Netflix‘s new docuseries The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness aims to restructure a deeply ingrained story. New York City’s most notorious serial murderer wasn’t a serial murderer after all. If David Berkowitz was part of a team of street level satanic power brokers, the entire story is a false narrative.
The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is an impressive entry in the true crime documentary premiere run at Netflix. It focuses on the work of journalist Maury Terry, whose investigation into the Son of Sam case was criminally sidelined. Terry was convinced that convicted lone serial killer David Berkowitz was part of “a highly motivated and well-organized cult group whose various criminal enterprises included the .44 homicide.”
Terry’s 1987 book The Ultimate Evil: An Investigation of America’s Most Dangerous Satanic Cult, is a must read. But it got lost in the Satanic Panic, and Terry got sucked up into the world of the tabloid press. If Geraldo Rivera couldn’t survive The Geraldo Show with his journalistic reputation intact, how could Maury Terry? A wall of authority was built by a seeming Satanic cabal to shut out any idea the infamous murders could have been by anyone but a singular “Son of Sam.”
The “Son of Sam” spree captivated the world in the late 1970s. The chase for the killer was legendary, it made household names of investigators and district attorneys, careers and reputations were assured by it. All of New York City clung to its every detail. Berkowitz pled guilty to eight shootings in 1977, and the case was closed. Nobody else was charged with any crimes related to the shootings. The arrest and conviction of Berkowitz made people believe they were safe to go back out on the streets.
The documentary does a fantastic job showing how the police, press and the public all came together to create the lone gunman mythology. Berkowitz christened himself “The Son of Sam” in a letter designed to taunt police, and the documentary makes it seem like they never forgave him for it. He wrote to Jimmy Breslin, the recognizable “face” of The New York Daily News, name-dropping Beelzebub before promising to return. “Yours in murder, Mr. Monster,” he signed the letters, but the demonic names meant nothing more than lurid prose to the police.
The press fed the beast. The documentary vividly captures the mania which fell on New York City, as women cut or tied up their hair, because the roving gunman was targeting long-haired women, and stayed home anyway. Discos emptied. Neighbors followed neighbors. The documentary mirrors the rabid and rising hunt for the killer with Terry’s increasing obsession. The cops closed out the Summer of Sam by accident. A lucky coincidence linked a witness with a ticketed car. Berkowitz was arrested in front of his apartment complex on August 10, 1977.
Filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Murder Mountain) expertly incorporates archival news footage, and damning snippets of conversations. Terry’s own words and case files are thoughtfully read by Paul Giamatti. The director had already found a Son of Sam connection with his 2009 documentary Cropsey, about missing kids on Staten Island, and had contact with the author during research. The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness opens with the director receiving boxes of files, including interviews, and correspondences with Berkowitz from Terry’s personal investigation. Among them is a letter the journalist received from the convicted killer in 1981, postmarked Attica Correctional Facility. “I am guilty of these crimes,” Berkowitz wrote, “But I didn’t do it all.”
The documentary shows how, while some authorities hinted claims about ritual murders might be credible, a thin blue line forms behind the “my dog told me to do it” story to stifle the fear, rushing the case to a close. New York Mayor Abraham Beame was up for reelection and the story was fast-tracked, almost in advance. This speedy wrap-up never fooled Neysa and Jerry Moskowitz, the parents of the victim Stacy. Queens District Attorney John Santucci, whose jurisdiction included five of the Son of Sam attacks, was mocked by cops like Joe Coffey for even reading Terry’s book. Carl Denaro, a surviving victim, was so enraged he joined Terry’s investigative team. Though he would later have to remind the journalist he got shot in the head for the case.
Maury Terry is more relatable than the documentary seems to realize. Friends and colleagues bring up how he goes from a drinking buddy to a drinking baddie, but every personal revelation ultimately gets tied to his descent into obsession. Terry really is the ultimate representation of a New Yorker who lived through the Summer of Sam. He has good instincts, but he’s stuck at the wrong job. Who wants to write about the newest laser printer when his gut tells him there’s more to another story in his own neighborhood?
The press claimed Berkowitz got the name “Son of Sam” because he was acting on orders of his neighbor’s dog. He reportedly believed the dog was possessed by the soul of a 6,000-year-old man named Sam. In 1979, The New York Times reported Berkowitz made it up, but Terry, breaks the code which led to the codified .44 caliber myth. There is a real Sam, he’s got real kids, they got real problems and he’s along for the ride. Sam Carr and his sons lived in the house behind Berkowitz. The Carr family owned the Labrador retriever Berkowitz hailed as the high demon.
The high point of the series is the interview at the Sullivan Correctional Facility recorded for Inside Edition. The co-producer of the installment, Wayne Darwen, succinctly sums up the emotion by describing the meeting as Sherlock Holmes meeting Moriarty and Ahab harpooning the great whale. Berkowitz says it doesn’t matter how involved he was in the crimes, he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life just for being there.
