Domicile of Deceit
Part 2 of 2
In November 21, 1975, Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr., was convicted of six counts of second degree murder (each carried a 25-year-to-life sentence). Upon sentencing on December 4, 1975, he was remanded to custody where he remains at Clinton Correctional Facility in Beekman, New York. Parole requests are routinely denied; he will probably die in prison.
As horrible as his crime was, it was apparently insufficient to generate enough media buzz to capitalize on the notoriety of the Amityville house (iconic for its architecture, it became one of the most recognizable landmarks in America from the mid 1970s on). Something more had to be done to rake in the lucre that seemed buried within its walls.
The germ for a multi-million-dollar money-making machine took root when two apparently easily swayed and fiscally desperate newlyweds strayed into the house-hunting market. The murder scene at 112 Ocean Avenue beckoned: it influenced the lives of George and Kathy Lutz every single day after they moved in.
Before going to see the place in late August 1975, however, their realtor told them of the DeFeo family murders. Although it seems unlikely (as the horrific nature of the event would have certainly been big news even in New York City then) George and Kathy claimed to only have the vaguest knowledge of the crime. Perhaps they did. Regardless, one look at the property and the mighty Dutch Colonial that dominated it and they were sold.
The asking price was $90,000. The Lutzes negotiated a price of $80,000. Almost all the DeFeo family’s furniture and other effects were still in the house – with nowhere to send the household goods, the Lutzes (for an extra $400) took possession of what remained behind. They put down a large chunk of the sale price, and took out a mortgage of $60,000 for the balance due. All in all, this was a bargain-basement buy – just a year earlier the house was valued at $112,000.
They moved in on December 18, 1975. With no indications anything was wrong, on January 14, 1976, the Lutzes packed up a few belongings and left their new home. They went to stay with Kathy’s mother in nearby Deer Park, New York. The Lutzes never occupied the house at 112 Ocean Avenue again. They lived there for only 28 days – they had not even made the first payment toward the mortgage.
As the Lutzes had left the majority of their household goods behind, they sent movers in to clear the house and send their things to them (among them was Kathy’s father). The crew arrived the next day, January 15, 1976. Those assigned to the job thought it odd that the owners decamped in such a hurry, but they packed up the house and forwarded the material on to the Lutzes. Nothing unusual happened while they worked.
It was only later the Lutzes claimed they had left the house in fear for their lives: it seemed the DeFeo abattoir on 112 Ocean Avenue was plagued by malevolence. In a macabre laundry list, the Lutzes made public the problems they allegedly experienced in the DeFeo house. The house was possessed by demons, plagued by poltergeists, spirits haunted the dwelling, and other horrific paranormal phenomenon occurred.
George claimed he allegedly awakened every morning at 3:15 AM without an alarm or other stimulus and had an obsessive need to walk out and inspect the boathouse. He was told later that was the time Ronald DeFeo, Jr., had murdered his family. George said the sound of the front door slamming would also awaken him. Checking the entryway, he’d find their dog, Harry, asleep before the door (no other family member reported hearing the door slams that George did, though he said they were reverberant). He also said on some nights he could hear what he thought of as a “German marching band tuning up”; he likened the sounds as similar to what one might hear on a cheap radio not quite adjusted to the intended station. Like the door slams, when he went downstairs to find the source of the musical din, the sounds stopped. Set on frequency. George reportedly stumbled over a lion statue in the living room. The large statue (about 4 feet tall) “bit” him, leaving marks on an ankle. He also became obsessed with the idea that he strongly resembled former occupant and killer, Ronald DeFeo, Jr.
Kathy was not immune to the supernatural influence of the house. Bad nightmares about the DeFeo murders revealed the order in which the family members were killed, and the rooms they occupied. A foot-long crucifix Kathy had tacked up in the living room turned itself upside down. It exuded a sour smell in the wake of the inversion. Perhaps the strangest phenomenon relative to Kathy was claimed by George: he watched her prematurely age into hag of ninety, “the hair wild and a shocking white, the face a mass of wrinkles and ugly lines, and saliva dripping from the toothless mouth”.
