In 1981, David Berkowitz, the so-called “Son of Sam Killer” who’d been convicted of a string of murders in the late 1970s, told journalist Maury Terry, “I am guilty of these crimes, but I didn’t do it all.”
Of course, David Berkowitz was also a convicted serial killer and maybe psychotic. Didn’t he also say that a neighbor’s dog told him to do it? Such was the difficulty for Maury Terry, who spent the latter part of his increasingly dissolute life trying to convince the public that Berkowitz was actually telling the truth when he said he didn’t act alone.
Sons of Sam director Joshua Zeman met Terry while he was investigating a child kidnapping case in Zeman’s native Staten Island for his 2009 documentary, Cropsey. A police source suggested Zeman’s case might have some connection to the Son of Sam, and put Zeman in touch with Terry, at the time an older and hard-drinking veteran journalist, who spun a wild tale of Satanic cults, Charles Manson, cash-for-snuff films, and his central thesis: that David Berkowitz hadn’t acted alone. Probably like most people, Zeman didn’t buy it at first. “I thought it was bullshit,” Zeman says.
Yet the more he tried to fact-check Terry, which, as a documentarian and investigator, is sort of Zeman’s job, the more he started to find a preponderance of evidence that David Berkowitz didn’t act alone. That didn’t mean that everything Berkowitz said was true, nor did it mean that all of Maury Terry’s theories — about Satan, the Process Church, the Manson Family — were true. “He was like a mentor and an unreliable narrator all rolled into one,” Zeman says of Terry.
The act of trying to make sense of it all is the driving force behind Zeman’s new docuseries, Sons of Sam, which hits Netflix on May 5th. It’s both an exploration of Maury Terry’s pet theory and an exploration of Terry himself, and how trying to prove it ultimately destroyed him. In that sense, it’s also about officially unacknowledged truths and moral panics today. The way Maury Terry let a legitimately shocking discovery lead him to find connections that weren’t there has an obvious whiff of Q-Anon and other conspiracy movements about it.
In a case that doesn’t seem like it could possibly offer concrete answers, Zeman finds them in many areas and comes surprisingly close in others, complete with a bombshell ending straight out of a Hollywood thriller. We spoke to Zeman about it this week.
So Maury Terry. Who was he, what do people need to know?
Maury Terry was a very fascinating character. I first met Maury, I was actually doing a documentary called Cropsey about some missing kids in my hometown in Staten Island and a number of the cops and journalists around at the time kept suggesting that these missing kids were somehow connected to the Son of Sam case. That Son of Sam didn’t act alone and that there was a cult behind it. I thought it was all bullshit, kind of Satanic Panic stuff. And that’s when I called some cops, who sat me down and said, “No, we’ve looked into this and you should do your research.”
They basically gave me this book, The Ultimate Evil, and I read the book and it scared the shit out of me. So I sought out Maury Terry. As a true crime journalist and documentarian, he was truly fascinating. He was a mentor and an unreliable narrator all woven into one, and I just didn’t believe him at all. But slowly but surely he would start to give me little bits and pieces of information and I would end up fact-checking his work behind his back, and I found out that he really did an unbelievable job in terms of uncovering a plethora of evidence to suggest that Berkowitz didn’t act alone.
Then you talked to a few police that did official reports of how many people they thought were involved.
Yes, I did. I would say over the course of this time, I spoke to about 20 to 30 different members of law enforcement — whether it’s people from the NYPD, the Brooklyn DA’s Office, the Yonkers Police Department, the Minot Sheriff’s Office, all these different people from all over the country, who all say that in their individual investigation, they discovered that Berkowitz didn’t act alone and more so that they kept trying to push the NYPD to investigate it. And the NYPD would always refuse.
Who are some of the people that Terry and some of those police alleged to have been involved and… What were some of the suspicious ends to some of those people?
You’re talking about the Carr brothers, the fact that one guy, John Carr (son of Sam Carr, who owned the dog that Berkowitz at one point claimed told him to kill), suspiciously committed suicide with a shotgun. And it’s just kind of fascinating, the idea that he had told this mental health expert that someone was trying to kill him the day before he shot himself. He also told that to his family. And then his brother dying in a mysterious way (Michael Carr died in a car accident a year after his brother’s supposed suicide). Speaking to a lot of these cops, there was an inordinate amount of people dying. Of course, that could be related to the fact that these guys are living very nefarious lifestyles, whether that’s drugs, or just being in a lot of bad places. Bad people like to do bad things with other bad people.
