Nineteen-year-old nursing student Jody Valenti had just spent a night dancing at a disco in New Rochelle with her friend Donna Lauria, 18, when, back in The Bronx, their car suddenly exploded with gunfire.
Donna, in training to be a New York City medic, was killed instantly — shot once in the back — and Jody took a bullet in the left thigh and was in agonizing pain and shock.
It was shortly after 1 a.m. on July 29, 1976. Son of Sam’s murder spree had begun.
With this month’s coming 40th anniversary of the start of David Berkowitz’s reign of terror over New York City, Valenti, now 59, has broken her four-decade silence for the first time in an interview with The Post.
“It took probably about six years of my life to be able to get in a car at night,” she says, her voice strong and confident. “It took a long time to be able to deal with the sounds of popping fireworks and stuff like that . . . But I faced my fears.”
The mass shootings from Newtown, Conn., to Dallas profoundly impacted her and prompted her to face her biggest fear of all: guns. “Just recently I took a gun class,” she reveals. “I went and learned how to shoot a gun. It’s my own fear that I faced. I did it myself. I did it to face my fear of a gun, my fear of holding a gun . . . my fear of the sound of a gun — fear, fear, fear.”
Valenti was just 19 years old when she was shot by the Son of Sam.
But, with gun violence rampant across the nation, she now faces deeply emotional questions as the anniversary of Berkowitz’s attack on her with a .44-caliber revolver nears.
“Would I purchase a gun? Would I use a gun?” she has asked herself. “I do have the application for a gun permit, but I don’t know [if I’ll get a gun].”
It was a Thursday night. The two attractive, dolled-up young women were going to a local dance club. “Disco was a big to-do back then,” Valenti recalls. “Everybody was going to clubs at night and dancing, and no one was afraid to go anywhere.”
The New York City boroughs had become disco central. John Travolta, playing Brooklyn dance king Tony Manero, starred in the signature film of the era, “Saturday Night Fever.”
Jody had just driven Donna back and they were sitting in her double-parked, two-door, blue Oldsmobile Cutlass with the windows closed in front of the Lauria family’s six-story apartment building at 2860 Buhre Ave., not far from where Valenti lived at 1918 Hutchinson River Parkway.
Outside the building, they had run into Lauria’s parents, who were also just getting home after an evening out, and they exchanged pleasantries. They chided Donna about getting in soon, and asked Jody to come up, but she declined, and the Laurias went inside.
Before calling it a night, the girls chatted about the summer and how they were going to spend it. “We were neighborhood buddies,” says Jody. “We both had the same interests in health care.” Jody was in nursing school and Donna was studying to be an EMT.
They had been talking for about 15 minutes when out of nowhere a hulking man in a striped shirt came to within eight feet of the car. Donna turned to Jody to ask if she knew who he was. She didn’t have a chance to answer. He fired four shots through the closed right window. Donna was killed instantly.
David Berkowitz in prison in 2009
Jody later gave police a description of the killer — about 30, white, with curly hair — someone she had never seen in her life.
Years later, a fellow prisoner would ask Berkowitz how he happened to first target Jody and Donna. “I just pulled by them,” he answered. “I parked around the corner and came out and did it.”
The shooting of the two women in the Westchester Heights section of The Bronx initially appeared to police to be random, the kind of off-the-wall violence that was part of the dark side of a declining New York City in the 1970s, and it earned little attention in the press.
On Oct. 23, 1976, the mysterious shooter struck for the second time. The victim was 20-year-old Carl Denaro of Queens. He had long hair and was believed by the shooter to be a girl. He was shot once in the head as he was sitting in his red VW in Queens with his girlfriend, Rosemary Keenan, 18, who was not hit. He survived but required a metal plate in his head.
Then came Thanksgiving weekend. The shooter fired on Donna DeMasi, 16, and her 18-year-old friend, Joanne Lomino, as they walked home from a movie in Queens. Lomino was left paralyzed but her friend recovered.
The new year would bring more carnage.
Christine Freund, 26, and John Diel, 30 — a newly engaged couple — were sitting in his Pontiac Firebird in front of the Forest Hills Inn in Queens on Jan. 30 when the phantom shooter fired through the window and killed her. Her fiancé survived.
