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

NEW YORK — 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 late-night 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.

“You wouldn’t let your kids go out,” Rivera recalled. “It was the kind of crime spree that was so irrational. His victims were people that everyone could relate to and everyone was subsequently fearful that they could be next.”

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, New York, 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. Interviews with the thick-accented residents recall a “New Yawk” middle class that has shrunk considerably in 40 years.

“The New Yorkers themselves became an important voice in this — the frustration, the fear they felt and the elation when it was solved,” he said.

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