By Mark Ellis —
In the mid-1970s, he murdered six and wounded seven in satanically-inspired attacks with a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver that terrorized New York City. But after his arrest and conviction for his heinous crimes, a fellow inmate witnessed to him and God’s incomprehensible grace smiled on his tortured soul.
Brooklyn-born David Berkowitz was the progeny of an illegitimate affair his mother had with a married real estate agent. A childless, middle-aged couple of modest means, Pearl and David Berkowitz, adopted him and he grew up in the Bronx, New York City’s northern-most borough.
Despite the fact that his parents provided a “loving home,” his early life was filled with torment. “I would often have seizures in which I would roll on the floor. When these attacks came, it felt as if something was entering me,” he wrote on his forgivenforlife.org website. Berkowitz believes he was demonically possessed since childhood.
His mother could not control him. “I was like a wild and destructive animal. My father had to pin me to the floor until these attacks stopped. When I was in public school, I was so violent and disruptive that a teacher, who had become so angry at me, grabbed me in a headlock and threw me out of his classroom,” he recounted.
At the behest of school officials, Berkowitz visited a child psychologist on a weekly basis for two years. Yet the therapy had no discernable impact on his behavior and he began to be plagued with bouts of severe depression.
“When this feeling (of depression) came over me, I would hide under my bed for hours. I would also lock myself in a closet, and sit in total darkness from morning until afternoon. I had a craving for the darkness, and I felt an urge to flee away from people.”
Suicidal impulses caused him to sit on the sixth floor window ledge of their dilapidated apartment building, his feet dangling over the street below. He fought off powerful urges to throw himself in front of moving cars or in front of subway trains.
“I remember that it was a tremendous struggle for me to hold on to my sanity. I had no idea what to do and neither did my parents. They had me talk to a rabbi, teachers and school counselors, but nothing worked,” he noted.
At age 14, his mother died of cancer. He had no siblings and his father worked 10-hour days, six days a week. His mother had been a stabilizing force, but with her gone, his life spiraled even further downward.
When Berkowitz turned 18 he entered the army and managed to complete a three-year enlistment.
Journey into the occult
After he got out of the service in 1974 he began to work as a postal worker, sorting mail. The following year, he met some other young men at a party, who were, he later discovered, heavily involved in the occult.
“I had always been fascinated with witchcraft, Satanism, and occult things since I was a child. When I was growing up I watched countless horror and Satan-type movies. One of which was Rosemary’s Baby. The movie in particular totally captivated my mind.”
Berkowitz initially thought his new friends were only involved in occult activities such as séances and fortune telling. But step-by-step they introduced him to drug use, sadism, and other crimes. Berkowitz says the occult group he became part of was nicknamed the “twenty-two disciples of hell”– allegedly the group had ties across the U.S. in drug smuggling and other illegal activities.
“Everywhere I went there seemed to be a sign or a symbol pointing me to Satan,” he recalled. “I felt as if something were trying to take control of my life. I began to read the Satanic bible by the late Anton LaVey who founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. I began, innocently, to practice various occult rituals and incantations.”
“I was headed down the road to destruction and I did not know it. Maybe I was at a point where I just didn’t care.”
A spirit of murder unleashed
Then he crossed over a line and the horror began. “After years of mental torment, behavioral problems, deep inner struggles, and my own rebellious ways, I became the criminal that, at the time, it seemed is if it was my destiny to become,” he noted on his website.
His first violent attack was committed on Christmas Eve, 1975, when he used a hunting knife to stab two teenage women. One victim was never publicly identified by police. The other, Michelle Forman, had injuries that sent her to the hospital.
Seven months later, the first shooting attributed to Berkowitz took place in the Bronx. Shortly after midnight, on
July 29, 1976, Donna Lauria, 18, and her friend Jody Valenti, 19, sat in Valenti’s car, discussing their visit to a local disco that night.
