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.

July 13, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

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.

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