The new Netflix docuseries The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness is a tale of obsession and manipulation. Journalist Maury Terry was so obsessed with his plausible alternate theory of the Son Of Sam case that he allowed himself to be manipulated by convicted murderer and notorious schlemiel David Berkowitz.
The Son Of Sam or .44 caliber murders took place in New York City in 1976-1977. It was one of the most sensational cases of its or any other time. It fueled a newspaper war between the NY Daily News and NY Post, which was won by the NYDN because its star columnist, Jimmy Breslin was manipulated by David Berkowitz much like his less well-known colleague, Maury Terry.
Breslin published a series of bizarre letters from the so-called Son Of Sam claiming that a dog channeling its dead master made him to do it. It was the homicidal equivalent of the old “dog ate my homework” gambit but it somehow worked on Breslin and the NYPD.
The detectives working the case convinced themselves that it was a lone gunman, not because the evidence led them in that direction but because it was easier than delving into the complexities of it. That was left to Maury Terry.
Terry posited that there had to be more than one person involved. This supposition was supported by the fact that the original police sketches looked nothing like Berkowitz. This belief was widespread at the time as it became clear that David Berkowitz was a follower, not a leader. Mind games were Berkowitz’s specialty, not action.
In the early days of his investigation, Maury Terry pursued evidence to support his theory. There does seem to have been some sort of satanic cult in Yonkers, NY with which Berkowitz was involved. One of the cultists, John Carr, was Berkowitz’s neighbor and resembled the police sketch more than Berkowitz. Carr’s irascible father was named Sam. That’s right John Carr was literally the son of Sam who apparently was a son of a bitch. Terry believed that John’s brother Michael was also involved in the cult. Both Carr brothers died in mysterious circumstances. That fed Maury Terry’s obsession.
Berkowitz and the Carrs are the Sons of Sam of the title, but it was Maury Terry who descended into darkness. He took the notion of satanic cults to its extreme and dived down hundreds of rabbit holes. He drew many plausible connections but convinced himself that there was a link between the Manson family and the Yonkers cult. In that case I believe he was:
The docuseries unfolds in four acts. The final act depicts the unravelling of Maury Terry. He was mostly right about the case BUT he spent his final years trying to make the facts fit his theories as opposed to following the facts where they led him. Berkowitz continued to manipulate Terry in an elaborate game of mental five-card monte. It’s boring in prison.
The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness is a well-made and surprisingly entertaining series. Director Joshua Zemen uses the contemporaneous teevee news coverage to great advantage. He also does a superb job of chronicling Maury Terry’s descent into obsession. Unsurprisingly, Terry who died in 2015 urged Zemen to make the documentary:
…he met Terry, who quickly became hell-bent on the idea of Zemen making a documentary about his work.
“I originally had wanted to make [Terry’s book] The Ultimate Evil into a narrative TV series. I didn’t want to do a doc at all,” Zemen said. “Maury’s pestering me for literally a year — ‘please do a doc, please do a doc.’ I think he sees me as some kind of hope for him that he’s going to finally get his story out there.”
But Terry died before anything could come of the project. And in what may have been a last-ditch effort to shed light on what he always believed was the truth behind the Son of Sam case, he left all of his research to Zemen.
“I get Maury’s files and all of these interviews with David Berkowitz — all the B-roll, all his letters,” Zemen recalled. “Suddenly, the idea hits me — yes, you can make a doc. Not just about the investigation, but about Maury, this kind of fascinating character who had gone down the rabbit hole for 40 years and never came out.”
That sums it up well. Maury Terry was right to believe that Berkowitz did not act alone but he took it too far. Obsession ain’t pretty and neither is the effect it has on people.
Before grading Zemen’s film, here’s the trailer:
I give The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A-.
I gave myself an earworm as I wrote this so, the last word goes to John Lennon: