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The Son of Sam: David Berkowitz

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credit: unsolvedmysteries

I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night, thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping …”

The Son of Sam: a name that seems so ordinary, yet is forever linked to murder, terror, and and the devil.

Fictional Childhood

David Richard Berkowitz was actually not the Son of Sam’s birth name. He was born Richard David Falco on on June 1, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York. Within days of being born, he was given up for adoption by his mother due to the fact that she was in an affair with a married man. He was adopted by a childless, middle-aged couple from the Bronx. They changed his middle name to his first name and his first name to his middle name. Thus David Richard Berkowitz was “born.”

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When he was old enough to understand such things, his adoptive parents lied to him about his biological mother — telling him she died in childbirth. This racked Berkowitz with guilt for many years to come, as he believed he was responsible for his mother’s death — even invoking thoughts of suicide.

Troubling Signs

When he was seven years old, Berkowitz suffered two serious head injuries, and then a third when he was eight. By the age of twelve, Berkowitz was a “troubled youth.” He began torturing and killing small animals, often by burning. In fact, young Berkowitz was quite fond of fires. He kept a collection of journals, and by the age of 24, he had taken credit for starting 1488 fires. At age 13, he poisoned his mother’s pet bird. His deviant behavior earned him a visit to a psychotherapist, but nothing significant came from it.

At age 14, Berkowitz suffered the loss of his adoptive mother to cancer, whom he was very close to. This only propelled him further into darkness. His grades declined, and he was described as a bully who regularly stole things. Due to his looks and struggles with weight, he never had a childhood girlfriend.

United States Army

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credit: mirror.co.uk

It seemed like Berkowitz might get a chance to escape inclinations towards degeneracy when, in 1971, following high school, he joined the Army at the age of 17. He spent time at both Fort Dix and oversees in South Korea. Neither of the assignments, however, were to his liking. He had hoped to be sent to Vietnam for combat duty. While stationed in South Korea, Berkowitz dabbled in drugs. There he also had his first, and possibly only sexual encounter. It was with a prostitute from whom he received an STD.

In June of 1974, he received an honorable discharge from the Army and returned home to New York.

Primary Crisis

Following his military service, his adoptive father finally revealed to Berkowitz the truth about his biological mother. She had not died in childbirth, but was in fact still alive. This news was incredibly distressing to Berkowitz, as he had believed all his life she was dead, and blamed himself for it. He sought out and found his mother — only to learn from her the circumstances of his illegitimate birth. That news had a devastating affect on him as well, and he cut off contact with his mother.

The Occult

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Symbol used by Berkowitz on his Son of Sam communications

If you believe Berkowitz’s version of the tale, it was about this time that he began dabbling in the occult. He said he started meeting up with other disturbed individuals to conduct Satanic rituals and do drugs. This portion of his story has been the subject of considerable debate. Many discounted it as either the delusions of a madman or an attempt to give a reason for Berkowitz’s crimes. However, in recent years, a grotto of sorts was discovered underneath the graffiti-covered ruins of Untermeyer Park in Yonkers, New York that displayed evidence of occult activity over the years (symbols, dead animals, etc). Berkowitz claimed this oocult group grew dangerous.

By 1975, Berkowitz had taken a job as an airport security officer, but subsequently quit — claiming he heard the voice of dogs while on shift. These delusions only deepened as time past, and by November of that year he had begun setting fires again around the city.

Obeying “Father”

First Strike

In December of 1975, Berkowitz committed his first known violence. He stabbed a Hispanic woman and then a 15 year old girl six times. Neither victim died. Following his failure to kill, Berkowitz acquired a .44 caliber revolver that he would use in the remaining attacks. He also took a job as a postal worker and wouldn’t strike again until Summer 1976.