Right, I mean, how much did you buy into the Satanic cult aspect of any of this?
That’s a good question. I would say at the end of the day… I would say that people like to find moral justifications for their behavior, whether good or bad. Could it have been quote unquote, a bunch of Satanic people getting together, finding a justification for it? You know, at the end of the day, I think that the whole thing Satanic thing was a smokescreen. For sex, drugs and rock and roll. That’s at the heart of all bad behavior. When Maury went off the deep end was in thinking that this was somehow all organized.
And your take is that it was just people that got off on killing people or whatever, and things like that?
No, I mean, I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that. I mean, my take is, Maury Terry did an unbelievable investigation of the Son of Sam case. And he uncovered a preponderance of evidence to suggest that Berkowitz didn’t act alone. When he started to get further into it, he started this whole go down the whole Satanic rabbit hole. And again, whether or not these people were really Satanic, I don’t even know what that means, you know? I think it was a smokescreen for people to engage in a lot of bad behavior. I think part of the problem was at the time when Maury came out with his initial evidence, people called him crazy, and so he doubled down. And when you double down, you go down a rabbit hole and you don’t come back out. Also at the time, Satanic panic was happening. And I think Maury unfortunately made a deal with the Devil, where he bought into the Satanic part of it because those were the only people who were willing to give him a platform. It was a symbiotic relationship where the Satanic panic people were willing to listen to him and not call him a crackpot.
So the Satanic panic was more something that was going on that he latched onto rather than something he may have inadvertently helped inspire.
I don’t think he helped inspire the Satanic panic, Satanic panic was already happening. I think he latched onto it because again, I think guys like Geraldo would call. And it was a way for him to kind of put forth his narrative about the Son of Sam case. Unfortunately, it only lessened his credibility and ironically took away from the good part of the investigation that he did do. It was a lot of big-city politics involved as well. You had a lot of people who had a very vested interest in not suggesting that other people were involved.
New York City in 1975 is on the edge of bankruptcy. Okay? The city was going bankrupt. Crime was at an all-time high. In ’77 there was a horrific blackout that cost millions and millions of dollars worth of damage. You had 12,000 arson fires that were burning through the Bronx, creating a literal apocalypse. And for 13 months you had somebody terrorizing the people of New York City. People were not going out. The streets were empty. No one was going to bars, restaurants, eateries, discos. And suddenly one guy appears, says, “What took you so long?” And then you lead him on a perp walk through the crowd, he’s smiling. And he’s a 24-year-old loner postal worker who says, “I did it, and a demon dog made me do.” It’s perfect.
Even beyond New York, I think we’ve all talked about how much 2020 was bad and how it feels like we’re living in a weird alternate future. But then we go back to the seventies and in New York, there was Son of Sam. And then on the west coast, there was the Manson Family there were the Zebra murders, there were all these cults and all these serial killers… Does it ever blow your mind just how fucked up the seventies were, I guess?
First of all, constantly. But at the time, it’s super interesting. You had all this debauchery, disco, cocaine, Studio 54… This isn’t free love anymore. This is get down, this is some serious debauchery. And so it’s alluring, and it’s interesting. Look they say Manson was a product of the hippie free love generation. You know, Manson was a product of the Sixties, he’s the man that killed the Sixties. Well, Son of Sam killed the seventies. He was born out of that debauchery. He was born out of darkness.
When the cops are telling you things like, “do your research” and then some of Terry’s reasoning, do you ever get shades of Q-Anon?
Oh, absolutely. Which is why I also wanted to make a cautionary tale of true crime. You can find connections wherever you want to find them. I mean the whole QAnon thing, you hear stories about families who say, “Oh, I lost my husband, he went down a rabbit hole and hasn’t come out for a year.” I mean look at Maury Terry, he went down a rabbit hole for 40 years. And so I think it becomes a cautionary tale for all of us.
Well, I mean, I feel like that’s a good place to end. I really enjoyed the series. Do you have anything to add that I didn’t ramblingly ask you about?
We’re also going to be having a podcast called Searching for the Sons of Sam. You can probably tell, but the series itself just literally scratches the surface of Maury Terry’s actual investigation. And so this podcast is a much deeper dive into the actual clues that Maury uncovered.