When Coffey was 8 years old, he was waiting for his father to get to their Manhattan home. As he watched, his father, a truck driver and union organizer, came under gunfire: rival union officials had marked him for execution. His father survived — the gunmen shot at his image in a mirror, instead of him — and Coffey decided to become a policeman and fight organized crime. After a stint in the Army, he indeed joined the NYPD in 1965, became a detective, and specialized in organized crime. In 1978, the mayor approved Coffey’s suggestion for an Organized Crime Homicide Task Force — and put Coffey in charge. The squad solved 82 mob murders. Coffey arrested mob boss John J. Gotti three times, and once followed a mafia operative all the way to Europe — implicating the Vatican Bank …and the archbishop that headed the bank. “He was instinctive, he understood people, and when you were in his cross hairs he knew everything about you,” says Jerry Schmetterer, who with Coffey co-wrote The Coffey Files: One Cop’s War Against the Mob (1992).
Ironically, Coffey is best known for a non-mafia case: serial killer David Berkowitz, better known as the “Son of Sam”. From summer 1976 to summer 1977, New York was terrorized by a man who killed six, and wounded seven others. In one case, he left a letter with the bodies identifying himself as “Son of Sam” mocking police efforts to catch him — and promising to kill more people. It was signed “Yours in Murder, Mr. Monster.” Once Berkowitz was arrested, Coffey and another detective were assigned to interrogate him. “When I entered the room on the 13th floor, I wanted to pick up Berkowitz and throw him out the window,” Coffey said years later. “But when he started talking about getting messages from a dog, I realized I was not dealing with a mob killer, but a psycho, a sick man.” Coffey took Berkowitz’s confession, where he said a dog named “Harvey” who was owned by “Sam” gave him orders. Berkowitz was declared competent to stand trial, and was convicted and given six life sentences; he is still in prison. Sgt. Coffey retired in 1985, and then spent 11 more years as the principal investigator for the state’s Organized Crime Task Force. “When he retired from the police force, he thanked the city for giving him a ringside seat to the greatest show on earth,” said Coffey’s wife, Susan. He died at his Levittown, N.Y., home on September 27, from lung cancer. He was 77.