July 29, 1976

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credit: biogrophy.com

On the night of July 29, 1976, Berkowitz spent several hours cruising the Bronx in his yellow 1970 Ford Galaxy — either working up the nerve to attack or trolling for the right victim. At 1: 10 a.m., Berkowitz exited his car carrying a brown paper bag. As he neared a parked car, he produced a revolver from the bag and crouched to a kneeling position. While steadying his arm on his knee, he fired three shots into the car. Seated inside were two young ladies who had recently left a nightclub. One bullet instantly killed one of the women. A second bullet injured the other. The third missed. Without saying, a word, Berkowitz walked quickly away. Due to the random nature of the attack, the police made little headway in finding the killer.

October 23, 1976

Approximately three months after Berkowitz’s first murder, he struck again, this time in Queens, New York. Like before, Berkowitz exited his Ford Galaxy and fired into a parked car where a young man and young lady were seated. When their car window exploded from the bullet’s impact, they sped away. They did not initially realize they had been shot at — or that the young man had been struck in the head. He would survive, though required surgery.

The .44 caliber “bulldog” used in the Son of Sam attacks
Credit: InsideEdition

The young lady’s father was a long-time police detective with the NYPD. Though she was not shot, her involvement sparked an intense manhunt to find the shooter. A bullet fired into the car was recovered and determined to be .44 caliber, though it was too badly mangled to be definitively linked to a particular gun. However, like before, due to the random nature of the attack, the trail went cold. Additionally, because Berkowits’ second attack was in Queens rather than the Bronx, the cases were not initially considered to be related.

November 27, 1976

Just after midnight on November 27, 1976, Berkowitz, dressed in military fatigues, approached two teenage girls who were walking home from a movie on Long Island. In a high-pitched voice, he began asking for directions. Mid-sentence, he drew his revolver and shot both girls once. As he fled, he fired more shots, but missed the girls. The younger girl was struck in the neck by the bullet, but her injuries were not considered serious. The older girl, however, was hit in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. Once again, with no motive, and because he struck in still a different part of New York City, the cases remained unconnected and unsolved.

January 30, 1977

Two months later, at 12:10 a.m. on January 30, 1977, Berkowitz struck a fourth time. He targeted a 27 year old woman and her 30 year old boyfriend who were parked near a train station in Queens after leaving the movie theater. Berkowitz fired three shots into their car. The man was only grazed, but his girlfriend was struck twice. Despite rushing her to the hospital, she died a short time later.

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various police sketches for Son of Sam

Finally the police began to suspect a connection between the cases. The bullets at all four crime scenes were .44 caliber, and it seemed that the killer was targeting women with medium to long dark hair. A task force was assembled that would eventually balloon to over 300 officers to look for New York City’s potential madman serial killer. However, due to differences in composite sketches and eyewitness accounts, it was also still considered a possibility there were multiple shooters involved.

“The .44 Caliber Killer”

Late on the evening of March 8, 1977, Berkowitz attacked for the fifth time. Just a block from where the January 30th murder had taken place, Berkowitz charged a college girl walking home from school. Though she raised her textbook to defend herself, the bullet from Berkowitz’s gun penetrated the book, striking her in the head and killing her.

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credit: patch.com

Berkowitz caught a lucky break. A police officer had begun tailing him believing him to be acting suspiciously. Yet when the call came in for the murder a few blocks away, the officer sped away to the scene of the crime.

When the lethal bullet was determined to again be a 44. caliber, the police announced that they were looking for a serial killer. Magazines, newspapers, and TV stations began fervently covering the case, dubbing the unidentified Berkowitz as “The .44 Caliber Killer.” The case even made international news and tabloids.

Son of Sam

April 17, 1977

A month later, Berkowitz returned to the Bronx where he had committed his first murder. At approximately 3:00 a.m. on April 17, 1977, he selected a parked car with a young couple seated inside. Berkowitz pulled his car alongside theirs and fired four shots, striking both occupants in the head. The woman was pronounced dead at the scene and the man died later that day at the hospital. The murder weapon was again a .44 caliber handgun.

