The Horror of ‘Sam’
Note: Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin covered the events depicted in Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam,” when he wrote for New York’s Daily News. He also appears in the film, which opens Friday, as himself, commenting on the “Son of Sam” murders and how New Yorkers reacted.
It was all in another universe. At 5:30, in the typewriter noise and smoke of the Daily News on 42nd Street, we went out the freight entrance of the old building, walked through a truck garage and out onto 40th Street and into the Gatti, a big gleaming bar, big cold drinks. Around the corner was Costello’s, with the walls covered with Thurber drawings done to pay bar bills, and the drawings coated with smoke.
The nights were long and great and then it all turned serious. On Jan. 29, 1977, in the brick plaza in front of the Forest Hills Inn, Christine Freund, 26, sat in the car with her boyfriend, John Diehl, 30. They were about to go off after seeing a movie up the street and now a pudgy guy with a wool watch cap on ran up to the car and held a gun out in both hands and fired three shots through the passenger window and into Christine Freund’s head. She died. I lived four blocks from the shooting.
On March 8, Virginia Voskerichian, 19, coming home at 7:30 p.m. from Barnard College, got off the subway at Queens Boulevard, walked to the brick plaza where Christine Freund had been killed, walked under an archway and turned to go home to her house on Exeter Street. It was one of those moments during a rush hour when suddenly the sidewalk was empty. And Virginia Voskerichian walked along these hedges and grass covered with pine needles and this pudgy guy with a gun jumped in front of her. Virginia held a thick college textbook to her face. The pudgy guy put the gun to the textbook and the shot went through the book and through her head and she was gone.
The next morning, I walked the four blocks to the place where she died and here was an old friend, Andy Camera, a detective, combing the pine needles for anything that could help.
“The guy used a large caliber bullet,” he said. “If it’s from the same gun that killed the other girl, then we got the worst.”
He walked up to the Forest Hills Inn lobby to make a phone call. The word “cell phone” was unheard of. I went to the News office and wrote a column about this. I wrote it on a loud rattling typewriter, with a carriage that had to be moved, thus giving a motion that went with thinking. The typing was done on a book of five carbons. There was smoke and noise.
The slug from Virginia Voskerichian’s head was under a microscope at police headquarters. Also mounted was the slug from a young woman who had been killed in the Bronx a year ago. Her name was Dionna Lauria. The matching was done by turning one bullet and trying to match the rifling [lines] from the other bullet. Then the technician would turn the other bullet. He could do this for about 45 minutes at a time and then he had to stop. Nobody could replace him because only he knew how many lines he had checked.
It took two and a half days.
If this shooting happened in the year 1999, a computer would have matched the slugs in perhaps a half hour.
The mayor and police commissioner announced that the killings had been done by the same man. He was called the .44 Caliber Killer. I don’t think I ever saw the term “serial killer” in those times. A couple of mornings later, Ruben Rosario, working in the city room of the Daily News, put a letter in my mailbox that had weird printing.
The letter started, “Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine and blood. Hello from the sewers which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks on the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and on the dried blood of the dead that has settled into these cracks.”
It went on. Somebody said it was obvious that the guy wanted to kill me. I said he was trying to do something worse, get my job. He had the wildness and cadence to excite readers. He signed it Son of Sam. His words were hurled out of insane, fiery insides. He was the only killer I’ve ever known who knew how to use a semicolon. The printing matched a letter dropped near a dead young woman at an earlier killing. The one to me had a palm print on it, but there was no way to match it.
If this letter with its weird printing was sent today, it would not come in an envelope to Breslin. It would be posted on the Internet and all of Auckland would bolt doors.
He had shot two young women within four blocks of my house and now he sent me a letter. I had to figure he knew me and where I could be found. The police thought they would get him through me. I hoped that any heroics would be done by mail.
Different Routes to Home and Work
I moved my family out of the house and when I came home, I always went around the block three times before I went in. I used every different way to get to work, and at the News I used a different way in and out every day.
Once during the summer I went out to Westhampton and on a rainy Monday night I had a drink with my wife in a bar on Main Street. We watched cars drive by in the rain. Although we never knew it, one of the cars was Berkowitz’s. He said the dog told him to stop hunting and go home, that the dog didn’t like rain.
He shot and killed a young woman named Stacey Moscowitz in Bath Beach. He now had killed six and had wounded eight. The boy with Stacey Moscowitz, Robert Violante, somehow lived and needed a glass eye. A young woman in Flushing was shot through the spine and paralyzed. There were young people who never got over wounds, and parents who never got over a dead daughter. Berkowitz was every bit the horror he boasted he was.
In the Moscowitz murder, he had parked his car by a hydrant a block away. Two police came by and gave him a summons. A woman looking out of her apartment window saw him.
When the cops coming off duty were asked if they had given any summonses the two said no. They had some problem in their minds with where they were when they gave out the ticket. The woman looking out the window had color fear in her vision. She didn’t see a black. But she couldn’t see a white. A Hispanic. Yes. She described him carefully to the police artist. The police issued a great picture of [New York politician] Herman Badillo.
John Keenan, the chief of detectives, told his people to leave the case in the Coney Island precinct and not shift it to the special Son of Sam squad in the 109th Precinct in Flushing. It was a hot case and the Bath Beach cops might have a better look at it. They did. The traffic ticket finally showed up on the computer, David Berkowitz, Pine Street, Yonkers.
The detective who had caught the case, John Fatalico, was walking back to the precinct when he saw everybody piling into a car. “We’re going for coffee,” one said. “Take the phones.” Like hell, Fatalico said. He jumped into the car. In Yonkers they saw the white Ford with an envelope on the dashboard that had the same printing he sent to me.
Late at night, in the chief of detectives’ office at police headquarters, Berkowitz, a lump of dough, sat between two detectives and was handcuffed to a chair.
“That’s Jimmy Breslin,” he said. “He’s a friend of mine.” I stared at him for a moment and then I walked off. I figured I never would see him again and these long nights were out of my life for good. They were. The smoke went out of the city room, the typewriters were replaced with these machines whose only sound is tapping. Instead of walking through a garage to get a thousand drinks, people in my line now go to a health club and home. All changed; changed utterly. I never counted on some of it coming back in a movie 22 years later.