Supernatural things occurred in the couple’s presence and to them. The fireplace in the family room on the first floor was a favored place. One night, George and Kathy watched the blaze. They noticed what they described as a demonic face with half its head torn or blown away – the image was baked into the sooty firebrick on the rear fire pit wall.
Other phenomena were of a more subtle variety and affected the house’s physical spaces. Cold spots were apparent. Perfume and excrement were smelled in parts of the house without having any apparent source. Swarms of flies, despite the winter weather, appeared in great numbers out-of-season. An ectoplasmic green slime reportedly seeped and oozed from a hall’s walls and from the attic playroom door’s keyhole.
Most noteworthy, George found a small, hidden room in the basement behind some shelving. Roughly 4 feet or 5 feet in area, according to George the space was not indicated on blueprints of the property. This little cubby, because of its red-painted walls, was later infamously dubbed “The Red Room”. The space gave off a malevolent energy – it was said the Lutzes’ dog, Harry, refused to venture very close to it and appeared sensitive to its evil.
Much of what the Lutzes reported were the results of “unseen forces”. Locks on the home’s doors and windows were damaged by an unseen force. Kathy occasionally felt an unseen force “embracing” her in the kitchen in what she described as a “loving manner”. While lying down once, red welts manifested on her chest; another unseen force levitated her two feet off the bed.
The children in the house were allegedly affected by the house’s “will”: Kathy noticed one night they slept on their stomachs as the DeFeos had done. The most interesting aspect of the children’s part in The Amityville Horror revolved around the youngest, the girl Melissa. She sang often in her room; when she left it, she stopped singing. Upon returning to her room, however, she took up her singing in the same place she’d stopped earlier in the song. The five-year-old suddenly had an imaginary friend whom she called “Jodie”. Jodie was described as a pig-like thing, with demonic, red-glowing eyes. She claimed Jodie climbed in and out of her bedroom window – Kathy came in to close that window one night and saw the red glow of demonic pig eyes staring at her from the pane. Cloven hoof prints in the snow (like those of a large pig) were seen outside on New Year’s Day 1976 (coincidentally on George’s birthday).
The house had been allegedly blessed by a priest (also a family friend) when the Lutzes moved in. George and Kathy, afraid of the continuing and escalating supernatural goings-on (added to this were strange voices, moans, and the spirits of the murdered DeFeo family) conducted another “cleansing” ritual of their own devising on January 8. This last-ditch effort to quell the malevolence in the house failed. The Lutzes fled (in fear) from 112 Ocean Avenue on January 14, 1976, and sought sanctuary at the house of Kathy’s mother.
It was later claimed some of the phenomenon (black staining in the toilet and slime from the walls) followed them there.
The media sensation was immediate. Weber had been in discussions with Ronald DeFeo, Jr., about writing a book about the DeFeo murders (tentatively titled Murder in Amityville). He had already contacted a writer named Paul Hoffman to do the book. Hoffman, according to Weber, was supposed to have completed a manuscript on the project by December 31, 1976. [He did not meet this deadline, claiming he could find no publisher for the project and he was also looking for a new agent]. Having the Lutzes’ story, however, rendered that project moot – the haunted house angle was certainly more lucrative.
Appearances on television shows and radio saw the story evolve. Details were added. The infamous 28-days of horror became a major topic of interest in America. No one seemed to notice or care that their story was a hodge-podge of elements from other pop culture runaway hits, such as The Exorcist, and known legends about the South Devon, England, “devil’s footprints” case of February 1855. [A mysterious set of what were believed to be hooves tracked the snow over the English countryside allegedly for over a hundred miles without variation, climbing over haystacks, rooftops, and other objects. A similar set of prints were reported in New Jersey – part of the “New Jersey Devil” legend known to every New York metro area resident – in 1909.]