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credit: thetab

For the first time, after committing six attacks and killing five people, David Berkowitz communicated with the police, leaving at the crime scene a 366 word long letter addressed to Captain Borrelli, the .44 Caliber Killer task force leader. It was rambling and disjointed in its contents (some of which can be found at the bottom of this blog post). It was analyzed by several psychologists who concluded two things: he was likely a paranoid schizophrenic, and he believed himself to be demon possessed.

The most important element of the letter was his declaration: “I am the Son of Sam.” The media switched from calling the murderer “The 44.Caliber Killer” and began calling him “the Son of Sam.”

On April 29th, Berkowitz shot a neighbor’s dog. The neighbor’s name was Sam Carr.

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credit: Oxygen

A Second Letter

Likely very much enjoying the intense media attention, on May 30, 1977, Berkowitz wrote a second letter to journalist Jimmy Breslin of the New York Daily News. It once again contained rambling incoherencies and taunts, though police considered it more sophisticated than the first letter. It was signed “Son of Sam.”

It also included a crudely drawn symbol described as “satanic.” While it appears to have been of Berkowitz’s own creation, it was inspired perhaps by an occultic symbol called the Goetic Circle of Black Evocations.

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Goetic Circle of Black Evocations (L) and Son of Sam symbol (R)

After consulting with the police and redacting portions of the letter, the Daily News published the letter. They also revealed that the Son of Sam seemed to have a preference for dark-haired young woman with shoulder-length or longer hair. This sparked panic among New York City’s women. Many who had longer dark hair rushed out to dye their hair and receive short hairstyles. Thousands of others opted for wigs, overwhelming area wig shops.

June 26, 1977

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Three days before the one-year anniversary of his first murder, Berkowitz attacked again: his 3rd attack in Queens. At or round 3:00 a.m., he fired three bullets into the parked car of a young couple. The young man was struck in the arm, though his teen girlfriend was hit multiple times. Miraculously both survived.

It was here that Berkowitz perhaps made his first serious mistake. While neither of his latest victims saw their attacker, an eyewitness saw a fleeing man enter a vehicle and was able to provide a description and partial plate number.

July 31, 1977

Anticipating an anniversary slaying, the task force fanned out across Queens and the Bronx. They were unsuccessful in catching the killer, but likely delayed him from killing until two days later. Unfortunately the Son of Sam simply relocated to Brooklyn for his next attack.

On July 31, 1977, as a young couple sat in their car on their first date, Berkowitz carried out his final attack. He approached the passenger side of the car and fired four shots, striking both occupants in the head mid-kiss. The young man was seriously injured, losing his left eye. The young lady became the Son of Sam’s 6th and final murder victim.

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credit: biography.com

Catching the Killer

Parking Ticket

A hesitant eyewitness and a parking ticket ended up bringing down the Son of Sam killer. On July 31st, just moments before Berkowitz’s final murder, a woman saw a man carrying a “dark object” resembling a gun. A short while afterwards, she heard gunshots. Following the shooting, she saw the same man return to his car. In the meantime, he had received a parking ticket for blocking a fire hydrant which she saw him remove.

This eyewitness was fearful and didn’t tell the police for four days. The police searched their records for cars parked in that area which had received parking tickets. Berkowitz’s yellow 1970 Ford Galaxy was one of the cars.

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“You Got Me”

On the evening of August 10, 1977, police went to Berkowitz’s residence to investigate his car and set up an interview. When the police looked in his car, they saw a gun in the backseat. Under New York law at the time, there was nothing criminal about keeping a gun in your car, but they searched it nonetheless. Inside, they found a plethora of incriminating information including maps of the crime scenes.

