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Berkowitz, Elvis and the brutal August of 1977

Robert Houk • Aug 13, 2017 at 12:00 AM

When New York’s Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin died in March, I should have noted the Pulitzer Prize winner’s connection to Johnson City. It was a Johnson City native — Joseph Kovach — who edited the famed muckraker’s columns for several decades.

That included those published during the brutally hot summer of 1977, when Breslin was receiving bizarre letters from a serial killer who had terrorized the city for months. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the arrest of David Berkowitz, who signed his letters to Breslin as “Son of Sam.”

Kovach was the older brother of Bill Kovach, another Johnson City native who found fame and fortune in journalism. When Joe died in 2005, the Daily News noted in his obituary: “For a quarter-century, Joe Kovach, an irascible, hard-drinking newsman of the manual typewriter era, determined what millions of New Yorkers would read each morning.”

Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis. New Yorkers weren’t the only ones suffering through the dog days of summer in 1977. I recall it was also pretty darn hot in Lincolnton, North Carolina, where I learned of the King’s untimely passing.

I was 13 when Elvis died. I was reading comic books with a friend at his house when his mom, who was getting ready to go to work at her second shift job at a local textile plant, informed us a TV news bulletin had interrupted her favorite soap opera with the sad news.

Back in those days, viewers stopped whatever they were doing when the networks broke into regular programming for a “special report.” It usually meant something very bad had just happened.

Presley had collapsed on the floor of the bathroom of his Graceland mansion in Memphis earlier that afternoon. He was rushed to the hospital were he was pronounced dead on arrival.

More than a decade later, as a reporter covering the state General Assembly in Nashville, I met one of the two paramedics from the Memphis Fire Department who treated Elvis in his home on that tragic day. State Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, was sort of famous for being one of those guys. In fact, his name sometimes comes up in conspiracy theories concerning the death of Elvis. (My favorite conspiracy theory is that Elvis is really alive and well and living on an uncharted tropical island with JFK and Marilyn Monroe. And in case you were wondering, Michael Jackson joined them a few years ago.)

I heard Jones (who died in 2010) speak many times about what he saw at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977. His story was much the same as the other paramedic who tried to revive Elvis on that day. Jones said he and his partner had no idea who they were treating at the time.

Jones said the dash to the hospital was so hectic and the patient was in such bad shape that they did not learn it was Elvis until someone from the mansion called him by name during the ambulance ride to the emergency room. The cause of his death was officially listed as a “fatal heart arrhythmia.” Blood tests would later show traces of 14 different drugs in Elvis’ body at the time of his death.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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