The iconic Dutch Colonial style building at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, is best known today for the extraordinary account of a haunting at the house in 1976.
The Amityville Horror, as it was soon known, became one of the most famous incidents of paranormal activity ever recorded. It would inspire a book and a successful series of Hollywood films.
The account of the young Lutz family been tormented by demonic pigs, plagues of flies and green slime oozing from the walls terrified readers and moviegoers, all the more so because it was labelled as a true story.
One surprisingly little-known fact about the Amityville Horror is that it was an admitted hoax. George Lutz and his wife Kathy invented the haunting with the help of lawyer and literary agent William Weber.
But the paranormal version obscures a very real horror, one far more frightening and mysterious than the fanciful tales of poltergeists Hollywood gave the world. Because in the same house, less than 2 years earlier, one of the strangest and most baffling mass murders in recent history occurred.
The first sign that something was terribly wrong in the picturesque Suffolk County coastal village of Amityville came at around 6:30pm, when a frantic local resident named Ronnie ‘Butch’ Defeo Jr, burst into Henry’s Bar with a shocking story — “You got to help me!”, he yelled. “I think my mother and father are shot!”
Several of the bar’s patrons immediately rushed to the house, where they were hit with the stench of death. Defeo’s mother and father were both shot in their beds, worst still, four of their children had been slaughtered as well.
One of the men, Joe Yeswit, called the Suffolk county police with the awful news. On their arrival, a search of the house confirmed the worst — every member of the Defeo family, save for Butch, were dead.
The victims were Ronald DeFeo Sr, 43, Louise DeFeo, 42 and four of their children — Dawn, 18, Allison, 13, Marc, 12 and John Matthew, 9.
Each of them had been shot execution style, at close range as they slept, and all 6 were found laying in their beds face down on their stomachs.
As police trawled the house, the lone survivor, Butch Defeo, cut a forlorn figure outside, refusing to go inside. Defeo mentioned to officers that he felt a mob hit-man was responsible for the killings, a suggestion taken seriously because of the methodical way the family seemed to have been killed.
Defeo was taken into police custody for his own protection but didn’t stick to his mob story for very long. Within 24 hours the surviving Defeo had made a shocking confession — he had murdered his entire family himself.
“Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It went so fast.” Defeo told stunned detectives. After the murders, he admitted, he took a shower, changed his clothes and disposed of the murder weapon.
With a full confession, the subsequent investigation seemed straight forward. At around 3:15 am on November 13, Butch Defeo had awoken, and for reasons that may forever remain unclear, took a .35 caliber Marlin rifle and systematically shot all 6 members of his family.
But even some of the detectives, keen to quickly wrap up their biggest ever murder case, could see there was something very wrong with this story.
How had Butch shot 6 people in 4 different rooms without any of them waking up? How had no neighbours heard the rifle blasts? If everyone was shot in bed, how had blood splatter got on the floor and a dresser?
Many had begun to feel Butch could not have acted alone. Unburnt gunshot residue on Defeo’s sister Dawn even indicated she might have been involved.
Were there other gunmen in the Defeo family massacre?
Waking the Dead
At the subsequent trial, Ronald Defeo Jr proved to be a terrible witness. His story constantly changed and his erratic and strange behavior alienated him to everyone. He even threatened to kill the judge and his own lawyer.
On November 21, 1975, he was found guilty on 6 counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 6 concurrent 25-year sentences, although he is unlikely to ever be released. But despite the conviction, it was clear there was a serious problem with the official story.
The court had determined that Defeo had acted alone, killing all 6 members of his family with a .35 gauge Marlin rifle. Defeo had supposedly shot each victim as they slept, and both prosecution and defence agreed he had not used a silencer.
How had Defeo committed the shooting alone without any of his family waking up? Defense experts had conducted an experiment on the Marlin rifle and found its report was so loud that it could be heard almost a mile away.
According to the autopsy and ballistic reports, each victim was shot as they were found, face down in their beds. It seemed none of them had been awoken by the shots, and none had put up any kind of struggle or tried to hide or flee the scene.
Ken Greguski, the former Amityville police chief, was one of the first law enforcement professionals at the scene. To this day he finds it hard to believe Defeo could have committed the shootings without any members of his family waking — “Why someone wasn’t able to get out of that house is beyond belief”, he later said.
