Crime

Serial Killer Q&A #1: David Berkowitz

Welcome to Serial Killer Q&A, a new irregular feature exclusive to Total Batshit. Yeah, that’s right – exclusive. That’s marketing gold, that is.

While multiple murderers are unfortunately very real, many of the beliefs around them are not. Each instalment of Serial Killer Q&A will focus on a different individual and address some of the questions relating to their crimes, as well as popular perceptions of serial murder. This could make Q&A posts a tad darker than the usual Batshit fare, but I’d encourage you to give them a shot even if you’re not a true crime fan. I promise this stuff is interesting!

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1. Who is David Berkowitz?

In short, this guy:

David Berkowitz, at Police Headquarter in Yonkers
Is that all you needed to know?

Between July 1976 and August 1977, David Berkowitz terrorised New York City as the Son of Sam (formerly the .44 Caliber Killer). He shot 13 people, killing 6 and seriously wounding 7, and appeared to target young women with long dark hair. Berkowitz wrote bizarre letters to police and journalists, which claimed “Papa Sam” demanded the killings in order to quench his thirst for blood. The NYPD originally considered Berkowitz a witness, but when they contacted Yonkers police for assistance in tracking him down, the local PD informed them that the contents of one of the Son of Sam letters made them suspect Berkowitz was the killer. At the time of his arrest, Berkowitz confessed to all of the crimes. He explained that the “Sam” in his letters was his former neighbour, Sam Carr, whose demonically possessed labrador ordered him to kill.

2. Is David Berkowitz a psychopath?

I’m not a psychiatrist and I’ve never met David Berkowitz, so I’m not even slightly qualified to give a diagnosis. But since this is my blog (and since I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading about these things), I will give you my personal, uneducated opinion, which is that Berkowitz sounds more psychotic than psychopathic. What’s the difference? “Psychotic” is a sort of umbrella term that describes symptoms and conditions that cause people to loss touch with reality (or at least alter their perception of it). Psychotic symptoms include delusions and hallucinations (both visual and auditory), and an example of a psychotic condition is schizophrenia. People with psychotic conditions are rarely violent (and, in fact, are more likely to be victims of violence than commit it), but a person suffering psychosis may become violent if they are scared and misinterpret what they’re experiencing. This is more likely to occur if the person is not receiving treatment or has exasperated their condition with drugs or alcohol.

Psychopathy, on the other hand, is a behavioural disorder in which individuals display superficial charm, high intelligence, manipulative and impulsive behaviour, pathological lying and egocentricity, incapacity to love, lack of remorse or shame, etcetera. They are not intrinsically violent, but are selfish and lacking in empathy, which makes it easy for them to pursue their own desires at the expense of other people. It’s estimated that 1% of the population are psychopaths, and those that don’t end up in jail often become successful CEOs, lawyers* and neuroscientists.

american-psycho
And Wall Street douchebags (source: http://videovortex.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/all-time-classics-american-psycho-2000/).

In 1977 David Berkowitz was not someone who was described as charismatic or likeable; he was an odd loner whose confusion of fantasy and reality made people uncomfortable. He moved house in attempt to escape from “howling demons”, and sent threatening letters to neighbours Sam Carr (“I can see that there will be no peace in my life, or my family’s life, until I end yours…”) and Craig Glassman (“True, I am the killer, but Craig, the killings are at your command…”), whom he claimed were part of a Satanic group that persecuted him. He shot dogs that he believed were speaking to him, scrawled Satanic graffiti all over the walls of his apartment, and kept notebooks documenting hundreds of fires he had lit around New York City. That’s the behaviour of a psychotic, not a psychopath.

3. Were the Son of Sam murders part of a Satanic conspiracy?

Sorry, did you just skip over the previous two sections about rambling letters and talking dogs? OK, fine, let’s have a look at this “theory”.