As Lauria opened the car door to leave she noticed a man rapidly approach her. She said, “Now what is this?” Berkowitz drew a pistol from the paper bag that he carried and crouched down, aimed his weapon with both hands and fired. Lauria was struck by one bullet that killed her instantly. Valenti was shot in the thigh and a third bullet missed both women. Berkowitz turned and raced away, without saying a word.
Berkowitz usually attacked young female victims with long, dark, wavy hair. Several of his crimes involved two victims; some attacks occurred while women sat with boyfriends in parked cars.
He later claimed to have been obeying the orders of a demon, manifested in the form of a dog that belonged to a neighbor named Sam. In a rambling letter to columnist Jimmy Breslin before his capture he signed off as ‘Son of Sam.’ The name caught on in the public imagination, creating hysteria.
The letter to Breslin triggered a panic in New York, with thousands of women cutting or dying their long, dark, wavy hair, and beauty supply stores had trouble meeting the demand for wigs, according to Wikipedia.
Captured by police
Ironically, a parking ticket led to the capture of Berkowitz on August 10, 1977. It seems he had parked illegally in front of a fire hydrant. A young woman noticed a policeman ticket the car, then watched Berkowitz return a few minutes later. When she noticed him study her with interest and pull out an object that might be a gun, she turned and ran. Several shots were fired, but she was not hit. Four days later she reported the incident to police, who tracked down Berkowitz’s yellow Ford Galaxie and arrested him in his car, with his .44 revolver on the seat next to him.
The next day he confessed to the shootings and said he would plead guilty to his crimes.
During his questioning, Berkowitz said his neighbor’s dog was one of the reasons that he killed, stating that the dog demanded the blood of pretty young girls. He said that the “Sam” mentioned in his letter was his former neighbor Sam Carr.
Berkowitz claimed that Carr’s black Labrador retriever Harvey was possessed by an ancient demon that issued
commands that he kill people. Berkowitz said that he once tried to kill the dog, but was unsuccessful due to demonic interference.
In 1978 Berkowitz was sentenced to 300 years in prison, with no possibility of parole. Initially he served his time at the notorious Attica Prison, a supermax facility.
Berkowitz described his first 10 years at Attica as a nightmare. A fellow inmate attacked him with a knife in 1979. He narrowly survived the wound to his neck, which required 56 stitches. Later, he suggested the attack was ordered by other members of his satanic cult to silence him.
A divine appointment
One day a young Christian man named Rick approached Berkowitz in the prison yard, according to an interview
“I know you’re David Berkowitz, and I want to tell you something,” Rick began. “I want you to know that Jesus Christ loves you, and he’s got a plan and a purpose for your life.
Berkowitz recoiled instinctively. “Listen, I don’t want to hear that, because, you know, I’ve done too many evil things and there’s no forgiveness for me,” he replied. “Maybe there’s a God out there someplace, but I don’t think he has any interest in me at all.
“No, you’re wrong. David, God has sent me here to this prison just to tell you that he loves you, and he can forgive you.”
A few weeks after they met, Rick handed the notorious killer a pocket Gideon’s Bible he received from the prison chapel.
“Dave, why don’t you take this Bible and start reading it. I know you are Jewish, so maybe you should start reading in the Psalms because the Psalms are here,” Rick said.
“Yeah, the Psalms, I heard about them…let me just check it out, because always, I love to read,” Berkowitz replied.
As Berkowitz began to read the Scripture, the power of the living Word and God’s infinite grace began to work on the serial killer’s heart. “I began to read, in my cell at night and I started to read the Psalms and something began to happen,” he told CBN. “My heart started to get soft. I started to change. I was like hard, behind the bars the whole macho, the whole nine yards. I had my little knife and I was in and out of trouble. And now suddenly I am reading theses Scriptures from the Psalms, and I would find myself starting to cry sometimes.”
Man, what’s going on? he wondered… My goodness, this is some of the most beautiful stuff I have ever read.
“I know I didn’t understand what was happening to me, the Lord was beginning to speak to my heart. And the Holy Spirit was moving through me and this went on for several weeks and as my friend would walk the yard he would read the Bible to me and portions of the Scripture,” he told CBN.
