From the stone steps leading up to the Forest Hills train station in Queens there is an unobstructed view of where one of the Son of Sam murders took place. On an icy frozen night in 1976 and just off Station Square, a young couple out on a date got into their car after walking back from a wine bar. The man didn’t drive right off but let the engine idle as they tried to warm themselves. Maybe they kissed or were thinking about it when a large caliber bullet came crashing through the passenger side window and into the head of the young woman, killing her instantly.
I never mentioned this murder to Tanya as we sat there. The stone steps were where we went on nice days to eat our Subway sandwiches and watch the people pass, shooting the breeze as they say. “Shooting the breeze,” I can hear Tanya laugh. She liked things in the vernacular.
She’d won the Serbian lottery a few years back with the prize being a one-way ticket to America. The lottery was a holdover from Tito who had installed it during his thirty years as the Serbian president. Josip Broz, or Tito as he was called, was an unrepentant despot but he was also the only post World War II Soviet Bloc leader who’d stood up to Stalin and the Serbs loved him for that. If his people wanted to go to America then he’d send them there at a time during the cold war when no other Balkin country could imagine such freedom.
Sitting on the steps with Tanya I’d listen to her stories of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. She’d tell of being a child and seeing the giant statues and banners of Tito’s image lining the avenues in adulation of him. She didn’t think it was strange all those years later but she did see the humor in it. It made me think that having a despot for president maybe wasn’t so bad if you were also a little in love with him like Tanya was. And then there was the time in her early twenties when during the Bosnian War a rocket landed on the same Belgradian street she was walking down and she ducked into a doorway, barely escaping the blast as it swept down the street past her.
How easily I might’ve said, “So Tanya, right over there is where David Berkowitz crouched down in his stance and killed a woman.” I’d then explain to her how the male victim had survived and recognized Berkowitz when he was caught months later as the creep who’d sat across from them in the wine bar earlier and followed them back to their car. But then I’d catch myself. Why would I want to tell her that? She’ll just be confused by it and wonder what my point is.
And who could blame her? The murder happened when Tanya was a child. How could something from back then have meaning for her? Not to mention how distant it was from the world she’d grown up in. It also wouldn’t matter that I could show her the exact spot where it happened or take her to where the wine bar had been. That would’ve only confused her more and might have made her wonder what she was even doing with this older guy whom she didn’t have that much in common with in the first place. And since I would’ve done almost anything to keep her from thinking that, I decided not to bring it up.
I still wonder though what it was about that murder that so intrigued me. It was the fifth of nine in total and got more attention in the press than the others except for the last one which led to Berkowitz’s capture. It wasn’t even the only murder that happened near Station Square. A month later he shot and killed another woman as she walked down a street only two blocks away. But even with that one, there was a clue to what I can’t let go of.
Berkowitz didn’t commit these murders alone. Others were always there to help him stalk his victims and close in on them. This group considered themselves to be “satanists” with their candle-light rituals and all the rest, and it was around the time when Berkowitz joined up with them that they decided to start killing people. Their victims would be the young, middle-class types whose murders would garner the most press attention and be proof of their demonic power to spit in the face of society. None of which made any sense, even then.
Berkowitz became their trigger guy, maybe because he’d learned how to shoot a gun in the army and, being an overweight, lonely misfit, had more to prove than the rest. The murders all happened at night or in the wee hours of the morning. There was usually more than one victim and most were the young couples parked in cars on lovers’ lanes. The murders varied in time and circumstance but the one thing common to them all was that each of the victims had been stalked.
This was where Berkowitz excelled, zeroing in on a young couple’s most intimate moments. Then, when all was right in their world, Berkowitz would insert himself into it and suddenly there was only pain, chaos and fear. Berkowitz had never experienced such power. It felt godlike to him that he could transform entire worlds in a second, not just the worlds of his victims but also those of their families and friends and descendants for years to come and down through the generations.
It was exhilarating and addictive and, of course, had to end. Berkowitz was captured a few months later. His accomplices were never arrested as the New York police and politicians were too invested in their lone shooter theory to allow for anything else but the group members turned on each other and most died soon thereafter either by accident or suicide. Berkowitz was sent to prison where he found God and is still alive there in 2023, trying to shepherd other prisoners away from the path he’d taken as a youth. In the decades since, the Son of Sam has become that old serial murder story with the catchy name that’s been far surpassed in its senselessness by myriad others.
But back to his victims being stalked. It follows that some or all might have lived if they’d been more vigilant. But does that mean that everyone should always be aware that death might come for them at any moment? And if people are always on alert against their own demise, what does that mean in trying to plan for a future? How can people imagine a future if, by definition, their death would render any such plans inapplicable or superfluous. It seems that to plan for one’s future, a certain amount of hope or faith or ignorance – even innocence – is required.
Which begs the question: Are those who have been stalked by death destined to be stalked by it forever? A Son of Sam survivor once said to an interviewer that it doesn’t have to be that way but then I saw the haunted look in his eyes and wondered if that was only wishful thinking. I also remember that same look on Tanya’s face in distracted moments. Or maybe I’m only recognizing what I see in my own eyes.
Harvey Huddleston’s fiction has been published in Otoliths, Literary Yard, CC&D Magazine, The Eunoia Review, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Mystery Tribune, The RavensPerch, Stray Branch and The Scarlet Leaf Review.