Why someone wasn’t able to get out of that house is beyond belief
What made this particularly inexplicable was the locations of the 6 bodies strongly suggested Defo could not have committed the shootings so rapidly that nobody had time to react.
In fact, Defeo had fired a total of 8 ear-shredding shots, estimated to be 140 decibels each, in 4 different rooms of the sprawling house, across 2 different floors. And yet it seems he had not disturbed anyone.
Nor did any neighbours hear the shots. 112 Ocean Avenue was not an isolated property, it was surrounded quite closely be other homes. When police interviewed the residents, nobody reported hearing anything except the barking of the Defeo family dog.
Dr Howard Adelman, deputy chief medical examiner of Suffolk County, was present at the crime scene and personally conducted the autopsies on the Defeo family. He testified at the trial that he felt it was impossible one person could have committed the crimes.
“Even if they were sleeping the report of the weapon that was used is supposed to be so loud that it would have, so to speak, awakened the dead”, he said. And neither had any of the victims been drugged.
“We did extensive toxicology not only on the blood and urine but on all of the organs that we removed and it turned up zero that there wasn’t anything in their body”, Adelman explained.
The idea that Butch Defeo had commited the crimes on his own was becoming increasingly untenable. Even the man who secured Defeo’s 25-to-life prison sentence for the crimes, prosecuter Gerard Sullivan, long suspected that other shooters were involved.
“I wonder about the questions that were never answered. Did any of the victims wake up? If so, why didn’t any of them defend themselves? Why were all six found face down in death? Why didn’t’ anyone hear the shots?”, he wrote in his book High Hopes in 1981.
If then, as seemed likely, Defeo hadn't acted alone. Who had helped him commit this horrifying crime?
Several investigators and authors have suggested Butch Defeo’s oldest sister Dawn played some part in the shootings.
The first 5 victims were on the 2nd floor of the Defeo house. Ronald Snr and mother Louise Defeo were both shot twice in the master bedroom. Moving across to the other side of the house, the gunman then shot the 2 boys, Marc and John.
Completing the 2nd floor shootings, 13 year old Alison DeFeo was shot once in the head. That’s a total of 7 shots, at 140 decibels each, before the gunman even started to ascend the stairs to Dawn Defeo’s 3rd floor bedroom.
It is, therefore, unthinkable that Dawn, entirely unsedated or drugged, would not already have been alerted to a gunman before they had even arrived on the 3rd floor. Yet as we have seen, she appeared to be peacefully asleep, face down in her bed, having made no attempt to escape, defend herself or hide.
Had Dawn, as some suspected, actually participated in the shooting herself, only to then be shot by her brother and placed in her bed?
Although Butch DeFeo is notorious for the sheer number of contradictory stories he has told about the murders over the years, one of his more consistent accounts is, indeed, that Dawn took part in the killings.
In most versions of his story, he has claimed responsibility for the murder of his mother and father and showed little remorse for them. But he has often blamed Dawn for killing the families children — Marc, John and Allison. After discovering what she had done, Defeo says he then killed Dawn after a struggle with the rifle.
Some evidence does exist to tentatively support this scenario. Dawn seems to have been killed somewhere other than her bed and placed there after he death.
Crime scene investigators discovered that Dawn had suffered a huge head wound, and that brain matter and blood was on her pillow, bedclothes and nightgown. Yet her white headboard, just inches from her head, was pristine. The lack of blood splatter was strongly indicitave that she had been shot somewhere else.
Blood splatter was also found on a dresser and floorboards in the house, again demonstrating the possibility at least some of the shootings had occured away from the beds.
Some investigators have speculated that unburnt gunshot residue found on Dawn’s body indicate she may have handled a firearm or ammunation, although the proscution expert at the trial, Alfred Della Penna, thought this could have occured as a result of the muzzle flash when Dawn was shot.
Rick Moran, amongst the first group of reports at the scene the night the bodies were discovered, has studied the Defeo murders for more than 30 years. He is sure that Dawn was involved in some way.
Moran cites one of Butch Defeo’s strangest claims amongst his many conflicting statements as evidence. Defeo has said several times that on the night of the shootings he was watching TV in a drug induced haze when a strange black hooded figure came to him and handed him a rifle, and urged him to commit the murders.
