Bronx Homicide Detectives Initially Viewed Son of Sam's First Shooting As Mafia Hit

Excerpts from two handwritten letters, the first to the NYPD:
I am not (a woman hater). I am a monster. I am the Son of Sam…I am on a different wavelength than everyone else—programmed to kill. To stop me you must kill me. Attention all police, Shoot me first—shoot to kill or else keep out of my way or you will die. I love to hunt. Prowling the street looking for fair game—tasty meat. The women of Queens are prettiest of all. It must be the water they drink. I live for the hunt—my life. Blood for Papa...

Another, to newspaperman Jimmy Breslin:
Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. Hello from the sewers of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks. ...
-- David Berkowitz, "Son of Sam"

Some of the greatest minds in law enforcement know that in this day and age when violence can be nearly incomprehensible in every respect, motive can be a pretty dicey affair.

David Berkowitz
David Berkowitz at his arrest for committing the Son of Sam killings.

G. "George" Robert Blakey, of the RICO act (PDF), told us once: motive "is not required, save to answer the jury's question: Why?"

We always wondered, did David Berkowitz's job have anything to do with his year-long shooting spree in New York City? He worked for the post office, specifically, he worked in the U.S. Postal Service's iconic Bronx General Post Office. A New York City Landmark completed in 1937, the building is no longer a post office. (The postal service, $15.9 billion in debt, sold it in 2014 for $19 million.)

It's been 40 years since his arrest, and many newspapers and true crime television shows have marked the occasion. Indeed, in New York, anyway, Son of Sam coverage has proliferated, with many true-crime channels offering their own angle on the killings. One story still waiting to be told in detail is the one about how detectives working in Bronx Homicide thought, following David Berkowitz's first shooting, the Mafia was at work.

For most of his killing spree, Berkowitz was able to operate with relative impunity. In the 1970s, New York City was a very different place. People were getting shot in all five boroughs; his work got lost in the noise. Street crime was rampant, with the crime rate through the roof: heroin and cocaine were everywhere, NYPD corruption was rampant, and New York City's Five Families ruled the underworld in the Northeast with an iron fist.

It's only a serial killer after he kills a serial, meaning a series of people. Berkowitz and his trusty .44 Charter Arms Bulldog, pictured below, (a bestseller in the 1970s-80s, it had a non-snub-nosed barrel, giving it "perfect proportions," as per Truth About Guns) eluded law enforcement scrutiny by spreading the shootings out, both in chronology and geography. Also he was insane.

.44 Charter Arms Bulldog
.44 Charter Arms Bulldog

Donna Lauria, the first victim, was shot and killed on July 29, 1976, in the Bronx. However, it wasn’t until after the fifth attack, on March 8, 1977 (though some reports say the fourth attack, in January), that police finally recognized the shootings for what they were. Ballistics tests confirmed that one gunman was responsible for five shootings. By then, three were dead and four had been wounded. (He also started writing letters.)

Once discerned, the pattern was clear. As newspapers reported in June '77: Five of the shootings occurred in Queens, two in the Bronx. All but one took place on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Most of the victims were couples in parked cars in the early morning hours. Most of the women targeted had long brown hair (as did one of the male victims, who Berkowitz likely mistakenly thought was a woman). After news of this emerged, brunettes in New York City and on Long Island and other nearby areas started dying their hair blond, as well as pinning it up.

The NYPD's 200-person taskforce relentlessly hunted him. Still, it was the most innocuous, routine thing that gave him up. After a witness reported seeing a strange man in the streets near the final shooting, police checked traffic tickets issued in the area and traced them to Berkowitz’s car and his Yonkers home. He was finally arrested Aug. 10, 1977.
The First
Berkowitz's first shooting took place in The Bronx's Pelham Bay neighborhood. An affluent Italian-American community, many believe it was one of the safest places in New York, though the mob was known to operate there. Donna Lauria was found to have an ex-boyfriend who was a known associate of the Genovese crime family.

Detectives in the area were among the most-seasoned homicide investigators working the streets; they initially believed the first killing was a Mafia hit.

"That's the M.O. of the mob," Joseph Coffey, former NYPD Detective Sgt., who died in October 2015, said. "The wiseguys, they whack people, shoot them in the head."

"Vinny" was low-level and allegedly ran numbers. At the time, he was the only suspect in the shooting. (Very little information about his story could be found.) Law enforcement interrogated him until they were convinced he wasn't guilty.

Donna Lauria
Donna Lauria

The Bronx and the Mob
The Bronx is part of the Southern District in New York, with Manhattan and the city’s northern suburbs. All five families allegedly have a presence there, though historically the Genovese, Luchese and Bonanno crime families have or had a major presence. When Bonanno boss Michael "The Nose" Mancuso returns home it likely will be the Bronx where he hangs his hat. Luchese associate Michael Meldish, who allegedly ran the drug trade in the Bronx, also had longtime ties to the Bonanno and Genovese crime families until he was killed in a gangland hit for which the Luchese powers that be were busted this year. Meldish also ran the Purple Gang, which operated in the Bronx and Harlem.

One of the Bronx's first high-profile racketeers was Dutch Schultz. Born Arthur Flegenheimer, Schultz successfully capitalized on Prohibition with a ferocious crew of mostly Jewish strongarms. To take control of beer distribution in the Bronx, Dutch killed, tortured and kidnapped . When Thomas Dewey was named Special State Prosecutor, Schultz’s gang was the only non-Italian criminal group in New York not subservient to the Mafia.

