The biggest manhunt in the NYPD history took place in the summer of 1977 when the serial killer who called himself Son of Sam terrorized New York City. Irish detective Timothy Dowd was the one who cracked the case.
The grimy New York summer of ’77 had everything— a crazy mayoral race, a blackout, the Bronx under fire, and most of all a serial killer who took his commands from a dog.
The Son of Sam was loose out there somewhere in New York, shooting and killing young women, attacking courting couples. He struck again and again, eerily calling himself the Son of Sam.
The biggest police manhunt in history ensued. Eventually, there would be 300 cops involved.
The investigation was led by an Irishman, Tim Dowd from Kerry who had emigrated to New York as a young man. He commanded a special task force, Operation Omega, that initially consisted of 50 detectives and other members of the police force, but that grew to 300.
Experts likened the search to a needle in a haystack but Dowd proved he was up to it. "The Bronx Is Burning" author Jonathan Mahlar described Dowd thusly: “Deputy Inspector Timothy Dowd was a sixty-one-year-old Irish American with neatly combed grey hair and steely blue eyes. Though he had major homicide experience he was considered bookish by police standards. He had studied Latin and literature at City College and he was famous for kicking ungrammatical arrest reports back to his men, a habit that earned him the nickname 'Captain Comma.'"
He had a tough task. New York in 1977 felt like a city under siege. The City of New York was broke. There were 1,919 murders. The subways had wall-to-wall graffiti and more robbers than cops, the potholes were never filled, and in certain areas of the city—like the South Bronx and even what is now lower Columbus Avenue in Manhattan—it looked like Berlin at the end of World War II.
But through all the hardships the city still had a special soul as encapsulated in the big movie that summer, "Saturday Night Fever", and the Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive.” This city, down and out—for now—still had balls:
Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
Since I was born
And now it’s alright, it’s okay
And you may look the other way
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man
Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive
New York’s grime was golden
I loved the grimy New York City of the ’70s. I was never happier. And it’s hard to believe it was 40 long years ago.
I was in love with a wonderful woman named Ann. She was a Mennonite, which she had to explain to me. Leave it up to this Irish-Catholic to find and fall in love with one of the three Mennonites on the island of Manhattan. She would leave me and I would be heartbroken—but not for long.
But it was the Summer of Sam—David Berkowitz, a postal employee from Yonkers, who I suspected couldn’t find a girlfriend, was taking it out on young couples necking in parked cars. He would kill six and wounding seven.
He used a .44 caliber revolver and he not only terrified the city—he became a legend. Wannabe screenwriters broke typewriters they were writing so fast. The hot lead used to print newspapers was hardly cooled before Sam struck again and again. When the Daily News ran a letter from him they sold 1,160,000 copies, surpassed only once ever by their sales when Sam was arrested. Meanwhile, over at The New York Post recently bought by Rupert Murdoch, known then as “The Dirty Digger” their ace reporter, Irish-Australian Steve Dunleavy was on the case. He was so determined to outshine Breslin that he donned a doctor’s smock passed himself off as a grief counselor and interviewed the grieving family of one victim as they gathered to say goodbye at the hospital.
I was working at Fawcett paperback publishers at 1515 Broadway, smack in the middle of Times Square. Back then Times Square was stark—there were no malls and there were no Sesame Street characters shaking down tourists for hugs and tips. In fact, there were few tourists.
But there were a lot of porn theaters featuring the dirty double-feature of the time The Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door. It was sleazy, but it was real New York. Back then New York was a working-class town made reasonable by rent control and you didn’t need a trust fund to live in the city. It was a true city of working stiffs, not a place where Eurotrash bought million-dollar pieds-à-terre that they never used.
What I remember most about Son of Sam that summer is that the Sam story was everywhere and I hated my boss. I won’t soil the page by even typing her name, but, boy, she was awful. She had one of those new electric MBA degrees and thought she knew it all. She didn’t know shit. I worked for one of the great ladies of publishing, Leona Nevler, who turned a little independent publishing house into one of the top three paperback publishers of the time. (Oddly enough, years later Leona’s son went on to marry the daughter of one of the heroes of that summer, Jimmy Breslin.) Leona kept telling me to hang on that she would take care of it. She offered me more money. “This isn’t about money!” I’d scream (that’s how dopey I was). It was hard to calm me down in 1977 and I now wonder where all that wonderful testosterone has gone.
