The Summer of Sam

It started in the summer of 1976 and ended one year later in August of 78. In between were eight shootings resulting in the deaths of six innocent people and the wounding of seven more. It was a killing spree, and the fear it generated could be felt on every street in the city. It was random and bloody, the weapon used a 44 caliber Bulldog revolver.

The victims were men and women; the women all had long dark hair. Before the nightmare was over hundreds of scared young women had cut their hair short and dyed it a different color; beauty shops ran out of supplies trying to keep up with the demand to look different than the victims did.

When the killer wrote a letter to the columnist Jimmy Breslin that was printed in the next days New York Daily News, the paper had the largest circulation of any issue ever before or since, over 1.5 million copies were printed and sold.

It prompted the biggest manhunt in the history of New York City; roadblocks were set up to search cars at the entrances and exits of the tunnels and bridges that connected the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens where all the shootings occurred.

And it made all of us scared to walk the streets.

It actually started in July of 1976 when on the 29th, two young women sitting in a car in the Bronx were shot at by an unseen assailant, bullets piercing the car windows and killing Donna Launa and wounding Judy Valenti.

Three months later on October 23rd another couple, Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan were attacked sitting in a car in Queens. Both survived.

A month later on November 27th Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino were walking in Flushing Queens when they were both shot by a man who had stopped them to ask for directions.

At this point, the Authorities and the public had not put it together that these were the work of the same person. New York was a big city with an abundance of crime in the 70’s so the shootings went down as just another day in the Big Apple.  The year ended, and a new one began and on January 30th two more people were shot sitting in a car in Queens; Christine Freund died, her companion John Diel survived.

And then the New York Police Department acknowledged that there were similarities in the four shootings. And the panic began. What was before considered random unrelated crimes, now became the work of a serial killer.

I was seeing Jane at the time and she lived on Charles Street and we were always out at night, not doing anything particularly exciting but just enjoying life in the Village. We would walk every night to the newsstand on Sixth Avenue to get the early edition of the next days Daily News and the story of the Bulldog Killer captured our attention as it did everyone else we knew. But when the Authorities identified these killings as related and warned people to not linger in cars, to stay in crowds, it became personal.

All of the friends in our group that lived in the Village came up with the plan to accompany each other when any one of us needed to go out in the city. After all, none of the killings had happened to a group of people, just couples whether they be two women or a man and a woman. So we figured the more the safer. And we were probably right.

March 8th, 1977, Alexander Esau and Valentina Suiani were sitting in a car in the Bronx when bullets pierced the side windows, killing them both. At the scene, a letter was discovered, allegedly written by the perpetrator, and giving himself the name Son of Sam.

The media had a field day. We grew more frightened.

Our friends tried to keep up our mission to always be there for each other anytime we had to go out, but of course, as you can guess, it became less feasible as time went on.

On May 30th the letter the killer wrote to Jimmy Breslin was published. The fear reached a fevered pitch; this maniac was talking about being Beelzebub and lusting after more and more blood. We had stepped into the realm of Jack the Ripper and probably were feeling some of the same apprehension those people felt in Whitechapel, London over a hundred years before.

And so as fate would have it, one night Jane and I were walking near Lafayette and we found ourselves the only people on a dark street. We weren’t even thinking about the crimes until we heard footsteps behind us that seemed to come out of nowhere. We walked quicker, the footsteps quickened. We turned a corner; so did the footsteps. Now we were thinking about the crimes big time. I remember thinking two things: One – if you were going to die, it was good to die with someone you loved and at the time I loved Jane more than life itself. Two- if you think you are going to die, shit – give it a go and fight back – so what if you lose the fight and die – you were going to anyway right? I whispered something to Jane, and squeezed her hand, maybe for the last time I thought – she looked at me questioningly – are you sure? Her eyes asked. Without thinking anymore because I knew to do nothing was the worst of all options, I spun around to meet the footsteps and hoped I would at least have a chance to defend us – how I was going to do that against bullets I hadn’t figured out yet but what the heck.

It turned out I didn’t need to figure that one out. I recognized the person making the footsteps; one of my oldest friends from school – Angelo! What the hell??!! Why were you following us?! Where have you been?! The feeling of relief was monumental; we at least for tonight weren’t going to get shot. I suddenly thought I should be really pissed off at him for following us like he did but when he explained that when he saw us walking together alone,  he made the decision to walk behind us to make sure nothing happened to us, well I just couldn’t be mad, could I? Mad?! Heck, I wanted to kiss him!

Lots of hugs, laughs, and thanks went on for a while. The three of us, not the two of us walked back to Jane’s apartment building. We made sure she got home safely, then we walked each other to the Avenue, and parted ways figuring no guy walking alone had been attacked.  

It wasn’t over for the city, however.

On June 26th Sal Lupo and Judy Placido were shot while sitting in a car in Queens; both survived.

On July 31st, Stacey Moskowitz and Robert Violante were shot in a car in Brooklyn. Stacey died.

But this last time, there were eyewitnesses; a lot of them. And soon it would be over.

It would be a parking ticket and some good old-fashioned police work, that finally led to the arrest of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam. He is currently serving six consecutive life sentences in a maximum security prison in upstate New York.

Fun times right? Growing up in New York in the Seventies?

No, not really. Scary times; times of dread and loss.

That being said, I wouldn’t trade that time in my life for anything before or since.

If that doesn’t make sense, that’s ok – you had to be there.

 

Rob.

 

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