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A new fascinating and frightening Netflix docuseries The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darknessexplores serial killers, cults and police transparency as journalist Maury Terry got wrapped up investigating whether New York serial killer David Berkowitz truly acted alone in the infamous Son of Sam murders, available to stream on May 5.
Filmmaker Joshua Zeman is a master of the crime and serial killer documentary format, and this new Netflix series is no exception. Zeman was actually working on a great film called Cropsey, which investigates the disappearances of children from Staten Island, when he heard rumours that there was a cult connection to the Son of Sam serial killer case.
"I didn't quite believe it, I said, 'oh, this is some satanic panic going on,' and that's when a couple of cops sat me down and said, no, no no, there's some truth to this," Zeman told Yahoo Canada "Then they gave me this book, "The Ultimate Evil" written by Maury Terry, I read it, it scared the heck out of me and I don't scare easy."
Zeman ended up meeting Terry, discovering that he did have evidence to believe that Berkowitz did not act alone, something that was echoed to the filmmaker by multiple people connected to the New York Police Department (NYPD). Those individuals, in particular, cited "politics" as a reason the case was closed and not more thoroughly investigated.
Terry passed away months later but left boxes of his files and interviews with Berkowitz in the filmmaker's hands. That's when Zeman knew he had to tell this story.
Who is David Berkowitz and what is the Son of Sam serial killer case?
In 1977 Berkowitz, a postal worker, was arrested for killing six people and wounding seven others with a .44-caliber revolver in New York, usually targeting young women with brown hair.
He claimed that he was obeying orders from a demon in the form of a neighbour's black Labrador retriever, named Sam, to commit the murders.
Berkowitz taunted police and journalists with handwritten letters after his killings, which stated that he was the "Son of Sam," a "monster" who was writing these letter from the gutters of New York City. He also used a number of other nicknames in these letters, including the Duke of Death, Wicked King Wicker and John Wheaties.
He was arrested in Yonkers, a suburb of New York, after police saw a gun in his car and found a letter written by the Son of Sam.
When Terry discovered the Son of Sam murderer was close to where he lived, he really started to dig deep into the case. In particular, questioning why the police sketches, based on descriptions from witnesses and victims, did not match up with what Berkowitz looks like.
Berkowitz's neighbour, Wheat Carr, said Berkowitz shot her father's black Labrador. Her father's name was Sam Carr. When looking up the address of the Carr family, Terry discovered that there was a John Wheat Carr who lived at the same address as Sam. John's photo was a very close match to police sketches of the possible murderer.
A local teen ends up giving Terry a potential lead to a group called "The Children," who wore robes and were involved in satanic rituals, including killing German Shepherds. This group is connected to the Process Church of Final Judgement, which has links to Scientology, and its members regularly own German Shepherd dogs.
When the Process Church sent troops from the U.K. to the U.S., one of their neighbours was Charles Manson, and some still maintain that Manson was connected with the Process Church.
'The public will never, ever truly believe you'
Terry connected Berkowitz to the Satanic cult, while many in the NYPD were not on board or supportive of the claim. The journalist ended up getting a letter from Berkowitz, while he was in jail, that stated that he was part of a cult and there are others. Berkowitz also claimed he did participate in the murders, but not all of them.
"The public will never, ever truly believe you," Berkowitz wrote to Terry.
It's that statement that ends up being incredibly evident throughout The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, but while Terry's investigation may have started out incredibly strong, we see the strings start to unravel as his obsession starts to cloud his judgement. It's an interesting thing to watch as you also get completely wrapped up and enthralled in the case yourself as viewer.
"It was fascinating because I would be like, 'Oh, this is real, no, I don't think this is real,'...you really had to go at it and kind of pull it apart," Zeman said. "That was very much the process, kind of weeding through what was real and what wasn't real, and if it wasn't real, kind of giving that context and say, well how did [Maury Terry] get here?"
"I like to say [Terry] made a deal with the devil. He was trying to tell this story. The first part of investigation, solid,...but then the [NYPD] starts to call him a crackpot so he doubles down and that's where he starts to kind of go down this rabbit hole for 40 years, and he doesn't get back out."
Another aspect of the story that makes the docuseries particularly fascinating are questions around why the police didn't spend more time investigating this case. Why were they so stuck on seemingly wrapping this up in a nice bow? It makes one wonder what's truly more frightening, a serial killer and cults, or the fact that the people we look to for protection seemingly chose the easy way out, possibly leaving the public more vulnerable.
"What's the real monster? Is it the kind of idea of satanic panic and that there [are] cults? I mean, people do crazy things for a lot of different reasons," Zeman said. "I think the truth that somebody could close a case is potentially a lot more frightening, because at the end of the day, the police are who we go to for our safety."
"We have to believe in the police for our safety and so when we question that, that's really unsettling."