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Forty years in prison change Son of Sam

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

This image shows some of the background information on convicted serial killer David Berkowitz and a letter he sent to private investigator Michael Bidwell.

Walking away from their interview with serial killer David Berkowitz, a Cortland father and daughter are convinced the now 63-year-old is no longer the same person who murdered six people in New York City in the 1970s.

Michael Bidwell said he could even see himself befriending Berkowitz — better known as the Son of Sam — if he was on the outside.

However, would he welcome Berkowitz into his home? “Hell no.”

Rehabilitation and readiness to be released are two different things, said Michael Bidwell. And his daughter agrees. The Bidwells traveled to Shawangunk Correctional Facility on Monday to interview Berkowitz for Michaela Bidwell’s forensic science class at Cortland High School, for the class section on serial killers.

Michaela Bidwell worries Berkowitz would fall into the same coping mechanisms he used when released from the Army in the 1970s to find his friends gone. He joined a cult and fell into drugs and partying before his killing spree, leaving six dead and seven wounded in eight attacks in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Berkowitz’ 40th anniversary of incarceration is this year; his next parole hearing is in May 2018. The father-daughter duo think Berkowitz would not know how to cope on the outside. Michaela Bidwell says he would not be able to get a job or perhaps live in the place he misses most: the Bronx.
That’s a failing of the prison system, they said.

“Anybody who is eligible for parole, they should be getting them ready for the world,” Michael Bidwell said. “They need coping skills, to teach them … about cell phones, computer education. Are we preparing them for the outside world? I don’t think so.”

The Bidwells said Berkowitz seemed at first hesitant, even nervous, in the interview, but warmed up over four hours. They had lunch together, getting Berkowitz a jalapeno cheeseburger, a Snapple iced tea, Cheetos and a 3 Musketeers candy bar from the vending machine. Berkowitz offered to share the Cheetos.

Berkowitz was easy to talk to, willing to answer questions, eager to correct what he says the news media got wrong. He said he’s a changed man who takes responsibility for the killings, though he cannot fathom the person he was when he committed them.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia during a six-month stay in a psychiatric facility after he was caught. According to the Bidwells, that was the only time he was medicated for the disorder and he is now doing well in prison, holding a job and conducting ministry.

Berkowitz, a born-again Christian, says a demon he said led the cult he had joined told him to commit the murders. He says the media incorrectly reported that he was spoken to through his neighbor’s dog, and denied reports that he had killed a family parakeet, telling the Bidwells how he actually cared for the bird when it got ill.

He adamantly denied that a reunion in his early 20s with his birth mother and half sister was a trigger for the killings, saying the reunion was a wonderful event and his mother was “everything I wanted.” He also said his adopted parents created a loving and secure home.

Berkowitz did not describe in detail the crimes but said they were not due to any sexual frustration and there was no preferred type of victim.

“I was simply fulfilling what I was told to do,” he told the Bidwells. He scoured the streets until he found people to kill, and he said it was just by chance they were often in parked cars.

Still, Berkowitz admitted he committed more than 2,000 arsons, destroying vacant buildings and cars.
Michael Bidwell finds that particularly troubling. Bidwell, a born-again Christian himself, believes Berkowitz’ killing spree is linked to the influence of an evil spirit and the use of LSD, but the arsons predate all of that.

Arson, along with bedwetting and animal torture, is one of a triad of behaviors commonly found at a young age in future serial killers, Michaela Bidwell said.

She will turn in her paper next week, entitled “The healing transformation of David Berkowitz.”
She attributes Berkowitz’ claimed transformation largely to his faith, pointing out that he has a prison ministry, advocates for prisoners with disabilities and wants to start up a community program for at-risk youths.

She believes the tears she saw in Berkowitz’ eyes at times are real, that he regrets his crimes.
For his part, Michael Bidwell attributes the change, in addition to a conversion to Christianity, to being removed from the cult and getting off drugs, as well as being put to a productive use in prison. Berkowitz is a library clerk, a coveted job.

While the Bidwells say many people will wonder why they should care about an interview with a serial killer, they say Berkowitz’s story has worth because he has tried to become a better person.