Domicile of Deceit

Part 1 of 2

One of the late 20th Century’s most lucrative entertainment franchises spawned several books and ten movies.  The pop culture phenomenon known as The Amityville Horror™ made its first appearance in print with a book by the same name published in September 1977. Presence (interpret, frontispiece)

This book (the cover of which carried the phrase “A True Story” beneath its title) detailed 28 days of horror as experienced by a New York family living in a home that – 13 months before their moving in – was the site of a callous mass murder. The new family left the house suddenly in January 1976.  They later claimed it was plagued by paranormal phenomenon: demonic possession, poltergeist activity, ghosts, strange noises, swarms of flies out of season, slime from the plumbing, and a notorious Red Room beneath a stairwell that purportedly led to Hell itself.

Unfortunately, the DeFeo family murders are not what one of America’s most infamous houses is best known.  Unlike those very real slayings, the thing for which the house is infamous – as a site of extraordinary haunting and demonic activity – was a lie.

Little House on the Big Island
Amityville, New York, lies on the south side of Long Island, New York, roughly along its midpoint.  The Atlantic Ocean provides recreation and respite from the City.

The ocean also provided a bountiful source of fishing for the earliest Native Americans who are known to have inhabited the area. A meta-group of Natives comprised the Montauckett Nation.  As named by Europeans, one of the tribes in this group was called the Massapequa (and it is for them the Long Island town of Massapequa, New York, is named).

The Massapequa occupied the tidal bays of the Atlantic Coast on Long Island’s southern shore.  Their dead were interred in small Indian burial grounds outside the living spaces of the villages.  When the first Europeans arrived in this area (in the mid 1600s) the Massapequa Indians were their greeters.  They helped the new arrivals settle onto the land.  As the Dutch and others crowded out the Massapequans and occupied their little fishing village as their own, the Indian burial grounds outside the village lay fallow and relatively undisturbed (except for European settlers who robbed the graves for consumer goods just as the Puritans had done upon their arrival at the abandoned Indian village they renamed Plymouth Plantation in 1620).

The little “friendly bay village” of farmers, fishermen, and boat makers grew into its name officially in March 3, 1894, when it was incorporated as “Amityville”.  The local cash crop of salt-hay (grown and mown for livestock feed) gave way to tourism as New Yorkers in the crowded city to the west began vacationing and summering on Long Island, renting homes and enjoying the cool breezes from the Atlantic.  Luxury hotels for vacationers sprang up (now gone), and the town became a destination spot for many.  Bohemian types found the island peaceful and inspiring; many artists, writers, and leisure seekers haunted the area.

John Moynahan wanted a little piece of property to call his own on Long Island.  He found it in the shape of a rough trapezoid, 50 feet wide at the street, running in parallel lines about 230-plus feet each, and terminating on the eastern bank of a canal generously called the Amityville River. The seller was a woman named Annie Ireland.  The lot was roughly a quarter-acre in area, but on January 14, 1924, that was enough for John Moynahan, his wife Catherine, and their family.Orignal 112 Ocean Avenue cottage (built 1924)Credit:

What did not suit their needs, though, was the first house they built on the land.  Within a year of moving into their new cottage they discovered that it was not large enough for what was presumably a continually expanding Irish-Catholic family. Moynahan took the extreme measure of planning a new, larger home to be built on his postage-stamp lot.  To do this, though, he needed to clear his lot of the cottage, but he also needed a place to live while his dream house was built.  Moynahan hit upon the simplest solution to both problems – he moved his cottage intact to another plot a hundred yards away.

Construction began soon after, and when it was finished, John Moynahan and his family moved into the house at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York, that five decades later would become a fixture on the pop culture landscape as one of America’s most readily recognizable for all the wrong reasons.

Big House on a Little Lot
The Moynahan house for its day was a very handsome and spacious structure.  It was a 2½-story Dutch Colonial (described as “executive” by realtors).  It had plenty of interior space, and would be a 3-bath, 4-bedroom home with a den and other large living spaces.  The “attic” space was also used for rooms as well.  The house had a full basement, finished over time.
112 Ocean Avenue (1925, Moynahan occupancy)Credit: public domainThe structure was built longwise on the lot.  The “official” front door did not access the street but was in the side of the house facing a short driveway.  The elevation facing Ocean Avenue had a couple of interesting features.  The first was a completely screened-in sun room with wooden lattice-work trim.  The roof of the sun room was fenced with a decorative lattice rail.  High up on the wall, spanning eave-to-eave, were the house’s decorative windows: two “quarter-circle” glass inserts bracketed a rank of three small, rectangular sashes glazed side-by-side.  The original visual impression was one of the house having “eyes” and a single “eyebrow” topping it off.

