Summer of Sam

IN THE HEAT WAVE OF 1977, DAVID BERKOWITZ CAME TO AMAGANSETT, ARMED AND EAGER TO KILL. WE TALKED TO THOSE WHO REMEMBER THIS EERIE MOMENT FROM THE DAYS OF DISCOTHEQUES, STRING BIKINIS, AND SOCIAL DISORDER.

Forty years ago this summer, two and a half hours west of here, a heat wave brought an already intense summer to a boil. New York City, litter-strewn and struggling, had declared bankruptcy. The blackout of 1977, lasting 25 hours and hitting most of the city, led to looting and torched storefronts. The Yankees were battling their way out of the blighted Bronx to win a championship. It was the summer Star Wars lit up the screen. It was the summer of Sam. 

David Richard Berkowitz, a former soldier working for the U.S. Postal Service, was haunting the city, going on eight separate shooting binges over the span of a year, killing six and injuring seven others, before he was caught on Aug. 10, 1977. Frightening headlines and creepy letters he wrote to The New York Daily News only exacerbated tensions. The New York Times would later refer to it as the summer of paranoia.

But there could have very well been more carnage. People frolicking in the sun on East End beaches were not unaware of what was happening back in the Big Apple. But, as it turned out, their fears could have been realized here on the East End, too.

Following his arrest, Berkowitz claimed he had been obeying orders of a demon, given to him in the form of Harvey, a black Labrador retriever belonging to his neighbor Sam. 

One of Harvey’s orders, Berkowitz said in a sit-down with David Abrahamsen — a psychiatrist who later wrote about his interviews with the serial killer in The Times, and authored a book on the subject — was an instruction to go “to the Hamptons in the first week of August” and “kill many people in Southampton.” 

Armed with a map, Berkowitz drove east from his home in Queens, carrying guns. While he later talked about targeting Southampton, he told Abrahamsen that he made his way to Asparagus Beach in Amagansett — the family destination, home to the Beach Hut snack shop, more formally known today as Atlantic Avenue, and before the 1970s as the Coast Guard Beach.

“I sat on the sand a couple of hours. I had to wait till nightfall. It started to rain,” Berkowitz recounted, “and I had to go then. The operation had to be postponed to the following weekend. Disappointed. Ten o’clock. I was very tired when I came back and had something to eat and went to bed.”

THE EAST HAMPTON POLICE GOT A CALL DIRECTLY FROM THE N.Y.P.D., WARNING THEM THAT THE KILLER COULD BE HEADED TO THE SOUTH FORK, POSSIBLY TO SHOOT UP A NIGHTCLUB. WHILE THE INTEL DID NOT FIT THE KILLER’S MODUS OPERANDI, IT WAS TRUE THAT HE TARGETED YOUNG PEOPLE. “IF I’M GOING TO GO DUCK HUNTING,” DUNN SAID, “I DON’T GO TO A POOL. I’M GOING TO GO TO THE POND.”

The psychiatrist asked him, “You had intended to kill someone and you couldn’t kill because it began to rain?”

The answer: Yes. 

The plan was a deviation from previous attacks, all in the New York City boroughs, where he stalked young couples and women, mainly in cars, shooting them at point-blank range with his .44 Bulldog revolver. The tabloids called him the .44 Caliber Killer at first. Later, after he dropped a note for investigators and took up writing to Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York Daily News columnist, he was dubbed the Son of Sam.

Asparagus Beach was not some obscure, random location. It had earned a reputation by the late 1960s as the “It” spot for young people to gather under the summer sun. “The chief heterosexual singles beach is, by common consent, Asparagus Beach,” The Times reported in 1974. No one knows for sure the origin of the name, but people said that it was called Asparagus Beach because everybody stood up like asparagus stalks, checking one-another out and making chitchat like they were at a wine bar. 

Many were “groupers” who rented share houses and rode in the Long Island Rail Road out on Friday afternoons. According to a feature on the culture of groupers that had appeared in The East Hampton Star a few years earlier, many groupers came from UpIsland or from Queens: Corona, Bayside, Rego Park. . . . “It’s all very superficial,” a doctor lying on a towel told the reporter from The Star. “They talk to you while looking at someone else. They’re swivel-heads.”

