THE BRONX — It was just after 1 a.m. in the morning on July 29, 1976.
Eighteen-year-old Donna Lauria was sitting in her friend Jody’s two-door Oldsmobile outside Donna’s home at 2860 Buhre Ave., in the Bronx. The car windows were closed.
Donna’s parents had passed by, after being out themselves. Donna and Jody had spent the night at a local disco.
Suddenly, a husky man with curly hair appeared out of nowhere. Four gunshots came rocketing through the passenger window. Donna Lauria was dead, the first victim of the “Son of Sam” killer.
“Forty years. It feels like it happened yesterday,” Donna Lauria’s mother, Rose, now 82, told PIX11. “I’ve been crying all week, on and off,” she added. Rose Lauria has battled health problems recently, and her husband, Mike, who is 84, remains in rehab, after having another bout of congestive heart failure.
Donna was the middle child of three children, their only daughter.
“I have a Mass said for my daughter every anniversary since the day she was killed, every birthday since the day she was killed,” Rose Lauria said.
New York City didn’t know it then, but July 29, 1976, would mark the beginning of a year-long spree by an elusive serial killer who eventually taunted the police in letters to the newspaper, calling himself Son of Sam.
Women with long dark hair would pin it back, because the shooter would often target brunettes. Young couples avoided lovers’ lanes, because the killer would fire into parked cars. Nearly a year into the spree, New York City was in a frenzy of fear.
In October 1976, a 20-year-old man, Carl Denaro, was sitting in his car in Flushing, Queens, when bullets came flying through the windows. Denaro was hit by a bullet in the back of the head but survived relatively intact.
Then, in November 1976, two young women were fired on, as they returned to one of the women’s homes in Floral Park, Queens. One victim was paralyzed by the bullet.
It wasn’t until a fourth shooting in January 1977 that police realized a serial killer was in our midst.
Christine Freund, 26, was sitting in a Pontiac Firebird in Forest Hills, Queens, with her new fiance’, John Diel. The killer fired through the window and Freund was dead. It turned out the bullet that killed Fruend was fired from the same gun — a .44 caliber Charter Arms Bulldog revolver — that killed Lauria and wounded others.
And the murders would continue.
On March 8, 1977, Virginia Voskerichian, a 21-year-old college student, was fatally shot in Queens, dying at the scene.
On April 17, 1977, the killer returned to the Bronx, fatally shooting a young couple, 18-year-old Valentina Suriani and 20-year-old Alexander Esau, as they sat in a car.
On June 26, 1977, Judy Placido of the Bronx had gone to Elephas disco in Bayside, Queens. About 3 a.m., 18-year-old Placido was sitting in a car outside with 20-year-old Sal Lupo. Shots were fired, hitting Placido in the right temple, neck, and right shoulder. Lupo was hit in the forearm. It is remarkable they both survived.
A massive NYPD task force was now working on the .44 caliber killer case. The shooter became known as Son of Sam, because he used that name in letters to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin.
The murderer taunted the city about where he would hit next, as the first anniversary of the spree approached.
On July 30, 1977, the attacker fired his gun in Brooklyn, where 20-year-old Robert Violante and 20-year-old Stacey Moskowitz were parked on a service road of the Belt Parkway in Bath Beach.
Both of them were shot in the head. Moskowitz was killed. Violante survived but he was rendered legally blind.
The shooter made a mistake.
He parked his yellow Ford Galaxy near a fire hydrant and received a ticket. That ticket led NYPD detectives to an apartment building in Yonkers 10 days later, where they arrested 24-year-old postal worker David Berkowitz for the murders. He had a trunk full of weapons in his car and was supposedly planning a killing spree in the Hamptons that summer.
It emerged that Berkowitz told cops that Sam was his neighbor — Sam Carr — and that Sam’s barking dog was ordering him to kill people.
Berkowitz ultimately confessed to the crimes and received 25 years to life in prison for each murder. But some detectives continued to be disturbed by the wildly different descriptions of the gunman given by various survivors.
Only some of the descriptions matched Berkowitz’s look.
Robert Violante told PIX11 on the 30th anniversary of Berkowitz’s capture: “The guy who was parked in front of me that night described someone who looked completely different from Berkowitz.”
Berkowitz later gave prison interviews saying he had been part of a satanic cult that carried out the murders, and the .44 caliber killings were carried out by different people, including him.
“I did not pull the trigger in all of them,” Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz, who was raised Jewish by his adoptive parents, became a born again Christian in prison. He became very active counseling other inmates.
Berkowitz, now 63, appeared before the parole board, yet again, in late June. He told the parole commissioners “I’ve done a lot of good and positive things, and I thank God for that.”
Rose and Michael Lauria were on the phone for the parole hearing and, once again, forcefully argued that Berkowitz should not be freed.
“He will never be sane, because he was never sane from the beginning,” Rose Lauria remarked to PIX11. “He will never know how to communicate on the outside,” Lauria said.
Lauria’s husband has survived an aneurism and prostate cancer and now he’s struggling with his congestive heart failure. The couple will be married 63 years this coming February.
They have four grandchildren, including one who looks just like their lost daughter. A great-grandchild was recently born. She is grateful for them, but notes neither her life — nor her husband’s — has been the same since July 29, 1976.
“I’m a changed person,” Rose Lauria said. “There’s not a day that goes by she’s not on my mind.”