The Lutzes’ horror made the news and stayed there for many months. The original writer for Weber’s planned DeFeo murder book was Paul Hoffman. He managed to get out an article to Good Housekeeping magazine on the haunting, but failed to meet Weber’s deadline of December 31, 1976, for a full book-length manuscript ready for press. Instead, Weber contracted with a new writer, Hans Holzer (whose last name Weber spells “Holser” in his letter), allegedly a professor who would investigate the house’s history. [Holzer obviously did not pan out for the first book. He visited the house with a “medium”, Ethel Johnson Meyers, though. It was she who started the myth that Indians resided on the property to protect an old burial ground (which was not then, nor ever had been, on the property). She also alleged that whoever lived there would be victims of beyond-the-grave Indian vengeance. Holzer wrote his piece-of-tripe book as envisioned originally by William Weber – it was called Murder in Amityville. In it, he makes the preposterous claim that Butch DeFeo had been possessed by the spirit of a dead Indian chief! This “possession” is what made him kill his family. This pulp masterpiece formed the basis for the 1982 movie Amityville II: The Possession.]
The next person tapped for the Lutz project was a screen writer named Jay Anson. Born in 1921, his experience up to working with them to create The Amityville Horror was in film – he scripted short subjects and documentaries.
The Lutzes taped over 45 hours of recollections, anecdotes, and details of their terror of living in the Amityville house (these tapes had been started while Hoffman was still the tentative writer for the book). Jay Anson never met with the Lutzes during the creative process of writing – having been given affidavits (attesting that everything in the tapes was true), Anson wrote his book based on those tapes and documents given to him. [He would later be accused of exaggerations and literary license embellishments – if so, these were mere window-dressing to the lies that underpinned the project.]
With Anson writing the book, and respected publishing house Prentice Hall ready to distribute and promote it, all was on track for the Lutzes to enjoy a serious windfall. In September 1977, The Amityville Horror made its début on bookstands. It was an instant best-seller. From that point forward the Amityville Horror conspiracy took on the shade of a massive con job.
It is apparent Butch and Weber had discussed a cooperative project. In a letter dated February 27, 1976 (slightly over a month after the Lutzes abandoned Amityville), Butch sent a directive to Weber waiving all rights of consent to do “his” story (it is presumed Butch still thought Weber meant to do the murder story as originally planned). In exchange for waiving those rights, Butch asked for royalties payable to him on a graduated scale – 5% on gross sales of the first million dollars, then smaller percentages for each successive million. [Today, murderers are not allowed to profit from their crimes in such a manner, and it is unclear if Butch ever received any money from the subsequent projects since none of them involved “his” murder story except as background material].
Before this letter to him, however, it is clear Weber had made the acquaintance of the Lutzes (when, where, and how is still a matter of conjecture today). The best scenario to answer that is this one: a friend or relative (when the Lutzes left Amityville) suggested they talk to Weber about doing something with their time in the house, even if it were nothing more than a magazine article (the strapped Lutzes would certainly have jumped at that, and it would explain the hasty appearance of an article by Paul Hoffman in Good Housekeeping within a few months).
What is most telling about this March document is that it clearly referenced (on its second page) an earlier agreement (annulled by this newer one) from February 14, 1976, in which all but the Lutzes were to share in the proceeds. From this, one could reasonably infer that Weber was still planning his murder book only without any “horror” embellishments (that story was horrific enough without window dressing). This means that sometime after February 14, 1976, either the Lutzes clamored for a piece of the nascent pie and Weber had to comply of necessity, or he perhaps offered the opportunity to them and together they contrived the horror story. Their existing relationship would explain why their bombshell press conference was held in Weber’s offices.
As work progressed on developing the story, Weber sent Butch a letter in February 1977, advising that he (Weber) was no longer with his old law firm and that Hoffman as an author was being replaced by the unknown Hans Holzer.
The Lutzes, however, declined Weber’s original proposal of March 1976. They later worked out an agreement with Jay Anson directly (the book’s eventual author) and signed a deal that gave them a total of 50% of book royalties (roughly double what they would have gained under Weber). The Lutzes, meanwhile, sued Weber, Hoffman, Good Housekeeping magazine, and others over what they called the invasion of privacy and lack of consent for Hoffman’s story that appeared in Good Housekeeping. [This case came to naught – after a couple of years and much venue shifting, the Lutzes’ case was dismissed in Brooklyn’s U.S. District Court on September 10, 1979. The presiding judge said, “Based on what I have heard, it appears to me that to a large extent the book is a work of fiction, relying in a large part upon the suggestions of Mr. Weber.”]