But cops had their first clue.
The bullet that ended Freund’s life had been fired from a .44-caliber Charter Arms Bulldog revolver. Valenti and Lauria, and the others, had also been hit with large-caliber bullets. The shootings were all connected, the work of a single, bloodthirsty serial killer. The press dubbed him “The .44-Caliber Killer.”
On March 8, 1977, Virginia Voskerichian, a 21-year-old college student, was walking on a Queens street when the gunman killed her instantly.
Despite the banner headlines that the cops were closing in, the killer struck again, and again.
Not far from where DeMasi and Lomino were hit in The Bronx, Valentina Suriani, 18, and Alexander Esau, 20, were shot dead on April 17, 1977.
On June 26, 1977, 17-year-old Judy Placido, of The Bronx, and Sal Lupo had gone to a Bayside, Queens, disco — and afterward sat in Lupo’s car. It was just after 3 a.m. when the shots rang out.
She was struck in the right temple, right shoulder and back of the neck, and he was shot in the right forearm. Incredibly, they both survived.
Then, on July 30, 1977, virtually the first anniversary of the Valenti-Lauria attack, Berkowitz murdered again.
While cops had a dragnet in The Bronx and Queens killing fields, Berkowitz crossed over to Brooklyn for the first time and shot 20-year-old Stacy Moskowitz and her boyfriend, Robert Violante, 20, in their heads. She died, but he, blinded, survived.
“It was,” Valenti recalls, “a terrible time. The whole city was terrorized, from the Hamptons to Queens, all the boroughs.”
Berkowitz’s victims appeared to be young women with dark hair, and couples sitting in parked cars. As the death toll mounted, women began buying blond and red wigs to protect themselves from the monster. The once-jammed discos saw business tail off. Couples on dates rushed to get home early. Lovers’ lanes were deserted. New York was scared.
Berkowitz began sending bizarre letters to the press, goading the cops to find him. He asked columnist Jimmy Breslin how he planned to commemorate Jody and Donna’s shooting: “What will you have for July 29?”
His most terrifying missive opened with this greeting: “Hello from the gutters of NYC, which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood . . . Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood.”
As it turned out, Sam was derived from Berkowitz’s neighbor, Sam Carr. His dog’s bark kept Berkowitz up at night and, in the killer’s twisted mind, conveyed demonic messages to him. Berkowitz eventually shot the dog to death.
The 25-year-old postal worker, over the course of a year, killed six and wounded seven. He was finally arrested on Aug. 10, 1977 — on a fluke.
A traffic ticket was left on the windshield of Berkowitz’s yellow Ford Galaxy after he parked too close to a fire hydrant on the night of the Moskowitz murder. Just before the shooting, a woman who lived near the scene saw a man remove the ticket. Cops traced the summons to a registered address in Yonkers.
Police staked out the car and when Berkowitz left his apartment building, the cops moved in. Asked to identify himself, he had a dumb smile on his face and responded, “I am Sam. David Berkowitz.” He also said, “What took you so long?” In the car were the .44-caliber pistol, a rifle and maps of the crime scenes.
He was convicted of second-degree murder in June 1978 and received sentences for each murder. He will almost certainly die in prison.
Looking back, Valenti said, “ I feel bad for all those people that lost their lives. I feel bad for my friend. At this point, she would have been my age and having a family of her own, and children and maybe grandchildren.”
Today, with all the gun violence, she sees “the need for care for people with mental illness because I think that’s what’s lacking here . . . the person who’s holding the gun who has a mental illness. Just think about that Sandy Hook situation. It was horror. I was horrified.
“I have a lot of thoughts and I have a lot of feelings about what’s going on in this country right now — the terrifying issues with handguns and who’s having handguns. Look what’s happening with the police — it’s just getting out of control, and I’m conservative. I’m not a left-winger.”
Valenti is mystified that a story would be written about the crazed killer 40 years later. “What are we celebrating? The lunatic that’s in prison for life who’s getting benefits. He’s getting three square meals. He’s getting an education. He’s getting everything he needs, and I find it very disturbing.”
Jerry Oppenheimer’s most recent book, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and The Dark Side of the Dream,” will be released in paperback in September. He is currently completing his 13th biography, to be published next year.