Nothing to See Here
Amityville's Horrific History
There is a house, once a home, now nothing more than a symbol of evil as a sightseers' destination. However, that malevolent reputation comes from a hoax. There was evil in that home, but the Amityville Horror of pop culture was a fraud perpetrated by two gullible opportunists, George and Kathy Lutz, with the goading of a shyster.
The real Amityville horror is what took place in the house thirteen months before the Lutzes blasted onto the landscape of hype-and-glory with their sensational "true" story of their 28 days living in a house with eyes, a house whose architecture is instantly recognizable.
The truly horrific terror of the Amityville house was perpetrated by one of its former occupants in the early 1970s, a disaffected, selfish, calculating, conniving sociopath named Ronald DeFeo, Jr.. In the lonely and small hours of the morning of Wednesday, November 13, 1974, Ronald systematically gunned down every member of his sleeping family in their beds. He later claimed he was possessed by the Devil.
112 Ocean Avenue
Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Sr. (born: November 16, 1930) lived a good life by post-Eisenhower standards. He married Louise Marie Brigante (born: November 3, 1931) after a brief courtship. The couple dutifully produced their first child (a boy, unimaginatively named
DeFeo, the typical Brooklyn-born working class guy, had done well for himself in the automotive sales industry thanks to his wife's father, Michael. He worked for his father-
In an effort to woo her home, Ronald co-wrote a sappy song called "The Real Thing" in 1963 – a jazz artist recorded the tune [a sample of the "moon-June-spoon" lyricism can be heard here]. Apparently sufficiently swayed by her husband's tender poesy, Louise came back to him.
Part of "the Dream" for this native Brooklynite was to escape the City and live more easily on Long Island. The Island was a haven from New York City, yet is still allowed the proximity of city amenities with a short drive. Small towns and villages dotted its more bucolic areas; ocean front property – both on the Long Island Sound strip on the Island's north and its southern Atlantic front – was desirable.
Amityville, roughly halfway along the southern shoreline of the island, rose from an earlier settlement. In the 1600s, a scruffy village was established informally, but it was not until March 3, 1894, the area was incorporated into the village of Amityville. The burg is on Long Island's south shore, bordered by the Great South Bay. Its incorporated area was less than 4 square miles with a population of a few thousand, but to Ronald DeFeo and his wife Louise it seemed as if the American Dream was perched there awaiting their arrival.
However, his salary as a car sales rep prohibited any grandiose dreams of home ownership for Ronald. Michael Brigante stepped in, however. Louise was his princess and she was pregnant with her fifth child in early 1965. Ronald and Louise had settled on the house in Amityville, out of their price range but still to their liking. Brigante bought it for them for $65,000 on June 28, 1965. [Another source reported DeFeo bought it himself for $30,000. This seems unlikely. The property, about 1/4 of an acre with a great house on it near the ocean, even in 1965 would have sold for much more than $30,000. It was valued at $112,000 in 1974. Brigante probably bought the house as a gift for his daughter and son-in-law.]
The nightmare came later.
That Strange Boy
Ronald DeFeo, Jr., nicknamed "Butch", was a troubled boy and an equally troublesome teenager. He was spoiled and recalcitrant. Used to having money and material possessions (courtesy of his grandfather's overindulgence) Butch expected and got almost anything her desired. As the oldest child of five – and also five years older than his next sibling (sister Dawn) – he was like a third adult in the household.
Butch was also the senior DeFeo's favored target, and he received the brunt of his father's abuses of all the children. Butch was overweight and broody, and he was not popular with the other children and he was often bullied. His dad, typical of the times, tried to toughen the boy up by urging him to fight back – stand up for himself – but such backbone was not to be displayed on the home front when dad was in a rage. DeFeo was an authoritarian figure in the house, and he tolerated no disobedience or sass from his children or Louise.
The boy bulked up as he grew, and the relationship between him and his father was increasingly combative. Angry shouting matches turned into bouts of boxing – Butch had decided he would no longer submissively accept his father's abuse. Ronald, Sr., not recognizing his own personality shortcomings, decided (with Louise) that there was something "wrong" with Butch. The boy's temper, at least to DeFeo's thinking, was out of control. The couple sent Butch to a psychiatrist, but it benefited Butch not one bit. He rejected the idea (with disdain) that there might be anything mentally or emotionally wrong. He merely sat passively without interacting in any meaningful way, and his "treatment" for perceived aggression issues was cut short.