Moran thinks this figure could have been Dawn. According to the reporter, Dawn was often spotted by neighbours wearing a black snorkel style coat, which may have led a heavily stoned Butch to mistake her for the sinister figure.
Although clearly highly anecdotal, Moran says one of his contacts at the Drug Enforcement Agency backs up the story. He had told Moran that someone from the DEA actually had the house under surveillance the night of the murders, due to a suspicion that Butch had been smuggling drugs in his speedboat.
This DEA agent had supposedly observed Dawn in her black coat leaving the house with a rifle, getting into a car and driving off in the direction the firearm was subsequently found by the police.
If Dawn and Butch plotted the murders together, could Butch’s incapacity due to heavy drug use have spurred Dawn to commit them herself? And once Butch had come down, had he shot Dawn after the horror of what she had done dawned on him?
On the face of it this scenario seems far-fetched. But it does help explain many of the puzzling and intractable issues with the crime scene. And evidence from the trial indicates Dawn’s mindset may have been disturbed enough to make her taking such extreme actions seem at least plausible.
Dawn’s boyfriend William Davidge stated to the court that Dawn was a habitual user of LSD and mescaline and had recently started to become extremely hostile towards her parents because they had refused to allow her to live with him.
The Defeo family were by all accounts dysfunction and troubled, and Ronald Defeo Snr was reported to be particularly violent, controlling and abusive to both his wife and children, all commonly cited factors in parenticide.
Butch Defeo has given several different versions of the murders in which people other than Dawn Defeo were part of the conspiracy, but with little or no evidence to support them, Dawn remains the most likely canidate for an extra shooter.
The Bad Seed
In the hours following the shooting, when police interviewed local Amityville residents, many told the detectives they felt Butch Defeo was responsible.
Considering the reputation Defeo had developed in the sleepy community, it was not so surprising that residents immediately felt he had committed the atrocity. Over the years, he was continually in trouble for his thuggish and erratic behaviour, theft and drug abuse.
During the run up to the murders, Defeo’s drug taking had become particularly acute. By his own admission, he was consuming huge amounts of heroin and marijuana and drinking a bottle of scotch every day, despite already been on probation for drug crimes at the time.
His violence was also spiraling out of control. At the trial, much testimony was offered for Defeo’s temper and obsession with guns. One witness recalled how Defeo had held a shotgun up at the head of a young man during a hunting party, and watched stony-faced as the man turned white with fear.
On another occasion, Defeo has held a 12 gauge shotgun up against his father’s head during an argument and even pulled the trigger. The shotgun failed to fire and Defeo Snr reportedly found religion soon afterwards.
Psychologists subsequently diagnosed Butch as having anti-social personality disorder, displaying little or no empathy for other people. Some speculated that Defeo’s many different accounts of the murders were attempts to shift blame for the deaths of his siblings to anyone but himself.
Whilst Defoe showed no feelings for his mother and detested his father, he would always become agited and upset when talking about the deaths of his brothers and little sister. If he could successfully convince others and perhaps even himself that someone else had killed the children, it may have helped to assuage his own guilt about the murders.
One of the major problems with the multiple gunmen scenario is the testimony of the prosecution’s ballistics experts who stated all of the wounds to the 6 victims were made with the same firearm.
A study of the wounds to the Defoe family, and the expended cartridges found at the crime scene indicated 8 shots had been fired. All 8 shell casing were found and forensically linked to the .35 caliber Marlin rifle found by police thrown in the dock directly behind the house.
Although Herman Race, an experienced criminologist hired by the defence, disputed this ballistic evidence, it seemed quite conclusive. But it did little to reconcile the enduring and seemingly intractable contradictions in the case.
To this day, no truly satisfactory account of what happened has ever been offered. Butch Defeo is no help, seemingly lost in his own miasma of lies and delusions, and everyone else who was there is dead.
All we know for sure is that 6 lives were destoyed, 7 if you count Butch Defeo, who will surely die in prison. Whatever happened that horrible night in Amityville, the truth may forever be lost amidst fictional stories of ghosts and demons.
Cover image: BrownieCharles99