John L. Keenan, Who Led the ‘Son of Sam’ Manhunt, Dies at 99


John L. Keenan, the New York Police Department’s chief of detectives who oversaw the manhunt leading to the August 1977 arrest of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial killer, died on Thursday in Mineola, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 99.

His death, at NYU Winthrop Hospital, resulted from congestive heart failure, his grandson Kevin Brennan said.

Mr. Berkowitz had terrified the city in a yearlong string of nighttime shootings. Chief Keenan obtained his confession hours after he was captured without a struggle outside his apartment building in Yonkers.

As he told it, Mr. Berkowitz said, “I know you. You’re detective — Chief Keenan.”

“And I said, ‘Yeah? Who are you?’

“He said, ‘I’m the Son of Sam.’”

So ended a nightmarish time during which Mr. Berkowitz, a chubby, curly-haired, 24-year-old postal worker without a criminal record, had wielded a .44 caliber handgun to kill six young people, all but one of them women, and wound seven others.

Mr. Berkowitz came upon his victims, usually a couple sitting in a car, on darkened streets and secluded areas in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. In rambling letters to the Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, he taunted the police. He signed his notes “Son of Sam,” a reference to his belief that he was commanded to kill by a demon lurking in a dog owned by a Yonkers man named Sam Carr.

Chief Keenan assembled a 30-member homicide task force when it first became evident that several murders had followed a similar pattern: nighttime ambushes with the same kind of gun.

Shortly before Mr. Berkowitz’s arrest, Chief Keenan had expanded his force to 75 detectives and 225 other members of the department, patrolling in uniform or civilian clothes. Detectives had consulted psychiatrists and psychologists in an effort to develop a portrait of the killer, but their theories varied. Police sketches were circulated based on statements from a small number of witnesses to the shootings, but they proved of little use since the shootings occurred at night.

Ultimately, a summons issued to Mr. Berkowitz’s car, which had been parked in Brooklyn’s Bath Beach neighborhood near the scene of what became his last murder, in late July 1977, was instrumental to the police in identifying him.

The case capped Chief Keenan’s police career. He retired in January 1978 after more than 30 years on the force.

John Lavelle Keenan was born on Dec. 18, 1919, in County Durham, England, a son of John and Sabina (Lavelle) Keenan, who were of Irish descent but had lived in England. They had settled in New York, where his father was a steamfitter, but his mother briefly returned to England for his birth.

He graduated from St. Michael’s High School (now Xaverian) in Brooklyn. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he joined the Police Department in 1941.

Drafted a year later into the Army, he took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge while in a Counter Intelligence Corps unit of the Fourth Infantry Division. He fought alongside J.D. Salinger, who was writing what became “The Catcher in the Rye” during lulls in combat and became a lifelong friend.

After being discharged from the Army as a lieutenant at the war’s end, he returned to the Police Department and rose in its ranks while obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the New York Institute of Technology.

He was chief of inspectional services, a unit mainly devoted to uncovering police corruption, before being named chief of detectives.

In November 1977, Chief Keenan announced that he would assign female detectives to the elite homicide unit. He said the move was “more than just a trend of women’s lib” and that women in other detective assignments had shown a high degree of “tenacity and inquisitiveness — qualities that are especially important in homicide work.”

After retiring from the police, Mr. Keenan, who lived in Rockville Centre, N.Y., was vice president for operations of the New York Racing Association, which oversees the state’s tracks.

He is survived by his wife, Sara Keenan; his daughter Joan Brennan; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Two other daughters, Mary Ellen Keenan Carey and Sara Keenan, died before him.

Mr. Berkowitz, who pleaded guilty to six murders, was sentenced to 25 years to life for each of them in June 1978 and remains in prison.

When Chief Keenan was honored at a retirement party at Antun’s restaurant in Queens in the summer of 1978, Mr. Salinger came down from his home in rural New Hampshire, where he zealously guarded his privacy, to join in the tribute.

Departing from the focus on police work, which had attracted some 300 officers to the party, Mr. Salinger told the crowd that Chief Keenan had been “a great comfort,” especially in a foxhole.

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