A gun-toting killer known as Son Of Sam had killed six and wounded seven more — mostly young women — across New York City in the summer of 1977.
Like other fathers in the city at the time, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown — then a state court judge in Brooklyn — was in a constant state of anxiety about a killer on the loose. Brown had good reason — two teenage daughters, Lynn and Karen.
“We lived in Forest Hills,” said Brown, the top prosecutor in Queens for the past quarter century. “Two of the homicides occurred near the Forest Hills Inn, which was about six or seven blocks away from my home.”
Forty years later, Brown still recalls how bustling city night life came to a standstill that summer as people avoided discos and lovers’ lanes.
Women wore their hair up or colored it a lighter shade since the killer targeted those with long, dark tresses. Ascan and Continental avenues, Queens thoroughfares once thriving at night, were empty, he said.
“Any parent who had teenage daughters at that point was scared silly and kept them in their homes,” he said.
As if chasing down an elusive killer wasn’t enough of a challenge for law enforcement, a mid-July power blackout cast the city into darkness. Before the electricity came back on 26 hours later, a thousand fires burned, police had made 3,400 arrests, and numerous businesses — mostly in Brooklyn and the Bronx — had been looted.
By that August, Brown said, he and his family needed a break. To get away from the stress weighing the city down, Brown drove his family north to his summer home at Candlewood Lake in Connecticut.
It was a short-lived trip.
On the radio, Brown heard that cops had arrested a suspect in the Son of Sam slayings and Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold was handling the case. Since Brown was the supervising criminal court judge for the borough, he knew the case was going to fall into his lap.
“I got up to the home in Connecticut and turned around and came back down,” Brown said. Once back in the city, Brown’s hunch was proved correct. He had been picked to handle the arraignment of David Berkowitz, the boyish 24-year-old postal worker cops arrested outside his Yonkers apartment.
NYPD detectives had traced him through a parking ticket left on his car near the spot in Brooklyn where on July 31 he shot his last victims: Stacy Moskowitz, who died, and her boyfriend, Robert Violante, who survived.
Berkowitz would soon confess to the killings, telling investigators a black Labrador retriever owned by a former neighbor, Sam Carr, commanded him to kill, cementing his dubious status among the city’s storied list of criminals.
The arrest of Berkowitz capped months of frustrating investigations by an NYPD task force led by deputy chief Timothy Dowd. Mayor Abe Beame, Police Commissioner Michael Codd and Chief of Detectives John Keenan spared nothing in the hunt for the gunman, dubbed the “.44-caliber killer,” giving Dowd anything he needed for the newly formed Omega Task Force.
Today, Brown, 84, who is battling Parkinson’s disease, is the only high-ranking law enforcement official who played a role in the Son of Sam case who is still on the job. Everyone else either died or retired decades ago.
On the 40th anniversary of the “Summer of Sam,” details of what happened when Berkowitz was brought to court for the first time remain etched in Brown’s memory.
“We used the biggest courtroom we ever had in Brooklyn,” recalled Brown. Still, the place was packed, filled with families of the victims, reporters and police officials. When Berkowitz first entered the courtroom, you could hear the proverbial pin drop, Brown said.
“I expected somebody of some presence, capable of committing the violence,” Brown said. “What I saw was to the contrary, a pudgy-faced young man, a little overweight.”
The only thing Berkowitz said at his arraignment was “Yes, sir” when Brown asked him if he was indeed David Berkowitz. What Brown also remembered was the emotional outbursts of Neysa Moskowitz, the mother of 17-year-old Stacy, the last person killed by Berkowitz.
“Her wailing and grief, she was screaming constantly, so much so they had to either take her out or insist she be quiet,” Brown said.
After the arraignment, questions surfaced about who would represent Berkowitz and which district attorney — he had killed or wounded people in three boroughs — would have priority in prosecuting him. Ultimately, district attorneys for Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx coordinated their efforts and Berkowitz plead guilty to six slayings. He was sentenced to six life terms. Now 64 years old, Berkowitz is serving his time at Shawangunk Correctional Facility. He is eligible for parole next year.
Beame, Codd, Dowd and other high police officials involved in the hunt for the Son of Sam killer all died years ago. Keenan, now 97 and living in Rockville Centre, remembered being on the scene when Berkowitz was arrested.
“ ‘I know who you are. You are Det. Keenan,’ ” the former chief of detectives recalled Berkowitz telling him when they met.
“Who are you?,” Keenan said he asked Berkowitz.
“I am the Son of Sam,” was Berkowitz’s reply, Keenan said.
The night after Berkowitz was arraigned, Brown remembered going back home and discovering the fear that gripped the city throughout the summer of ’77 had quickly vanished.
“The streets were teeming with people,” remembered Brown, who went out and saw for himself on Ascan and Continental avenues the impact of Berkowitz’s capture. “Everybody was back on the street.”