Springs group draws fire for selling ‘Son of Sam’ interview
This being the modern age, even a convicted serial killer can have his own Web page.
Take David Berkowitz – better known as “Son of Sam.” A prison-cell convert to Christianity, Berkowitz has a Web presence sponsored by the House Upon the Rock Christian Church in San Diego.
And from Berkowitz’s Web page, “Forgiven for Life,” it’s just a one-click jump to a Focus on the Family Web page offering cassettes or CDs of “David Berkowitz: Son of Hope,” a March interview featured on the Colorado Springs-based Christian ministry’s radio program with the man who terrorized New York 27 years ago at the point of a .44-caliber handgun.
Providing a forum for Berkowitz’s musings on his spiritual journey may suggest an unlikely alliance for the evangelistic ministry of Dr. James Dobson, who boasts a regular radio audience of about 21 million people.
But Scott Welch, an associate producer for Focus on the Family’s radio broadcasts – carried on 2,000 stations in North America and also distributed internationally – believes in both Berkowitz and his message of redemption. It’s a viewpoint that is not shared by victims’ families or their advocates.
“It is a fascinating story about a man’s life that has been changed,” Welch said. “He had a message for youth, and he had a message for families.
“We wanted to relay a message of hope to our listeners, that God can change anyone’s life. And, in our case, we believe that’s exactly what’s happened” for Berkowitz.
But this is not a money-making proposition.
“We’re not charging anything, so it’s actually not a purchase,” Welch said. “We’ll send it to people whether they send us a donation or not.”
Summer of Sam
Although many serial killers have been more prolific, few have caused a greater sensation than Berkowitz, who killed six and wounded seven more in New York City starting in the summer of 1976.
Berkowitz launched his campaign of deadly mayhem with his first shooting July 29, but police didn’t perceive a pattern to his crimes until his fourth attack in January 1977, when they labeled him the “.44-caliber killer.”
Primarily targeting couples in parked cars, Berkowitz left behind a note at the scene of his sixth shooting that read “I am a monster. I am the Son of Sam.”
Upon his arrest a year after the spree had begun, Berkowitz told a story of having been commanded to carry out his crimes by the voice of a Labrador retriever owned by his Yonkers neighbor, Sam Carr.
Berkowitz, a former postal employee, ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six consecutive 25-year-to-life sentences. He is confined to the maximum security Sullivan Correctional Facility near Fallsburg, N.Y.
Berkowitz, now 51, was again denied parole this month by New York officials who, under state law, must automatically grant him consideration every two years.
But his recent parole hearing lasted all of 10 minutes – in part, because Berkowitz is not seeking freedom.
In 2002, the previous time he came up for consideration, Berkowitz wrote to New York Gov. George Pataki, stating he had “no interest” in gaining release, and said, “I can give you no good reason why I should even be considered for parole.”
Because of his faith in Jesus Christ, his letter read, “I am trying my best to make amends to society in any way that I can. And I am thankful for whatever opportunity which may come my way to do this.”
Such contrition rings hollow with family members of his victims.
Michael Lauria, whose 18-year-old daughter Donna Lauria was Berko-witz’s first victim, expressed particular outrage that Berkowitz is permitted to hold forth on spiritual matters regularly on his Web site, with the help of the San Diego church.
“Forgiven for Life”? Lauria hasn’t forgiven Berkowitz for one second.
“The man went away for a crime. To me, I feel he is not entitled to anything,” said Lauria, a 72-year-old Bronx resident.
“He gets visited by his sister. I go to a cemetery to visit my daughter. I’ll never walk my daughter down the aisle. I’ll never have grandchildren by my daughter.”
And Lauria doesn’t buy Berko-witz’s contention that he has no ambitions for eventual release.
“That’s B.S.,” said Lauria. “If that’s what he told Pataki, Pataki should say, ‘Fine, then you don’t come up (for consideration) no more.’ “
Officials at House Upon the Rock Christian Church declined comment.
On the Berkowitz site, the church posts this message, in bold-faced type: “We do NOT solicit or accept any money, donations, sympathy or help of any kind for ourselves, or for David Berkowitz. Please do NOT send anything of value to us at all.”
Nancy Ruhe, executive director for the Cincinnati, Ohio-based Parents of Murdered Children, is incensed over the Berkowitz Web site, and Focus on the Family’s offering the convicted killer a public platform.
‘They’re all religious’
“Tell me what murderer doesn’t find religion, when the bars close behind them,” she said. “They’re all religious.
“This Web site, this only further revictimizes the families. They’re keeping his name alive. I have tried to check out this church, and never got a response. We have protested that site. It’s just outrageous.”
Ruhe said those in her group’s 250,000-strong membership find that their grief is enduring, while the names of those they’ve lost fade too quickly from the public’s consciousness.
“When are people going to remember their victims? The murderers become infamous. Kids look up to mass murders. There’s trading cards. But their loved one is forgotten. These people are kept in the limelight and their child isn’t alive, with a chance to do anything to capture anyone’s attention. And society doesn’t care.”
Welch, at Focus on the Family, said he understands the disbelief with which anyone might approach the Berkowitz story.
“In our case, we went into the whole project with a healthy skepticism,” he said, of the Berkowitz interview.
“We talked to a lot of people, before we spoke with David, and the answer kept coming back: ‘You have to see it for yourself, and you have to understand, that this is not the same man who was in the media 25 years ago.’ “
Welch points out that Berkowitz dates his awakening as a born-again Christian as far back as 1987.
“Focus on the Family has not broken a news story here,” he said. “This goes back to the late 1980s, and David has been walking out this change in his life since that point in time. We’re not uncovering something that just happened yesterday.”
“Thousands” of requests have been received for the Focus interview, Welch said. And the project has led him to consider the man who once terrorized the nation’s biggest city a personal friend.
“I was there when we interviewed him,” Welch said. “To me, he’s like a brother. Personally, I have been corresponding with David for over two years now. We have also talked over the phone, and I met him. He’s a gentle, humble, kind and loving person who is not out for personal gain at all.”
Everyone, however, has their own measuring sticks for personal gain – and for their loss.
“Every time these murderers do something like this,” Ruhe said, “it takes these families 25 steps backward.”