The Moynahans (numbering six when they moved in) lived happily in their huge house on its tiny lot.  Upon the deaths of John and Catherine, one of their daughters, Eileen Fitzgerald, took possession of the house and lived there with her family.  She sold the house on October 17, 1960.  The couple who bought it, Joseph J. and Mary M. Riley, did not stay long.  Within a few years they were headed for divorce; the house was sold for an equitable property division between Joseph and Mary. [Their daughter, actress Christina Belford, lived in the house as a teenage girl before her parents’ divorce.]

DeFeo deed to 112 Ocean Avenue (1965)Credit: public record

The next occupants of 112 Ocean Avenue were another largish family, this one from Brooklyn, New York.  With help from his affluent father-in-law, on June 28, 1965, Ronald DeFeo, Sr., took possession of the house from the Rileys where he and most of his family would die slightly less than nine years later.


Horror, Sweet Horror
Up to (and including the time) the DeFeo’s lived in the the house made infamous by their deaths, it had absolutely no local reputation as haunted or enchanted or otherwise “possessed”.  No tragedies (other than the natural deaths of its original builders, the Moynahans, and the divorce of its owners in the early 1960s).  There was no talk of its having been built on a sacred Indian burial ground (as would later be claimed).  The Amityville Indian burial grounds were then outside the city proper; most have been used as dump sites or otherwise desecrated through callous construction.  There has never been anything extraordinary about the property or its location.

With the addition of a swimming pool in the rear, with its pile of a house, garage, and a boathouse opening onto the Amityville River, most of the real estate of the tiny lot was filled.  It was known locally as “the house with the smallest front yard in town”.   The sign in that yard – “High Hopes” – was unique to the area.  That and the “eyes” facing Ocean Avenue (the center row of three smaller windows had been removed and walled over before the DeFeo’s bought the house) were about the only remarkable things about the house.

112 Ocean Avenue (as DeFeo home)Credit: tumblr

DeFeo, Sr., had five children with his wife Louise.  The first-born, Ronald, Jr., (nicknamed “Butch”) was the oldest.  He was a troubled child and a troubled young adult.  In his teens (when the DeFeo’s moved into 112 Ocean Avenue) Butch was already using drugs, drinking heavily, collecting firearms, and was exceedingly spoiled.  [His father got Butch a job at the car dealership where the senior DeFeo was a sales manager – the boy more often than not failed to show up for work.  His father, however, saw to it that Butch drew a full allowance each week regardless of how little he worked.]

Butch became increasingly disenchanted with what he thought was his parents’ niggardly parsing of money to him.  He stole from them when they denied his constant requests for cash.  He stole and resold outboard motors (swiped from neighboring boathouses).  His grand scheme was stealing the week’s sales receipts in late October or early November 1974.  He engineered a “robbery” with a buddy – entrusted to run the car dealerships’ deposit to the bank, he and his confederate instead split the roughly $22,000 in cash and checks and claimed they’d been robbed at gunpoint.

Inconsistencies in Butch’s story (such as his several-hour delay in returning to the dealership to report the robbery) meant he was a definite person of interest. Under police questioning, Butch was needlessly hostile and defensive (if he were, indeed, innocent).  His father put the police off – knowing his son, he suspected the robbery was fake himself, but he told authorities to leave and pick up their investigation later.

On November 8, 1974, Butch was called into the Amityville Police Department to check mug shots in an effort to identify his assailant from the hold-up the week before.  He initially agreed, then refused to go and review the photos.  Police came to suspect the “robbery” was a fake with the 23-year-old Butch as the mastermind behind it. 

Butch DeFeo begged off work on Tuesday, November 13.  He watched some television in the early evening, and then brooded in his room under the attic eaves.  At about 2:30 AM on Wednesday, November 13, 1974, he drew a .35-caliber Marlin rifle from his closet.  He crept to his parent’s master bedroom, shot his father in the back as he lay sleeping on his stomach, then plugged him again (this bullet passed through his spine and stalled in his neck).

His mother Louise roused briefly, but not completely, at the two shots fired in the room.  As she wriggled into partial wakefulness, Butch shot her twice in the torso. Marching across the hall, he strode to his younger brothers’ room.  Taking a position between their beds, he shot each in the back as the boys lay on their stomachs.  He then slipped into his youngest sister’s room – she apparently had heard the shots across the hall.  She turned her head toward the door as Butch entered her room – he shot her in the face.  He proceeded upstairs to Dawn’s room (his 18-year-old sister, and the second born).  He fired a slug into Dawn’s head tearing away much of her face’s left side.

