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How the Son of Sam Serial Killer Was Finally Caught

3 minute read

Despite a high-profile investigation and a series of taunting letters sent by the killer, it took months before New York police nabbed the serial killer who went by Son of Sam on Aug. 10, 1977. It turns out they caught David Berkowitz right in the nick of time. As TIME reported, he later told investigators that he’d been planning to head to a Hamptons nightclub with a semiautomatic rifle and “go down in a blaze of glory.”

One reason the Son of Sam proved so elusive is that many traditional ways of tracking down a killer had backfired. For example, the police sketches were based on unreliable witness testimony, which meant the public was on alert for someone who didn’t resemble the killer. Nor was there a discernible pattern in the seemingly random murders.

What made the difference in the end was Berkowitz’s compulsion to harass his neighbors with anonymous notes, one of whom claimed his dog had been shot with the same kind of gun used by the serial killer. When another neighbor returned home to find a fire near his apartment, he alerted the police, who realized that this was a pattern in Berkowitz’s behavior. They figured out his car make and license number, and began to look at him as a potential suspect in the case:

[The] tip that broke the case … came from Cacilia Davis, 49, a terrified woman who told a belated story to New York police. Davis, who lives near the Gravesend Bay site where Stacy Moskowitz was killed, said she was walking her dog Snowball near her apartment at 2:30 a.m. on the night of the murder. A young man “who walked strange, like a cat” approached her on the sidewalk, looked directly into her face, then passed. She said he held his right arm down stiffly, as though he were carrying something partly up his sleeve. Five minutes later she heard shots and the wail of a car horn. Next day, learning of the double shooting, she was certain the passing stranger had been the killer. When detectives questioned her, she recalled another vital detail: she had seen a cop tagging a cream-colored car parked illegally near a fire hydrant one block from the murder site.

Incredibly, Berkowitz, who had so cleverly eluded police for so long, had used his own properly registered 1970 Ford Galaxie sedan as his getaway car for each attack, not bothering even to acquire stolen license plates. When New York police checked parking tickets for the murder night in the Gravesend neighborhood, they found one issued to Berkowitz; it led to his Yonkers address. They wondered: What was a Yonkers resident doing 25 miles away in Brooklyn at 2:30 a.m.?

Detectives staked out the apartment building. When Berkowitz emerged and the cops confronted him, he turned to one inspector and said, “I guess this is the end of the trail.” Berkowitz pled guilty. In 2011, he said that he will no longer seek parole.

Read more from 1977, here in the TIME Vault: Sam Told Me to Do It…Sam Is the Devil”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com