omega task force, Joe Borelli; Queens detective and original task force member Marlin Hopkins; arresting officer William Gardella, all from different boroughs, all very human, all pained. This event changed everyone involved and beyond, and they are not sure whether it would ever be the right thing to put it behind them.
Every single interview snippet is expert. The editing is flawless. The letters all show the creepy little satanic-looking symbol under the signature. The voice actor reciting the dark prose sounds more than vaguely like the 24-year-old mailman who delivered them to the police and Jimmy Breslin. The legendary newsman is only caught in footage of the time. There is no updated footage. But here is the man who taunted the killer, hoping to draw him out. The news becomes the story, and the weight of responsibility is considered very carefully. The New York Post’s Steve Dunleavy absolutely believed no one was safe. They weren’t trying to scare New Yorkers in order to sell copies. They were trying to scare them into staying home.
It is fascinating how close the police came to missing the most damning evidence, and even more so how some of it came together. If it weren’t for a harassing letter, Berkowitz would never have been caught. But not just the letter, it wouldn’t even have been read by investigators if it hadn’t been sent to a police dispatcher. And it took her forever to get them to listen. Had that letter gone to someone outside the system, no one would have noticed it.
That is not the fault of the cops, the documentary shows. They had their hands full. They were operating on almost no clues. They had the bullet, knew the gun, but the crimes were so random there seemed like nothing could possibly connect the dots. It still seems that way, watching them go through it now. Ultimately, it’s a barking dog and a parking ticket that led to Berkowitz’s arrest on Aug. 10, 1977. At first, the city is scared he might get off with an insanity defense, as if anyone who could pull such crimes could really be sane. They go through a few psychiatrists until they find one to label Berkowitz sane enough to stand trial and then he singsongs his victims were whores and bites at the cops. He pleads guilty, is spared a trial and straight to prison.
We learn that Berkowitz is now born-again Christian who calls himself the Son of Hope. His rebranding campaign is never going to work. He’s already gone through two era-defining nicknames, and the survivors were actually hoping Berkowitz would have met god by now, especially when they remember his smirk.
The documentary moves fast. This is one of the best paced specials I’ve seen. Most TV specials of this kind, especially on network, spend half time reminding people what they might have forgotten during the commercial break. They get a little recap-heavy towards the end as they try to rebuild the suspense lost to ads, but there is no reason to. The story is compelling. The footage is expertly selected. The emotions are raw. I could have watched another hour. I was spoiled by Making a Murderer. For basic cable, Investigation Discovery delivers a satisfying watch.
Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer was written and produced by Richard Carson Smith.
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