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On August 10, 1977, after the largest manhunt in New York City history, New York City police captured the infamous serial killer known as "Son of Sam," who for more than a year had terrorized both their city and the nation. Referring to himself as the "Duke of Death" and the "Wicked King Wicker," he had set more than 2,000 fires, shot and killed six people, wounded seven more, and left bizarre, hand-scrawled notes with messages like, "POLICE: LET ME HAUNT YOU WITH THESE WORDS: I'LL BE BACK! I'LL BE BACK! TO BE INTERPRETED AS BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG—UGH!!"
As the suspect was being removed from his car, one of the officers asked him, "Are you glad this is over?"
"Yeah," he said, "I'm very glad." The arresting officers were taken aback. The Son of Sam had said he wanted to bring New York City to its knees—and in many ways he had. Now he appeared relieved to have been stopped.
A Troubled Youth
He was relieved. He was a terribly tormented man whose life had spun desperately out of control.
Born in Brooklyn on June 1, 1953, David Berkowitz had been adopted at birth by Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz of the Bronx. They were devoted parents, but from childhood David was plagued with mysterious emotional problems, anger, and severe bouts of depression. He would hide under his bed for hours, lock himself in a closet, or sit on the window ledge of their sixth-floor apartment, legs dangling, flirting with suicide.
When he was 14, his mother died, and things deteriorated. He got into fights or cut school to wander the streets. He joined the army after high-school graduation, hoping for a fresh start, but there too, he had difficulty coping. He returned to the Bronx when his three years were up, hoping to find a girlfriend, maybe get married, have a family, and eke out a decent civilian life.
From Troubled to Deranged
Then the real trouble started. "You're looking for a girl, looking for a good time?" a couple of guys asked him one day. "We've got some friends that meet in a park."
Most of his high-school crowd had moved on, and his father had remarried and moved to Florida. What else did he have to do? David followed them deep into the woods of a park, where a group of people had a fire going. There was some drinking, some singing, some chanting.
"What is this?" he asked.
"We're pagans," someone said. "And witches. We come out here to have a good time." Alone, troubled, and aimless, David started hanging out with them. They had circles and pentagrams. They would engage in rituals, meditate, and call on supernatural powers. He began reading the "Satanic bible," the 1969 work of Anton LeVey, founder of the "Church of Satan" in San Francisco. Someone had said it would give him power and control over his life. He'd always wanted that.
As he continued to read and take part in the rituals, things began to change within him. David began to believe he was some kind of soldier in the satanic army. While Satan's job was to destroy, the ultimate aim, according to this twisted new outlook, was to bring about God's kingdom of peace. David had always wanted something to commit his life to, and he surrendered himself to this power that he thought was going to give him a mission in life.
From Despair to Hope
For more than a year, he did wield a certain power to steal, kill, and destroy, but the promise of a good outcome turned out to be hollow. Instead of a mission in life, he found himself looking at life in prison, where he had virtually no control over anything. For the next ten years, he went about prison life as despondent as ever.
Then, one night in 1987—it was winter, cold—he was pacing the yard when another inmate approached him. "You're David Berkowitz, right?"
"Yeah, what of it?"
"Jesus Christ loves you very much," the stranger said.
"Listen, God ain't interested in me. I appreciate it, but God is not for me." David knew he wasn't a good person. He knew what he'd done.
But the interloper wasn't put off quite so easily. "Well, you don't understand. God loves you, and if you'd let me, I'd like to be your friend."
His name was Rick, and the two of them began to walk the yard together. A few weeks later, Rick handed him a pocket Bible. "Read the Psalms," he suggested.
What did he have to lose? He started reading the Psalms . . . and was shocked and amazed to find some of the most beautiful words he'd ever read.
One night, alone in his cell, he read these: "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles." At these words, something broke. David had been troubled and in trouble all his life.
God, he prayed, I can't take this anymore . . . if you're out there, if you want anything to do with me . . . I'm sick of having to live with knowing that I've hurt innocent people, knowing that I destroyed lives. I'm sick of the devil. I'm sick of being lied to . . .
And in the quietness, he poured out his burdens, needs, and tears until he was utterly spent. When he finally got up off his knees, he felt that a tremendous burden had been lifted. He didn't understand what was happening, but he knew his life was somehow going to be different from then on. That night, he slept like a baby.
He continued reading the Bible Rick had given him and found there hope and encouragement that lifted him out of the despair he could never shake before. Through the prison Bible studies and chapel services—he attended every one he could get to—he met other inmates with dark pasts, yet also, like him, with newfound faith. For the first time in his life, he began to know hope.
Not Just Another Jailhouse Conversion
Jailhouse conversion stories are often suspect, but the 24 ensuing years have demonstrated that something is radically different about David Berkowitz. Rebekah Binger, who interviewed him in 2009 for the Pace Law Review, commented that "he more resembled a retired police officer than a former serial killer."
His name made national news again in August 2011, when he announced that he will not seek parole when his next opportunity comes, in May 2012. Responding to an inquiry from Fox News reporter Joshua Rhett Miller, Berkowitz wrote, "I have no interest in parole. . . . I am already a 'free man.' I am not saying this jokingly. I really am. . . . While society will never forgive me, God has. I am forever grateful for such forgiveness."
Besides, he has a mission right where he is. "Right now my life is filled with deep inner peace and with joy in the Lord. I am, by the grace of God, doing and accomplishing many positive things," he wrote in a letter to Salvo. David is the inmate pastor and worship leader for the prison church of about 50, where "broken hearts are being mended . . . tormented minds are receiving deliverance . . . [and] damaged and bruised souls are getting healed." He works as a Mobility Guide for sight-impaired inmates and a Program Aide for inmates with mental health impairments. Binger called him "a sort of prison trustee." Some of the younger inmates call him "Grandpa Dave."
He writes voluminously on his treasured electric typewriter, mostly letters and journal entries, which are periodically uploaded by friends to his website, www.ariseandshine.org, and he shares his story with young people in churches and juvenile detention facilities through films and his writings.
He doesn't write about his crimes, though, and says he probably never will. Those are still too painful. "I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart over the lives that were destroyed through my own foolishness." Their families figure into his decision-making concerning parole, too. "I never want to do anything to add to their pain."
But he will talk about his descent into the twisted web of satanic thought, especially for the benefit of other young people, who might learn from his missteps. Though bar mitzvah'd as a youth, David says he had no real fear of or respect for God. "I just did whatever I felt like doing, whatever felt good." He preferred darkness, witchcraft, and occult things. "I watched countless horror and satanic movies," particularly Rosemary's Baby, which "totally captivated my mind."
I realize [now] that I had been slowly deceived. I did not know that bad things were going to result from all this. Yet over the months the things that were wicked no longer seemed to be such. I was headed down the road to destruction and I did not know it.
His personal message to young people is, "Your life and your soul is precious, more precious than you realize. Cherish your life, and look to God for your help. In addition, remember that the choices you make today may determine how you will be living your life in the future."
Though he's been incarcerated for 34 years, David says he "no longer sees the prison bars. My eyes are focused beyond that to see Jesus who is the author and finisher of my faith. My freedom is found in one word: Jesus." •
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