They also found letters. Various acquaintances and neighbors had complained to the police about threatening letters Berkowitz had been sending them. So far, the police had done little about it and he was not suspected of being the Son of Sam. One of those neighbors was a a nursing student and a volunteer deputy sheriff named Craig Glassman. Berkowitz lived in the apartment directly above him. Inside Berkowitz’s car they found an unsent letter to Glassman in the killer’s handwriting and signed “Son of Sam” — occultic symbol and all.

credit: cbsnews

This was enough to convince the officers they had their man. They radioed in for a search warrant to enter Berkowitz’s apartment — and another to retroactively cover their unlawful search of his car. As they waited outside his apartment, Berkowitz suddenly emerged. In his hand was a paper bag. As soon as he saw the police, he smiled and said, “Well, you got me.” The detective replied, “Now that I’ve got you, who have I got?” Berkowitz said, “You know. I’m Sam.” Inside the paper bag was his .44 caliber revolver.

Aftermath

Closing the Case

When police searched Berkowitz’s apartment, they found it in shambles, Satanic graffiti covering the walls. They also found notebooks detailing the numerous fires Berkowitz had set around the city, going back three years.

During his interrogation and subsequent interviews, he not only confessed quickly to being the Son of Sam, but also seemed to hint that he had not worked alone — a nod to his supposed involvement in a cult. He was determined to be a paranoid schizophrenic but was declared fit to stand trial. His lawyer advised him to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but Berkowitz instead plead guilty to all the charges, thus avoiding a trial.

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credit: murderpedia

At his sentencing two weeks later, Berkowitz attempted to leap from a 7th story window. As he was being restrained, he shouted, “I’d kill them all again!” This prompted another competency evaluation, during which he drew the above sketch. On it he wrote, “I am so glad I’ve been apprehended but I wish that someone would help me. Final desperation. I am not well, not at all.”

Berkowitz was sentenced to six back-to-back life sentences (25 to life), however, despite the prosecutor’s objections, the judge made him eligible for parole after 25 years.

45 Years in Prison

As of the writing of this post (9-7-2022), David Berkowitz is going on his 45th year in prison. Initially he spent the first few months in psychiatric wards where works described him as remarkably troubled. Two years after his incarceration, a fellow inmate slit his throat. He survived, needing more than 50 stitches. Berkowitz claimed the attack was justice for what he had done.

In 1987, Berkowitz had a profound Christian conversion experience. A fellow inmate had given him a Bible and would speak to him about Jesus in the prison yard. After reading the words of Psalm 34:6, “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles,” Berkowitz asked for God’s forgiveness. Since then he’s participated in prison chapel services, referred to himself as “The Son of Hope,” and spoken out extensively about his faith. An outside Christian ministry operates a website on his behalf, hosting his story and monthly Bible studies.

credit: ariseandshine.org

Berkowitz was first eligible for parole in 2002, however, he wrote a letter to the governor of New York requesting that it be cancelled. His reasoning: “I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have accepted my punishment.” The hearing went ahead as scheduled. Berkowitz did not show up. He would continue that practice of not showing up to his every-other-year parole hearings for the next 14 years. In 2016, he finally attended his first one stating, “I feel I am no risk, whatsoever.” He was denied parole. Berkowitz turns 70 years old in 2023, and I do not believe he will ever be released.

The Son of Sam Law

After multiple lucrative offers came in for Berkowitz’s story, the New York legislature passed a law preventing convicted criminals and their families from profiting financially from the sale of books, movies, or other ventures related to their crimes. After a legal battle, a constitutionally acceptable version of the law was passed, and since then 41 other states as well as the federal government have passed similar “Son of Sam Laws.”

Berkowitz has also advocated for book sales about his story to be donated to his victims’ families and the New York State Crime Victims Board.

My Analysis

Precipitating Factors

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credit: popsugar

There are a lot of factors that precipitated the evolution of David Berkowitz into the Son of Sam. I do not believe that his adoption would’ve been a significant factor had his adoptive parents not lied to him about his mother dying in childbirth. That lie caused Berkowitz significant guilt. And then later finding out that his mother was alive — only to discover he’d been born out of wedlock and unwanted — again caused him significant mental anguish.

