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Archive for Sunday, July 4, 2004

David Berkowitz: A ‘killer’ in the courtroom

July 4, 2004

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David Berkowitz.

For a younger generation, it's an unassuming name with little or no significance: Infamy, after all, doesn't carry a lifetime guarantee for pop-culture prevalence.

But for those who remember the summer of 1977, the moniker's mere mention often strikes a blood-curdling chord.

Just ask Berkowitz himself.

"For people of a certain age, my name is always going to be linked with terrible crimes," he says. "That's just the way it is."

For the uninitiated, David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, was a serial killer who terrorized New York City in the '70s. His nickname came about because he claimed a demon (personified by his neighbor Sam Carr) ordered him -- through the neighbor's dog -- to murder his victims. Berkowitz is currently serving a prison sentence of 365 years at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York.

Or is he?

"I've been on the loose in Lawrence for a long time," Berkowitz says, wearing a serious expression.

Lest you feel a fit of panic coming on, take a deep breath: Berkowitz is having a little fun with you. Such jokes are one of the small perks associated with sharing a famous -- or, in this case, infamous -- name.

"It certainly isn't a name I would choose to share," he says with a rueful smile. "But really, the jokes I hear are at worst annoying, and the buzz has died down a lot over the years."

David Berkowitz, a Lawrence attorney, used to get double takes in
court when people heard his name, which he shares with a convicted
serial killer.

David Berkowitz, a Lawrence attorney, used to get double takes in court when people heard his name, which he shares with a convicted serial killer.

Still, Berkowitz, 52, has a standard comment for pesky disbelievers.

"My alibis during the '70s are very solid," he says, laughing.

Berkowitz the jury-slayer

Berkowitz cites Chicago as his birthplace but claims Wichita as his hometown. He moved to the Sedgwick County city with his family when he was only four.

"My father was from Wichita, and we went back so he could go into business with his father and my uncle," he says. Berkowitz's father and mother worked in wholesale costume jewelry and gifts.

As a boy, Berkowitz helped out with the family business and enjoyed school. History was a subject that intrigued him. He majored in the subject at Wichita State University, which was known as the Municipal University of Wichita until July 1, 1964. Berkowitz had a few credits to complete that summer, so his diploma bears the school's updated name.

"I often still think of it as Wichita U, though," he says.

After graduation, the history buff spent a year dabbling in graduate work at Wichita State and then came to Kansas University's law school in 1965.

"Law school worked for me; I enjoyed it," he says, noting he graduated with honors and was fifth in his class. "And Lawrence was a good fit."

A fit so good, in fact, that Berkowitz never left.

He has his own practice in west Lawrence, where he handles everything from estate planning to collections to, yes, criminal representation.

David Berkowitz could have represented David Berkowitz.

"A little irony, I suppose," he says.

Some in Lawrence also may know Berkowitz from his days as Douglas County's district attorney, a position he held from 1972 to 1976.

"That, of course, was before the Son of Sam killer was caught," he says. "I remember one of the policemen joking with me after I was out of office that I left just in time."

A family man at heart

When news broke that the Son of Sam killer had been caught, Berkowitz was single and living alone.

"I remember getting up that morning and turning on the TV," he says. "I normally didn't turn the TV on in the morning, but for some reason I had chosen to turn on 'The Today Show' that particular day.

"I was fumbling around in the kitchen, I think, and only half listening when I heard 'David Berkowitz has been arrested.' And I thought, 'Whoa, I'm still here.' I remember that vividly."

Berkowitz's mother phoned him right away, he says, to razz him about the news.

"The whole thing was just strange, but you have to remember that even though my name isn't too common in Kansas, Berkowitz isn't unusual out East," he says.

Nevertheless, the ribbing from friends, family and curious strangers began. But his future wife Katherine wasn't alarmed by Berkowitz's noteworthy name.

"I actually met David on a blind date in 1979," she says. "I was 45 minutes late because the water shut off in my apartment."

Wasn't she hesitant to make a guy named David Berkowitz sit around and wait?

"I really wasn't too worried," Katherine says, laughing. "I figured the real one had been caught."

With her tardiness forgiven, Katherine and Berkowitz hit it off. They were married six months later in January of 1980.

"He's a wonderful husband and a great dad," Katherine says. The couple have two children: Jack is 16, and Bill recently celebrated his 18th birthday.

Berkowitz, an avid fisherman, enjoys spending time with his sons and has devoted many hours to the Boy Scouts under a rash of titles.

"I've been a den leader, a pack chair, a troop chair, you name it," he says. Berkowitz is currently commissioner of the Boy Scouts' Pelathe District.

"I just enjoy the outdoors," he says.

Douglas County district judge Mike Malone has known Berkowitz since their days together at KU.

"David has always been an innovative prosecutor," Malone says. "I have a lot of respect for him, and I know juries in the courtroom always have, too.

"But back in the day, his name used to require some explanation," he adds with a chuckle. "The jury wasn't quite sure who this guy was."

Berkowitz just shrugs and smiles. The questions and comments have lessened through the years, but he gamely handles the rest with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

"Once in a while when I do collection work, people will say something about my name," he says. "So I seize the opportunity and say, 'Yeah, that's my name, so you better pay up!'"

Or else.

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