On August 10, 1977, the NYPD arrested David Berkowitz, a mailman from Yonkers, for the Son of Sam murders that had terrorized New York City for over a year. Berkowitz confessed to shooting sixteen people and killing six with a 44 caliber Bulldog revolver, and the case was officially closed. Journalist Maury Terry was suspicious of Berkowitz's confession. Spurred by conflicting witness descriptions Berkowitz didn't act alone. Meticulously gathering evidence for a decade, he released his findings in the first edition of The Ultimate Evile. Based upon the evidence he had uncovered, Terry theorized that the Son of Sam attacks were masterminded by a Yonkers-based cult that was also responsible for other ritual murders across the country. After Terry's death in 2015, documentary filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Cropsey, The Killing Season, Murder Mountain) was given access to Terry's case files, which form the basis of his docuseries with Netflix and a companion podcast. Taken together with The Ultimate Evil, which includes a new introduction by Zeman, these works reveal the stunning intersections ofpower, wealth, privilege, and evil in America-from the Summer of Sam until today.
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About the Author
Joshua Zeman has been at the forefront of the true crime genre for the past decade. He is the director of the critically acclaimed film Cropsey, the docuseries The Killing Season, and Murder Mountain.
Read an Excerpt
Introduction by Joshua Zeman
I first learned of Maury Terry in the summer of 2008. At the time, I was directing my first documentary about five missing children and the man linked to their disappearances in my hometow of Staten Island, New York. My interest in the case was sparked by a local legend I’d heard years before about a boogeyman named Cropsey. According to the kids in our neighborhood, Cropsey was an escaped mental patient who lived in the tunnels beneath the old abandoned Willowbrook State School and came out late at night to snatch children off the street.
For most of my childhood, Cropsey remained nothing more than a cautionary tale—until the summer of 1987. That was the summer I turned fifteen and Jennifer Schweiger, a twelve-year-old girl with Down syndrome, disappeared from our neighborhood. After more than six weeks of searching, her body was found on the grounds of the same Willowbrook State School. Though I didn’t know it back then, Willowbrook had a nefarious history. For decades, the “snake pit institution,” as Bobby Kennedy called it, had been warehousing hundreds of developmentally disabled children in a real-life house of horrors, until a 1972 exposО by Geraldo Rivera finally led to its closure. In the days following Jennifer’s discovery, the police arrested a man named Andre Rand. He wasn’t a mental patient, as the urban legend suggested, but a former orderly who often lived in a campsite on the school grounds. The police revealed that Rand was suspected in the disappearances of four other missing children going back to the early ’70s. For the kids on Staten Island, the legend of Cropsey had turned into something very real and truly terrifying.
Eventually, Rand was sent to prison for the kidnapping of Jennifer Schweiger, and I moved away. In 2004, Rand returned to Staten Island to stand trial for another missing child, and I came back as well, now as an adult and a filmmaker, to find out what really happened to those disappearing children and to see if my childhood boogeyman was real. However, as I tried to reconcile one urban legend, I soon uncovered another—or, at least, what I thought was a legend.
While interviewing Staten Island residents who had searched for Jennifer back in 1987, I documented rumor after rumor of “devil worshippers” who supposedly roamed the island’s woods and held ceremonies on Willowbrook’s grounds. At the time, Satanic Panic was sweeping the nation. In 1988, Geraldo Rivera, the man who sparked the school’s closure, would bring the hysteria to its frenzied peak with the highly sensationalized prime-time special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. I still believe most of those “sightings” were nothing more than devious teenagers who took an understandable pleasure in tweaking their parents’ anxiety. However, at some point during our filming, something happened. The stories began to change.
The legends turned strangely specific as people told tales about a cult operating on the island, which was ultimately responsible for these missing children. Most intriguing, this cult was said to be connected to the infamous Son of Sam murders. Of course, I knew the story of David Berkowitz, the madman who claimed a demon dog had commanded him to kill couples in parked cars during the sweltering New York City summer of 1977. Considering my film was about both “childhood” and “adult” urban legends, I continued to dig deeper.
Piecing together rumors of this so-called Son of Sam cult, I soon found a local reporter who could confirm a few errant facts—a name, a date, a local house that the police had looked into. He passed me on to an eccentric lawyer who only added credence to my growing list of clues. Finally, I found a truly credible source: a veteran detective from the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad, a man who had been trained to compile evidence, not conjecture. After much prodding, the detective agreed to tell me the source of these rumors. One night, he sat me down with two other detectives as they revealed a secret, one that had swirled through the squad rooms of the NYPD for decades: David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, did not act alone.
I learned there were a number of detectives in the NYPD, past and present, who had come to believe, based upon their own investigations, that David Berkowitz had accomplices and that the allegations of a so-called cult were true. While they didn’t think Staten Island’s missing children were connected, they still believed the group was responsible for numerous other unsolved murders throughout the metropolitan area. Many of the detectives had passed along their findings to a journalist named Maury Terry, who went on to write a book about his own investigation called The
To this day, I consider The Ultimate Evil one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and I know I’m not alone. I consider myself a skeptic, a debunker of things that go bump in the night, but I do believe there is something uniquely unsettling about The Ultimate Evil. Maybe it’s the fact that the book hovers between the believable and the unbelievable. As hard as it is to fully accept Terry’s allegations, it’s just as difficult to completely dismiss them—much like the enigma of the Process Church, a group profiled by Terry in this book. To some, they were a doomsday cult responsible for a series of ritualistic murders that spanned the country. To others, they were nothing more than an oft-maligned church whose bizarre theatrics led to their scapegoating. Regardless of their true intentions, it seems Terry had found the perfect adult urban legend.