As a child, Berkowitz also displayed 2 out of the 3 Macdonald Triad traits. The Macdonald Triad is a controversial hypothesis which suggests when at least 2 out of the 3 predictive factors (cruelty to animals, fire-starting, and persistent bed-wetting in later childhood) are present, they indicate predisposition towards violent behavior, psychopathy, homicidal tendencies — and particularly criminal predatory behavior and hunting patters associated with serial killers. Berkowitz tortured small animals and was a prolific arsonist.

Though Berkowitz denied being a “woman hater,” the evidence suggests otherwise. He used derogatory and profane terms to describe women. He wrote to his father of women rejecting him and spitting on him because he was ugly. It seems that he never had a girlfriend, and his one sexual experience was a disaster. When he began his crimes, they were exclusively directed towards women. Indeed five of his six murder victims were women. He also seemed to target women who were with their boyfriend — even sometimes shooting them while in the act of kissing. His “type” seemed to be young women with at least shoulder-length brown hair (though his final female victim was a blonde) — it’s suggested they reminded him of his mother.

Drug use and his obsession with the occult certainly didn’t help his psyche either.

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the six people murdered by the Son of Sam

Psychological Profile

The only official diagnosis that Berkowitz ever received was paranoid schizophrenia, which is classified as a delusional disorder. Paranoid schizophrenia is considered a symptom, not a mental illness — meaning it is indicative of a larger mental illness, physical injury to the brain, substance abuse, or extreme stress or trauma.1 It manifests itself by: a loss of touch with reality, seeing and hearing things that aren’t real (hallucinations), delusional beliefs of outside forces exerting control over one’s actions and of having special powers.

Because paranoid schizophrenia is a symptom of something else wrong in the brain, if indeed Berkowitz was suffering from hallucinations and delusions that caused him to lose touch with reality, had this been diagnosed and treated properly, it’s possibly he would’ve never killed. It is noteworthy the number of brain injuries he had while a child. Traumatic Brain Injury has been strongly linked to violent behavior. He also abused drugs, and his killings began shortly after his traumatizing reunion with his biological mother.

If paranoid schizophrenia is indeed what ailed Berkowitz, then all of these factors likely contributed to his break with reality.

The Demon Angle

In Berkowitz’s disturbing communications prior to being caught, he claimed to be under control of and in service to a person or entity he called Sam, Father, and Papa. Initial psychological evaluation of his letter resulted in the conclusion that the Son of Sam believed he was demon possessed. He maintained this assertion after his arrest stating, “There are other Sons out there, God help the world.”

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credit: britannica

Throughout his early incarceration, Berkowitz went back and forth between sticking to his demon story and then claiming it was a hoax. However, his most consistent and current position is that he was demon possessed.

I would often have seizures in which I would roll on the floor. Sometimes furniture would get knocked over. When these attacks came, it felt as if something was entering me. Sometimes I started screaming for no reason at all. I was like a wild and destructive animal. My father had to pin me to the floor until these attacks stopped.
When this feeling came over me, I would hide under my bed for hours. I would also lock myself in a closet and sit in total darkness from morning until afternoon. At times those urges were so strong that my body actually trembled. I remember that it was a tremendous struggle for me to hold on to my sanity. I had a craving for the darkness and I felt an urge to flee away from people. Occasionally this same evil force would come upon me in the middle of the night. When this would happen I felt an urge to sneak out of the house and wander the dark streets.
In 1975, however, I met some guys at a party who were, I later found out, heavily involved in the occult. I had always been fascinated with witchcraft, satanism, and occult things since I was a child. When I was growing up I watched countless horror and satanic movies, one of which was Rosemary’s Baby. That movie in particular totally captivated my mind.2

Initially Berkowitz said that “Sam” was his neighbor Sam Carr, and Mr. Carr’s black dog (whom he shot and tried to kill) was in fact a thousands-of-years-old demon. In the years that followed, Berkowitz updated his identification of Sam to associate him with Samhain, the ancient Celtic god of death and darkness, or possibly Samael, an archangel of destruction, death, accusation, and seducing.