Several times during that summer I’d come into the office with the Daily News. The headline would scream SAM STRIKES AGAIN! “Shit,” I’d say, “he missed her again,” meaning my terrible hated boss with the useless MBA. It was dark New York humor at its best.
And to put an exclamation point to the hot, hot summer of 1977 on July 13th the lights went out and stayed out for 25 hours. It was almost as if God was waving a magic wand atop the great City of New York and having a grand laugh for himself.
Beth Myerson wore a beard
There was a hot mayoral race on that summer among a couple of heavyweights—Ed Koch vs. Mario Cuomo. They were competing to replace Abe Beame, the gnome-sized mayor who was elected because he was the crack comptroller—until the city found out he couldn’t count.
I knew Koch from around Greenwich Village where I lived and because he came into my pub, Lion’s Head on Christopher Street. It was a saloon where many of the writers who worked at the Village Voice next door drank and one always suspected that Koch, who liked to drink club soda and tip the barman a dime, was only looking for a scribe to romance.
It was Koch’s summer of the “Immaculate Deception.” Koch, who never looked at a girl with lust in his life, suddenly took up with Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America and well known to America as a panelist on I’ve Got a Secret. If Koch had a secret it was not his sexual propensities. As they say in Dublin, Koch was as gay as Christmas. But all of a sudden you could not take a crowbar and separate the two of them.
This was a show for all those Irish-Catholic conservatives on Staten Island and Queens who didn’t want a queer for mayor. “Is there marriage on the horizon?” Koch and Myerson were asked daily and all they could do was giggle. The ploy worked because Koch eventually beat Cuomo in the primary. But not before Cuomo’s people came out with the classic political bumper-sticker of all time—VOTE FOR CUOMO/NOT THE HOMO. For once, truth in political advertising came to the fore. In retrospect, I don’t think Koch was gay. I think he was an asexual.
His idea of sex was spraying his hubris on his political opponents. (By the way, for the record, Myerson ran for the U.S. Senate in 1980—perhaps her raison d’être for the dalliance—and was defeated and later had her own legal troubles because of one of her real heterosexual boyfriends. In 1982 Cuomo would go on to be elected governor of New York and serve three terms.)
Flaherty, Hamill, and Breslin
There were three great Irish writers working in New York City that summer—Joe Flaherty, Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. All three were my heroes. I knew Flaherty intimately. He was my friend, my mentor and just one of the best human beings I have ever met. He was also the funniest man I ever met. I met him at the Lion’s Head saloon where he consumed Remy Martin cognac in alarming multitudes. He never had a bad word to say about anyone and, boy, could he write. He managed the Mailer-Breslin ticket in the 1969 mayoral race and wrote a magnificent book about it called Managing Mailer, still one of the great political books ever written about New York City and its politics.
Joe wrote for the Village Voice covering sports and politics and he didn’t take any prisoners. He would die prematurely in 1983 from cancer and I would spend a lot of that summer with him. He taught me how to live, laugh, and yes, even die.
Since I was in high school I used to read Pete Hamill’s column in the New York Post. The one thing about Pete Hamill is his prodigious decency. Pete has always been the proud papa of New York City, looking at his rowdy children and knowing that one day it will all be well. Pete also used to come into the Lion’s Head, but I could never approach him like I could approach Flaherty.
Maybe it had something to do with him having actress Shirley MacLaine on his arm.
One of my fondest memories of Flaherty and Hamill was when Hugh Carey got elected governor in 1974. Both Hamill and Flaherty are Irish out of Brooklyn—just like Hughey was—and they were both intimate with the gutter politics of New York. When Carey was elected Hamill wrote a front-page piece in the Village Voice imploring Hughey “to be Irish.” Flaherty responded with his own front-page piece the following Wednesday yelling “I’ll tell you about the fucking Irish!” Man, all the boys and girls at the Lion’s Head roared.
