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Reexamining the ‘Son of Sam’ Case on Smithsonian Channel
July 30, 2017  | By David Hinckley

For people who lived in New York in the mid-1970s, there has never been a more visceral example of homegrown terror than the Son of Sam case.

Smithsonian captures much of the fear and tension Sunday at 9 p.m. ET with a new Lost Tapes episode on one of our most disturbing serial killers.

Like other shows in this retro series on real-life crime, Lost Tapes: Son of Sam unearths archival news footage from the case, as well as ancillary vintage film that recalls one of the most ragged eras in the history of the city.  

Beyond all that, the case also illustrates the proverbial banality of evil.

Over a year, the perpetrator killed six people and wounded seven others. He struck in far-flung places all around the city and picked his victims at random. For months the only clue was taunting notes, all promising further bloodshed.  

While he was on the loose, then, no one felt safe – particularly young women, who seemed to be his primary targets. The killer shot men as well, but only when they were with women.

His favored MO was to quietly approach a woman or a couple in a deserted area late at night, sometimes when they were in a car. He would fire at close range with a .44 caliber Bulldog handgun, then disappear.

Absent any physical evidence the police began by profiling his victims. Since most of the women had long hair, that became a bulletin point in police warnings, and we see footage here of TV reporters approaching women on the street and asking them if they plan to cut their hair.

Most of them say no, though a number of women admit they no longer go out at night the way they did before.

The Son of Sam killer wasn’t a constant presence. His shootings were spread out over a year. But the long pauses and the uncertainty helped keep the city in a state of high tension at a time when it was already reeling from an increase in crime and an economic crisis that threatened to short-circuit basic services.

Lost Tapes: Son of Sam captures the sense that while the city wasn’t exactly hanging by a thread, it needed some serious rehab.

What Smithsonian’s documentary doesn’t say, but almost could, is that a serial murder case gave city residents something that brought them together: a demon for everyone to fear and loathe.

When the demon was finally captured, busted because someone traced a parking ticket, he turned out to be a schlub, a delusional mailman.  

Even obsessively publicized serial killings made him no more than a nobody – though sadly, his insignificance didn’t bring his victims back.

The documentary wisely spends little time on the killer, instead focusing on a city where a .44 caliber revolver could be waiting around almost any quiet corner.

And there really was a monster in the night.

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