Por­trait of a city

‘Son of Sam’ film brings to life New York 40 years ago

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY DAVID BAUDER

Ger­aldo Rivera dates the low point in mod­ern New York City his­tory to Aug. 9, 1977.

That was the day be­fore po­lice ar­rested David Berkowitz, the se­rial killer who called him­self “Son of Sam.’’ He ter­ror­ized the city for a year with latenight shoot­ings, killing six and wound­ing seven, and pri­mar­ily tar­geted young women sit­ting in cars.

The time is vividly brought to life in the Smith­so­nian Chan­nel doc­u­men­tary, “The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam,’’ pre­mier­ing Sun­day at 9 p.m. EDT. The In­ves­ti­ga­tion Dis­cov­ery net­work is air­ing its own ret­ro­spec­tive on the crime spree that airs Aug. 5.

Pro­ducer Tom Jen­nings has made sim­i­larly styled doc­u­men­taries on Pearl Har­bor, the as­sas­si­na­tions of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the 1994 Los An­ge­les po­lice ri­ots. The idea is to trace the story through news re­ports shown at the time, trad­ing in ret­ro­spec­tive for a “you are there’’ feel.

Since po­lice were largely flum­moxed un­til the end, news pro­duc­ers sent crews out on the streets to in­ter­view New York­ers about how they were cop­ing. As such, “The Lost Tapes’’ of­fers a rich por­trait of what the city was like that sum­mer 40 years ago. It isn’t pretty. The city was grubby, crime-rid­den and scared, in the midst of a hot and sticky stretch that in­cluded a black­out-in­duced night of law­less­ness.

“1977 was an aw­ful, aw­ful year in New York City,’’ said Rivera, who ap­pears as a studly ABC News re­porter in the doc­u­men­tary, painted into a pair of jeans. “It was a year of the black­out, it was a year the city seemed to­tally dys­func­tional, com­ing apart at the seams.’’

Fanned by news re­ports, and Berkowitz’s own odd­ball let­ters sent to news­pa­per colum­nist Jimmy Bres­lin, the “Sam’’ saga whipped up fear among young peo­ple at a usu­ally care­free stage in their lives. Many turned down dates or par­ties to stay home. Since the killer ap­peared to favour women with long, dark hair, women across the city cut or died their hair.

Berkowitz, he said, was the Joker in Gotham City.

The New York City Po­lice Depart­ment formed a 200-per­son task force to solve the crime. It was deeply per­sonal for po­lice, said Bill Clark, a for­mer city homi­cide de­tec­tive who was on the task force. De­tec­tive work was dif­fi­cult be­cause the crimes seemed ran­dom, with few build­ing blocks of com­mon­al­ity. Many un­der­cover of­fi­cers worked all night on the streets, hop­ing to catch the shooter in the act.

“The city be­came a vic­tim and the po­lice be­came a vic­tim,’’ Clark said. “We’d go home and our wives and neigh­bours would say, ‘you’re de­tec­tives, why didn’t you catch the guy?’ How do you tie peo­ple to­gether to a crime when there’s no tie?’’

Even­tu­ally, mun­dane po­lice work cracked the case. When a wit­ness re­ported a strange man on the street near the fi­nal shoot­ing, po­lice checked traf­fic tick­ets that had been is­sued in the area and traced them to Berkowitz’s car and Yonkers, N.Y., home. Af­ter his ar­rest, there were more news­pa­pers sold in the city than there had been af­ter Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion, said Lawrence Klaus­ner, au­thor of “Son of Sam.’’

Berkowitz re­mains in an up­state New York prison, re­port­edly a born-again Chris­tian.

Pro­ducer Jen­nings said the story crafted through the news re­ports takes view­ers back into time bet­ter than any of the other doc­u­men­taries he’s done.


In this Au­gust 1977 file photo, se­rial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, ar­rives at Brook­lyn Court­house in New York. A new doc­u­men­tary on the Smith­so­nian Chan­nel paints a por­trait of the fear­ful, dys­func­tional New York City be­fore Berkowitz was cap­tured.

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