The rights to the novel’s screen adaptation were sold for $200,000 (with the proceeds split presumably along the agreed-upon lines as lain out between Anson and the Lutzes in 1977 – if so the Lutzes would have received $100,000). While the rights’ sale was a small amount, even for the late 1970s, the juggernaut unleashed by the appearance of The Amityville Horror in theaters in the summer of 1979 more than made up for it (all the principals had box office options – the film grossed $40 million in one month).
Book royalties (with sales over 3 million copies) and box office percentage points made the Lutzes wealthy. They toured in support of what in reality was a grade-B horror movie whose only marketable feature was its claim to be true – in other words, a docudrama. [This was the same ploy used by William Peter Blatty when promoting his novel, The Exorcist. Unlike the Lutzes, however, Blatty’s book was based on a real – albeit fraudulent – documented case of alleged demonic possession in a Maryland boy named Ronald Edwin Hunkeler.]
However many aspersions were cast, though, the Lutzes and representatives of the snowballing cash-cow now known nationally as The Amityville Horror did their best to shunt suspicion. William E. Weber, however, became the project’s – and the Lutzes’ – nemesis. He turned up the heat on the controversy about the “truthfulness” of the tale. In a People magazine article dated September 17, 1979 (while the movie still played and the book had 6.5 million copies in print) Weber publicly denigrated the Lutz story, calling it a complete fabrication. He put himself in the hot seat for the creation of the fake as well. Weber said, “I know this book’s a hoax. We created this horror story over many bottles of wine. I told George Lutz that Ronnie DeFeo used to call the neighbor’s cat a pig. George was a con artist; he improvised on that and in the book he sees a demon pig through a window.” [When the DeFeos lived in the Amityville house, the neighbors had a cat named Jodie. Butch DeFeo did not like the animal and referred to it as a pig, as Weber noted.]
Weber also sued the Lutzes for breach of agreement. He wanted a share of the profits from the book, claiming they’d reneged on a deal with him and another writer (presumably referring to the unsigned March 29, 1976, document) before Jay Anson came into the picture.
A tragedy of sorts befell the Lutzes in the late 1980s, too: they divorced.
The Cromartys sold the house in 1987, and on August 17, 1987, Peter and Jeanne O’Neil took it over. During the time they lived there, the O’Neils filled in the pool to increase useable yard space in the back. They also switched out the house’s instantly recognizable street-facing “eye” windows for less obtrusive, rectangular ones. The O’Neils left the house in a few years because of the exorbitant tax rate on the property (at the time, more than $10,000 a year). They felt this money could be better used as savings for their children’s college educations. [Although Kathy Lutz in the late 1970s could not know this, there was a tragedy that befell the O’Neils but not while they lived in the house. Peter O’Neil was one of the people killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This, of course, has nothing to do with ghosts or demons, just far more dangerous ideologues.]
A man named Brian Wilson took over the house on June 10, 1997. His cost to buy the place was $310,000. He renovated the boathouse (whose foundation was sinking), and he added a sunroom to the back of the big house.
George Lutz registered the phrase “The Amityville Horror” as a trademark in 2002. He also converted to Catholicism. Kathy Lutz met her end (by emphysema) on August 17, 2004 – she was 57. When the 2005 remake of the original 1979 film was released, George claimed the producers embellished or fabricated events just as the earlier filmmakers had done with the original. He also said the producers of the newer movie did not involve his family, and his name was used without his permission. George succumbed to heart disease on May 8, 2006. He was 59 years old.
Brian Wilson put the house up for sale in May 2010 with an astonishing price tag of $1.5 million. A local Amityville resident bought it in August 2010 for $950,000. No tragedies befell either Wilson or the new owner.
The most basic elements that form the core of the allegations are clearly contrived. George claimed he awakened every morning at 3:15 AM without an alarm or other stimulus and had an obsessive need to walk out of the residence and inspect the boathouse. He was told later that this was the time that Ronald DeFeo, Jr., had murdered his family. [This is false: the murders started between 2:20 AM and 2:30 AM; Butch DeFeo was cleaning up by 3:05 AM, and he did not waste time “inspecting” the boathouse. His priority was to dispose of his bloody clothes and the murder weapon, and to establish an alibi.]
