40 years later: 'We got him'

Former NYPD detective — and Lynbrook resident — recalls tense year-long hunt for ‘Son of Sam’


It was April 1977, and the bodies of two more young shooting victims had been found in a car in the Bronx. Near them was a letter addressed to NYPD detective Joseph Borrelli, who lived in Lynbrook at the time.

It was from the Son of Sam.

Though Borrelli remembers people worrying about his family’s safety, he saw the letter as a sign of hope. “That’s his first mistake,” he recalled thinking. “Make a few more, and we’ll get you.”

Police eventually did arrest the serial killer, David Berkowitz, who confessed to murdering six people and wounding eight others in a shooting spree that spanned three boroughs from July 1976 to July 1977. Aug. 10 marked the 40th anniversary of his capture.

But before tragedy turned to triumph, the NYPD mounted a dizzying search for the man. It captivated New York City, and contributed to a sense of fear and hysteria.

After a series of shootings in the Bronx and Queens between July 1976 and the following March, Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani were shot in the Bronx on April 17. The note was discovered near their bodies: “Mr. Borrelli, sir, I don’t want to kill anymore no sir, no more but I must, ‘honour thy father,’” read the letter, which had misspellings and was written in block letters.

Borrelli, the commanding officer of the Queens Homicide Squad at the time, recently recalled that the Lynbrook Police Department set up patrols around his house after the letter was found.

“I didn’t view it as a threatening letter, but everyone else did,” he said. “In the end, it verified who he was. … The Lynbrook police were very helpful. They watched my house for me.”

Borrelli, who’s now 86, was born in Brooklyn, and moved to Lynbrook in 1962 with his wife, Fran. They raised four daughters: Laura, Roselle, Alyson and Jennifer, three of whom were teenagers at the time of the Son of Sam case. Borrelli joined the NYPD in 1957 and retired in 1996, and now lives in Greenport.

He oversaw a task force of about 30 people investigating the shootings. Initially, the murderer was dubbed the .44 Caliber Killer, but that changed after the Son of Sam signature was found on the letter to Borrelli.

The deaths of Esau and Suriani were a turning point in the investigation. Because the shootings had occurred in multiple boroughs and the case had gained national notoriety, it was eventually turned over to Inspector Timothy Dowd, a high-ranking Manhattan detective. Borrelli stayed on as an executive officer because he knew so much about the case.

“It was very stressful on everybody that was involved — especially the families,” Borrelli said. Police began to see links among the shootings, he said: The targets were mostly young women with long, brown hair, and many of the victims were shot in their cars.

After chilling letters to Borrelli and Jimmy Breslin, the renowned Daily News columnist, created a citywide stir, there were two more shootings — one in Queens and another in Brooklyn — in which one person died and three others were wounded.

The Brooklyn shooting took place on July 31, 1977, a year and two days after Berkowitz shot his first victim, and set in motion a series of events that led to his arrest. That evening, he shot Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante while they sat in a car in Bath Beach. Violante survived, but Moskowitz later died.

There were several witnesses, who described Berkowitz to police after seeing him run away from the scene. Some said they saw him get into a yellow car.

According to Borrelli, Berkowitz received a summons for parking his yellow Ford Galaxie too close to a fire hydrant near the crime scene. After finding his address through the registration of the ticketed car, police searched the vehicle outside Berkowitz’s Yonkers apartment on Aug. 10, 1977. Members of the Yonkers Police Department found enough evidence to arrest him.

Borrelli said that Berkowitz had the .44-caliber gun on him when he was taken into custody, and that it matched evidence found at the homicide scenes. A letter was found in Berkowitz’s car, and the handwriting matched the note left for Borrelli. “We got him,” Borrelli said. “ … I thought he made a mistake when he sent it, because we got partial prints off of my letter. We had him for the fingerprints, for the handwriting analysis, and we had him for the gun.”

Berkowitz confessed to the shootings and claimed that his neighbor Sam Carr’s dog, Harvey, was possessed by demons and told him to commit the murders. Nonetheless, Berkowitz was deemed mentally fit to stand trial, and pleaded guilty. He was given six consecutive life sentences, and now 64, he is imprisoned at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, N.Y.

Borrelli said he believes that Berkowitz acted alone, despite his later claims that he was part of a satanic cult. He has reportedly become a born-again Christian in prison — calling himself Son of Hope — but Borrelli said he doesn’t believe that he’s a changed man. “He has to maintain his celebrity,” Borrelli said. “What’s he got? He’s going to die in jail, so I guess he enjoys people still thinking of him. I don’t believe one word that he’s a born-again Christian.”

Borrelli described the capture of Berkowitz as a “celebration that went on throughout the whole city,” and said that it turned terror into joy. Four decades later, Borrelli said, he vividly remembers coming face to face with the man whom he spent so much time trying to catch.

“When they arrested him, I spoke to him when they brought him to the precinct,” Borrelli recounted. “I walked over to him and asked if he knew who I was. He just smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I wrote you a letter.’”