The Sons Of Sam And The Slippery Nature Of Conspiracy Theory

There might be more to the Son of Sam case than meets the eye – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Maury Terry’s Satanic Panic conspiracies should be believed.

Finally catching up with Netflix’s somewhat controversial (at least in the circles we move in) Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness, I was reminded just how strange a tale author Maury Terry wove in his doorstop of a book The Ultimate Evil, and how slippery the truth can be. Perhaps even more than with the Kennedy assassination, the Son of Sam killings, the identity of the killer(s) and the motives behind them seem to split people along very definite ‘all or nothing’ lines, with little room for the possibility that the truth might be somewhere in between. In typical Reprobate style, I’m going to argue that the reality is probably not as clear cut as anyone wants to believe.

I first read Terry’s book in the early 1990s, when The Ultimate Evil was to be found in remainder book stores at a bargain price (the same edition now sells at eye-watering prices). This updated 1993 edition of the 1988 original, clocking in at a hefty 800 pages, seemed to have gone to discount shops almost immediately, publishers Diamond Books perhaps being specialists in cut-price editions. The size of the book was daunting, but within a few pages – once I’d passed Terry’s initial self-aggrandising about his great life in the late 1970s – it became entirely engrossing, the very definition of a page-turner.

Initially, the book presents a straightforward – if somewhat nightmarish – true crime story, the tale of a series of murders in New York that left the police clueless and the public – even in a city notorious for its murder rates – terrified. No one should underestimate just how shocking the Son of Sam murders were – even in the age of the serial killer, there was something coldly clinical about the shootings of young couples as they sat in their cars, and the letters that the killer wrote to the press were remarkable in their poetic horror and arcane references:

Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. hello from the sewers of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks.

Once David Berkowitz has been arrested, however, the book shifts to Terry’s dissatisfaction with the official story, based on conflicting eye-witness accounts and other elements that simply didn’t fit, and his investigation into what really happened. This investigation rapidly takes him down a conspiracy rabbit hole, and for a big chunk of the book, it’s gripping stuff as it uncovers the idea of multiple killers and, yes, some sort of Satanic cult where potential suspects and witnesses come to violent and bizarre ends before the author can track them down. Things go off the boil as Terry’s story takes him further away from New York, into a world of millionaire snuff movie makers and Hollywood producers being killed over cocaine and movie deals gone bad (the Cotton Club murder case is a cautionary tale of late Seventies excess in itself), and it felt that perhaps by this point Terry was really stretching to make connections that simply weren’t there, based in large part on correspondence with a mysterious prison snitch – never the most reliable of sources. Along the way, he pulls in Manson, the Process Church, Scientology and more in a story that is endlessly fascinating and so densely researched that it was hard to come away from the book without at least thinking that the idea of Berkowitz acting alone was a much more fantastical one than the theory proposed by Terry. In ominous fashion, he ends the book:

Through the darkness, a foreboding wail can be heard. Faintly at first, then more insistent and nearer, the reverberations ring through urban canyons, roll across the shadowed byways of Scarsdale and Bel Air, and are carried on the night wind to the remote reaches of rural countrysides.

It is a mournful, curdling cry.

It is the sound of America screaming.

Now, if that doesn’t pull you in and make you want to read more, I don’t know what will. regardless of anything else, Terry certainly had a way with words.

Terry’s story was that of a nationwide occult conspiracy, connected to the Process Church of the Final Judgement (which had already imploded by the time of the killings), where ritual sacrifices and lucrative contract killings were disguised as the work of a single, deranged serial killer, and where porn, snuff movies and drug deals were all tied in as a part of the cult’s activities. In other words, it was the story of a Satanic Mafia, though Terry never quite makes that connection; so fixated is he on the Devil Worship aspect, he rarely stops to even consider the more prosaic organised crime implications. His story becomes ever more outlandish and ever more tenuous, with the connections he makes going from solid to thin to non-existent, based only on assumption that he then posits as unquestionable fact. It’s a classic example of someone not seeing the wood for the trees, so obsessed is he in finding ever more dramatic but unconvincing connections to more and more powerful people, often on the word of a single man who has no connection to the case.

On my first read, I remember being a bit disappointed that he didn’t pull the Zodiac murders into the story, given that they had startling similarities to the Son of Sam crimes – couples shot in cars, wildly varying descriptions, different murder techniques, taunting letters to the press and police. Perhaps there just wasn’t room, or perhaps because Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac book wasn’t published until 1986, the case didn’t enter his radar. But pretty much everything else is here, including the idea that the killings didn’t stop with Berkowitz’s arrest, they simply went unconnected. That’s not an unreasonable idea – we (and the authorities) have a curious need to compartmentalise the crimes of a serial killer. Look at how the crimes of Jack the Ripper are listed – five murders, and that’s it, despite the fact that no one was ever caught and the violent murders of sex workers in the East End did not start with the first or stop after the final official victim.