Instead of dealing with Butch's perceived developing personality problems, Ronald and Louise opted to placate the boy instead with material possessions as a substitute for parenting. DeFeo bought Butch a $14,000 speedboat on his 14th birthday. The boy cruised the Amityville River behind the house on his own and with friends. His parents normally gave him money whenever he asked for it – in those cases where they refused or weren't around to ask, he'd steal.
Butch had been attending parochial school, but when he was 17 he was thrown out for drug use and violent outbursts. He had already started using hallucinogenics (such as LSD) and had worked his way up to heroin. Petty theft became normative for him, not because he needed whatever he stole but because he was developing as a sociopath. His violent outbursts took on a more serious and sinister edge, and once on a hunting trip with friends, he pointed a loaded rifle at another male, a friend of his for years.
Michael Brigante, Butch's grandfather and auto dealer mogul, gave Butch a job at the Buick dealership (Karl Brigante's Buick on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn) when the boy was 18, the same one where Butch's dad worked as service manager. Butch was not accountable for much and missed work often. Whether or not he appeared on the job or performed well in any given week, Ronald DeFeo, Sr., always gave Butch a weekly cash allowance.
His parents had bought him a car, and Butch used his "paycheck" to keep up his vehicle expenses. He also bought speed and smack, both of which he used relatively regularly by then. Fights with his father increased in proportion to Butch's heavy alcohol and drug use.
Tensions were high in the DeFeo household and during one evening when Ronald, Sr. and Louise were fighting, Butch scuttled up to his room and grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun. He popped a shell into the weapon, ran down the stairs, and leveled the barrel at his father's face. He screamed at him to leave Louis alone; then, without warning, he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened – the shotgun failed to fire. DeFeo stood stock still, frozen in terror, while his son simply lowered the gun and stalked out of the room without a word.
Tensions mounted, but Butch continued his devil-may-care lifestyle supported by his "sometime" job, indulgent parents, and his grandfather's wealth.
The Amityville Horror
Indulging in selling stolen boat motors (easily procured from the bay area) and other petty thefts kept Butch in the black for cash. Tapping his parents and grandfather helped as well.
Relations between Butch and Ronald DeFeo were strained beyond recall by late 1974. Chaffing because he felt his father wasn't paying him enough at the car dealership (though he barely contributed), Butch devised a scheme to clean up quickly.
On either October 31, 1974 (Halloween Day) or on Friday, November 1, 1974, one of the Buick dealership's staff charged Butch with making a bank deposit for the company. The deposit consisted of $1800 in cash and roughly $20,000 in checks. Thinking this was a golden opportunity for a deserved cash infusion, Butch arranged to be "robbed" on his way to the bank by a friend of his. Later, the two would split the proceeds. He and his buddy departed for the bank at about 12:30 PM, and the didn't return to the dealership for two hours.
Arriving back, Butch told a harrowing story of being robbed in his car at gunpoint while he sat at a red light. His father was at the dealership by this time and flew into a rage directed at the employee who'd sent Butch out in the first place. Local law enforcement was called to take statements and begin an investigation. Surprisingly, rather than coöperate by concocting at least a flimsy narrative and a basic description of his assailant Butch turned belligerent and became irritated by police questioning instead.
Based upon his behavior, police began to suspect he was complicit in the "robbery". It was a ruse with which they were familiar – the "inside job" – and Butch's behavior became violently aggressive as it dawned on him the police were onto him as a person of interest. Interrogators honed in on the two hours he was AWOL. Why hadn't he driven back immediately back to the dealership to report after being robbed? He hadn't claimed to have been knocked out nor tied up, so where was he for the two hours between being robbed and arriving back at work?
Questioning was out on the dealership's lot, and he started swearing at the police and slamming his hand down on a car's hood for emphasis, increasingly agitated as the questioning continued, feigning outrage at the presumption he had anything to do with the robbery. Ronald, Sr., intervened then and the police took leave. He surmised what Butch had done and why (knowing his son wanted increasingly more money).
On Friday, November 8, 1974, about a week after the "robbery", police called Butch to look at mug shots, thinking (if nothing else) that his memory could be jogged to help identify his assailant. Butch first agreed to do this then reneged at the last moment. His father confronted him about his lack of coöperation. A screaming match ensued wherein expletives were exchanged and Butch finished with, "...I'll kill you." He then ran out to his car (a 1970 Buick) and took off.
Monday, November 11 was a holiday (Veteran's Day). Tuesday, Butch begged off work (he usually rode in with his father) claiming he had stomach trouble. That evening he watched a show on television then retired to his room. He spent the time brooding over his recent troubles. He blamed his father for his pecuniary shortcomings, and he also blamed Ronald, Sr. for "forcing" him into the desperate act of recently staging a robbery (for which he had not been cleared yet as a suspect).
