Psychologists, victims' families and true crime enthusiasts have all pondered the same question: what happened to David Berkowitz as a child to turn him into a killer?
Before he was Son of Sam, infamous American serial killer, David Berkowitz was a troubled child with complicated origins. From a young age, his life was marked by abandonment, trauma, and a lie about his birth parents that would shatter his entire identity at a critical time in his life.
David's Humble Beginnings
David Richard Berkowitz was born Richard David Falco in Brooklyn, New York on June 1, 1953. His biological mother was a Jewish waitress by the name of Elizabeth "Betty" Broder. 'Falco' was the name of her ex-husband, Tony Falco, who had left her for another woman more than a decade earlier.
David's biological father was a married businessman named Joseph Klineman. He and Betty Broder had been having an affair for more than three years; allegedly, they had conceived David Berkowitz in the backseat of a parked car. David would not learn the truth about his origins until he was nearly an adult.
Some experts have speculated that David's rage about his own conception contributed to his later killing spree. He grew up to have strict ideas about sexual morality, and as the Son of Sam serial killer, he often targeted couples sitting in parked cars.
Adopted At An Early Age
When he was only a few days old, Betty Broder gave her infant son up for adoption. Her exact reasons aren't known, though some writers have speculated that Joseph Klineman likely wanted nothing to do with the child, and may have threatened to cut contact with Betty if she didn't give him up.
David was adopted by Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz, a working-class Jewish couple living in the Bronx. The Berkowitz family renamed their adopted son, changing his name from "Richard David Falco" to "David Richard Berkowitz".
The Berkowitzes were a childless middle-aged couple when they adopted David. Nathan worked six days a week at the hardware store the family owned, while Pearl preferred to spend as much time as possible doting on her only son.
A Troubled Boy
David Berkowitz's emotional and behavioral problems began long before he began to target young women on the streets of New York City as Son of Sam.
Throughout his school days, David had a long record of truancy, bullying and difficult behavior. His teachers found him to be a bright boy, but one who had little interest in learning. He had few friends as a child, and tended to hang around weaker and smaller children that he could easily bully.
Read Next: 29 Gruesome Unsolved Murders
By middle school, David Berkowitz had progressed to committing petty larceny and setting fires throughout New York City. His parents arranged for him to see a therapist, but surprisingly, he never received any serious diagnosis or legal consequences for his early crimes.
Could early intervention have prevented David Berkowitz from growing up to commit the Son of Sam murders? Unfortunately, the world will simply never know.
Berkowitz Was Bullied
David Berkowitz wasn't the only bully at his school. He was always large for his age, and the other children at school never let him forget it. He was reportedly called a "fat little Jewboy" by his classmates at the New York public schools he attended throughout his childhood.
Even as an adult, David could not escape comments about his weight and appearance. News coverage of his crimes often referred to him as "pudgy" or "paunchy". Although David would later gain a cult following of female admirers in prison, it's difficult to tell what sort of impact these comments might have had on him when he was young.
It's common for a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer or Son of Sam to have a history of cruelty to animals - David Berkowitz was no exception. As a child, he was suspected of killing "Pudgy", his adoptive mother's parakeet.
David was apparently jealous of the close relationship between his mother and Pudgy, and viewed the bird as a rival for her affection. He poisoned the bird with cleaning solutions over several weeks, until it eventually died.
Berkowitz was also said to be fond of killing bugs, destroying hundreds of them by burning them alive or gluing them down with rubber cement. Although most children who kill insects don't grow up to become serial killers, in David's case, the cruelty of his methods may have been an early warning sign of what he would become.
In 1967, tragedy struck the Berkowitz family - David Berkowitz's adoptive mother died of breast cancer. Most children would struggle after losing a parent, but the death of Pearl Berkowitz nearly destroyed David. In an interview, he once claimed that "After Mother's death, I lost the capacity to love".
Berkowitz reportedly had an intense but complicated relationship with his adoptive mother, one that only grew more complicated after she died. Their relationship was said to be much more intense than a typical relationship between mother and son.
Some believed that the adult David Berkowitz harbored great anger toward his adoptive mother, bot for abandoning him and for hiding the truth about his adoption. After all, many of the young women who were murdered in the Son of Sam killing spree were white women with long, dark, wavy hair - just like Pearl Berkowitz.
At the age of 17, David Berkowitz enlisted in the US Army. He passed both his physical and psychological exams with flying colors, and was deployed to South Korea with an infantry division. During his time in the military, he was noted to be an excellent marksman.
It was in Korea that Berkowitz began to experiment with psychedelic drugs, notably LSD. Friends noticed changes in his personality. The once-conservative Berkowitz began to send half-coherent letters proclaiming his newfound support for pacifism and the Black Panther party; he even signed one memorable letter by crossing out his own name and replacing it with "master of reality".
Berkowitz eventually returned home from Korea served the rest of his time in the army stationed at Fort Knox. He was honorably discharged in 1974.
It was during his time in Kentucky that David Berkowitz got his first real taste of evangelical Christianity. Almost overnight, the Jewish boy from the Bronx converted to a devout Baptist. It was then that he started to develop extreme ideas about sexual purity - ideas he claimed were the eventual motive behind the Son of Sam killings that made him the most famous serial killer in New York history.
Finally Learning The Truth
As a child, David Berkowitz had been told that he was adoptive. His adoptive parents, however, didn't tell him the whole truth about his origins. For years, Berkowitz was led to believe that his biological mother died giving birth to him.
When he was in his teenage years, he finally learned the truth - his birth mother hadn't died, and was still alive and well in New York City. He made it his mission to find his biological parents. And in 1974 - just one year before his murders started - he finally tracked down the woman who'd given birth to him.
David had hoped that meeting his birth mother would make him feel better about his origins. Instead, it sent him into a psychological tailspin - instead of feeling guilt for causing his mother's death, he began to simply feel unwanted and abandoned. The discovery that he had a half sister his mother had kept only made his abandonment more painful. A forensic anthropologist who studied the Son of Sam murders described learning the truth about his biological parents as the "primary crisis" of David Berkowitz's life.
Berkowitz was never able to confront his birth father - by the time he located Betty Broder, his biological father was already dead, along with any hope of getting closure.
By 1975, David Berkowitz's life was beginning to fall apart. He was freshly out of the army with no job, no girlfriend, and no real prospects for his future. He also had limited social supports; the revelations about his adoption had shattered his relationship with his remaining parents, and the alarming personality changes he'd undergone while serving in Korea had driven away most of his friends.
David briefly enrolled in Bronx Community College, but left after his first year. He moved into the Yonkers apartment where he would eventually meet neighbor Sam Carr, the man whose dog he would later claim was channeling demons and ordering him to carry out his murders.
David spent some time working at various blue-collar jobs - including a brief stint as a taxi driver - before eventually landing a position as a letter sorter at the US Postal Service.
He was still working at the Postal Service a few months later when he carried out his first recognized Son of Sam shooting, killing 18-year-old Donna Lauria and wounding her 19-year-old friend Jody Valenti as they sat in Lauria's parked car.
David Berkowitz had an unusual early life, by any standards. At any age where most boys are worrying about girls, sports and homework, David was grappling with the death of the most important person in his life, and the knowledge that she had told him an enormous lie about where he'd come from.
Perhaps David Berkowitz would have chosen a different path in life if he'd come from different origins - unfortunately, we'll never know for sure.