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In the summer of 1977, I had a paper route delivering The Daily News in the Bronx to almost 100 customers, many of them older.

One of them was Mr. Norton, a tough-talking grizzled New Yorker who frequently sent me to the deli to get him a six-pack of beer.

He was a shut-in and an avid reader of The News, so when the papers started to pile up outside his door, I grew alarmed.

It took a while, but I finally got the attention of the security service that patrolled our buildings and was there when the officers broke into his apartment.

In what was an appalling lack of discretion, the officers asked me – a 12-year-old — to come inside and identify his dead body.

Mr. Norton was on his back on the floor, his face a frozen grimace.

I remember it distinctly to this day.

That was one of several events that summer that yanked me from my protected cocoon of school and home and forced me to confront the realities of death, violence and the ugly side of human nature.

Up to that time my exposure to death was fleeting. I had lost a grandmother and a grandfather, neither of whom I knew very well.

But that summer taught me that death could be immediate and unpredictable.

It saw the continuation of the reign of terror of the Son of Sam, a serial killer who used a .44-caliber handgun over a year to kill six and wound seven.

I was too young to date or drive (he targeted young couples in cars) but the idea that some madman was killing people at random was hard to comprehend.

Even more disturbing was a young couple on my paper route who had a toddler son. Outwardly nothing seemed amiss but one day the husband apparently snapped and killed his wife, their son and himself with a large knife.

The brutality shocked me but I was even more upset by the disconnect between how I perceived him and the reality of what must have been going on behind closed doors.

And then there was the citywide blackout of July 13–14, 1977.

Plenty of neighbors helped each other and people banded together during the crisis but that kind of altruism was eclipsed by arson and looting that felt like something out of an apocalyptic movie.

Though my neighborhood was spared the worst of that property damage, I recall feeling disappointed and confused that people could act that way.

Coming of age – when you cross from childhood into young adulthood and your worldview is reshaped – conjures up movies such as “The Breakfast Club” (1985) or “Stand By Me” (1986).

But my coming of age did not happen in after-school detention or with a bunch of buddies on a trek to see a dead body.

Real life – not Hollywood – burst my insulated bubble that summer 40 years ago.

My Pollyannaish ways became a thing of the past.

 

 

Son of Sam Began His Murderous Spree 40 Years Ago Today

It was 40 years ago today that serial killer David Berkowitz murdered his first victim in the Bronx, the start of a yearlong reign of terror that left New Yorkers both on edge and fixated with what became known as the Son of Sam murders.

At the time I was 12 years old. A few months later I started to deliver The Daily News to apartment buildings in the Bronx.

The killings, which also came to be known as the work of the .44-Caliber Killer, because of the weapon he used, were ready-made fodder for the city tabloids and TV stations.

The serial murders came at a time that I was coming of age. I was asserting my independence – I was working and starting to ride the subways by myself.

So for me, the city was both exciting and dangerous. (Remember, New York was just coming out of its dismal fiscal crisis and crime, poverty and drugs were tearing at the fabric of its communities.)

It was against this backdrop that the Son of Sam killings gripped the city’s attention. Over the course of more than a year, he shot 13 people in cold blood, killing six.

Berkowitz, who later claimed he was acting on instructions given to him by a neighbor’s dog, played cat and mouse with the cops, taunting them with handwritten letters to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin.

The murders were intermittent. This was not a one-time spree killer like the mass shootings now all too familiar to us today.

Instead, Berkowitz targeted young couples, often in parked cars, and frequently young attractive women with long brown hair. (This reportedly prompted many young women in the city to run to salons to get their hair dyed a different color.)

As a newspaper delivery boy, I would get stacks of The Daily News delivered outside our apartment door for me to then distribute to my customers.

That, in turn, meant I got a jump on all the latest developments in the case.

I would voraciously read the stories before I headed out on my route.

Among the headlines: “Breslin to .44 Killer: Give Up! It’s the Only Way Out!’ “Cops: .44-Caliber Killer ‘Is Taunting Us.’” “New Note: Can’t Stop Killing.” “Killer to Cops: I’ll Do It Again.”

The day after cops arrested Berkowitz – Aug. 11, 1977 – The Daily News featured this headline: “Nab Mailman as .44 Killer.”

I rushed into my parents’ bedroom and breathlessly woke my mother.

“They got him! They got the .44-Caliber Killer!” I told her.

Indeed they had.

And a 13-month reign of terror had finally come to an end.