While Berkowitz had long demonstrated a preoccupation with the occult, the Satanic cult conspiracy theory only picked up steam in the early ’90s with the great Satanic Panic. After becoming a born-again Christian in 1987, Berkowitz made the claim that he had joined a Satanic Cult in 1975. In 1993 he told the press that the Son of Sam murders were ritual slayings intended to instigate war and chaos, and that he personally had only killed three people. Several cultists were involved in each attack – they assisted with planning, surveillance of victims, and acted as lookouts and drivers. Berkowitz was only willing to name two of his (supposed) co-conspirators: John and Michael Carr, the long-dead sons of Sam Carr.

theesatanicchurch001In 1975 fifteen bucks was quite a commitment! I would have just played some D&D.
(Source: http://occultchicago.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/advertisement-for-thee-satanic-chuch.html)

At the time of the attacks, some individuals close to the case expressed the belief that Berkowitz had not acted alone. This and Berkowitz’s claims resulted in the reopening of the Son of Sam case in 1996; however, it was eventually suspended due to lack of findings.

From my advanced Google-fu, it appears the only evidence to support the conspiracy theory are the varying witness descriptions of the shooter (specifically his hair) and the supposedly Satanic suicide of John Carr. The former can be explained by taking a closer look at the descriptions; following one attack two separate witnesses said the shooter looked like he was wearing a cheap blond wig, and if we disregard hair colour the majority of descriptions across all of the crimes match Berkowitz. The latter seems to be an odd, but not unbelievable, coincidence.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with former Chief of Detectives Joseph Borrelli, who said, “The best proof I have that he acted alone: Has there been a homicide of a similar nature since?” If a cult was determined to start a war through human sacrifice, wouldn’t they continue to kill using one of the other shooters? I also think it’s telling that Berkowitz’s testimony changed after his conversion to evangelical Christianity. Obsession with religion, religious delusions,  delusions of grandeur (particularly the belief that you have a special purpose or mission) – all are common signs of schizophrenia, and I believe all are present in both Berkowitz’s original testimony and his current statements. Berkowitz has just changed focus from Satan to Christ.

4. Why did Son of Sam attack women?

Berkowitz targeted young brunette women, usually in pairs and sometimes with their boyfriends, but his changing testimony makes it difficult to determine why.  In 1979 Berkowitz said his original claims of demonic possession were a hoax and that he targeted women to punish them for rejecting him both romantically and maternally (as in the case of his biological mother, who gave him up for adoption to preserve a relationship with a married man). When Berkowitz returned to more Satanic explanations in the late ’80s, he claimed the “sacrifices” were chosen because they were young and middle-class – perfect symbols of the American future his cult was trying to destroy.

We may never be able to understand Berkowitz’s personal motivation, but the statistics of serial murder victims as a whole reveal some disturbing patterns. 70% of victims are women, and victims of both genders are often chosen from marginalised and/or vulnerable groups: prostitutes, runaways, migrant workers, hospital patients, children, and the LGBTIQ community. Selecting victims who are either estranged from family and friends (and who are less likely to be reported as missing), or who are widely discriminated against (and whose deaths rarely result in major media coverage or public outcry) not only has practical advantages in evading capture, but helps the killer dehumanise their victims and rationalise their own actions. These people “won’t be missed” (Ted Bundy: Conversations With A Killer) or “deserve to be punished”.

We could now easily move into questions of agency versus culture and nature versus nurture, but that’s a whoooole other post. However, it’s my opinion that serial killers, like art, do not exist in a vacuum, no matter how irrational their actions may seem.

vacuum_sealed_fresh_love_1Existing in a vacuum isn’t good for anyone.
(Source: http://youbentmywookie.com/wtf/fresh-love-bizarre-japanese-art-vacumm-sealed-couples-in-plastic-bags-15155)

5. Where is David Berkowitz now?

Berkowitz is currently incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York. He writes blogs and articles for his evangelical website (which is maintained by volunteers, as Berkowitz is not allowed access to a computer) and works in the prison’s Special Needs Unit and church.

SSRecent pic (from AriseandShine.org).