At almost 2:30 AM on Wednesday, November 13, 1974, Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr. pulled a .35-caliber Marlin rifle from his closet. It was one of several guns in the house he collected and sometimes sold or traded with others. He loaded it and quietly padded to his parents' bedroom. He gently opened the door to their room. Neither of his parents stirred. He fired his first shot into Ronald, Sr.'s back as he slept on his stomach wearing a pair of blue boxer shorts. The slug ripped through one of DeFeo's kidneys and came out through his chest. Butch fired a second time, and this slug tore into his father's spine and came to rest lodged in his neck. Louise DeFeo roused at the sounds of gunfire, but she had no time to process what was happening. Butch swung cleanly toward her and fired. Her ribcage was shattered and her right lung collapsed from the blasts.
Four shots had been fired within the confines of a sleeping household, but miraculously none of the remaining four family members seemed to hear them. Butch crept to his younger
That left the two girls, neither of whom apparently heard any gunfire in this second wave. The younger girl, Allison, stirred as he approached her, gazing upward with sleepy stupefaction just as he entered the room, lowered the rifle to her upturned face, fired. She died instantly. Dawn, the 18-year-old, when her turn came, suffered more cosmetically than the others did. Butch shot her in the head, but the bullet's path blew away much of the left side of her face.
He had spent about fifteen minutes wiping out his family, and the hour was 3:00 AM. The only ears in the neighborhood to hear the gunfire was the DeFeo's dog, Shaggy, restrained on a leash by the boathouse – he barked loudly for several minutes before settling down.
Crime scenes are messy places, and the average killer does not give that much thought when he or she is on a rampage in close quarters. Butch had back-spattered blood on his skin and clothing; he had tracked blood through the house as he wandered from room to room.
The gravity of his situation came to him quickly enough and he knew he had to clean the scene and himself and establish an alibi. He took a shower, trimmed his beard, and put on clean jeans and work boots. His bloody clothing and the murder weapon he wrapped in a pillowcase. He cleaned up around the floors and doors where he might have touched. He walked outside into the hours before dawn and dumped his pillowcase of evidence in his car. He fired up the engine and headed toward the City, stopping long enough in a Brooklyn suburb to dump the pillowcase filled with the leavings of his crime into a storm drain. He then drove on to the dealership where he worked. It was 6:00 AM.
DeFeo's work schedule was from 8 AM, so when his father failed to show up, Butch went through a panicky pretense of calling his home in Amityville several times in the morning. Obviously, no one answered, and there seemed little concern that anything was wrong from the other staffers at the lot. Butch claimed since he had nothing to do he was bored, and he left work at noon. He called a girlfriend, 19-year-old Sherry Klein, and said he was on his way to pick her up, and he cruised out to the Island. He passed a friend of his, Bobby Kelske, en route to Amityville and the two chatted briefly. Butch continued on to Sherry's apartment, arriving at about 1:30 PM. He made a pretense of "wondering" why no one answered the phone at his house (which he claimed he'd driven past) when all the cars were in the driveway. To reinforce his concern he called the Ocean Avenue house again from Sherry's in her presence – no answer.
He feigned confusion about this, but seemed otherwise unconcerned and he and Sherry went to a mall in nearby Massapequa, New York, and shopped the afternoon away. Afterward they went to Bobby Kelske's house. Butch fed Bobby the same story about calling and calling his house but receiving no answer – the easiest solution, of course, was to simply go home and see what might be wrong. Butch complained he couldn't get in, and then asked Bobby if he was going out later. Bobby advised Butch he would be at a local bar, Henry's, at around 6 PM and Butch could catch up with him then.
The rest of what remained of the afternoon Butch spent visiting a few friends, drinking, and taking heroin. He showed up at Henry's bar as planned, but it was well after 6 PM. Bobby arrived shortly after Butch did. Butch complained again about no one's answering the phone at home and his not being able to get in the house. Finally, he told Bobby that he was going home to break in a window to gain entry.
Butch left, ostensibly for home, but he was not gone very long. He returned within a few minutes and began ranting that someone had shot his mother and father.
Butch, Bobby, and few other barflies piled into Butch's Buick and they made the trip to 112 Ocean Avenue together. The family inside had been dead for about 15 hours – Bobby Kelske easily opened the front door of the residence. He pounded upstairs and charged into the master bedroom. He saw Ronald and Louise obviously dead in the bed, and he removed himself to the yard outside immediately, not wanting to contaminate what was clearly the scene of a violent crime. Butch put on a show of grief and agitation, but another friend, Joey Yeswit, went off to the kitchen and called police.