 According to Selwyn Raab's Five Families, "the five Cosa Nostra families and Schultz’s outfit (were referred to) as 'the Big Six.'"

One of the first Cosa Nostra godfathers to set roots in the Bronx was Gaetano (Tommy) Gagliano, a low-profile figure who was unknown outside the mob. His underboss, Gaetano (Tommy Three-Finger Brown) Luchese also was his front man in setting up a variety of cash cow garment industry and union rackets.

Gagliano headed one of the original five New York crime families for nearly twenty years, from September 1931 until his death in February 1951.

"His tenure in almost complete anonymity has been unequaled. In addition, as a researcher and historian, I have never seen a picture of Gagliano, and my search for an obituary has proved fruitless," Allan May wrote.

Gagliano allegedly rose in the Mafia is part of an earlier Bronx-based crime family that Gaetano Reina may have founded pre-1920. Reina, in turn, may have served as a capo in the earlier Morello organization and the later Salvatore (Toto) D'Aquila crime family of Brooklyn and the Bronx, as The American Mafia noted.

"D'Aquila's mid-1920s decline and 1928 murder may have resulted in the establishment of an independent Reina crime family."

"Reina was killed on Feb. 26, 1930, outside his girlfriend's apartment building at 1521 Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx. His lieutenants believed boss of bosses Joe Masseria was responsible. Masseria supported his friend Joe Pinzolo as the new head of the Reina clan. However, Reina family group leaders Gaetano Gagliano and Gaetano Lucchese opposed Pinzolo and began to cooperate with Masseria's enemies in the Castellammarese War."

The American Mafia website noted: "Gagliano was officially recognized as boss of the old Reina group after the war ended in 1931. Lucchese served as his underboss until about 1951. Gagliano is presumed to have died of natural causes in that period. (The date of Gagliano's death is not certain.)"

(Thomas Hunt, in addition to the Informer Journal, also operates, with others, the Writers of Wrongs, a blog you should definitely check out....)

Informer Journal

There's another connection between Son of Sam and the Mafia....

Son of Sam Law 

The first Son of Sam law was created in New York and enacted following widely circulated rumors about publishers and movie studios offering big money to Berkowitz for his story.

The law was invoked in New York eleven times between 1977 and 1990.

In 1987, lawyers for publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster sued the New York authorities to prevent enforcement of the Son of Sam law regarding Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy, which told the story of ex-Luchese associate Henry Hill and served as the basis for the film Goodfellas. The case reached the federal Supreme Court in 1991. In an 8–0 ruling in Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board, the court ruled the law unconstitutional. The majority opinion was that the law was over-inclusive, and theoretically could have prevented publication of such major sociological and literary works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, and even The Confessions of Saint Augustine(!)

Then, in 1997, several families of his victims sued Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano -- unsuccessfully in the end (he was convicted of federal, not state crimes) over the memoir he wrote with Peter Maas: Underboss. They won in Arizona, which had a similar statute. Eight families received checks for $52,500 from Gravano’s assets seized by authorities investigating the drug ring.

The original New York law was struck down via a Supreme Court ruling that actually stated that Son of Sam laws could conceivably be constitutional if written carefully with regard to First Amendment rights. Various states (including New York) now have laws to prevent felons from capitalizing on their crimes written with an eye towards adhering to the ruling laid out by the Supreme Court concerning the First Amendment.

A Lingering Problem....

Berkowitz ultimately confessed to the crimes and received 25 years to life for each murder. 

Some detectives, however, remain bothered by the simple fact that numerous eyewitnesses gave descriptions of the gunman, and the descriptions differ wildly. Some looked nothing like Berkowitz. 

Robert Violante, on the 30th anniversary of Berkowitz’s capture, told the Post that he can recall every detail of the night he and his date, Stacy Moskowitz, became the serial killer’s final victims.

Violante and Moskowitz walked right by the psycho as they strolled through a small park in Bath Beach on their first date.

“He was just standing there with his arms folded, hanging out,” said Violante, who didn’t recognize Berkowitz from police sketches but noticed him because he was by himself.

“It was about midnight. We had gone to see, ‘New York, New York,’ and she wanted to go play on the swings. She saw him, too. She started getting a little nervous, and then she noticed he was gone. We got off the swings and walked to my car. It was a nice summer night, and we decided to stay a little longer.

“We were sitting in the car with the windows open. I was in the driver’s seat, with my head turned toward her. That’s why he caught me in the eye.”

Neither saw Berkowitz sneak up before he blasted the young couple with his .44-caliber pistol.

“I blacked out,” he said. “When I came to, I couldn’t see anything. My face was covered in blood. The first thing I remember was Stacy moaning because she was shot in the head.

“I said to Stacy, ‘Oh, my God. He killed us.’ But then I came to reality. I knew if he’d killed us, I couldn’t be talking.”

Violante, who had just turned 20, felt for the horn of his Buick Skylark and leaned on it to raise the alarm. He stumbled out of the car and collapsed on the hood.

Moskowitz, a 19-year-old blonde whose phone number he’d gotten four days earlier at a Beefsteak Charlie’s in Sheepshead Bay, died the next day.

Around the same time, Violante told PIX11: “The guy who was parked in front of me that night described someone who looked completely different from Berkowitz.”


  1. Well, George Costanza did say he knew it wasn't Berkowitz...
    Allie Shades

  2. The former Morello Crime Family split in 1921-1923 after the murder of Morello Family boss Salvatore Loiacono. The networks they split into are now known as the Genovese & Lucchese Families.


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