The documentary excerpts Berkowitz’s story. He joined the cult in 1975, after meeting Michael Carr at a party on Barnes Avenue in the Bronx. Berkowitz says he “was intrigued by the occult,” which was presented in a harmless way, “just witchcraft and seances. I never dreamed I’d eventually become a murderer.” Berkowitz describes late-night meetings in the woods of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, and Untermyer Park in his own backyard, which was Pine Street in Yonkers. This inspires the name of Terry’s investigative team, The Pine Street Irregulars. Another tip of the hat to Sherlock Holmes. The description matched the “Twenty-Two Disciples of Hell” taunts in letters to Jimmy Breslin.
The convicted killer also describes his initiation at Untermyer Park. “I recited a prayer to Lucifer and then pricked my finger to draw a little blood. I also gave information about my family.” He names John “Wheaties” Carr. This points back to the letters “Son of Sam” wrote to Breslin.
Berkowitz admits he was present at each of the eight murder scenes. But wasn’t the triggerman at all of them. In the book, Ultimate Evil, Berkowitz says one of three women in the group shot Carl Denaro. Berkowitz also said “a Yonkers police officer who belonged to the group.” On camera for Inside Edition, he admits to shooting Donna Lauria and her girlfriend Jody Valente. He says there were three other accomplices at the scene, two men “in a tan car,” and Michael Carr, whom Berkowitz claims is the shooter in the Queens disco shooting. He says John Carr killed Joanne Lomino and Donna DeMasi. Earlier in the documentary, Terry says he thinks John Carr looks more like a likeness in a police sketch than Berkowitz.
The documentary sets up the segment brilliantly. We believe we have seen Terry’s vindication. Berkowitz confirms and expands on every aspect of the story he has laid out. The highlights were broadcast nationally on Inside Edition. The documentary then puts Terry’s questions about Arlis Perry, a 19-year-old student who had been murdered at Stanford University on October 12, 1974 under a magnifying glass. Was Terry leading? His follow-up interview is sad to watch, almost as infuriating for the viewer as it must have been for everyone in the room at the time.
The documentary shows how Terry chased some dubious leads to bad conclusions, from desolate small towns to the heart of Hollywood. Roy Radin was a producer on the 1984 movie The Cotton Club. His body was found on Friday, May 13, 1983, at a deserted site in northern Los Angeles County. He had been shot in the head 13 times. After the police scoured the crime scene, Terry, along with private investigators, found a Bible in a tree near the murder scene, opened to a passage which can be interpreted as pointing to a Satanic connection.
Terry lumps too much satanic activity together. He sees satanic symbols everywhere. He sees codes in everything. He hits on the Process Church of the Final Judgement in the book The Family by Ed Sanders. Terry speculates the murders could be connected to Charles Manson, but the Process Church has always downplayed anything having to do with the man who killed the sixties. He published an article in their magazine, probably got high with them, but the Process Church had a history of suing anyone who suggests a connection. The four-part documentary series skirts this by avoiding some of the more problematic claims of Terry’s book, which also describes a mysterious figure called Manson 2, who was apparently being groomed for mystical mayhem.
The other story being told in The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is the rabbit hole Maury Terry gets lost in. The arc of someone ignoring family, relationships, health, and ultimately life. The theories never move into QAnon ridiculousness. Terry’s initial investigation is well-researched and investigated. The evidence strongly suggests Berkowitz did not act alone. The segments where Terry puts together all the pieces could have been longer, because so many esoteric clues fly by so fast, the audience doesn’t get the chance to luxuriate in the spidery webs which connect everything. It is fun to go down this rabbit hole and make all these connections. It fills a similar need to crossword puzzles. True crime obsession is a fascinating topic.
The focus of the series is as much Terry as it is the Son of Sam killings. Terry is also his ultimate victim, dying in 2015, and still yelling orders on who to call to follow up a lead. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of true-crime obsession. Terry is a fascinating character. His obsessions with Satanism, snuff films, and cash are compulsively watchable. But the coincidences which frustrate him are as damnably indictable as they are effectively inadmissible. John Carr was killed in February of 1978 in a shooting in Minot, North Dakota. Michael Carr was killed in a suspicious traffic accident in October 1979. His car was apparently run off the road on the West Side Highway.
The intrepid journalist isn’t even the smartest guy in the room. It’s the serial killer. If Berkowitz acted alone, he’s got defenders fighting the police narrative, the press narrative and the public’s fear. If Berkowitz did act on orders, he’s managed to keep himself alive while even his superiors wound up dead. Ultimately, Maury Terry only has two goals. He wants the police to apologize, and he wants to make sure the victims knew who shot them. Berkowitz knew far in advance he’d never get either.
“Maury, the public will never, ever truly believe you, no matter how well your evidence is presented,” Berkowitz tells Terry at the end of their first meeting. No matter how much evidence Terry compiled, no one was prepared to take him seriously.
The Berkowitz case is responsible for creating the Son of Sam law, which says no criminal can profit from the publicity of their crimes. The state can take any money earned and donate it to the victim’s families. New York should have jumped on it, milking Berkowitz dry, and paying for an investigation. The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is compelling, exquisitely inconclusive, and long overdue.
The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is available to stream on Netflix now.