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The hunt has none of the excitement of TV's familiar police dramas. At the control center at 109th Precinct headquarters in Queens, the city-wide task force mostly answers telephones, hears out citizens who bring their information personally, dispatches teams to the tedious job of trying to determine if the informants' suspicions have a solid base.
Nervous and shy, a freckle-faced woman in her 20s walked into the offices and told a typical story to police that TIME Correspondent James Willwerth overheard. Said she: "Well, I was in The Assembly [a Bayside, Queens, dating bar] about a year ago. It was a Friday, you know, and I started to talk to this guy named Eric. He had real burning eyes, you know? He kept staring at me. I asked him why he didn't dance. He said he hated people. He asked me to go out with him, and I finally said I would. At the end of the evening, I told him I didn't want to see him again. He was strange. Another time I was on Staten Island, going to a party. I saw him. I said, 'What are you doing here?' He said, 'I'm watching you.' It was very weird."
There are, of course, thousands of stories like that in any large city. In the search for Son of Sam, police could rely only on hunches honed by years of experience in deciding which reports warranted legwork. A man seen dancing to music from a portable radio at one of the victim's graves in a Bronx cemetery one night last week obviously merited study.
Police have also checked out the employees of stores and companies with names like Sam, Samson or Samsonite. Cops have minutely studied each of the crimes for clues to the murderer's methods and motivation. All the victims were young, from 17 to 26. Although three young men were shot, each was with a woman and seemed incidental to the killer's apparent sexual focus. Six of the eight attacks were on parked cars, the gunman approaching from the rear and firing into the front passenger window. Six of the shootings took place on weekend nights. One was as early as 7:30 p.m., the others after midnight. Ballistics tests helped conclude that all eight assaults were almost certainly the work of the same .44 revolver, an easily concealed, short-barreled gun that fires with a loud roar, a big kick and a deadly effect.
Yet the variations have been broad enough to make the killer unpredictable. While six of the women victims had fairly long dark hair, three did not. Stacy's was blonde. Only one of the parked cars was in a traditional romantic lovers' lane; the rest were on quiet residential streets. The geographical pattern first centered on neighboring parts of Queens and The Bronx, but then spread to Brooklyn, alarming all of New York City. Since Son of Sam's letter to Breslin was postmarked in New Jersey, the killer seems highly mobile.