The Motivation

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So what do I think? To be honest, I don’t know for sure. I think there’s good evidence that his fascination with killing predated his Son of Sam attacks. He was already torturing animals and setting fires. I think it’s likely he joined the military hoping it would facilitate his desire to kill. Unlike so many at the time who did not want to go to war, Berkowitz desired to go to Vietnam and see combat action. He was disappointed and left the military when that goal was not realized due to his non-combat duty stations.

I believe he did operate under delusions. The source of those, I can’t say for sure. I think it’s likely his childhood head trauma, drug use, and stressful experiences with his birth mother contributed to his break with reality. However I do believe in the supernatural (angels and demons are real), and so I have no qualms with accepting Berkowitz’s assertion that he was possessed or controlled by a demon. Other serial killers such as Richard Ramirez, Dennis Rader, and Joseph DeAngelo all made similar (though much less sensational) claims of satanic or demonic control during their murders.

The girls call me ugly. They bother me the most.

– Berkowitz

Ultimately, I believe that Berkowitz killed (at the behest of a demon or not) because he was angry at women. He predominately targeted women that likely reminded him of his mother. The women he attacked were also young and pretty — the kind of women he felt had rejected him. And he usually targeted couples — an expression of his anger over being unable to woo a girlfriend of his own.

A Changed Life

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credit: ThrowingLight

I believe that anyone, no matter how bad they are, is captable of change and redemption. And while plenty of other criminals and even serial killers (like Shawn Michael Grate) have claimed to have found Jesus while in prison, I believe David Berkowitz’s faith to be genuine. In most of his post-1987 interviews (the year of his conversion), Berkowitz has steered the conversations away from his crimes and towards his faith. I’ve watched a lot of serial killer interviews and most of them are all too happy to recount and relive their atrocities. But not Berkowitz.

That being said, I do not believe the redemption of David Berkowitz means he should be released. Prison isn’t only about removing dangerous people from society, but also about punishing crimes. Life in prison is a just punishment for the murder of six innocent people. And were it not for the fact that New York had no death penalty at that time, I’m almost certain he would’ve been executed — and rightfully so. He committed terrible crimes.

What about the Cult?

This post is already entirely too long, so I’ll just say, the killings stopped when Berkowitz was arrested. I think that is the most definitive answer to the question of whether he acted alone.

That being said, there were many others who believed he was not responsible for all the killings: investigative journalists, Queens NY District Attorney John Santucci, and even one of the eyewitnesses Tommy Zaino. This was largely fueled both by Berkowitz’s own statements that there were others and the sometimes wildly different eyewitness descriptions and police sketches. Berkowitz did reveal the pseudonyms of four others in his letter to Jimmy Breslin: The Duke of Death, The Wicked King Wicker, The Twenty Two Disciples of Hell, and John Wheaties. In recent years, Berkowitz has refused to discuss it further, citing both his personal safety and not wanting to further delve into his crimes.

In the Killer’s Own Words

I am a monster.
I am the “Son of Sam.”
Sam loves to drink blood.
“Go out and kill” commands father Sam. 

I feel like an outsider.
I am on a different wave length then everybody else —
Programmed to kill. 
To stop me you must kill me.

Shoot to kill or else.
Keep out of my way or you will die!
I am the “Monster”–“Beelzebub” —
The “Chubby Behemouth.”

I love to hunt.
Prowling the streets looking for fair game—tasty meat. 
I live for the hunt—my life.
Blood for papa.  I must, “honour thy father.”

— The Son of Sam

With God there is always hope.
If he can save someone like me,
Then he can save anybody. 

God has no favorites.
He rejects no one,
But welcomes all who will call upon Him. 

I know that God is a God of mercy
Who is willing to forgive.
He is perfectly able to restore and heal our hurting and broken lives. 

I was involved in the occult and I got burned.
I became a cruel killer and threw away my life
As well as destroyed the lives of others.

Now I have discovered that Christ is my answer and my hope.

–The Son of Hope
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