Investigative journalist Maury Terry spent his life pitching the story that the so-called Son of Sam killings were part of a larger conspiracy that stretched from coast to coast. That’s a far different narrative than the conventional one, which holds that David Berkowitz was the lone serial killer behind the 1976-’77 shootings that brought New York City to its knees.
Terry’s reporting culminated in The Ultimate Evil, first published in 1987. The central theme of the 600-page opus is that there was a satanic cult behind the Son of Sam murders and others, nationwide. Terry believed Berkowitz was just one more follower among a Yonkers, New York-based cluster of devil worshippers.
There were, the reporter said, oddities in police accounts—by the dozens. Artist sketches generated from eyewitness interviews produced wildly disparate illustrations. Berkowitz, at times, admitted to some of the killings, with nothing to gain by denying responsibility for the others. And what about the untimely deaths of John and Michael Carr—after Berkowitz was arrested? They were the sons of Sam Carr, a neighbor who owned the dog Berkowitz famously said had ordered him to kill.
Terry died in 2015, without his work moving the needle in the Son of Sam case. But his arguments get a fresh, very public airing in April 2021 with the release of a new edition of The Ultimate Evil: The Search for the Sons of Sam and an accompanying documentary. Evil arrives with an introduction by filmmaker Joshua Zeman (A&E’s The Killing Season), who inherited three cartons of research when Terry, his friend, passed away.
[Watch The Killing Season on A&E Crime Central.]
Zeman spoke to A&E True Crime about the findings that made him, like Terry, question the official account that Berkowitz acted on his own: “I have to say The Ultimate Evil is honestly one of the scariest books I’ve ever read,” Zeman says.
How did The Ultimate Evil end up on your radar?
I grew up on Staten Island, in New York, and at the time I had been making a documentary project about five missing kids in my hometown. The film (2009’s Cropsey) is about urban legends and the underground of suburbia, in kind of a Blue Velvet sort of way. While we were looking at the stories of these missing kids, people kept telling us about devil worshippers in the woods. The story was that there was a cult that was connected to the Son of Sam case. I thought it was complete “Satanic Panic” [baseless conspiracy theories that ran rampant in the early 1980s about cults committing mass child abuse]. I didn’t know what these people were talking about. But I started to chase that a little bit more.
Finally, we ended up speaking to a lawyer…then a journalist…then cops. And all these guys kept saying: “Actually, there’s some real truth there …that in the Son of Sam case, David Berkowitz didn’t act alone and there was a cult behind it.” They said: “You know, you might want to start by reading The Ultimate Evil.”
It’s a long road from that to inheriting 40 years of research. How did you connect with Maury Terry?
So, as I told you, I read The Ultimate Evil, and it scared the s-it out of me. It had this Manson-esque quality to it, with roving bands of killers, but it was in my backyard. It was in New York City. It had a creepy 1970s, 1980s feel to it. So, I went to try and find Maury Terry. I didn’t want to make a documentary. I was skeptical of the whole story. But because I loved a bunch of urban legends, I’m like, ‘OK. I want to meet this guy.’ Maybe because I was scared, but also because it was like watching a guy go down a rabbit hole and just…losing himself. That interested me.
Since you allude to that, there are suggestions that Terry carried the weight of this story around to a point of self-destruction. In your opinion, did his obsession with the Son of Sam impact his health?
This story killed him. Without a doubt. It ruined his marriage. He dedicated 39 years to it, trying to prove it to the world. Imagine it: You feel like you have the keys to unlocking one of the greatest cases in the past 50 years—but no one will believe you. That would drive you mad.
He was hell-bent on proving his version of events. And as we all know, that’s never the right way to convince somebody of the truth.
Let’s talk about some of Terry’s arguments. Berkowitz told him, in a prison interview, that he didn’t pull the trigger in every crime, right? But Berkowitz has waffled on that through the years.
Oh, yeah. Berkowitz told numerous people over the years—not just Maury—that he was not always the one who pulled the trigger. People say: ‘Come on, why are we supposed to believe Berkowitz?’ But it’s not like he [denied being the shooter] in all of them.
What else supports the idea there were multiple shooters?
There are the sketches—but it’s not just the sketches. It’s the interviews we have with the sketch artists and members of the NYPD, saying: ‘We have a very strong inkling that there were numerous people involved.’
What convinced me was not Maury Terry. It was all the other law enforcement surrounding this case… We’re not talking about random cops. We’re talking about intelligence divisions within the NYPD whom I have spoken to, and [they say]: ‘Yes, we all knew that Berkowitz didn’t act alone. Every time we tried to investigate it, we were told to shut it down.’
There was enormous pressure to resolve this investigation. Within hours of the arrest, on August 10, 1977, you’ve got Mayor Abe Beame broadcasting it over the airwaves: “The people of New York City can rest easy this morning…” Why was it urgent to get the case closed so quickly?
In the book The Bronx Is Burning, [author Joseph Mahler] says the city wasn’t just in a financial crisis—it was in a ‘spiritual crisis.’ New York City had millions of dollars of damage from the [July 1977] blackout. Morale among police officers was low. It was just the worst scenario. And suddenly, Berkowitz being arrested was the shot in the arm that New York City needed. It was the one thing that everybody could glom onto… Berkowitz walks up smiling for the cameras and says: ‘I did it all.’ He was happy to be there. And he gives the craziest story in the world, so much that you just accept it and move on.
I don’t want to get us sidetracked, but do you feel like there’s a connection between the New York City of 1977 and today? Then and now…each a drawn-out year of anxiety and fear?
That’s right on the money. At the start of the pandemic, the streets of Manhattan were empty. And then we started to see boarded-up shops…and then crime started to increase in the subways. This is exactly the kind of panic that Maury was talking about.
You have a killer, he’s walking around, preventing people from going out. The streets are empty. No one’s going to restaurants. No one’s going to bars. No one’s going to discos. And again, then you have Berkowitz, a mild-mannered postal worker. He’s 24. Lives alone in Yonkers. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect conclusion. And I am not a conspiracy theorist. I’m a realist.
Do you keep up with Berkowitz? He blogs. The photo on the home page of his website is just him standing there, smiling and holding a Bible.
I think a lot of people in prison find religion comforting—especially people who have committed horrific acts against other human beings.
You don’t mention anything in your introduction to the new edition, but have you actually gotten face-to-face with him?
Yeah. Three or four years ago, I went to go visit him [at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, in Ulster County, New York]. I didn’t feel that I could have an opinion without just sitting across from him. We didn’t discuss the case at all. Really. I just wanted to know what he thought of Maury. I learned…well, let’s just say I got what I wanted to know, and by no means was this to satisfy some perverse curiosity. I just couldn’t in good conscience talk about Maury without addressing that.
(Berkowitz, now 67, is serving six consecutive life sentences for the 1976 to1977 terror spree.)
You’re now something of the standard-bearer for Terry’s work. I think we have to hold your feet to the fire on this: What do you think? Did Berkowitz act alone?
I go back and forth every single day. Look, this case is still unfolding. I’m still finding out new information, some of which completely supports Maury Terry’s theories… Do I believe that there were other shooters, based on the eyewitness testimony and based on the investigation and based on speaking to New York City officials—including members of the Queens district attorney’s office?
Yes, I believe that there were other shooters. I think at least one. I think.