Eyes of the Storm; Gaithersburg lawyer James F. Shalleck, a former Bronx assistant district attorney, remembers his summer of 'Sam,' whose nights of mayhem and cold stare have stayed with him to this day.

The killers came and went. Dozens of them, guys who killed out of jealousy, greed, desperation, rage. James F. Shalleck, a Bronx, N.Y., assistant district attorney, could usually talk to them and find some emotion he could understand. None of them quite prepared him for David Berkowitz, also known as the "Son of Sam."

They met in the middle of the night on Aug. 11, 1977, in a conference room in police headquarters in lower Manhattan, hours after Berkowitz was arrested. He sat across from Shalleck at a conference table surrounded by detectives and prosecutors. Outside the building, crowds were gathering behind police barricades, a throng that swelled to thousands by dawn.


The news was out that the killer was inside the building, that it was over. Six murders in a year, seven other people shot at close range and injured with a .44-caliber revolver. In a year of 1,553 New York City homicides it was Berkowitz -- with his creepy letters to police and the press, his grandiose fantasies -- who got rivers of ink and captured the public's imagination.

Shalleck, now a lawyer in private practice in Gaithersburg, still seems amazed by that. He says there were about 400 homicides in the Bronx in 1977. The killers came and went. Who remembers their names? Amid so many murders the talk in the streets was overshadowed by one murderer, one story.


Twenty-two years later there is a movie by director Spike Lee: "Summer of Sam." Berkowitz stalks the background of a film focusing on a Bronx neighborhood during that summer of record-breaking heat, disco fever, blackouts, looting, another Yankees march to the World Series. And, of course, Son of Sam obsession.

Shalleck, who acted as the Bronx district attorney's liaison to the biggest manhunt in New York history, had heard Lee was making a movie. He agreed to see it with a reporter, looking forward to seeing how Spike Lee would portray a time that will stay with Shalleck always.

"It's one of those life events," says Shalleck, who is 53. "I was there. I was part of history. ... It'll probably be the first line of my obituary."

Shalleck, who ran unsuccessfully for Montgomery County State's Attorney in 1994 and 1998, is not shy about playing up his relatively modest role as a prosecutor in the "Son of Sam" case, which never went to trial. When Shalleck won the Republican nomination for state's attorney in 1994, his campaign brochures noted his part in prosecuting a nationally known killer. The case, he says, has become part of "my professional persona."

The case had a way of shadowing New Yorkers' lives that summer. As the movie shows, disco and restaurant business slumped as young people stayed home at night. Hair salons did brisk trade in blond dye jobs and short haircuts as women tried to safeguard themselves against a killer who was apparently targeting women with long, dark hair.

After a 21-year-old woman was killed as she walked on a Queens sidewalk on March 8, 1977, police announced they had linked this murder with four previous shootings beginning in the Bronx on July 29, 1976. The toll stood at three dead, four wounded.

Once the killings were linked, Shalleck was assigned as the chief representative of the Bronx District Attorney's office in the expanding investigation. Eventually the task force grew to about 300 officers. Pressure mounted as months went on without an arrest. The killer made huge tabloid headlines when he struck and when he did not. The first "Son of Sam" letter -- left at the scene of a Bronx double murder in April -- was leaked to the press in June. Then Jimmy Breslin, a Daily News columnist, received a letter. The paper published it in short segments, milking its sensational sales appeal.

He hesitates to acknowledge it, but Shalleck figures the attention the story received had something to do with the fact that Berkowitz "was killing middle-class white kids."


Shalleck says he would spend maybe an hour a day checking in with investigators in the Bronx and elsewhere in the city, sharing information. Bum leads came in floods. Tips about an oddball neighbor, a strange relative, a guy down the block who didn't seem quite right.

"I couldn't believe how many women were turning in their husbands," he says.

Finds film disappointing

The movie captures the public frenzy surrounding the case. Otherwise Shalleck found it disappointing in the way Spike Lee pushes the case into the margins of a movie devoted mostly to people having sex and cursing each other. A "sexploitation cartoon," he calls it, noting that he's glad he didn't bring his 20-year-old son, Jason, or 14-year-old daughter, Lauren to the Lakeforest Mall theater.