One night the Spirit of the Living God fell on his heart. It was close to midnight. Berkowitz had turned on a small lamp near his bunk and started to read Psalm 34. “I got to the part where it says, ‘This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.’ And I read that again … ‘this poor man cried and the Lord heard him and saved him out of his troubles.’”
Then he read verse eight and something amazing happened: “Oh taste and see the Lord is good. Blessed is the man that trusts in him.”
“Right there something happened inside of me,” Berkowitz recalled. “I began to cry and I shut my light off so know one could see me, and then I just felt this urge to get down on my knees.”
“I just began to cry my heart out to the Lord. I didn’t even know what to say or if God was really listening or even hearing what I had to say. You know, because I had so much guilt because I had been such a wicked and vile person.”
On his knees, next to his prison bunk, he prayed a prayer of repentance to the Lord: “Lord, I am so sorry for the life I have lived. Lord I can’t live like this anymore, I am so frustrated I ruined everything. I ruined my life. I ruined other lives. God have mercy on my life. Lord, if you want to hear me please listen to what I have to say.”
He poured his heart out that night to God for 20 or 30 minutes, and when he got up something had changed. “I felt different when I got up off my knees I just felt different. I felt a sense I relief, a sense of peace, and even I didn’t understand it, but I knew somehow God had heard me, something was going to be different.”
Berkowitz went to sleep that night and “slept like a baby.”
When he saw his friend Rick in the prison yard the next day, Berkowitz’s face was beaming. “Rick, guess what I did the other night?” he exclaimed.
“What did you do?”
“I prayed and I asked Jesus to come in my life and to come into my heart.”
“What?” Rick said, incredulous.
“I asked Jesus to forgive me.”
“Wow, that’s great, praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” Rick began to shout, praising God for his amazing grace, and other inmates began to gather around.
“Stop, stop, don’t embarrass me,” Berkowitz said.
“No, you don’t understand, that means you have been born again, you’re saved now!”
“What? What do you mean born again?”
“This is what I have been trying to tell you,” Rick said. “When you invite Jesus into your life, he forgives you of all your sins and he makes you a new person. The Holy Spirit is in you now!”
Unexpectedly, a whole new life opened for Berkowitz. “I suddenly began to get a thirst to read the Bible. I said, ‘Man, I can’t put this down.’ I started to read about king David, you know, and I didn’t know all theses things like he had committed murder, and adultery and all these things. And I read about the struggles that he had in life, and how he cried out to the Lord. And I said that like me, king David knew a lot about pain, you know, and that was the story of my life — a whole lot of pain and failure, and misery.”
Berkowitz acknowledges there are some who may doubt his conversion. “I know what Jesus Christ has done in my life. And I can understand that people in prison, out of prison, can be skeptical,” he told CBN.
“But I have put my faith in Jesus Christ. He has done so much for me. I believe in him, and no matter what people say, I’m going to continue to serve him. I serve the Lord, ministering to the men in here, doing Bible studies with the guys, I go into the chapel, I’m a chaplain’s clerk now, and I preach the gospel even overseas through correspondents and testimony tracks, and so forth.
“I know I’m living for Jesus, and no matter what man may say, I belong to him. I’ve been purchased by Jesus Christ with his blood.”
Just as Saul of Tarsus received a new name after his dramatic conversion, Berkowitz believes God has given him a new identity in Christ.
“Now the Lord calls me the ‘Son of Hope,’” he says.
His favorite verse is from the Book of Ezekiel: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh, and I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes. And ye shall keep my judgments and do them, and ye shall dwell in the land that I give your fathers, and ye shall be my people, and I shall be your God.”
“I know what God has done for me. That he has reached into my life, and he’s taken out that rotten heart of a murderer, of a devil worshiper, a heart that was no good. It was like a stone! I was like an animal! I was like a rock! And he’s taken that thing out and put in a new heart and a new spirit within me, that I can praise the name of Jesus today, and I thank God for that.”
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