The claim of seeing a demonic face in the flickering flame-lit back wall of the fireplace is wishful thinking – this phenomenon (perceiving the amorphous into recognizable shapes in the mind’s eye) is called “pareidolia”. It is the same mind’s eye contrivance that occurs when one cloud gazes and thinks, “That looks like an elephant” (or a horse, or whatever other figures can be “seen” in clouds).
Jodie, the demonic pig, is another complete fabrication. Weber had told the Lutzes about killer Butch DeFeo’s disdain for the neighbor’s cat, Jodie. He also advised of Butch’s referring to the animal as a “pig”.
The “slime” oozing from the walls began life in the original telling as a plug of red stuff in a keyhole (either Play-Doh or bubble gum). The first markings on the wall noted by George – who had never lived with children – were assessed by Kathy (and explained to him) as scribbling done by her kids. Retellings blew this completely out of proportion – by the first movie the material was not only on the walls, it oozed from them and it was clearly blood!
Melissa’s start-and-stop singing when entering and leaving her room is not paranormal. She was 5. Children do things like that.
The “swarms of flies” turned out to not even be a single swarm, but merely a few flies spotted in the sewing room window (the “swarms” were later confirmed as fabricated in a meeting with Weber from George’s testimony at trial against Weber, Hoffman, et al)
George’s run-in with the large ceramic lion statue in the living room is merely oafishness. Considering the family was still unpacking and shifting things around in the home, it is simply a matter of one party moving the lion to a slightly different spot without telling George of the move. His stumbling into it led to an injury that he conflated into a supernatural bite.
The “cold spots” reported in the house are also obviously explained by the simple fact the heating system failed within a few days of the Lutzes’ moving in.
The “cloven hoof prints” seen in the snow on January 1, 1976 (coincidentally, George’s 29th birthday) are a lie. There was no snow on the ground that day.
The Lutzes’ claim of having conducted a cleansing ritual themselves on January 8 (that didn’t work) is a pointless detail. With no witnesses, it is merely their word they even engaged in such an activity. And so what? There is nothing paranormal about a “cleansing ritual” – bothering to even mention such a thing is merely padding in the story.
Kathy’s report that a large, hanging crucifix rotated was not based on anything except that she happened to notice one day the cross in the living room was hanging upside down. “Feelings” she had of “embraces” and other things are completely subjective and unsupported. “Feelings”, “impressions”, and other things not verifiable by observation or physical measurement or documentation are worthless as evidence.
Kathy levitating two feet off the bed was revised by George in a radio interview. He said she did not levitate two feet, she only levitated two inches. The reality is she did not levitate at all – in her sleep she probably only shifted her position or arched her back giving the suggestible George the impression she was levitating (not something she did on purpose).
Much was made of the fact that the Lutzes had taken, and passed, three polygraphs about their experiences. This is meaningless: since much time had passed between the claimed events and the time of the testing, this was expected. Humans are capable of convincing themselves of their own truths. O.J. Simpson, for example, could take a polygraph exam right now about his role in the murders of his ex-wife and her friend in the early 1990s and he would pass it for the same reason. Enough time has gone by for him to convince himself he was not complicit in their murders. Polygraph exams only have value while the issue is still fresh, not after repeated press conferences, tellings, and embellishments.
George and Kathy over time recanted much, but George still adhered to his basic claim that the house was possessed and some of the things did happen to them. He still blamed Jay Anson for exaggerations. He also sued movie mogul Dino DeLaurentiis when the second Amityville Horror film was made – he claimed the filmmakers had not gotten his permission to use his “story” or his name.
Daniel Lutz (who was 9 years old when he lived in the Amityville house) has recently surfaced to further capitalize on the Amityville story. He had developed an idea called My Amityville Horror to be told as a documentary about his 28 days in the house. Daniel would not be credible for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his youth then and the time elapsed since the events; he would no doubt claim they actually happened (in the same way the mysterious “Brian Harris” claimed everything was true in his mother’s poltergeist/ghost rapes in The Entity Case.)
