Son of Sam Serial Killer: I Didn’t Act Alone
The new Netflix docuseries “The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness” explores the theory that the serial killer who terrorized New York may not have acted alone.
David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam, killed six New Yorkers and wounded seven more—all with his trademark .44 caliber revolver—before being caught on Aug. 10, 1977. A loner who struck fear into the heart of the Big Apple with crimes that were all the more chilling for being so random, Berkowitz was, and remains, one of America’s most notorious serial killers, a fiend who targeted everyday citizens because, he claimed, a 6,000-year-old demon told him to via his neighbor’s dog. His crime spree was national news, and his capture calmed the metropolis he had paralyzed with terror.
Yet the question The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness poses is, what if he didn’t act alone?
Premiering on May 5, director Joshua Zeman’s four-part Netflix docuseries is, per its title, a descent into a bleak abyss, although the specific nature of that horror is perhaps its biggest surprise. Berkowitz’s crimes during the summer of 1977, and the New York Police Department’s desperate attempts to stop them, comprise the bulk of The Sons of Sam’s initial installment. Compiling a wealth of talking-head interviews and archival footage from the era, from TV news reports and on-the-street interviews to police press conferences and talk shows featuring experts, psychologists, and New York Daily News superstar reporter Jimmy Breslin—whose direct correspondences with Berkowitz became fodder for the front page—the series presents a harrowing account of those stressful few months, which were compounded by a July 13-14 blackout that further put New Yorkers on edge.
Berkowitz targeted young women with long brown hair as well as their male acquaintances, almost always when they were in cars late at night, and when he was nabbed in August, New York breathed a sigh of relief. Or, at least, most of the city did. From the moment Berkowitz was apprehended—and then smirked to the cameras during his perp walk, before confessing his guilt in court—IBM employee Maury Terry suspected that there was more to this story than simply a delusional sociopath who shot strangers on the orders of an evil spirit living in his elderly neighbor Sam Carr’s dog, and who wrote taunting letters to the police in which he ranted about Satanic forces, gave himself various nicknames, drew strange insignias, and declared, “I am the monster, Beelzebub, the chubby behemoth.” In light of various discrepancies in the case, including the fact that Berkowitz didn’t remotely resemble the many police sketches made from eyewitness statements, Terry surmised that more than one person might have committed these executions.
Thus, a private investigation was born, one that led Terry first to the Carr family. Though Berkowitz dubbed himself the “Son of Sam,” Sam Carr actually had two sons of his own—John and Michael Carr—and the former’s nickname, “Wheaties,” almost perfectly aligned with one of the nicknames (“John Wheaties”) the killer had mentioned in a letter to the cops. Berkowitz knew John and Michael Carr, and they all used to hang out in Yonkers’ Untermyer Park—in particular, at a decrepit pump house known as “the Devil’s Cave,” whose interior was decorated with blood and upside-down crosses, and where mutilated animal corpses that had apparently been used in ritual sacrifices were found. Since John Carr looked eerily similar to one of the police sketches of the killer, Terry became convinced that the three were in cahoots—and, moreover, that they were members of a Satanic cult known as “the Children,” which was an offshoot of a British cult known as “the Process Church of the Final Judgment.”
And “the Process,” it turned out, had its own ties to murderous madmen—namely, Charles Manson.
The police, and much of the public, found Terry’s speculation a bit far-fetched, but The Sons of Sam lays out the many ways in which it made at least some sort of sense. Be it John Carr committing suicide in North Dakota while police were at his front door, Michael’s mysterious auto-accident death, or a strange semi-related ritual murder of a young woman named Arlis Perry in California, Terry weaved together various curious strands into a semi-plausible conspiracy theory in which Berkowitz, the Carrs, and potentially other cultists had carried out the Son of Sam shootings as a means of sowing societal chaos. Not everyone was convinced; in a new interview, former NYPD detective Joseph Borrelli gets angry just discussing Terry’s ideas. However, through rigorous investigative work, Terry accumulated a loyal group of believers (including the parents of some Berkowitz victims, and Carl Denaro, a survivor of a Berkowitz attack) and accomplices who tried to aid him in his quest, which spawned numerous articles in Gannett newspapers and The New York Post, and culminated with his book The Ultimate Evil: The Search for the Sons of Sam.
The Sons of Sam presents Terry’s suppositions in exhaustive detail, in order to both highlight their validity and reveal their flaws. Over the course of four well-constructed episodes, it’s the latter that eventually become too legion to easily dismiss. It’s not just that Terry frequently made his case on tabloid programs like A Current Affair, Inside Edition and Geraldo Rivera’s talk show; or that that much of what he had to say about devil-worship and witchcraft reeked of pre-Satanic Panic hysteria; or that his conjecture involved pedophilic cabals (run by a would-be producer of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club) and a photographer who apparently made a snuff film of Stacy Moskowitz’s murder. Rather, it’s that Zeman’s docuseries ultimately transforms into a study of a man who was so consumed with the Berkowitz saga that he lost all sense of moderation, of perspective, and of self-awareness, barreling forward with one increasingly outlandish notion after another until his marriage was destroyed, his reputation was damaged, and his health was ruined.
In its final hour, The Sons of Sam features the on-camera interviews Terry conducted with Berkowitz, during which the killer admits that a cult was behind the shootings (only some of which he committed himself; he was merely present at the rest). Like so much of Terry’s toil, these chats provide tantalizing circumstantial evidence of a grander conspiracy at play. Yet since they also feature Terry aggressively leading Berkowitz to provide the answers that will validate his own Satanic theory, they also underscore the pitfalls of mania, and turn this docuseries into an illuminating—and sad—portrait of calamitous obsession.