Son of Sam writes to Houstonian

HOUSTON PHOTOS: See vintage images from 1977

There is no hint of anger or aggression, nothing to suggest that they were penned by the same writer who once terrorized New York City with his missives filled with blood and darkness and death.

In these typewritten letters, sent from a prison cell in upstate New York to an office in Houston's city hall annex, there is an effort to prove contrition for the killings back then, an eagerness to put distance between the monster he once was and the person he says he has become.

"The past is such a painful memory ... It was all a terrible nightmare. I got into something so evil," one letter reads. "I would give my life if I could go back into the past to have prevented this from happening."

And there is the realization that many will never forget the chilling image of him as a round-faced, wild-haired mad man with the eerie grin, photographed after his arrest in six stalker killings.

"Everytime I do something that is decent and good, I usually get accused of doing things with bad motives," another letter says. "There is nothing I can do about this because people are biased and prejudiced toward me, and I do understand. After all, there is no way they can know my heart."

He signs off: "I will keep you in my prayers. Sincerely yours, David Berkowitz."
The Son of Sam.
The letters from one of the country's most notorious serial killers are addressed to Andy Kahan, crime victim advocate for the city of Houston. They reveal an unlikely decade-long alliance that began with a simple form letter.

Inside an office swirling with clutter and papers, Kahan bears witness to the wreckage left by crime. Manila folders bulge with the stories of families ripped apart by murder, then abandoned by the system. Case files detail the sorrow of parents mourning slain children, the outrage of unrepentant killers set free too soon.

Kahan, who has a reputation for controversy and a penchant for using the media in his crusades, says he is driven by the desire to wring some good from even the worst evil.

He's a city employee who never hesitates to rile the establishment. A defender of crime victims whose office walls are papered with movie posters from films like "The Warriors," "Death Wish" and "Kill Bill, Vol. 1." A tireless crusader against serial killer memorabilia who has a drawer filled with items like a lock of Charles Manson's hair and a Jeffrey Dahmer doll.

So when Kahan wanted to ratchet up his campaign against the sellers of "murderabilia," he decided to go straight to the killers themselves.

Kahan sent out four-paragraph form letters to 20 serial killers, including Manson, Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Ramirez and Berkowitz: Did they know that their autographs, drawings, letters and other personal belongings were being sold through online auction sites? Did they approve of the practice? Were they making money from the sales?

Twelve responded to the Oct. 12, 2000, letter. Manson sent Kahan's letter to a murderabilia dealer who auctioned it off on eBay.

But only Berkowitz, whose autographs and signed letters carried some of the highest prices on the murderabilia market, seemed to embrace the cause.

"Dear Mr. Kahan," Berkowitz wrote in his Oct. 26 reply. "I am very bothered and troubled by what these auction sites are doing ... I am willing to help in any way I can."

Berkowitz even included a notarized statement disavowing involvement in any sale of murderabilia -- and swearing regret for the mid-1970s murder spree in which he killed six women and shot seven others.

"Most of these letters and other writings were written during a very dark and tormented part of my life, and how I wish with all my heart that those horrific and tragic 'Son of Sam' shootings never happened! It was a nightmare for me and for those whose lives were hurt and devastated by my actions."

So began the unlikely collaboration.

"We're the ultimate odd couple," says Kahan, a lanky man who chuckles at the irony. "You can put the theme music to it and we could probably do a sitcom... . Call it 'Berkowitz and Kahan'."
Kahan and Berkowitz would exchange dozens of letters over the next nine years, and the imprisoned murderer would become a key soldier in Kahan's battle against murderabilia.

Berkowitz has tipped Kahan off to overtures from murderabilia dealers and collectors, who often concoct elaborate ruses to obtain potentially valuable signed letters, artwork and intimate items from infamous criminals. He has regularly forwarded suspicious inquiries and led Kahan to especially persistent marketers.

Kahan also credits Berkowitz with helping him convince the online auction site eBay to prohibit the sale of murderabilia.

"He has been an invaluable asset for me for a variety of reasons. Number 1 because he's so high profile. Everybody knows the Son of Sam. You can't get more inside than that," Kahan said. "It's the ultimate coup when you have the person who all the Son of Sam laws are named after actually working on your behalf."

Laws forbidding criminals from profiting from their crimes have been enacted in many states, the namesake original prompted by rumors -- false, according to Berkowitz -- that he was writing a book about the case.

The two have yet to meet, but in letter after letter, Berkowitz greets Kahan warmly.

"Dear Andy," he wrote May 2, 2001. "I trust this letter finds you doing well and that progress is being made in your endeavors for justice. I also appreciate the kind things you have said about me, although I feel so unworthy. I have a big debt to pay to society, and it is still a long uphill climb."

Four days after 9/11, Berkowitz tells Kahan he feels the need to seek forgiveness from the families of his victims. "My heart has been heavy ... I want to ask forgiveness from everyone who I hurt in my madness and wickedness... I know those families have a pain that is so deep. But it is right for me to ask forgiveness, and there is nothing wrong with saying I am sorry. "

At first, Kahan was surprised by the articulate correspondence from Berkowitz, so unlike the ravings of the Son of Sam.

"Like most people, I had a misconception of who he is and what he is because he's fairly mute for the last some 20-some odd years. So you go back to original image of him and the horrific crimes he committed," Kahan said. "But as we progressed, he talked in more depth and detail of murders, and the tragedy that he's done to these families."

"I'm about as hardball as you can get, so for someone to convince me of remorse takes a lot. But he has thoroughly convinced me," he said.