Since 2002 Berkowitz has repeatedly requested that his parole hearings be cancelled, stating, “In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have, with God’s help, long ago come to terms with my situation and I have accepted my punishment.” He often expresses concern over the public’s interest in violent crime, and in 2005 he sued Hugo Harmatz, one of his former attorneys, for publishing a collection of his letters. Berkowitz demanded that Harmatz return his possessions and donate the money he made off them to the Son of Sam victims and their families. They settled out of court when Harmatz agreed to donate part of the book’s profits to the New York State Crime Victims Board.

 

Are you a true crime buff? Leave a comment to suggest a subject for the next Serial Killer Q&A!

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The Heiner Affair (or: Real Conspiracies Are Messy)

In another time (2002) and another place (Queensland), I studied journalism and media studies at the University of Queensland. I loved it and was not entirely incompetent, but the University of Technology’s phallic architecture and bunker-style interior design seduced me into transferring to a creative writing/cultural studies degree in Sydney. My writing style became a bit mongrel as a result – a mix of journalistic, fiction, academic, and, now, copy writing techniques, with no real mastery of any particular area.

taylor-the-mixed-breed-2_62802_2011-12-09_w450
On the plus side, I am adorable and considerably less inbred than all of you pedigree bastards.
(source: http://www.dailypuppy.com/puppies/taylor-the-mixed-breed_2011-12-09)

While I was only at UQ for a year, my lecturers and tutors left a deep impression, none more so than Dr Bruce Grundy, the school’s Journalist in Residence. Grundy was earnest, wry and subversive; he removed the topics of Sport and Religion (which he considered irrelevant) from our ‘Institutions in Australian Society’ course so that he could arrange a lecture on Indigenous Australian history instead. He also taught us about the Fitzgerald Enquiry and was determined that if we learnt nothing else in our first year we would at least go away with the knowledge of how foul and corrupt Queensland’s history was; how foul and corrupt Queensland remained.

What I remember most about Grundy was his work with a woman who had, as a teenager, been abused at the notorious John Oxley Youth Centre. During an excursion to Mount Barney National Park, the girl had somehow ended up being left unsupervised with a group of older male inmates, two of whom raped her before they were discovered by a staff member. The staff member suspected some “sexual contact” had occurred between the children, but was unable to get an answer from any of them. The excursion continued, but the boys ran away into the bush just before it was time to return to the centre. The same chaperone who had found the children the first time voiced his concerns about the possible assault to the other members of staff, and the girl was taken back to the centre while some of the officers stayed behind to look for the boys. The boys later made a call from a phone box to say that the girl had “egged them on” (further confirming the likelihood that an assault had taken place), but the girl was not spoken to until the following day. At that time she stated that the boys had pressured her into having sex and confirmed that she would like to press charges; however, she changed her mind a few days later after she was bullied and threatened by other children.

The incident was soon mostly forgotten, but in 1989 retired magistrate Noel Heiner was enlisted to investigate complaints from John Oxley staff, ostensibly regarding wages and conditions. The Goss Labor Government then came into power, at which point it was found that the Heiner inquiry had not been properly constituted. Because of this, in January 1990 the decision was made to shred all of the material that had been collected. However, Kevin Lindeberg, a former union official, claimed that the Heiner documents included reports of physical and sexual abuse of children at the centre. Lindeberg said that he sought access to the documents in January and February of 1990, and that the Queensland Government had been advised not to destroy the files until the matter had been resolved. The shit really hit in the fan in 1999, when former Member for Windsor Pat Comben stated on Channel Nine’s Sunday program that at the time of the shredding,  ” [W]e were all made aware that there was material about child abuse. Individual members of cabinet were increasingly concerned about whether or not the right decision had been taken.”

Grundy believed that the Heiner documents contained evidence not only of the rape I have just discussed, but of a systemic cover-up of abuse of children by both staff and older inmates. He worked tirelessly to investigate, petition and write news stories to help bring her experience to light, and the case became a part of the curriculum for his subjects. Many students became involved in the cause.