Just up Atlantic Avenue and across Montauk Highway, next to the Amagansett Firehouse, stood Martell’s disco. On a Saturday night, it was sweaty and crowded as a subway car. Admission was $3, and guests’ hands were jokingly stamped in ink with the phrase “Grade-A Meat.” 

Denis Dunn, a patrolman who at 26 had been on the beat about five years by that summer, remembers those scorching days; it was just weeks before his first son was born. Working with no solid description of the killer, police departments around the tri-state region were on high alert for anything and anyone that could possibly be connected to the Son of Sam. 

Dunn says that the East Hampton Town Police Department got a call directly from the N.Y.P.D., warning them that the killer could be headed to the South Fork, possibly to shoot up a nightclub. Tom Scott, a detective sergeant at the time, remembers getting an alert over Teletype. 
 

A group of Brooklynites read about the capture of the accused Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, in The Daily News, Aug. 10, 1977. AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis 

While the intel did not fit the killer’s modus operandi, it was true that he had targeted young people before, especially young couples. At the time, it seemed plausible that the killer could be graduating, as Dunn put it. “If I’m going to go duck hunting,” he said in a recent interview, “I don’t go to a pool. I’m going to go to the pond.”  

Then, one Saturday night, a call came from Martell’s that a man had been spotted with a gun in his waistband. “The place was packed,” Dunn said. “The cars were lined up and down Main Street — past the school to where the [Indian Wells] Tavern is now.” 

Dunn, a sergeant, and a third officer responded, emptying the club as they searched for the gunman. As the patrons filed out of the disco, one man walking toward the back caught his attention: He did in fact have a gun tucked into his waistband, but he was no killer. “He was a nobody,” Dunn said. “Maybe he wanted to impress a girl.”

As the .44 Caliber Killer’s body count grew, anxiety mounted all over Long Island and the Connecticut and New Jersey shores. In his letters to Jimmy Breslin, Berkowitz pledged more carnage and seemed to mock investigators, even promising them all new shoes when they finally caught up to him. Breslin himself was said to have moved his daughter out to the safety of East Hampton.

“Everybody was talking about it. It was a wild time. People were really scared, especially girls,” said Wesley Payne, an East Hampton Town police officer who was then working as a part-time seasonal cop.

Reports were that the killer was setting his sites on couples making out in cars, and that he was drawn to women with shoulder-length dark hair. Some young women, hearing this, cut and dyed their locks. This even happened on the South Fork, Payne said. “People were keyed up.” 

Although Mr. Berkowitz’s murder marathon had begun a whole year earlier, in the bicentennial year of 1976, it had taken nearly eight months for connections to be drawn between the crimes. On July 29, 1976, he shot two women sitting in a car in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx, in the early morning hours. Jody Valenti survived her injuries, but Donna Lauria did not. 

A similar shooting of a man and a woman in a car in October 1976 in Flushing, Queens, was not initially linked to the Pelham Bay incident three months earlier. A third shooting followed in November, in which two teenage girls sitting on a porch in Bellerose, Queens, were fired upon but survived. It was not until a couple sitting in a car near the L.I.R.R. station at Forest Hills were shot, leaving one dead, that police publicly said there could be a link.  

On March 8, 1977, Virgina Voskerichian, a Columbia University student, was walking home from class when an armed man confronted her and shot her in the head, killing her. Two days later, the N.Y.P.D. held a press conference: The same .44 Bulldog revolver had been used to kill both Lauria and Voskerichian.

The bloodshed continued, despite the best efforts of the police. A couple were killed on April 17 while sitting in a car in the Bronx, just blocks from the first shooting. The Son of Sam stayed in the headlines as the hunt went on. 

Peter Honerkamp — now the well-known owner of the Stephen Talkhouse nightclub, just up Amagansett’s Main Street from where Martell’s used to be, but then a longhaired, 21-year-old hippie — had just returned to his parents’ home in the Douglaston neighborhood of Queens, after taking a year off from Columbia, as the hysteria was reaching a fever pitch. 

Honerkamp believes he came dangerously close to becoming one of Berkowitz’s victims. 

