The Sons of Sam (A Netflix Docuseries by Joshua Zeman)

My summer of 1988 kinda sucked.

I’d taken a restaurant job to help make rent on the apartment I shared with 4 other guys while slacking out as a barely part-time student that spring semester. And the restaurant I bussed tables at made me an offer: if I’d stay for the summer, they’d train me as a waiter by August. That was pretty lucrative, because it was the nicest place in the college town, and waiter hours were flexible enough to let me carry a worthwhile course load at school. So I took them up on it…but that left me stuck 2 hours from my girlfriend for the summer. Some weekends, I’d travel to visit her. Other weekends, she’d come up to see me. It was OK…but it left me a LOT of idle time during the weeks.

And so one night I’m picking up some beer and cheap food at the local supermarket, and I’m looking for something to read – like a magazine. And next to the magazine section they’ve got this little book rack of typical supermarket book rack fare. And staring out at me from that book rack was the blank-eyed face of serial killer David Berkowitz, his face splashed on the cover of a thick, true crime book called “The Ultimate Evil”.

What the hell, I figured, and bought it.

I should state here that the Son Of Sam murders for which Berkowitz was convicted were one of the first news stories I can remember following in detail as a kid. My father and my grandfather died (of natural, unrelated causes) within 6 weeks of one another when I was 8 years old. And that likely induced in me what remains a lifelong, probably unhealthy fascination with death. And I remember the Son of Sam killings being on TV and in the Time & Newsweek magazines we had delivered to our house. I consumed both heavily, because…death. Like I said, probably not healthy! I’m a 9 year old kid reading Newsweek, for gosh sakes. :)

So back to that summer in 1988. I sat down to read this cheap, lurid grocery store paperback about the Berkowitz/Son of Sam killings that summer in college, thinking it’d be standard, Helter-Skelter type true crime stuff. Instead, I found myself pulled into one of the craziest fucking books I’ve ever read, before or since. “The Ultimate Evil” is many things, but say this for it: whether you realize it or not, the goddamn thing gets under your skin. Especially in the 1980s, when I originally read it, and so much of the improbable tale seemed… unsettled.

I’ve re-read it since, and well…yeah. “The Ultimate Evil” is many things, as I said. It does get under your skin. But also: it’s almost laughably poorly written (some of author Maury Terry’s attempts to turn a Geraldo Rivera-like dramatic phrase are just laugh-out-loud funny, as in, bad. Like, high school newspaper bad).

And Terry takes one horrid leap of logic after another, leaps that simply make no sense, and sound like the kind of idiot conspiracy ranting that you’d hear from the losers in the keg room at a house party at 3am. The book tries to tie Son of Sam to a (then unsolved, now solved and totally unrelated) 1974 killing on the Stanford campus, as well as to the abduction murder of producer Roy Radin and even to the Manson family. And in case I’m not being totally clear: about 80% of this book is utter crazyshines bullshit nonsense, the kind of horribly reasoned idiocy that informs dangerous modern shit like QAnon.

And Netflix has a 4-episode docuseries inspired by this book and its now-deceased author, Maury Terry set to release in a week or so, called The Sons of Sam. In the series, I guess they’ll examine two things: Terry’s vehement assertions over the years that David Berkowitz did not act alone in the Son of Sam killings…and the toll that this consuming obsession of that particular conspiracy rabbit hole wreaked on author Maury Terry’s life. He died in 2015 all alone, obese, his lungs having almost completely shut down years earlier due to his chain-smoking and unhealthy life choices.

And there are plenty of reasons to NOT be interested in this docuseries. I’ve kind of had my fill of conspiracy theories, for one thing, thanks. And David Berkowitz seems like a particularly odious sociopath too. But.

The docuseries is directed and produced by Joshua Zeman, the guy behind the documentary Cropsey, and the Netflix docuseries on the violence in Humboldt County, “Murder Mountain”. He’s good at what he does, I think. Both of those works were fascinating in their own ways.

And there’s the trailer, which features the amazing Timber Timbre song “Run From Me”:

But there’s another reason to watch, maybe.

Remember how I said that the book this thing is based on is about 80% utter nonsense? Well, that’s true.

But fuck me, that other 20%. The descriptions of the murders are harrowingly detailed, and sadly accurate. And the description of the ensuing investigations are infuriating and apparently dead-balls on target. And dammit if Terry, for all his purple prose and subsequent gobbledygook…damn him if he doesn’t make some incredibly valid points that definitely call a lone shooter scenario into serious question.

Start with the dramatically different composite sketches of the Son of Sam. There’s one that looks a lot like Berkowitz. But others from other shootings are WAY off. And there’s the different shootings themselves that suggest that…maybe this wasn’t one dude. Maybe. The method doesn’t match up very well at all. And finally, and maybe most thought-provokingly, the timeline that we can put together based on written and validated times from eyewitnesses on the final shooting make it honestly impossible for Berkowitz to have been the shooter in the final killing, which happened just 11 days before his arrest.

Combine that with the speed with which this case was closed and official police upper echelons walked away and it’s awfully curious. The morning after Berkowitz was arrested, there’s a newspaper photo of the Son of Sam Task Force’s Inspector Dowd writing “CASE CLOSED” on a chalkboard in a detective office. Interviews reveal that even as Berkowitz was being sentenced, no one had thought to do a detailed questioning/evidence discovery on him; he’d confessed, and that was that. And even in the brief half-hour questioning sessions with him the night of his arrest, he answered incorrectly on questions that were deliberately constructed to trip up a fake confessor.

And apparently there’s Joshua Zeman’s own discoveries in this particular rabbit hole. He expected to find out that author Maury Terry was basically an obsessive author who went crazy over this thing. Which…yeah. But he also found in talking to rank-and-file cops from the various local departments in Queens, The Bronx, and Brooklyn in 1976 and 1977 that an awful lot of those guys don’t think Berkowitz was alone, either. In fact, it almost feels like an open secret among old school NYPD guys that such is the case. (And a whole lot of folks that were likely potential accomplices met some very violent deaths in the years after Berkowitz went to prison.)

So yeah. I guess I’m looking forward to this. I hope it manages to be as skeptical as it needs to be, while also pointing out so many of the inconsistencies and contradictions in the main accepted story.

This launches on Netflix on May 5, I think.