Of course, number three is Mr. Breslin who has recently shed this planet for what I hope is a better climate. Jimmy was the king of tabloid columnists in its golden age. Son of Sam was about to give him the ultimate recognition.
And it would be a combination of Breslin and an Irish cop from County Kerry named Dowd that would be the downfall of Son of Sam.
Sam terrorizes New York
Saturday Night Fever was prescient because it portrayed the kind of New Yorkers and outer-borough neighborhoods that Son of Sam would target. What is forgotten is that Sam’s first victims were shot outside of New York City in New Rochelle, New York, just north of the city. His victims were a couple of teenagers, Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti on July 29, 1976. Lauria was killed and Valenti was wounded but survived her wounds.
He did not strike again until October when he attacked 20-year-old Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan, 18, in Flushing, Queens. Denaro was wounded in the head but survived. By quickly driving away, Denaro had saved both their lives.
At Thanksgiving, two girlfriends sitting on their front porch in Bellerose, Queens, were blatantly attacked. Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino were both struck by bullets but survived. Lomino was rendered paraplegic.
January 30th of the bitterly cold new year saw Sam strike again. Christine Freund, 26, and her fiancée John Diel, 30, were sitting in their car after seeing a movie when they were attacked. Diel was wounded but survived; Freund died from her wounds. What is interesting to note here is that the attack took place in Forest Hills, Queens, home to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin.
In March, Sam returned to Forest Hills and confronted a Columbia University student, Virginia Voskerichian, returning from school. She held her textbooks in front of her face for protection, but they did not help. The .44 hit her in the head and killed her.
In April, the murderer switched back to the Bronx, sticking to his favorite M.O., attacking couples in cars. His shots killed both Alexander Esau, 20, and Valentina Suriani, 18. It is at this crime scene that Sam imitated his inner Jack-the-Ripper, leaving a taunting letter for police: “I am the ‘Son of Sam’…Police—Let me haunt you with these words; I’ll be back! I’ll be back!... Yours in murder Mr. Monster.” And, thus, the Son of Sam legend was born.
“Hello from the Gutters of N.Y.C.”
On May 30, 1977, Breslin received a letter which began, in the best Jack-the-Ripper manner: “Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood.” You had to hand it to Sam, he had flair—and Breslin had found a demented friend that would make his column the most read in the city.
Sam went on to state that he was a fan of Breslin’s and read every column and found them “quite informative.” He referred to his first victim, Donna Lauria, and the upcoming first anniversary of the attack. Ominously, he asked, “What will you have for July 29?”
He went on to write, “Please inform all the detectives working the slaying to remain.” He signed it “Son of Sam.” Oddly enough, he said “I don’t care for publicity,” but he was obviously lying.
Deputy Inspector Matthew Dowd, the man running the investigation, told Breslin to print the letter, saying, “He’ll come in through you.”
Breslin was very impressed by the writing. “The cadence of what he was writing was sensational,” Breslin later said. “The guy could have a column and do me out of a job. He can really capture you, compel you to read. He’s terrific.”
A week later, the Daily News printed the letter and Breslin urged the killer to surrender. But it was not to be. The heat of the New York summer seemed to spur Sam on. At the end of June, Sal Lupo, 20, and Judy Placido, 17, had just left a Saturday Night Fever-like discotheque in Bayside, Queens, and were sitting in their car discussing Son of Sam when they were attacked. Both were wounded, Placido in the head. Miraculously, both survived their wounds.
July 29th, the anniversary of Sam’s first attack passed under a huge NYPD surveillance. Nothing happened, but two days later, two 20-year-olds, Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante, were necking in a parked car in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. The killer fired shots into both of their heads, killing Moskowitz. Violante survived but with severely limited vision.