Terry’s book had both the luck and the misfortune to appear at the height of the Satanic Panic. This meant that America was primed for a tale of occult conspiracy, though Terry had been working on the story for a decade at this point and was never quite connected to that hysterical movement; as the Netflix documentary shows, he found himself sucked into a Geraldo Rivera world of occult hysteria that ultimately did his credibility no good, and which he sometimes seemed a touch ill-at-ease with. It’s this unfortunate connection that damns him in the eyes of many. Terry’s story of a nationwide cult of Satanic killers is, after all, grist to the mill of the obsessive Satan hunting conspiracist, feeding their fantasies of powerful elites consuming the offspring of broodmares in secret ceremonies. You could say that the book is a Bible for QAnon believers. Certainly, those who do believe Terry believe it wholeheartedly because of the occult aspects – they probably don’t care about the Son of Sam murders at all.

Maury Terry investigates

Yet there is always a third possibility. It seems possible that Terry may have stumbled upon a sort of truth, wandered off – or been sent down – down blind alleys and ended up assigning the wrong motivations to the right conclusions. To explore this, we have to perhaps face a few uncomfortable truths, as well as pointing out the holes in his theories.

Let’s make one thing clear right away: I don’t believe for a moment that there was a grand, nationwide conspiracy of occultists. For a start, as we well know, non-theistic Satanists can’t get along, so what chance of actual Devil Worshippers, seemingly made up of misfits and addicts, forming a functioning criminal alliance that spans the nation? If there is one thing we know about occult groups, it is that they will splinter almost as quickly as they form. The whole Satanic Panic is based around the idea of these powerful Devil Worshippers being able to get away with (literal) murder, yet constantly being caught or exposed. The great flaw in the global Satanic Panic claims was just how these groups, with connections in the highest places, kept being exposed by Christian campaigners, ex-members and other people that they surely could have easily silenced, given their power, reach and murderous activity. Terry’s book, and other conspiracy theorists, have an answer – that members who have outlived their usefulness are routinely sacrificed to the authorities (like Berkowitz) or killed (like his alleged accomplices John and Michael Carr) to throw people off the scent of the bigger picture. But given that even the people Terry claims to be the leaders of the group, like Roy Radin, end up dead, you wonder just who is giving the orders – Satan himself, perhaps?

A gory image from The Ultimate Evil

In our eagerness to rubbish Terry’s occult connections, though, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that there really have been murders committed by devil worshippers, and there really are murderous cults out there. Bad apples exist in every culture. You can dismiss the idea of a national, even global conspiracy while still acknowledging the possibility of more local conspiracies (and remember, a conspiracy can consist of just two people). Is it possible that Berkowitz, the Carrs and others may have been part of some ad hoc occult group who got carried away? They wouldn’t be the first. I do get why Satanists and other occultists want to deny the idea of occult-based crime because, unlike any other religion, the crimes of one tend to become the crimes of all in the eyes of the sensationalist media and the gullible, frightened public. Why someone murdering in the name of Satan is more horrific than someone murdering in the name of Mohammed, or Jesus, or any other religious figure, is a fascinating argument – in all cases, these fanatics are outliers rather than representatives of their beliefs, and it’s only a primitive superstition and a hysterical fear of the Devil that makes it seem any different.

Similarly, I don’t believe that the Process Church of the Final Judgement had any connection to these murders either. Terry’s connection of The Process to the Son of Sam killings is the point where his theories start to unravel. Just as Ed Sanders tried to blame the Manson killings on The Process, it’s all smoke and mirrors, where any answer that you go looking for can be found if you are single-minded enough to ignore the anomalies. The Manson/Process connection has more legs, but even then it is simply a case of late Sixties pseudo-religious cult groups colliding rather than any sinister cause and effect; The Process was just one of many groups Manson encountered in the counter-cultural world of the late 1960s. You can, of course, make any passing connections look like something more if there is no evidence to prove otherwise. Little makes Terry look more stupid than his attempts to connect Berkowitz’s and Sam Carr’s names to the Goetic Circle of Black Evocations and Pacts by Eliphas Levi – for Levi to have included anagrams or references to their names in a piece created long before either man was born takes the theory into the realm of the supernatural and is the worst sort of clutching at straws to back up your beliefs.

