Mindhunter Son of Sam

The first time I heard the name David Berkowitz I was a bored pre-teen, tucked into an uncomfortable wooden pew at my parents’ church, mentally counting down the minutes until I could duck out into the sunshine and salvage a few minutes of my Sunday. Growing up a born-again Christian meant Sundays and several weeknights were dedicated to multiple church services, tedious affairs that lasted hours and whittled away at precious free time. 

But on this particular Sunday, there was something slightly more interesting to do than flip through the tissue-paper thin pages of my bible until landing on some of the raunchier bits hidden in the poetic Song of Solomon verses. On that day, I was being given one of my first serial killers. With a catch, of course. 

There’s nothing Christians love more than a good redemption story, the kind of inspirational biographies where someone overcomes the impossible, but instead of finding happiness or true love, it’s Jesus. Always Jesus. And in the pantheon of “I once was lost but now am found” stories, nothing beats a repentant serial killer. 

Long after holding my hometown of New York City hostage with fear during the 1970s, David Berkowitz traded in his Son of Sam infamy for the cloak of Christianity, professing sincere remorse for his crimes while also attributing them to a previous life where he was lost without the love and guidance of Christ. The Son of Sam had rebranded as the “Son of Hope.”

The script is always the same for these redemption narratives. First, an introduction. “Hello brothers and sisters, I’m the Son of Sam. You might remember me from the events of 1976-1977, when I shot and killed six people, wounding seven others. You also might have read my letters to the NYPD and New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin where I taunted the police and took delight in murder.” 

After this comes all the juicy bits, the “man was I so lost, but let me tell you about all the fun I had taking drugs and having sex and partying it up before finding God.” In Berkowitz’s case, the glory days of holding a macabre power over the largest city in the world, knowing that every day that he evaded capture he caused countless people to live in fear, changing their daily routines, the places they went, and even their hairstyles. 

And then comes the “I saw the light” time. Never mind the blatant contradiction that arises when a serial killer admits guilt but chalks his actions up to not being “saved.” Pretty easy to shrug off responsibility, or at the very least soften the culpability of having committed heinous crimes, by attributing your actions to an ignorance of a better way of life. “If I had only known about Jesus, I wouldn’t have killed anyone.” But as Season Two of Mindhunter exposes, it’s all bullshit. 

In the show’s second episode, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) pay a visit to David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper) to help get a handle on BTK, the Kansas-based serial killer who had already claimed seven victims, and who had been taunting the press and police in a series of letters similar to Berkowitz’s own. 

Initially, Berkowitz spins the familiar and often parodied tale which lead to his moniker: that he committed the murders at the behest of a demon inhabiting his neighbor Sam’s dog (the titular “Son”). To the press and the public seeking answers for the unspeakable crimes, it was an unbelievable but irresistible story, one that seemed to point to his mental instability. That is until Berkowitz finally admits it was all a lie.

Like Zodiac before him, the Son of Sam was able to hold an entire city captive with his anonymity. His letters were filled with bravado and taunting malice. He held all the chips, he had the power. But once he was caught, the tables turned and his mythos began to deflate. There was a name, a face, and a familiar motive: an angry young man kicking back at the society that had rejected him. In a post-Manson world there was only one way to cling to the deluge of media attention that seemed to feed into Berkowitz’s self-esteem: Make it witchy. 

In 1979, as re-enacted in Mindhunter, Berkowitz copped to the false demonic possession story, but in the mid-90s he backtracked and claimed he was in fact part of a Satanic cult. To this day, Berkowitz states he did not commit all of the murders for which he was convicted, and later named two men, the actual sons of his neighbor Sam, as accomplices. The men were both already deceased at the time, and a reinvestigation of the crimes in 1996 ultimately proved inconclusive. 

The Satanic cult theory is both tantalizing and ridiculous, as it taps directly into the vein of Satanic Panic which still quietly pulses in American society. How much easier is it to believe that supernatural forces of darkness are culpable for unspeakable crime than to accept the reality that it was Adam who raised a Cain? Perhaps just as easy as it is to blame video games and films for America’s rampant mass shootings than to actually address gun control. 

Perhaps that’s also, in part, why I had been swayed by Berkowitz’s version of things and bought into the Satanic cult theory for a while. It spiced things up. And then, there was my own personal connection to grapple with. It’s one thing to indulge in true crime podcasts and have an “obsession” with serial killers, soaking in all the salacious details as the guiltiest of pleasures. It’s quite another when your own father decides to strike up a relationship with one.

I was in college when my father first told me he was planning to visit Son of Sam in prison. I was appalled and morbidly curious. Why? Well, because he was a fellow Christian. My father made several trips to see “Brother David” in prison. He wrote to him over the course of two years, using our home address. I half-joked with my dad that if Berkowitz ever got out, I was his victim type and he knew where we lived. 

My father passed away in 2011, and as I went through some of his belongings I came across a handful of letters. There’s nothing salacious in them, no gritty details or insights, just a lot of prayer requests and mundane day-to-day details. One letter mentions Berkowitz is feeling downcast because the New York Post had written lies about him which he lamented had upset the families of his victims. Many hold clippings of bible verses or print-outs from faith-based websites. One mentions me directly by name. The Son of Sam was keeping me in his prayers.  

Berkowitz isn’t the only serial killer who claimed to have found God in prison. After introducing audiences to Charles Manson, Mindhunter pulls in another Family member for a jailhouse interview, Tex Watson. But unlike Manson, Watson had repented of his sins and his crimes and turned to Christianity. His fellow accomplice Susan Atkins also made a jailhouse conversion in 1974 after claiming to have seen a vision of Christ in her jail cell. Neither their religious awakening, nor Berkowitz’s, ever resulted in parole. 

My dad had firmly believed that Berkowitz had changed his life and was a committed born-again Christian. It’s an easier narrative to stomach than the alternative, that a notoriously press-hungry serial killer with low self-esteem would usurp a religion for attention, and that my father had been psychologically duped into sharing details of his life, his family, and his own personal struggles with a manipulative serial killer. But as for me? I’m not as certain.

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