Berkowitz appears in the movie chiefly as a shadowy figure wielding a revolver, or ranting wildly in a filthy studio apartment. Near the end Berkowitz is shown being arrested, then escorted into police headquarters through a gantlet of onlookers shouting for his head.

After months of frustration, police caught a break. The night of the last killing, a woman in the Brooklyn neighborhood where it occurred told police she saw a husky man running down the street, possibly carrying a handgun. She also saw a patrol officer ticketing a light-colored car parked by a fire hydrant. By checking parking tickets written the night of July 31 in Brooklyn, police got Berkowitz 10 days later. The detectives found the .44-caliber revolver and a submachine gun in Berkowitz's pale yellow Ford Galaxy.


About midnight that night, the telephone awoke Shalleck and his wife, Sheila, in their apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The homicide detective on the line told Shalleck that a "Son of Sam" suspect had been arrested in Yonkers. Shalleck called his boss, Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola, then dressed and drove to headquarters in lower Manhattan.

"I'll never forget this. As I was pulling in, hundreds and hundreds of people were milling outside," says Shalleck. The scene at about 1 a.m. was "lit up with TV lights. It was like daylight. ... It was like a New Year's Eve celebration."

Berkowitz, a 24-year-old mail clerk, was being held in a separate room while officials gathered from around the city. Prosecutors from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx agreed to question the suspect separately.

Shortly after 4 a.m., Shalleck and his assistant got their turn, walking into the conference room where Berkowitz was restrained in a chair, surrounded by 15 people -- detectives, prosecutors, a stenographer. Shalleck wasn't sure what to expect. Nothing was so extraordinary about Berkowitz as the fact that he was so ordinary. This pudgy guy with brown frizzy hair dressed in the same open blue-and-white striped shirt and blue jeans that he was wearing when he was arrested outside his apartment.

"He looked like everybody's neighbor. Chubby, nondescript," says Shalleck. It sounds like bad movie dialogue, but Shalleck says there was nothing menacing about Berkowitz but his blue eyes. They "were chilling. They went right through you."

He was unlike any killer Shalleck had met. No emotion, no sign of feeling about the victims. No evidence of a "motive" that made sense to Shalleck. Berkowitz recalled with remarkable clarity how he approached parked cars in the Bronx and fatally shot Donna Lauria on July 29, 1976, Valentina Suriani and Alexander Esau on April 17, 1977.


"He had wreaked such havoc, yet he was so calm and matter of fact," Shalleck says. "And he knew how much havoc he wreaked. He had no remorse at all. ... It's like you telling me what you did at work yesterday. He would just walk up, do his thing and walk away."

Shalleck and his assistant talked to Berkowitz for about 40 minutes, sticking to the facts of the shootings. Anticipating an insanity defense, they did not want to give Berkowitz a forum for his fantasies. They would not let him ramble about demons, a 6,000-year-old voice reaching him through the black Labrador retriever owned by his Yonkers neighbor, Sam Carr -- apparently the Sam in "Son of Sam."

Shalleck got indictments against Berkowitz, but the Bronx cases never came close to trial. In May 1978, Berkowitz pleaded guilty to all six murders. The following month he was sentenced to the maximum penalty, 365 years in jail. There was no death penalty in New York State at the time. He is now imprisoned in Sullivan County, N.Y.

Shalleck worked in the Bronx DA's office for 12 years, the last three as chief of the homicide bureau. In 1983 he left to join the New York State attorney general's office, where he specialized in white collar crime and civil litigation. He'd seen enough murder.

"I couldn't prosecute homicides forever. It just eats you up," says Shalleck, who moved to Washington in 1989 to work for the Justice Department's antitrust division. Still, he says the Son of Sam case was a weird moment of celebrity for anyone connected with it.

"It's always there in your life, in the fabric of your professional life," he says. "I just hope movies like this don't glamorize it."


Pub Date: 7/13/99