Son of Sam and the Irish connection
The Irish played a big part in the apprehension of David Berkowitz, AKA Son of Sam. Berkowitz seemed obsessed with Breslin. He sent him two letters and used his neighborhood as a hunting ground. Breslin was so concerned with Berkowitz that he moved his family out of his Forest Hills home. Years later, Breslin, with a shrug, confided to me that he thought he was being stalked by Berkowitz.
The second Irishman responsible for the capture of Berkowitz was Timothy Dowd. Dowd was born in County Kerry in 1915 and as a child immigrated to New York with his parents. Dowd joined the NYPD in 1940. He had both a degree from CCNY and a master’s degree in public administration and by 1977 was a Deputy Inspector.
After the Esau-Suriani murders, he was put in charge of “Operation Omega,” which would eventually be staffed by 300 members of the police force. With all that manpower and the power of CSI—no DNA yet—one would think Berkowitz would have been apprehended with over-the-top police work. It would not come down to fancy forensics or eyewitnesses. It would be a lot more mundane. It would come down to a parking ticket. During the investigation, Dowd said his job was “to prepare to be lucky.”
The cops finally got the rub of the green. On his last attack, Berkowitz’s car was ticketed because it was too close to a fire hydrant, ironically by the same cop who was first on the murder scene after Berkowitz fled.
A local woman, Cacilia Davis, walking her dog, a white terrier named Snowball saw Berkowitz return to the car his arm held stiffly by his side, holding the gun he had just used. He stared her down. Disconcerted, she took off for home and heard shots as Berkowitz fired after her. Terrified, she did not report the incident until four days later. When the police pulled the tickets, it led them to Yonkers and David Berkowitz. Unlike his terror, his surrender did not end with a bang, but rather a whimper. He was arrested on August 10th outside his apartment without incident. New York’s summer of fear and agony was over.
There had been much speculation that the “Son of Sam” nickname referred to a former US soldier perhaps, but Berkowitz said that the "Sam" mentioned in the first letter was his former neighbor Sam Carr. Berkowitz claimed that Carr's black labrador retriever Harvey was possessed by an ancient demon and that it issued irresistible commands that Berkowitz must kill people.
The ending as an anticlimax
Dowd died in 2014 at the age of 99. In an extraordinarily colorful obituary in the New York Times, his daughter admitted that he had a great affinity for a detective named Columbo. The pesky TV detective struck a chord with Dowd. “That’s how it’s done,” he told his daughter. The persistence of Columbo and the luck of the Irish would combine to capture Son of Sam. When Dowd finally met Berkowitz, he did not come off as a daring, badass Jack-the-Ripper wannabe as his brazen letters to Breslin intimated. All Berkowitz could say was a rather banal “Inspector, you finally got me. I guess this is the end of the trail.” In the end, he turned out to be more mundane than Jack-the-Ripper.
Breslin would go on to write a novel with Dick Schaap about the Son of Sam called .44. It would not be a commercial success although Breslin made a mint off it. In 1999, he would appear as himself in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, starring John Leguizamo.
By then, it seemed that New Yorkers had had their fill of Sam. Breslin would write many more good books and would finally win an overdue Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1986.
Berkowitz’s bizarre behavior has persisted to this day as he has made the rounds of the New York State prison system from Sing-Sing to Dannemora. Berkowitz’s biggest contribution to society seems to have been the “Son of Sam” Law which prohibits felons from making money off their crimes from such things as books and movies.
Like a lot of incarcerated felons, he claims that he has found God behind bars and that he is now a born-again Christian. He credits Psalm 34:6 with his conversion:
The righteous person may have many troubles,
But the Lord delivers him from them all;
He protects all his bones,
not one of them will be broken.
For a man who shattered so many bones of anonymous victims, his turn to the Lord is the highest hypocrisy on the part of Berkowitz. All Berkowitz ever was was a coward who preyed on innocents. New York was lucky to have Jimmy Breslin and Timothy Dowd around in the summer of ’77. Heroically, they rose up to defend their city while the snake named Sam of Sam slithered in its sewers.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.
A new documentary on Son of Sam and Tim Dowd recently featured on TG4. You can view "Son of Kerry, Son of Sam" on the TG4 player.