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The Ultimate Evil:
The Truth About the Cult
In his latest film, Summer of Sam, director Spike Lee chronicles a fictitious group of Bronx friends and lovers gripped, in the summer of 1977, by fear of the “Son of Sam”—the real-life “.44-caliber killer” whose eight attacks in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn between 1976 and 1977 left six people dead, seven people injured, and millions of New Yorkers traumatized as never before.
In brief interludes, the film portrays confessed “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz as a psychotic loner who murders on orders from a barking dog. In its first two months of wide release, Lee’s movie took in $19 million.
Equally taken in, if we are to believe Maury Terry, author of the newly reissued The Ultimate Evil: The Truth About the Cult Murders: Son of Sam & Beyond, are Spike Lee and his audiences—by Berkowitz’s “demon dog” story, which Terry’s painstaking analysis demolishes authoritatively.
A freelance writer and TV producer, Terry began probing the Son of Sam attacks even before the arrest of David Berkowitz on Aug. 10, 1977 (10 days after the New York Police Department slapped a parking ticket on Berkowitz’s car near the site of the killer’s final attack), and simply never stopped. In 1993, six years after the initial publication of The Ultimate Evil, Terry conducted the first television interview with Berkowitz, capping 16 years of independent investigation and reportage on the case, along with tireless (and successful) lobbying of law enforcement agencies to reopen it.
Memorializing Terry’s 22-year obsession is a mountain of previously unpublished NYPD records and transcripts, depositions, prison letters, photographs, tapes, and sketches, unveiled with maddening exactitude in The Ultimate Evil. At 538 pages, this book is surely the definitive account of this “true crime”; via Terry’s noir prose, it emerges also as the personal memoir of a journalist who becomes a player in his own story (so much so that Terry warns early on: “If my safety or that of anyone close to me is ever jeopardized, several people whose names grace the top of a special list will come under rapid and intense scrutiny”).
Armed with so much evidence, The Ultimate Evil disputes the most basic assumptions held by the cops who hunted and caught Son of Sam: that a deranged lone male, using the same .44-caliber pistol, selected victims randomly and committed all eight attacks. With a city in terror and a mayoral race in the balance, however, Berkowitz—who, upon arrest, smiled and asked police, “What took you so long?”—would be questioned by officials about all eight attacks for only an hour and 40 minutes. His descriptions of at least four attacks contained glaring inaccuracies—which routine “trick” questioning would have exposed, had his interrogators been inclined to try.
For example: Berkowitz stated that he shot Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan (in Queens on Oct. 23, 1976) as they sat in a “red” car; in fact, Keenan’s car was navy-blue. Similarly, recounting the double shooting of Joanne Lomino and Donna DeMasi (also in Queens, on Nov. 27, 1976), Berkowitz twice stated that he had shot the girls as they were running from him; yet Lomino, who survived, recalled that she and Donna had faced the gunman.
No wonder, then, that eyewitnesses to the Lomino-DeMasi shootings, like those present at other Son of Sam attacks, generated composite sketches that looked nothing like David Berkowitz. “The descriptions are so varied,” the New York Times reported the week before Berkowitz’s arrest, “that the police are now considering the possibility that the killer wears various disguises…and has gained weight to complicate further his identification.”
Indeed, until police ticketed the cream Ford Galaxie driven by the right-handed, curly-haired Berkowitz, they thought, on the basis of eyewitness accounts, that their shooter was a left-handed, long-haired hippie who drove a yellow Volkswagen or fastback. Nor was ballistics science of much help, as Queens district attorney John Santucci noted: “Based on the reports we later obtained from the Police Department, the bullets were similar, but weren’t conclusively matched.” In short, accepting Berkowitz’s error-laden confession to all eight attacks required the NYPD to discount reams of credible eyewitness testimony and physical evidence.
Initially working only from published materials, like the letter the Son of Sam sent to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, Terry discerned evidence undercutting Berkowitz’s line that his crotchety Yonkers neighbor, Sam Carr, “was really a six-thousand-year-old man who spoke to David through his demon dog, Harvey.” Handwriting analysis showed that Berkowitz did not even write the celebrated letter to Breslin (who, in a cameo role in Summer of Sam, terms Berkowitz “that sick fuck,” apparently to reaffirm the lone-madman scenario). Like the handwriting problem, the Breslin letter’s many satanic cult references and its not-so-subtle clues to the identities of Sam co-conspirators were ignored. “Breslin was used—made a fool out of,” wrote a prison informant who had talked extensively with Berkowitz. Employing rudimentary decoding techniques, Terry unscrambled the letter’s bizarre doggerel to find, among other things, amateurishly hidden driving directions to Berkowitz’s own residence.
More evidence, gathered later, would unravel the letter’s clues about the cult to which Berkowitz belonged, the related crimes its members had committed, and the real sons of Sam—Sam Carr: John and Michael Carr, both occultists who, like many other Berkowitz associates, met violent deaths shortly after Berkowitz’s capture. (The crime-scene photograph included of John Carr’s corpse, after a shotgun blew apart his face, constitutes the goriest moment in a book not recommended for the squeamish.)
Space here does not permit even a cursory review of the evidence Terry marshals; suffice it to say that his arguments are fact-based, grounded in logic and common sense—and that he speculates only where warranted. Terry himself unearthed much evidence in the case, often by returning to crime scenes hurried over by cops, and interviewing witnesses never developed by authorities. Of especial aid in Terry’s investigation were the post-1977 prison letters of (and, eventually, his own corroborative interviews with) Berkowitz.