One member of the Louise DeFeo's family (an uncle of Butch's) was confirmed with a connection (albeit a minor one) to New York's Genovese crime family. The nature of the attacks, sloppy but roughly gangland execution style, led police to surmise that perhaps Ronald had annoyed the wrong member of his in-law's family in a bad business deal.
Regardless of the cause, soon enough Ronald DeFeo, Jr., was taken into custody, not as a suspect, but for his own protection – the police thought the family's killer may want to finish the job by eliminating the oldest son.
By 7 PM, the property crawled with rubberneckers, police, and other emergency personnel combing the scene for evidence and clues. Butch was first questioned by a lone police officer in the family kitchen. He was asked if he had any idea who could have done such a thing. He paused and finally suggested an alleged Mafia hit man named Louis Falini. He claimed Falini held a grudge against the DeFeos stemming from an argument with Butch a few years back. He claimed the argument evolved when Falini criticized Butch's work performance at the car dealership. Falini had allegedly lived with the DeFeos, and had helped Ronald, Sr., carve out a hiding space in the basement for stashing gems and cash (thus attempting to establish grounds that Falini was familiar with the home's layout). Police knew this was an absurd proposition – disagreements of the type Butch described with known organized crime figures are handled with more expedience than by waiting several years. Furthermore, he could give no insight into what the disagreement was over.
Considering the traffic in the house, Butch was taken to a neighbor's where the interview continued. A temporary police command center had been set up there, and the site officers
At that time, Butch wrote out an official statement about the events of the day. He described watching television on the evening of November 12, but then conflicted himself by saying he went to bed at 2 AM, only later claiming he'd gone up to the sitting room outside his parents' bedroom and had fallen asleep there. Other inconsistencies, combined with Butch's later strangely inappropriate (and premature) inquiry about how soon he could collect his parents' insurance money led police to believe the murders may not have been committed by a stranger at all. He was taken to the police station for further questioning; he was allowed to sleep on a cot in the station's filing room at about 3 AM on Friday, November 14.
Trapped in Lie after Lie
Searching Butch's room thoroughly (something not initially deemed necessary) at about 2:30 AM on Friday morning, November 15, 1974, led police down a new path of inquiry. A pair of rectangular cartons were found. Each carried a label describing what it had held.
Quick follow-up questioning of Butch's friend Bobby Kelske revealed to police for the first time that Butch was a gun fanatic and that he had staged the robbery a couple of weeks before of the Brigante Buick dealership's deposit money. At almost 9 AM that Friday morning, an officer shook the sleeping Butch awake – the first words out of his mouth were asking if police had found Falini the hit man yet. No, they had not – Ronald Joseph, DeFeo, Jr., was read his Miranda rights and was placed under arrest for the murder of his family. Butch tried to waive his rights in protest and as proof that he was innocent, but another officer read them to him again just to be safe.
Butch's statement and his interviews suggested he believed the murders had occurred at about 1 PM on Wednesday, November 13 (when he was clearly in the presence of others, not the least of which was his girlfriend Sherry Klein). The simple fact that all the dead were still clothed in their night gear meant they had not been murdered in the afternoon – all of them would have been changed into regular casual wear by then. Police, managed to back him down from that through consistent interrogation. Finally, it was proposed the murders must have occurred between 2 AM and 4 AM.
His presence in the home was clearly established through physical evidence, and Butch tried to cover this by saying he had been in the various rooms but only after his family was dead. They hammered at the fact he owned a .35-caliber rifle and that the slugs in each victim were of the same size.
Switching tack, Butch alleged the mysterious Mafia hitman Louis Falini had magically appeared in his room at 3:30 AM with a revolver pointed at his head. Another man, according to Butch, lurked in the shadows farther away. Falini and the stranger (for whom Butch could give no description) then systematically dragged Butch from room to room and made him watch while his family was killed by the intruders.
The killer finally implicated himself inadvertently when he mentioned he had picked up spent shell casings from the scene and discarded them. Caught in this trap (why would he pick up cartridges unless it was his gun that was used? Evidence against others was his best hope for release), he sat sullenly silent.
Still playing into his fantasy about the intruders dragging him from kill to kill police interrogators alleged that to buy Butch's silence about their identities the killers must have made him shoot at least one family member (complicit in the slayings, he would not go to police).