My fascination with The Ultimate Evil comes from a desire to explore how people conflate different shades of evil. I’ve always been interested in experts of the occult for their fascinating knowledge, but also for their gross misinterpretations. Terry is no different. Though the term satanism is used quite liberally in this book, I believe Maury finally came to realize that true Satanists are not devil worshippers. In fact, far from it. True practitioners of satanism are far more aligned with atheism and libertarianism than with any religion. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t individuals, whether Catholics, Jews, Muslims, or even Satanists, who use their religion, or lack thereof, as a means to morally justify or simply conceal their aberrant behavior.
I first sat down with Maury in the fall of 2010, in a cramped attic apartment in Yonkers. Maury wore an oxygen mask as he battled acute pneumonia, in no small part due to decades of incessant smoking. He refused to leave his apartment so instead I brought him tuna sandwiches. As we ate, he would regale me with stories—not just about Son of Sam, but of other unsolved crimes that echoed through New York City lore. It was then that I realized I had found something special: a knowledgeable mentor and an unreliable narrator woven into one.
Though I befriended Maury Terry, I remained skeptical of his story—what he called “the Son of Sam Conspiracy.” I think he knew it, too, which is why he was forever trying to prove its veracity—undoubtedly, because so many had called him a crackpot over the years. Tragically, those claims only pushed him to double down, to become even more fervent, which in turn only made those crackpot claims seem somewhat true.
During our friendship, Maury would pester me to do a documentary on his investigation, and for years I refused. I found the cult story fascinating, but I wanted to turn The Ultimate Evil into a fictionalized series instead. Maybe I was concerned about what I would find—that much of his story was untrue. Or maybe I knew what I know now: that Maury was far too close to his story. He had fallen down the rabbit hole of his investigation and was ensnared in a trap of his own creation. In essence, he had spent so many years trying to uncover one conspiracy that he had created another.
It is this tragedy that brings us to the ultimate question: Is Maury Terry’s story true? I’ve spent the past decade asking myself that same question and the last five years trying to answer it. It’s what led me to finally embark on the documentary that Maury always pestered me to do. Of course, if I were being clever, I would say you have to watch the documentary to find out, but in many ways our series only scratches at the surface of the truth. The best I can say is that if none of it were true, I wouldn’t be here writing this introduction. Instead, all I can offer is a challenge to you, the reader: approach this book with a dose of healthy skepticism as well as an open mind. See if you can answer the mystery that I, and so many others, have spent so long trying to solve. But before you do, consider this a warning . . .
The Ultimate Evil is a fascinating read, an investigation of epic proportions. But it is also a cautionary tale about what it means to become obsessed with true crime.
Though we now associate true crime and obsession with a weekend lost in the twists and turns of our favorite new case, for Maury Terry it was a descent into the abyss—an investigation, spanning more than four decades, that eventually led to his demise.
I don’t think Maury ever truly believed in the devil, but I know he believed in the power of the devil as a unifying force that could be harnessed to create a so-called network, or what he called a conspiracy. Yet, while there is no denying that some use religion to legitimize their deviance, I take issue with Maury’s notion of conspiracy. I think we believe in the specter of organized evil to make sense of aberrant behaviors we don’t understand, and to protect us from a far more unsettling notion: that this malevolence we fear does exist, and it lives deep inside each and every one of us, waiting to emerge. In the end, is it not more terrifying to accept that there is no grand conspiracy—no structure, no organization, no method to the madness that haunts us all? That there is only rudderless chaos? To me, that is the ultimate evil.
It’s often been repeated that, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” But I say different. I think the greatest trick man ever pulled was convincing himself that the devil was real. Of course, you, the reader, will come to your own conclusions. But I caution you against staring too deeply into the darkness. You never know what you might find.
Table of Contents
Introduction Joshua Zeman 4
Part I On Terror's Trail
I Satan at Stanford 10
II The Gun of August 24
III "Knock on Coffins" 40
IV Her Name Was Stacy 59
V Countdown: The Final Week 80
VI Catch .44 98
VII Confession 118
VIII "Sam Sleeps" 141
IX The Process 168
X Into the Maze 192
XI Blood in the Badlands 210
Part II Web of Conspiracy: The Dominoes Fall
XII "Hello from the Gutters" 224
XIII Minot? Why Not? 245
XIV Matter of Murder 268
XV Inside the Biggest Case 281
XVI The Most Unlikely Ally 309
XVII "Sam" Speaks 329
XVIII "Hunted, Stalked and Slain" 357
XIX What's Happening, America? 372
XX From the Belly of the Beast 390
XXI A Coast-to-Coast Conspiracy 421
XXII A Call to Copco 439
XXIII In Death's Valley 468
XXIV Murder Reigned in Southern California 493
XXV Death Mask 512