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Son of Sam: The Irish-American cop who led the hunt for the New York serial killer

The ‘Son of Sam’ murdered his first victim in the summer of 1976. The manhunt that followed gripped the world.

AN IRISH-AMERICAN NYPD officer was tasked with catching the notorious ‘Son of Sam’, as the serial killer terrorised New York in the mid-1970s.

Forty years on, the laborious investigation undertaken by Deputy Inspector Timothy J Dowd and his team is now the subject of a new documentary.

‘Son of Kerry, Son of Sam’, which will be broadcast on TG4 in the coming week, reveals the extraordinary work carried out by Dowd and his detectives to catch the murderer as he targeted young couples sitting in parked cars and taunted the police with crazed letters.

David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, murdered six people in New York City from 1976 to 1977. He later claiming he had received orders from a demon-possessed dog.

Initially dubbed the ‘.44 Calibre Killer’, he eventually got his name from the ‘Son of Sam’ sign-off he included on letters he sent to both the police and newspapers.

After his arrest, Berkowitz explained that ‘Sam’ was his neighbour Sam Carr, who he believed was an agent of the devil transmitting his commands through his pet black labrador.

Timothy J Dowd Source: IWR Media/TG4

Timothy J Dowd had served in the NYPD for over 30 years by the time the Son of Sam shot his first victims, killing one young woman and wounding another, in the Pelham Bay district of the Bronx, New York in July 1976.

Dowd had emigrated from Kerry to Boston as a child and was regarded as part of a new generation of Irish cop because he had a university education. He wasn’t assigned to investigate the serial killer until several of the ‘Son of Sam’ murders had taken place.

As violent crime was on the rise in New York in the 1970s – with over 1,600 murders in 1976 – Berkowitz’s first few attacks seemed unremarkable. 

On 23 October ’76, a couple were shot as they sat in a car in Queens. A month later, two girls were talking on a stoop outside a home when the serial killer approached, asked for directions, and then suddenly pulled a gun out and fired several shots. In both attacks, all victims survived.

Initially, police were unable to find a motive for these three seemingly random attacks, but similarities began to appear. The bullets were all from a .44 calibre revolver.

As forensic science was still in its infancy in the 1970s, detectives were unable to establish a link between the bullets used in each attack.

However, in April 1977 another young couple was shot. 26-year-old Christine Freund died from the injuries she sustained in the attack.

This time, the results came back with a positive match. The same .44 calibre gun had been used in the four attacks. New York had a serial killer.  

Director Neal Boyle and crew on location in Brooklyn. Source: IWR Media/TG4

As attacks began to escalate in both the Bronx and in Queens, detectives in the two boroughs disagreed on who should take the lead on the case. Dowd was brought out from Manhattan to take charge.

Dowd’s 200-person ‘Omega’ task force was announced as the team in charge of finding the killer, with Chief Joseph Borelli of the NYPD’s 15th Homicide division as his second in command.

The killer began to write letters, first to Borelli and then directly to newspapers,  causing public hysteria and further fueling interest in the case in the media.

In his first letter to Borrelli, the serial murderer denied claims that he was a woman-hater because his attacks were mostly targeted at young women.

He wrote:

I am not a woman-hater, but I am a monster. I am the Son of Sam.

Dowd found himself at the centre of the media frenzy which also put his family in the spotlight and firing line.

An anonymous threat was sent to him about his teenage daughter Melissa, who told the documentary-makers that her dad had stepped up security on the family home in response:

I don’t think I was mature enough to realise how frightening it was at the time, but I came home and they had installed an active police radio in the dining room, and a radio police car circled our block periodically from that point forward.

With each attack, the Omega task force was expanded and soon Dowd was running the largest manhunt in New York history.

The Son of  Sam’s last victims were Stacey Moskowitz and her boyfriend Robert Violante, both 20, who were kissing in a parked car in Brooklyn, on 31 July 1977.

A .44 calibre slug destroyed Violante’s left eye and damaged his right eye as it tore across his skull. Moskowitz died from a gunshot wound to her head. 

Arrest 

After 13 months of bloodshed – amazingly, it would be a parking fine that eventually ended the killing spree.

The Son of Sam, who had taunted cops through anonymous letters, was caught due to a $35 parking ticket he received before his last killing.

A witness remembered seeing him lurking around the crime scene and getting a ticket for parking his Ford Galaxie in front of a fire hydrant the night of the murder. 

The witness, Cacilia Davis, contacted the NYPD four days later. Police cross-checked all the cars ticketed in the area that night.

David Berkowitz was one of the drivers that they came across in their search. 

Dowd’s team nabbed the 24-year-old postal clerk as he walked from his apartment in Yonkers to his car on 10 August 1977. It was later revealed that the apartment walls were covered with scrawled Satanic verses. 

Lost Tapes series on Smithsonian Channel David Berkowitz is arrested on 10 August 1977. Source: TNS/SIPA USA/PA Images

In 1978, he pleaded guilty to the six killings, receiving 25-years-to-life for each murder, to be served consecutively.  Berkowitz tried to jump out the window of the seventh-floor courtroom upon hearing the judge’s decision.

While in prison, Berkowitz became an evangelical Christian. Instead of ‘Son of Sam’ he now prefers to be referred to as ‘Son of Hope’. The New York Post reported in February that the serial killer, now aged 64, was recovering from emergency heart surgery.

Timothy Dowd died aged 99 in 2014.

‘Son of Kerry, Son of Sam’ airs on TG4 on Wednesday 16 May at 9.30pm.

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