Over the years, Berkowitz's letters progress from concise, businesslike correspondence to more personal glimpses.

From Aug. 23, 2003, after a dealer auctioned off a note from Berkowitz reading, "I'm the SOS and I killed six people," Berkowitz tells Kahan he's ashamed. "This note was written in 1978 when I was in a very bad and tormented mind. I thank God, though, that I have come a long way since then."

From Sept. 20, 2006: "I hope you have a blessed and prosperous New Year/Rosh Hashana. During this time of the year I enjoy reading and meditating on the psalms."

Berkowitz wonders about the motivations that propel the murderabilia market. "This autograph-seeking is downright silly to me and I just don't see why some people are so obsessed with it," he says, calling one dealer's requests "sad, troubling and absurd."

About another would-be collector, who passed himself off as a Christian minister, Berkowitz concludes, "It seems to me they are lonely people who use their Web sites to socialize and meet people online rather than in normal face-to-face settings. I believe they live very unfulfilling lives."

And, in July 2007, nearly 30 years after his arrest, Berkowitz worries the specter of the Son of Sam would be revived.

"I hope the 'anniversary' passes quickly with minimum amount of media coverage. But there will probably be some."
Three decades ago, this is how Berkowitz ended one of his letters:

"Police: Let me haunt you with these words: I'll be back! I'll be back! I'll be interrpreted as - bang, bang, bang, bang, bang - ugh!! Yours in murder Mr. Monster."

In the searing summer of 1977, the Son of Sam was at the height of a murderous 13-month rampage through the streets of New York. Dubbed the ".44-Caliber Killer" by the press, the chubby postal worker would kill six women and wound seven others before being captured on Aug. 10.

He prowled lovers' lanes, targeting couples and young women with long dark hair. The murders jolted the city, as normally bustling streets emptied from fear, and girls rushed to buy blonde wigs to avoid resembling Son of Sam's victims of choice.

Then, there were the letters.

The notes Berkowitz left by his victims' bloodied bodies or mailed to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin were the spewings of a mind gone haywire.

"I feel like an outsider. I am on a different wavelength than everybody else -- programmed to kill. However, to stop me you must kill me," he warned in a letter to police. "I am the 'Monster' -- 'Beelzebub' -- the chubby behemoth. I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game."

In May 1977, after he had already killed five times, the .44-Caliber Killer wrote to Breslin:

"Hello from the gutters of NYC, which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine, and blood. Hello from the sewers of NYC which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of NYC and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood that has settled into the cracks."

It was signed: "In their blood and from the gutter -- 'Sam's Creation' .44 Caliber."

In the end, the killer who had eluded a vast police manhunt for more than a year was tracked down by a parking ticket, spotted on a car near the scene of his last murder.

Berkowitz confessed to all six murders and several shootings, claiming he was possessed by demons and ordered to kill by a black Labrador retriever belonging to his neighbor, Sam Carr.

He was sentenced to six life sentences, a maximum of 365 years in prison.

In the photos of his arrest and trial, Berkowitz wears a Mona Lisa grin, branding the image in the public consciousness.
Today, Prisoner 78-A-1976 lives in a 7-by-10 foot prison cell in a maximum security prison in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Thick coils of barbed wire top the fence surrounding the Sullivan Correctional Facility.

Here, 1,700 miles from Kahan's Houston office, Berkowitz, now a born-again Christian, just turned 56. His trademark snarl of dark hair has thinned and gone to gray. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, and still carries a few extra pounds.

One of America's most famous serial killers looks like a retired postal worker, fettered to a life of routine, reflection and letter-writing.

With no access to computers, limited telephone calls and only selected visitors, Berkowitz depends on his Swintec typewriter for communication with the outside world. He receives about 20 letters a week, more than any other prisoner at Sullivan.

Most are from Christian pen pals, a few are from murderabilia seekers, others from the simply curious. He says the regular correspondence with Kahan has offered him a way to atone for the past.

"I did horrible things that I regret with all my heart and I want to do the right thing. This is a way for me of making amends to society. It is the right thing to do," Berkowitz said in a recent prison interview. "Andy cares about crime victims. He knows that the selling of certain things hurts many people who've been the victim of a crime or lost a loved one."

Berkowitz talks of the Son of Sam murders with a strange detachment. For instance, he describes his last victim, Stacy Moskowitz, as the young woman "who lost her life in 1977" and died "in that series of crimes."

Berkowitz knows that many people on the outside will be skeptical of his words, and suspicious of his motives. He knows that even his work with Kahan might be viewed as an affront by the families of his victims.

But he says his conversion is sincere. He takes no psychiatric medication.

More than anything, it seems, he wants to clear up a misconception about the Son of Sam Law. Contrary to rumors at the time, Berkowitz insists he never planned a book, and never wanted to profit from his crimes.

"I'm always accused of something, but this time I'm actually innocent," he says with a smile -- still that same smile. "I'm tired of being accused."

And in all the years he has worked with Kahan, Berkowitz has only requested two favors.

The first was to forward a letter asking for forgiveness to the family of one of his victims. Kahan refused.

The second was to ask Kahan to refute a published report that Berkowitz was seeking parole. Berkowitz says he did not want parole, and does not plan to seek it -- as he emphasized in a letter to then-New York Gov. George Pataki:

"Frankly, I can give you no good reason why I should even be considered for parole. I can, however, give you many reasons why I should not be. The loss of six lives and the wounding of even more are reasons enough for the latter."

"In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life."

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