Science & Tech

Understanding Motives: Son of Sam

John Douglas

Lesson time 12:54 min

David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, terrorized New York in the late 1970s. When John interviewed him, he drilled down on the “why,” asking questions—a lot of them. He shares how catching serial killers comes down to a simple equation: why + how = who. With this as the foundation for asking the right questions, John provides guidance for understanding the motives of people in our own lives.

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Topics include: Case Study: Son of Sam • Use Empathy to Understand Motive • Identifying Motives • Assignment


[MUSIC PLAYING] DETECTIVE: In 1976, 1977 New York City was having its worst year in homicides. There were over 1,600 homicides in the city of New York. The police department was taxed. They were running all over the place. Then all of a sudden, here comes a case out of the blue. First one's called the 44-Caliber Killer, but then it would be called the Son of Sam. In this chapter, I'll be using the Son of Sam case to teach you about motive. Determining motive comes down to a simple question. Why plus how equals who. Why these victims? Why not other victims? What motivated him to perpetrate these crimes? What precipitated the event at his particular age? How were the victims murdered? What type of weapon was used? Were they killed quickly or slowly? Once we can answer those questions, it can lead us to the perpetrator. Understanding the motives of others helps us understand their behavior, their choices, and what they may do next. [MUSIC PLAYING] In the summer of 1976, there was a killer terrorizing New York City. His targets were mostly individuals and couples that were parked in cars. And he used a 44-caliber weapon. And he would approach the vehicles always on the passenger side of the car, and then he would shoot. And through the survivors we knew he had a two-fisted handle on the gun as he shot into the passenger side. What was the motive? Then he started communicating with the police. He started communicating with Jimmy Breslin of the newspapers. He was playing games with us. This happens with killers of this type. They may start off with a particular motive, and that motive is to kill certain-- a certain type of people, certain groups. But then they get caught up in the media, and so now they're morphing into a two-dimensional type of motive, not only just to kill, but I'm going to put the fear of God in New York City. And that's exactly what will happen here. And so in a warped mind of these serial killers, they want recognition. So this one guy described himself as one grain of sand on a beach of billions upon billions and billions of sand. And how can this inadequate nobody, what can I do to become a somebody? The nickname Son of Sam came from a letter he left the police after his 10th and 11th victims. He ended the letter stating, "I am deeply hurt by your calling me a woman hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the 'Son of Sam.'" So the Son of Sam made a critical mistake on this one particular night, and that's when he was walking down the street and he parked his vehicle-- he couldn't find a parking place. He parked his vehicle near a fire hydrant. And so when the crime went down, the crime of shooting went down, was perpetrated, there was a witness there who would later come to the police. Not right away, but went to the police and said there was a suspicious vehicle out there who I saw was parked near a fire hydrant. So hey, let's go follow up on the lead. So they follo...

About the Instructor

Netflix’s “Mindhunter” was inspired by the FBI’s first criminal profiler, John Douglas. As chief of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, he conducted groundbreaking interviews with notorious criminals such as Charles Manson and Ed Kemper, changing interrogative tactics forever. On MasterClass, he teaches you to use his methods in everyday life, unlocking your intuition to read people's motives.

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John Douglas

Legendary Special Agent John Douglas teaches how criminal profiling methods can help you predict people’s motives to benefit your everyday life.

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