IN OVER MY HEAD : Visiting the Son of Sam & Swimming at Streisand’s

I was producing Kankakee Valley Prime Time, my cable access show with Jaymie Simmon, in Kankakee back in 2000 and my wife came out to the staff meeting to give me a letter from David Berkowitz.  The production team all laughed and joked  about how it would be funny if I got a letter from the Son of Sam.  Only it was the Son of Sam.  My good friend and great writer Bill Myers had directed a documentary on him for Christian Television.  During the process Bill decided that Berkowitz was the real deal – Satanist turned genuine Christian.  After all, David wasn’t trying to get paroled early or use his newfound faith for anything except trying to live a good life now (granted, it’s easier behind bars) and was putting all his chips on a new chance in heaven.  Bill had told Berkowitz about the kind of writer I was and recommended me to help David tell his story.  Now David was contacting me to see if I’d come out to the Sullivan Correctional Institute in Fallbrook, New York.  When I told the production team that the letter was from the real David Berkowitz, no one said anything.  They just stared at the letter.  First lesson in dealing with mass murderers and serial killers – your friends don’t wanna know.

So David and I spoke a couple of times on the phone and then I made plans to travel to New York.   About a week before I was supposed to go, I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball with a bunch of 22 year olds in the league at my church.  It was pretty painful and expensive and the next year when I wanted to play again my wife said I had to put five grand in the bank first to cover the costs of any new injuries.  I told her that my team (me at 51 and four 22 year olds that I knew from my teen center) finished tied for second in an eight team league and I was the high point man.  She said I really wasn’t getting it.  I was too old to play full-court basketball with kids in their early twenties.  I said basketball had been part of my life since I was 9 whereas I’d only been writing since I was 12, but it didn’t seem to matter.

When I boarded the flight to New York to see David I was wearing a boot cast on my right leg and on crutches.  Getting around in the airport and on the plane was hassle enough but what I was really worried about was renting a car in New York and driving the 80 miles to Fallbrook. Actually I was mostly afraid of driving in New York City, especially since my traffic reflexes were going to be slowed by the cast.  Nonetheless, I rented the car, drove through the city and made it to the prison.  Sullivan is a triple max which means intense security precautions because these are the people they never want to get out.  Once there I asked for David Berkowitz and was told. “Does he know you’re coming because people come here all the time to try and see him and he won’t talk to them?” I assured him that David was expecting me and after a couple walks thorough the scanner I was cleared  (although the package of Rolaids I was carrying was confis-cated).

Then I was ushered into this cafeteria like room with lots of vending machines, tables and chairs.  And there was one kind of chubby guard sitting at a desk on the other side of the room.  He assigned me a table which was in the back of the room and way the hell away from him and said, “They’re bringing Berkowitz up now.’  And, even though I’d exchang-ed letters with David and even though I’d talked to him on the phone, I thought to myself.  “Where’s the bulletproof glass?”  Where’s all those barriers where you have to talk on phones?   I mean, I had decided that David was genuine or else I wouldn’t be there.  But, I guess I also thought there would be the thick glass.

About five minutes later, the big iron door clanged as the locks were pulled back and one of the gentlest and most peaceful men I have ever seen entered the room.  We talked for an hour and I had no doubts.  Yep, Berkowitz’s conversion was for real.  He wasn’t trying to get out and he wasn’t trying to make money.  He just wanted to explain how he went from being a Satanist whose specialty was murder to a devout Christian.  I thought it was a great book project.  But after months of trying to get an agent and a publisher for the project, I had to give up on it for awhile.  This is how that went down.  The mainstream agents and publishers didn’t want to hear about Jesus.  They just want the scoop about the Son of Sam murders.  This was the man that held nearly all of New York City at bay by awashing them in fear back in the summer of 1979.  In our country, if you talk about spiri-tual things, it has to be in a very broad “Oprah loves it” sense or else it has to be published by a Christian publisher and sold in Christian bookstores.  There’s even separate organizations and trade shows. ABA is the American Booksellers Association while CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association.  The Christian book publishers were not interested in the story because it was too violent for the sweet Christian housewives and Mom and Pop Christian Bookstores that buy most of the CBA books.  So that meant that what was probably the redemption story of our time was not going to be told.  I was so sure that David’s conversion was real that I would have let him sleep in a room with my kids.

Another time that I knew I was distinctly in over my head was when I was with Oliver Stone in Las Vegas.  We had been talking about doing a book and going through the deal process for months, and we’re going to start working when he invited me to this huge event called the Banquet of the Gold Plate at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.  It’s really a week long thing where the 500 highest SAT scorers come to Vegas and hear lectures from the most successful people in all walks of life.  This was in 1992 so among the people giving a talk were Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, Bob Gates (then head of the CIA), Richard Sessions (then head of the FBI), Bill Gates, Kevin Costner, George Lucas, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Edwin Teller (the scientist who discovered Pluto whom it well known that the character of Dr. Strangelove was based upon), some really big deal businessmen, architects, doctors and Oliver Stone.  I met more prominent people in four days than I had met in my entire life up to then…and I’d already met a lot of people.

So this one day on a break, Oliver introduces me to Richard Baskins who is an heir to the Baskin (as in Baskin-Robbins) fortune.   Real  nice guy. And he invites us swimming.  Oliver is in one the Penthouse rooms which is the top floor so he has no pool, but Richard is in a cabana on the first floor. I, however am staying at the Tam O’Shanter, the cheap Irish hotel down the street.  So Oliver asks me if I want to go swimming, hang out by the pool and talk about the book. The first thing I tell him is that I don’t have any trunks.  They’re back at the Tam O’Shantner.  So Richard says he has some shorts at the room that I can borrow.  Richard’s a lot bigger than me but I figure, who cares.  Oliver and I are friends and this guy will  be cool because Oliver likes me.  So what if the trunks are too big.  I don’t need to impress anyone.

So we go to the cabana and Richard gives me these shorts which are so big on me that I have to wear my belt with them.  I put them on and then the three of us are frolicking in the pool, having a good  old time when, all of a sudden, Barbra Streisand walks out wearing this long, flowing white gown.  She looks stunning. I stop frolicking and look at Oliver and ask, “What’s she doing here?”  He gives me this devil grin that he has and says, “Oh, this is her suite.  I forgot to tell you.”   Now, even though it was early on in the writing process, Oliver and I had developed this teasing “screw-with-you” mentality, always playing harmless little practical jokes on each other.  I had to do it to stand up to his powerful personality which basically would’ve run over me like a steamroller unless I pushed back a little.

So I’m in the pool with two guys who are bigger than me.  I look like a wet dog with the big shorts and Barbra Streisand is waving at us from the edge of the pool where the maids have just brought out food and drinks.  I’m trying to be cool but then I remember that my underwear is sitting on her bed where I changed.  I’m hoping she doesn’t hold them up and say, “Whose are these?”

In the end though, it was all great.  Barbra is a really sweet person or at least she was the three or four times I’ve seen her.   There’s just no easy way to do this job.

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  • May 2011
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