Terry’s journey down the Satanic rabbit hole certainly seems to have sent him in all sorts of wrong directions, but let’s give him some credit. For all their self-congratulation after Berkowitz was caught, the New York police force did not do a stellar job in this case, and their determination to stop all investigation after his arrest seems remarkably short-sighted and dubious, especially given all the conflicting information about the case. Yes, eye-witnesses are not reliable, but there is the fact that descriptions of the killer – and the cars involved – were so diverse that perhaps a bit of further investigation might not have gone amiss. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that more than one person was involved in a crime? While we cling to the idea of them as solitary stalkers, it’s hardly without precedent for serial killers to work with others. A strange aspect about conspiracy theories is how absolutely determined some sceptics are to dismiss, out of hand, any suggestion – even the most reasonable – that the official narrative might be in any way inaccurate, a touchingly naive belief in the infallibility of the legal system. it’s that all or nothing idea again, a belief system as thoroughly set in stone as that of the wildest conspiracist. Yet we know that the police often get it wrong – miscarriages of justice, fumbled investigations and an eagerness to clear up cases as quickly and neatly as possible are all-too-common. I offer you the case of Henry Lee Lucas, should you have any doubts that police forces will often take the easy way out when it comes to solving crimes, failing to investigate even the basic facts once they have a confession.

Here’s a thought: is it possible – just possible – that some random murders might be a diversionary tactic to cover up targeted hits? Is it possible that some easily manipulated people could be tricked into carrying out crimes in the name of whatever they believe in by people with more material and personal motives? That isn’t such a stretch – we know that serial killers don’t always work alone, we know that some murderers have been groomed and brainwashed into thinking that they are acting for an ideological – often religious – reason, by people who simply want to settle grudges or turn a profit. I’m not saying that any of this is the truth. But to bluntly deny even the possibility seems as blinkered as to go balls-deep into the whole national Satanic conspiracy.

“Ahh”, but people will say, “hasn’t Berkowitz said that the whole Satanic thing was nonsense?”. Well, yes. But Berkowitz is, to say the least, an unreliable witness, so often has his story changed. To believe him when he says something that you want to believe and dismiss him when he doesn’t is a bit selective. He’s probably lying at one time or another; he might well be lying all the time. Just as Terry finds evidence for everything that he wants to believe, so his opponents can find counter-evidence to prove him wrong. For some, Berkowitz’s recanting of the cult aspects of the case proves that it was hogwash; for others, it shows that he has been intimidated into silence. Each side has an answer to the arguments of the other, and the truth disappears in the middle.

There is a conspiracy theory that goes like this: governments and other organisations hide the truth about what they are doing by encouraging ever-more outlandish conspiracy theories. You can hide genuine small-scale conspiracies under the cover of a fantastical grand conspiracy. The fake conspiracy – which might be started or simply encouraged by these organisations – works in two ways. On the one hand, it diverts investigation away from the truth, which might in fact be an equally sinister yet more ordinary activity; on the other, it makes anyone looking beyond the official story look like a crank to the average person. Make enough people think that the conspiracy is one involving thousands of people in positions of great power, something generally dismissed as just another lunatic theory believed in by obsessives, and the less glamorous truth goes unnoticed. Because no one wants their conspiracy of choice to just be a handful of nobodies, unconnected to anyone important, the reality can almost hide in plain sight, ignored by both believers and sceptics. It’s an interesting idea – the very height of cynicism, one which suggests that both sides are too entrenched in their own beliefs to ever see the truth that is right in front of them. A great piece of sleight of hand, essentially. In this case, Terry would’ve been a useful idiot, coming up with (and perhaps being fed) theories so outlandish and demonstrably false that no one would pay serious attention to anything that he said – even the ideas that might have seemed plausible in different circumstances.

The real Sam – Sam Carr and his noisy dog.

I don’t know what really happened on those summer nights between 1976 and 1977. Neither, I’m afraid, do you, unless you are David Berkowitz. Everything that you think you know is slanted by who you are. What is clear is that the grand Satanic conspiracy that Maury Terry spent half his life chasing is certainly a myth and that his claims about it have done considerable harm. Being wrong – even wildly wrong – about one thing does not, however, mean that you are necessarily wrong about everything else. If Terry did find the truth, it is now forever buried in the fantasy, and short of unearthing a smoking gun, it will remain buried forever. Terry’s inability to see that he was sliding off the deep end and was being manipulated, either for the fun of it or for other reasons, by shady informants ultimately scuppered his investigation and left him a broken man, the subject of ridicule and the father of a Satanic Panic that led to countless lives being ruined. The misdirection and destruction of Terry is such that you could almost build a conspiracy theory around that, should you wish.

Like most of life, the truth about the Son of Sam is slippery and elusive and is probably not what anyone wants it to be. In that, the case is not that much different from many other crimes, where cause and effect, perpetrator and evidence remain subjects of debate. Whatever you believe, it’s probably right and it’s definitely wrong, because that’s how life works. I doubt even Berkowitz can really explain the hows and whys of his actions after all this time (if he ever could), so what hope anyone else?


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One comment

  1. A major problem is that there has never been a good, truly comprehensive book about The Son of Sam case aside from Lawrence Klausner’s in 1981. A post-Maury Terry one would be good, but tedious to have to clear up the misconceptions that are so wide spread now. One being the fact not all the police sketches were supposed to be the shooter and just people seen in the area who could be or were possible witnesses and that John Carr was stationed with the USAF almost the entire time Berkowitz was on the loose.

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