Finally, there is the issue of the priest who “blessed the house” before the Lutzes moved in. This priest, whose real name was Ralph Pecararo, had never met the Lutzes before their marriage on July 4, 1975. He was not close to them, and his contacts with them about their house were telephonic. He was not plagued by demonic forces, he never suffered physically from the “malevolent forces” of the house (as purported in the book), and he had not experienced any demonic “Get out!” message as portrayed in the movie upon entering the house (which he never visited). The Catholic Church stepped forward on more than one occasion (as early as 1977) to discount any involvement in the case by this priest. Father Pecararo was affected by nothing but annoying, negative publicity. He asked for a leave of absence in May 1978. He finished his career as a priest in another diocese. The local New York diocese for which he had once worked had no idea what later became of him until they learned he had died in 1987.
First, despite the savings on docking fees and paying only one mortgage instead of two (on their individual homes) the Amityville house was no bargain. Although its sale price to the Lutzes was at less-than-market, they still had to assume a mortgage in a time when this country’s interest rates, in terms of 1970s dollars, were spectacularly high. Furthermore, the property valuations for the land and the residence were not based on its price – the Lutzes (who had to cover the accrued unpaid taxes as the house sat unoccupied after the murders before they could close on it) discovered to their dismay they were three times higher than what they’d paid on their other homes.
To add to their financial stresses, George’s start-up civil engineering business had not taken off as expected, and he was strapped for cash. In addition, the IRS had begun an investigation (not criminal at that point, but an auditing process over poorly maintained records and slipshod tax preparation). At the very least, he would be on the hook for additional taxes and penalties payable to the IRS.
George, who had never been a father, also suddenly found himself an instant dad to three children. The added financial burden of supporting four more people (including Kathy) was not helped at all when the heating system in their new home tanked within a couple of days of their moving in. Suddenly, the house was no longer a bargain – with all other things considered it would become, in George’s mind, a money pit.
The last straw had to be the discomfort of living in a space where a family had been senselessly murdered by their spoiled brat of a son. Though George and Kathy likely thought they could handle the psychic strain, in the end they probably found they could not. With all things considered (being broke, jumping at every least little creak and groan of the house, etc.) they abandoned the place. They did not, as is popularly and erroneously believed, leave all their possessions behind to be absorbed by their lender. Their belongings were only left long enough to be packed up and forwarded to them.
Sociology makes use of a stressor chart, life events that are significant in the amount of mental strain humans endure under those events’ effects. The chart is called the Holmes-Rahe stress scale (sometimes referred to as a “social readjustment rating scale”, or “SRRS”). The number one item on the list as the most profoundly stressful for all humans is “death of a spouse” (with a life-unit rating of 100). [The higher the life-unit rating, the greater the stressor is.]. Other life events follow in descending order with “minor violation of the law” as the last item on the list. [The holiday of Christmas, not surprisingly, actually rates next-to-last for stress!]
Enough stressors in one’s life can lead to physical illness, and the SRRS predicts anyone scoring more than 300 points on the scale will likely become physically ill. In the six months preceding the Lutzes’ flight from Amityville, George Lutz had the weight of the world on his shoulders: of the 44 most stressful life-events the SRRS lists, he had experienced 25% of them (marriage, new family member gain, change in financial state, major mortgage, et al) with an aggregate stress score of at least 325 (past the “at risk of illness” threshold). Reports of his fitful sleep patterns and sudden sickness (mostly bouts of diarrhea) make perfect sense in such a context and seem normative for someone with his burdens.
It is no great leap at this time to accept that the strained and struggling George Lutz would have accepted William Weber’s suggestion to “embellish” a bit to create a story that could ease his financial woes.
The original book has now sold over an estimated 10 million copies world-wide. The film franchise had grossed hundreds of millions of dollars (even though some of the Amityville sequels were – deservedly – direct-to-video or -DVD). Unfortunately, the concoction of The Amityville Horror and the conspiracy to promote this lucrative lie tends to detract from the real horror that happened in the house – six family members (four siblings and two parents) were murdered by the oldest child.
Yet, it will be the lies of the “hauntings” that will continually resonate with the public.
Part 1: Amityville Horror Hoax