The summers of 1976-77 in New York City have forever gone down in infamy. The Son of Sam terrorized every borough and ultimately brought residents “to their knees” over the course of a year. When David Berkowitz was then arrested, the city rested. Well, all but one man, a journalist named Maury Terry who discovered that the story had a lot more to it than one chapter.
When true crime filmmaker Joshua Zeman then read Terry’s book ‘The Ultimate Evil’ and met with him, the director at first wasn’t a believer so to say in Terry’s narrative—but he was curious. That curiosity turned to disbelief when he was then given evidence that could crack the case open in a time where people might actually listen, instead of back in the 70s when people were just relieved to close the case, and then again in the 90s when Terry was called a crackpot for trying to bring everything to light.
What is said evidence? Zeman breaks it down in Netflix’s latest docu-series, ‘The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness.’
When you first heard about this story, what was it about it that interested you?
I think anybody from New York growing up knows the legend and the lure of the Son of Sam—it’s a story that scared the hell out of everybody. It’s a story that I’ve always been interested in, and also, the idea that the Son of Sam owned New York City in 1977. He brought the city to its knees, and that’s gotta be a pretty crazy story for someone to be able to do that.
I was also making a documentary called ‘Cropsey’ about some missing kids in my hometown of Staten Island, and the more I was looking into the story about what happened to these kids, people kept mentioning the Son of Sam. They would say this Son of Sam case is actually connected to these missing kids, a cult might be behind it. I, of course, didn’t believe it at all, I thought it was just satanic panic. But then they told me to read this book ‘The Ultimate Evil’ by Maury Terry. I read the book, and it scared the sh*t out of me, and I don’t scare easy.
So, I thought, okay, is this true crime story real? Did Berkowitz really not act alone as this book alleged? So, I met with Maury Terry and he was a really interesting guy. I’m someone who likes to debunk conspiracy theories, and I didn’t believe Maury but I found his story to be so interesting…The more I started to investigate his allegations [though], and the more I started to speak with the NYPD, some detectives said that his allegations have some truth behind them. There are a lot of cops that don’t believe that Berkowitz acted alone.
So when did you start to believe his story?
I started to do the research and even hid it from Maury, because he was just pushing his agenda over and over again. They called him a crackpot so he just doubled down. I started to talk to more police and look at the evidence and maybe it’s just hindsight. But you’re like wait a minute, all of these different sketches [of the Son of Sam]—how could this be? Then there are these aliases and these letters? That would never fly today. You don’t interview the real Sons of Sam for even half an hour? How did they not do that? It’s not the rank and file, I would never say anything about the rank and file, its politics. This is NYC politics at its best and worst.
So, in the 90s when Maury Terry was very vocal with these allegations, aside from the cops, why do you think there was no big revelation with other people?
That was my question… I didn’t know why it didn’t take. As a true-crime filmmaker, I’m looking at Maury Terry’s failure and asking why did this happen? Why did a guy who had good evidence and the keys to unlocking one of the greatest mysteries of all time have nobody believe him? That becomes a main point of the story. I think a lot of it has to with the press and those mythologies that we put out there and the stories that we tell ourselves. Berkowitz was compelled by a demon dog to kill…That was the narrative that was put out and nobody questioned it. I don’t think they wanted to question it because they had just been put through a nightmare. You can’t blame them, you know what I’m saying?
So, why in the 90s did they not look at it again? I think Maury didn’t do himself any favors by appearing on some of the shows that he did and the tabloid press and that’s because the mainstream press wouldn’t look at his evidence. Unfortunately, that hurt his credibility even more. I also believe that we didn’t have such a discerning eye for police investigations in the 90s as we do now. Our relationship with the police and how investigations are handled and those conclusions is very different from the 90s. I think now it’s almost a trope to say it’s politics. I think we are in a new stage of police transparency.
Some of the victims (of the Son of Sam) asked me: Josh, it’s great that you’re doing this…But we’ve been trying to tell the world for decades and the police called us kooks, do you think it’s going to change? I said I think we may be able to rewrite history because now we have a much more thorough understanding of how police investigations are handled and how conclusions are made.
After meeting Maury Terry and realizing that there was truth to what he said, when did you then decide to make the series?
I just did a podcast, and the whole thing is about whether or not I wanted to do this series, because when I first met Maury Terry I didn’t believe him. I thought there is no way I can do Son of Sam, Maury Terry is too invested in getting the truth out there. I originally wanted to make a narrative series, so, I didn’t realize I wanted to make the docuseries until after Maury died. After he left me all of this evidence, and after I saw all of the tapes of these interviews with Berkowitz—he didn’t really tell me that he had all of this, he was just trying to convince me. Suddenly, after he died, I saw all of the evidence.
What are you hoping audiences take away from the series, not just with the case, but with Maury Terry himself?
I do believe that Maury Terry made a deal with the devil in a lot of respects. For me, this is a cautionary tale of true crime. We all go down rabbit holes these days, but imagine going down a rabbit hole for 40 years. This case destroyed Maury’s marriage, friendships and ultimately his health, and at a point where we all go down rabbit holes, I think there’s a lesson in Maury Terry’s tragic story.
‘The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness’ drops on Netflix May 5.