“I just remember it was hot,” Honerkamp said. “Everyone was glad the Yankees were doing what they were doing, and everyone was scared about this guy when I got back to New York. It was what people were talking about.” People were taking precautions, not loitering in dark streets, avoiding lovers’ lanes, moving in numbers — “except this idiot,” he said. 

The Son of Sam was on his mind when he met a woman for a blind date. They fooled around and eventually ended up back in his car near her home in Queens, around the corner from the Elephas Disco in Bayside. They made out in the shadow of a row of houses just like the one Archie Bunker lived in, Honerkamp said.

He noticed a man under the streetlight about 25 to 50 yards away. “I looked up and he was gone. Then it happened again. This wasn’t a guy walking in a straight line. This wasn’t someone with a destination. This was someone going in and out of the sight line of my car. Doing it with stealth. This was a predator move.” He told his date, who hopped out of the car and ran up the stairs to her parents’ house. He drove away in a hurry.

Just a few days later, he said, on June 26, Sal Lupo and Judy Placido were shot as they sat in their vehicle shortly after leaving the Elephas Disco. They both survived. 

“I was certain it was him after the Elephas shooting,” Honerkamp said. His parents contacted Timothy Dowd, the New York City police detective who led the investigation. Honkerkamp had gone to school with one of Dowd’s sons, and the families were friendly. He was able to describe only the man’s hair and body type. “I was probably one of 10,000 leads they were getting.” 

IN HIS LETTERS TO JIMMY BRESLIN, THE KILLER PLEDGED MORE CARNAGE. BRESLIN HIMSELF WAS SAID TO HAVE MOVED HIS DAUGHTER OUT TO THE SAFETY OF EAST HAMPTON.

The break in the case came after the eighth shooting, on July 31, just after the anniversary of the first, when someone reported seeing a car illegally parked near the scene of where Stacy Moskowitz — Berkowitz’s only blond victim — was killed and Robert Violante injured in the Bath Beach area of Brooklyn. Using a parking ticket, coupled with other information, New York City police traced the car, a light-colored Ford Galaxie, to Berkowitz’s Yonkers apartment. 

News reports said that when police took him into custody outside his apartment on Aug. 10, he said, “You got me. What took you so long?” 

The New York Post headline on Aug. 11, 1977, shouted “CAUGHT!” above a large photo of Mr. Berkowitz’s half-smirking profile. Honerkamp said there was no doubt that it was the man he had seen on his blind date.

The Daily News sold 2.2 million copies that day, 350,000 more than usual, and The Post’s circulation went up to a million from 609,000, according to The New York Times.

Inside Berkowitz’s car, police found the .44 Bulldog revolver and “a submachinegun with a sizeable amount of ammunition,” The Daily News said. 

Time magazine reported that he told police he had planned to go to a Hamptons nightclub with a semiautomatic rifle to “go down in a blaze of glory.” He said Club Marakesh, a popular disco in Westhampton Beach, was the place.

Fifteen years ago, a lawyer purporting to represent Berkowitz, who is now nearly 64 years old and a Born Again Christian — serving six consecutive 25-years-to-life sentences — walked into the Talkhouse in Amagansett. According to Honerkamp, the lawyer told the bartender that Berkowitz had wanted to kill people at the Talkhouse, too.

Of course, what a mentally ill serial killer would have done or where he would have gone, had the police not caught up with him that August day in 1977, can never truly be known. Berkowitz has changed his story several times over the years. 

“It’s hard to predict what sound people will do,” said Dunn, who is retired after 20 years on the force. “When you’re dealing with someone that’s off a little bit, there is no way to predict what they’re thinking or what their next move will be. You just thank God he didn’t do anything here.”  

Top: A photograph from the archives of The East Hampton Star captures the singles scene on Asparagus Beach (a.k.a., Atlantic Avenue or Coast Guard Beach) on July 10, 1977, about three weeks before Son of Sam scoped out this very spot for victims. It was a year of groupers, Star Wars, and a packed dance floor at Martell’s.

Taylor Vecsey

Taylor grew up across the Queensborough Bridge in Manhattan, before moving to Shelter Island with her family. As the digital media editor at The East Hampton Star, she often thinks she may have missed her calling as an investigator. She never became a police officer, but has found a second calling as a peace officer: She an emergency medical technician and captain with the Bridgehampton Fire Department.