So, why am I writing about this now? Well, a couple of weeks ago I decided to do a post on conspiracies that had actually happened, and I wanted to include some Queensland madness. I couldn’t remember having seen or heard anything about Grundy’s cause in the last few years, so I trawled Google News to get caught up and… I was dismayed. In the years since I’d left UQ, the Heiner Affair had been embraced by every right-wing lunatic that had an axe to grind against the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government. Almost all of the stories I found were incredibly biased opinion pieces, and the most recent ones featured a lot of back-pedalling and retractions.

Who’s right and who’s wrong? Honestly, I have no frigging idea. The absence of an Upper House grants Queensland its famous power to “get things done” (or undone – see the Newman Goverment’s watering down of same-sex civil unions less than three months after their election), which is fantastic for gerrymandering and corruption. However, the lack of interest from mainstream and/or reputable press is baffling, and the poor standard of much of the “reporting” that does exist does not give credence to the cause. From what I’ve read, no-one has denied that the handling of the girl’s assault (and, I’m sure, other cases at John Oxley) was grossly inadequate, but with the Heiner documents long gone it seems impossible to prove what their contents were or the Goss Government’s true motive for destroying them.

Having known and very much respected Bruce Grundy, I cannot doubt his integrity – and he certainly has done some amazing work over the years. But is he wrong on this one? All I can say conclusively is that real conspiracies are messier, more destructive, and infinitely harder to get to the bottom of than fanciful bullshit about Reptilians and pyramid eyes.

Phew! That was a long (and heavy) read for Batshit. If you managed to stick it out, treat yourself to Evil Eddie’s brilliant ode to my (vexing) home state!

Dungeons & Dragons (Nerds <3 Satan)

I have some pretty nerdy interests (not surprising for someone who blogs about aliens and conspiracies), but it wasn’t until I met my partner that I entered the shameful world of RPGs. Not wanting to disgrace myself alone, I quickly dragged down some of our friends, and we now get together on a semi-regular basis to play Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, Mutants & Masterminds, and whatever other random game temporarily grabs our interest.

Our group is pretty relaxed, so we usually end up drinking a lot and trying to screw up the GM/DM’s carefully laid plans. For arseholes like us, there’s no greater satisfaction than seeing the gut-punch expression on our GM’s face when we insta-kill a boss monster by stabbing it in its enchanted shin, or talk some maniac out of beheading us simply by being adorable. It’s not the success or violence we enjoy, but shitting all over something that one of our friends has spent hours working on. That’s just the sort of people we are.

Arseholery aside, you may wonder where my initial interest came from. I’m not really a huge fan of video games or the fantasy/sci-fi genres, so how did I even learn that D&D existed?  Well, from movies like this:

The “sensational conspiracy of murder” was hatched between 20-year-old Chris Pritchard and two of his college friends, who plotted to kill Pritchard’s mother and stepfather (Bonnie and Lieth Von Stein) so that he could make an early claim on his $2 million inheritance.  The three young men attacked the Von Steins one night while they slept; Bonnie Von Stein was badly injured, and Lieth Von Stein was killed.

The “sensational” part of the crime was not the cold-hearted greed or the privileged background of the perpetrators, but the fact that they played Dungeons & Dragons together. This united them in a Satanic pact of blood and death that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality… supposedly.

The Pritchard crimes were committed in 1988, after almost a decade of D&D hysteria. Groups such as BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, which is quite an understated name when you consider their accusations) claimed that the game was addictive, dangerously absorbing and lured unsuspecting children into witchcraft and devil worship. Concerned (paranoid) citizens (lunactics)  distributed pamphlets, went on talk shows and even wrote books to spread the word and try to get the game banned.

The propaganda was ridiculous. Check out these brilliant examples:

BADD-pg0

Contents page from a BADD “information” pamphlet. (Source: theescapist.com)

0046_04
A classic Chick tract.