He asked for a moment to gather his thoughts. One of the police pressed by stating that neither Falini nor the stranger was present, that it was only Butch on the scene. Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr. relented. "No," indicating that Falini and the other man had not been there. "It all started so fast. Once I started, I just couldn't stop. It went so fast."
Possessed by the Devil!
He later led investigators to the spot where he'd disposed of the Marlin rifle and his bloody clothes. Ballistics testing on the rifle proved it was the murder weapon.
The story was headlines immediately, and DeFeo was castigated as a spoiled rich kid who couldn't wait to get his hands on his family's money. His confession to police meant he was a certain closed-case at any trial that may arise.
However, the media circus was not yet over.
The year before one of the biggest and most controversial films to ever hit theaters took the country's imagination by storm. The Exorcist, based on a novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, was terrifying; its story of a girl possessed by the Devil struck a nerve with America. Suddenly, demon possessions were everywhere, interest in the occult surged, and exorcisms and related topics were popular fodder on daytime talk shows. The Exorcist had not worn off by late 1974. Butch seized on this claiming he had been demonically possessed when he killed his family. [This element would feature in the film based on the hoax "based-on-a-true-story" novel, The Amityville Horror, in which the house itself was purportedly possessed by demons and poltergeists as well as ghosts and the dead DeFeo family]. No one bought it – the prosecution that was handlingpathological liar, a sociopath, and a violent, cold-blooded killer.
He went to trial in mid October 1975, almost a year after the murders. His only hope from a severe punishment was to be found not guilty by reason of insanity or mental defect. The lawyer that had been hired for him was a flamboyant barrister named William Weber and his courtroom theatrics, though brilliant, were only enough to get Butch convicted of slightly lesser charges: 2nd Degree murder, six counts.
On the stand his attorney coached Butch into blurting, "I killed them all. Yes, sir. I killed them all in self-defense". When prodded for a reason, he stated:
As far as I'm concerned, if I didn't kill my family, they were going to kill me. And as far as I'm concerned, what I did was self-defense and there was nothing wrong with it. When I got a gun in my hand, there's no doubt in my mind who I am. I am God.
Another defense tactic to "prove" Butch's weak hold on reality was when his lawyer showed him a picture of his mother's dead body in situ. He asked Butch if that was not his mother; Butch replied he had never seen the woman before in his life. Courtroom theatrics held little sway with the jury. He was convicted on November 21, 1975 – one year and eight days after murdering his sleeping family in cold blood. December 4, 1975, he was sentenced to six concurrent 25-to-life sentences.
Thirteen months after the mass murder of the DeFeo family, newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz (married in July 1975; she had three children from a previous relationship), bought the DeFeo house for much less than market value and moved into it on December 18, 1975. They abandoned it 28 days later, claiming the house had demons, poltergeist activity, and other horrific paranormal phenomenon.
These allegations had been concocted with the aid of William Weber, Butch's trial attorney, to capitalize on the notoriety of the murders. The resultant "true story" (really a horror novel, not non-fiction as marketed initially) written by author Jay Anson became the runaway best seller, The Amityville Horror. A film was made in the late 1970s, and a movie franchise with many sequels and tangential projects developed, including a recent remake of the original film.
The house is not haunted, and it never has been. Several families have lived in it since the Lutzes' untruths were successfully sold. The haunting was contrived to make money and was
Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr., is housed in Green Haven Correctional Facility in Beekman, New York. His story of the night of the murders has changed so many times over the years that at this point no one believes anything he has to say about them.
Some of the more bizarre explanations he has offered include:
1. Louise shot everybody in a fit of rage then turned the gun on herself (unclear how she shot herself twice in the places wounds were found, but that was his story)
2. He and his sister Dawn were smoking marijuana with some friends in the basement; later that night Dawn killed everybody and Butch shot her in self-defense.
3. Other friends of Butch's were there, and they killed the family
4. He killed his parents and his sister Dawn (after a fight), but he did not kill his sister Allison or his two brothers (he offers no insight about who did)
He has been confirmed married twice (obviously by prisoner groupies): Barbara Puco DeFeo (married from 1994-1999) and another woman named Tracey (married in 2004). A third "wife" has surfaced in more recent years, a fortune seeker named Geraldine Rullo-Romondoe "DeFeo" Gates who claims she and the 18-year-old Butch were married (long
Butch has been eligible for parole for several years. His hearing requests always result in denials. He will be a very old man indeed if he ever gains parole (he will be 61 in late 2012). More than likely, though, because of the nature of his crimes – coldly calculated, motivated by selfishness and greed – he will die in prison.
But not from a gunshot to the back of the head.