Terry concludes that Berkowitz belonged to a violent satanic cult: a ’60s offshoot of a Church of Scientology splinter group named the Process Church of the Final Judgment, or the Process. The .44-caliber murders formed only a part of the cult’s handiwork in and around Berkowitz’s tri-borough area during that time. Several accomplices converged at the murder sites, and at least one Sam attack—the last, against Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante, on July 31, 1976, in Brooklyn—was allegedly videotaped for the underground snuff-film market.
Contrary to NYPD thinking, women cult members sometimes served as shooters. Berkowitz himself (Terry argues, and Berkowitz ultimately confirms) pulled the trigger in only two attacks: against Donna Lauria in the Bronx on July 29, 1976, and against Valentina Suriani and Alexander Esau, also in the Bronx, on April 17, 1977. All of the murders served the satanists’ sacrificial needs, but not all were random killings. For example, Berkowitz said in 1993 of the Lauria murder: “She was known by some in the [cult], so it actually wasn’t random, although the public believed it was.” Additionally, one of the victims, Virginia Voskerichian, was, according to Terry, shot just five days after police interviewed her in connection with the shooting of a previous victim, Christine Freund. The prison informant summed up the case this way:
The cult never planned to have a “.44 killer.” The cops did that. Look at the composites. There were different people using different .44s early on. The cops come out with “one guy, one gun.” The [cult] laughed. That’s when they decided to go along with the game. And they played it well….[T]hey knew they could count on Breslin; that’s why they used him. They sent him that letter with all sorts of clues in it and he creamed all over it. He was so thrilled that he got a fucking letter that he didn’t even catch on to what they were really doing.
Even Berkowitz’s defaced, disheveled Yonkers apartment—a staple of all previous accounts and used to great effect in Summer of Sam—was itself a smokescreen. Terry persuasively corroborates Berkowitz’s claim that the deranged writings, the hole in the wall, the general disarray in the apartment were all carefully executed in the days leading up to Berkowitz’s anticipated arrest, to bolster a lone-madman case for the authorities. With his adoptive father threatened with death if he ratted or fled, Berkowitz chose to take the rap for the cult—a stoic stance he repeated when, in 1979, a fellow inmate slashed his neck from ear to ear; upon recovery, Berkowitz refused to cooperate with prison investigators. “I did do two of the shootings,” Berkowitz told Terry in 1993. “That’s three deaths—and I played a role in the rest. So what’s the difference if I said I did all of them? I knew I was going to jail for life no matter what, and I deserved to.”
In chapters that take readers far afield from New York’s outer boroughs, Terry persuasively asserts evidence of the same cult’s involvement in other murders. These include the hideously graphic, still-unsolved satanic ritual murder of a young woman inside Stanford University’s campus church in 1974, and even the Tate-LaBianca murders masterminded by Charles Manson, himself an admitted recipient of Process teachings. Terry’s chapter on the Manson murders makes important additions to the factual record, including the bombshell that Manson personally knew at least one of the victims at the Polanski-Tate household, Abigail Folger. If this assertion is true, the view of the Manson murders as psychotic killings undertaken solely in the service of Charlie’s “Helter Skelter” fantasies will require substantial revision.
Students of media criticism will find The Ultimate Evil engaging for additional reasons. Terry deftly dissects why some news outlets, burdened by erroneous prior reportage or other sub rosa factors, ignored the story that the Son of Sam case was reopened in 1979. (Indeed, the Yonkers Police Department finally closed its latter-day probe of the case in 1998, concluding that the shootings were the result of a “conspiracy.”) Interesting, too, are Berkowitz’s own written assessments, from 1979, of the New York Daily News and New York Post: “These two have screwed up every story they ever got on my case. They are the most sensational and ugly [inaccurate] newspapers in the world….Disgusting bastards.”
Some shortcomings handicap Terry’s work. Absent from the book are maps, footnotes, and an index—the latter omitted perhaps because Terry, to protect witnesses and future investigative avenues, makes frequent use of pseudonyms. Still, such tools would have proved invaluable in navigating sentences like “Fraceschini asked Basteri to locate Cinotti, since Santucci wanted to speak with him immediately.”
Terry undermines his own seriousness with clumsy attempts at Mickey Spillane tough-guy talk. And there are occasional—inexplicable—displays of tastelessness: He refers to film director Roman Polanski’s “close encounter of the first kind with a thirteen-year-old girl,” and to “the railroading, so to speak,” of an actress who was gang-raped.
But such flaws ought not to distract from the monument to independent research represented in The Ultimate Evil. With only sporadic outside funding, Terry and a close band of cops, reporters, and investigators traced Berkowitz and his fellow cult members from Yonkers and Long Island to California, from Houston to Minot, N.D. Often, he faced scorn, stonewalling, and threats (of legal action and physical harm) from officials, suspects, and other reporters. High praise comes from a former FBI official, who marvels at one of Terry’s investigative breaks: “Goddamned reporter, too. Not even a Bureau guy.”
But indirectly, The Ultimate Evil is paid the ultimate compliment by Berkowitz himself, who confirmed its thesis, once again, in a prison-cell interview conducted Aug. 16, 1999, with CNN’s Larry King:
King: By the way, did you always
Berkowitz: Well, not really. Not
totally like that.
King: Were other people caught?
King: They’re still out there?
Berkowitz: Most have passed on.
King: But they were involved in
killing as well?
Berkowitz: They were—
King: They got away with it?
Berkowitz: Well, no, they haven’t
gotten away with it, and they