According to these sources, as well as some contemporary news reports, more than a few teachers, psychiatrists and law enforcers shared BADD’s fears. One of my absolute favourite quotes is from the 1988 book Stairway To Hell by Rick Jones (whoever that is). In it, an ex-police officer/occult lecturer is reported as saying that D&D is “..supposed to be a board game, but kids play it for life and death on the street.”

BloodZnCripZ D&D copy
Please let this be true, and please, PLEASE let someone turn it into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Lauryn Hill.
(Original image source: hiphopisland.com)

 God, how I wish these ideas were true. One of my characters is a halfling cannibal druid who morphs into a honey badger during combat – I would be crazy to turn down that sort of power! But, alas, all D&D has ever taught me are some basic flanking rules and the average number of standard drinks it takes to make our Irish friend fall asleep mid-sentence (hint: it’s a lot).

The freak-out over Dungeons & Dragons was really an offshoot of Satanic Panic, which had spread throughout the US and other countries following the McMartin Preschool trial and the release of the (now discredited) autobiography Michelle Remembers. Most of the controversy died during the late ’90s, when the various Murdoch newstatorships very kindly gave the public other things to be scared of. However, the odd story still pops up.

To me, the irony of moral panics is that it is often much scarier to be a part of the demonised group (ie: a D&D player or “Satanist”) than the supposedly terrorised majority. In a column titled  How We Won the War on Dungeons & DragonsAnnalee Newitz recalls how some young gamers were “..ostracised by their peers, kicked out of public schools, and sent to glorified re-education camps by parents who feared their children were about to start sacrificing babies to Lolth the spider demon.”

Kicking people out of schools? Re-education camps? I’m so glad we don’t do that anymore!

The London Monster (alternative title BUTTS LOL)

I’m a sucker for some mass hysteria, and the London Monster is one of my favourite stories. Here’s a brief synopsis – hopefully you’ll enjoy it enough to go learn more.

Between 1788 and 1790, stinky old London was terrorised by a violent phantom. He stalked beautiful young women; sometimes he approached to offer a sniff of his nosegay, other times to spew profanity in their faces. He strapped knives to his knees, concealed a blade in his bouquet… and liked to stab women in the butt.

tina butts

More than 50 attacks were attributed to the monster, who seemed driven by an insatiable lust for booty blood. Women took to wearing copper pans beneath their bustles. Men formed No Monster Clubs and wore special pins to declare their innocence (evidently working on the theory that monsters are not fans of brooches).

With the city in panic, soon every clothing snag or accidental shove was viewed as a monster attack. This resulted in many conflicting witness descriptions, which led some to conclude that the monster was a supernatural master of disguise. Pickpockets and other petty criminals were able to use this fear to their advantage; if they risked detection, they would scream “Monster!” and disappear amidst the ensuing chaos. It is also believed that some ‘victims’ faked injuries and lied about assaults in order to gain attention or acknowledgement as a beauty (although I personally believe their true motivation would have been much more interesting than just wanting to feel pretty!).

V0011294 The dismayed Charles Fox in handcuffs, implicated by a woman
A victim presents her puncture…

In June 1790, 23-year Rhynwick Williams was accused of committing the assaults. Williams, a former ballet dancer and artificial-flower-maker, had fallen out of work. Lacking a stable income, he’d been forced to share a two-bed room with three other men. This was considered strong evidence of his hatred of women, which supposedly fuelled the attacks.

Williams was eventually charged with defacing clothing, a crime which under the Bloody Code actually carried a harsher penalty than assault. The evidence presented against him was flimsy and he had solid alibis for many of the crimes, but unfortunately the people of London needed a scapegoat in order to feel safe again. Despite an ebullient defence by the poet Theophilus Swift, Williams was ultimately convicted on three counts and sentenced to six years in Newgate Prison.

If you’d like to learn more about The London Monster (and 18th-century English weirdness in general), I’d strongly recommend Jan Bondeson’s The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale. You can order it through Book Depository, or if you’re feeling optimistic you can try to borrow my copy. Good luck with that.

Did I seriously just use the term ‘booty blood’? Ugh! I’m the one who should be locked up!