By this time it was about 3:00 AM.  Butch showered, cleaning the blood from himself and trimming his beard, and put on fresh clothes.  He bundled up his the blood-spattered garb he’d worn for the shooting and the Marlin rifle.  He stuffed these into a pillowcase, left the house, and drove off toward Brooklyn.  He dumped his pillowcase of evidence in a subdivision storm drain and drove on to the car dealership where he and his father both worked. 

When DeFeo, Sr., failed to show up for work on time, Butch made pretense phone calls to their Amityville home but said he got no answer.  Claiming he had nothing to do at work, he left about noon, picked up a girlfriend, and the two went shopping in a mall.  Later in the afternoon, Butch and the girlfriend visited mutual friends where Butch drugged with his buddies. 

He had complained during the day to whoever would listen that he was unable to get into his house and no one answered the phone despite many calls.  He later told a friend he met at a bar at about 6 PM that he was going to his house to break in as window to gain entry.  He was gone from the bar for only a short time before returning to the bar and announcing his parents had been shot.

Bar patrons and Butch made their way to the DeFeo house – one of his friends found the parents dead and called police.  An early statement taken from Butch (night of Wednesday, November 13 through early morning of Thursday, November 14) attempted to deflect suspicion onto a “Mafia hit man” (Louis Falini) who allegedly had stayed at the DeFeo home once and was angry over a past botched business deal with Ronald, Sr. 

A more thorough search of the home (with Butch in protective custody as police were unsure if the gunman would return to “finish the job” by killing him) in the early morning of Friday, November 14, yielded up the rifle’s carton in Butch’s room as well as ammo containers.  Within the span of a few hours, upon interrogating Butch further, he confessed to police that it was he who had shot his family.  He gave no motive except t0 later claim he was afraid for his own life at times, he was on drugs, and he even offered up the excuse he was “possessed by a demon”. 

The house, as a crime scene, was properly processed.  Ronald DeFeo, Jr., was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder.  On November 21, 1975, he was sentenced to six concurrent terms of 25-years-to-life.  Though eligible, all requests for parole are routinely denied. 

Moving on Up . . . and Out!
George Lee Lutz (born: January 1, 1947) and Kathleen Theresa Lutz (born: October 13, 1946) were married on July 4, 1975.  George Lutz, a non-practicing Methodist trained as an air traffic controller, had started a family civil engineering business before meeting Kathy.  He had been married once before, and he lived in his own home.  Kathy Lutz (a lapsed Catholic) had been married before as well.  Unlike George, though, she had children: Daniel (9), Christopher (7), and Melissa (5).  She lived in her own home.  The couple decided to merge households.  Kathy’s home sold first, so she and the children moved into George’s while they searched for a more suitable space.
George Lee & Kathleen Theresa LutzCredit: tumblrAfter house hunting and looking at several dozen prospects, George and Kathy Lutz went to contract on one home that was in their price range, though not nearly as large as they would have preferred.  The house also needed repairs that the sellers refused to negotiate on. The deal fell through as the extra repair expenses seemed untenable. They continued their search.
Real estate "for sale" ad (mid 1970s)

About a month later, they spotted an ad for a home at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville. It was priced below market and in either late august or early September 1975, the Lutzes went to have a look.  They were immediately enchanted with the Dutch Colonial with the “eyes” staring out toward the street.  Noting the boathouse on the property, the Lutzes factored in their current two mortgages and docking fees for a boat they owned, and quickly determined this house – with an asking price about $20,000 below market value – was within their means. 

Upon making the commitment to inspect the property, the Lutzes learned from the realtor the house’s horrific recent history.  She told the couple of the murders that had taken place there less than a year before.  The case had not been that well-known nationally and neither Kathy nor George claimed any immediate knowledge of it.  Then, with prompting, they recalled the news stories about Butch DeFeo shooting his family.

Murders or no, the house was too good a deal to pass up: the DeFeo estate wanted it liquidated (and many of the DeFeo family’s furnishings were still within, thrown in to the house price for $400), and the final sale price was reduced even further to $80,000.  On December 18, 1975, George, Kathy, and the three children moved into what had to be felt was a dream home.112 Ocean Avenue (side view, Lutz occupancy)On January 14, 1976, the Lutz clan left 112 Ocean Avenue.  They had lived there for 28 days, not even long enough to have made the first mortgage payment.

[Continued in Part 2: Amityville Horror Conspiracy]

Walk-thru of 112 Ocean Avenue (from DeFeo occupancy)

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