Last week’s case featured Harvey Glatman, the California serial killer stopped when one of his intended victims fought back. This week, we travel to the opposite coast and the case of Ronald DeFeo. In 1974, DeFeo killed all six members of his family while they slept. The family home later became infamous as the “Amityville Horror” house.
The DeFeo Family Murders
Ronald DeFeo, Jr., “Butch” to his family, was born September 26, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York. By 1974, the DeFeo family lived in the Long Island community of Amityville. They lived in the house they purchased in 1964 at 112 Ocean Avenue.
At about 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 13, 1974, “Butch” walked into Henry’s Bar. The bar, which no longer exists, was a short six-minute walk from the DeFeo home. “You got to help me!” he told the people present. “I think my mother and father are shot!” DeFeo then led a small group back to the home, where they found Ronald DeFeo Sr. and Louise DeFeo dead. One of the group, Joe Yeswit, called the Suffolk County Police. When police searched the house, they found the other four DeFeo children dead. The DeFeo siblings were Dawn (18), Allison (13), Marc (12), and John Matthew (9). Each of the victims were lying face down on their beds.
At the scene, DeFeo suggested that a mob hitman, Louis Falini, had committed the murders. Officers took him to a local police station for his own protection. However, they soon noticed glaring inconsistencies in his story, Furthermore, Falini, the alleged hitman, was out of the state when the killings occurred. DeFeo couldn’t keep up the charade and confessed to the killings the following day.
Ronald DeFeo Convicted
Ronald DeFeo went on trial almost a year later, on October 14, 1975. His lawyer, William Weber, presented the affirmative defense of insanity. DeFeo claimed he killed his family because he heard their voices plotting against him. Psychiatrist Daniel Schwartz supported the insanity defense.
However, the prosecution countered with psychiatrist Dr. Harold Zolan. Zolan testified that although DeFeo used heroin and LSD and had antisocial personality disorder, he had been aware of his actions at the time of the crime.
With an affirmative defense, the burden of proof is on the defendant. In the DeFeo case, this meant that DeFeo’s lawyer had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that DeFeo was insane at the time of the murders. It’s a tough standard and most insanity pleas fail, as did DeFeo’s. He was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder on November 21, 1975. On December 4, Judge Thomas Stark handed down six sentences of 25 years to life.
Ronald DeFeo Changes His Story
Over the years, DeFeo changed his story many times. In one version, he claimed his sister Dawn killed his father and his distraught mother killed the other children. He claimed to have killed his mother in self-defense. He said he took the blame initially because he was afraid his uncle, Peter DeFeo would kill him. (Peter DeFeo was a capo in the Genevese crime family). In another version, DeFeo blamed all the killings on his sister Dawn, saying he had to kill her in self-defense. Later, he told still another version in which he and Dawn carried out the killings with two friends “out of desperation,” because his parents were plotting to kill him.
With DeFeo telling so many versions of the murders, it’s difficult to believe anything other than his original confession. In 1990, Judge Stark agreed. Ruling on a 440 motion to have the conviction vacated, Stark found DeFeo’s fungible stories “not worthy of belief.” DeFeo remained in prison.
The Amityville Horror
George Lutz bought the house, moving in with his wife, Kathy and three children in December 1975. They moved out 28 days later, claiming it was haunted by the spirits of the murdered DeFeo family. Skeptics accuse Lutz of concocting the story to make money. And it’s worth noting that subsequent owners have not had any trouble with ghosts.
Ronald DeFeo remained in prison for the rest of his life; the parole board denied every request for parole. He died at the Albany Medical Center, aged 69, on March 12, 2021. Correctional department officials did not release a cause of death.
The murders and Lutz’s claims of haunting have generated scores of books and movies. One of the earliest and most famous is the Jay Anson’s 1977 novel, The Amityville Horror. This book was the basis for the movie of the same name starting Margot Kidder and James Brolin.
The house at 112 Ocean Avenue, built in 1924 still stands. Subsequent owners have modified it, adding a sunroom and filling in the swimming pool. Its address has changed to 108 Ocean Avenue, perhaps as a small gesture toward distancing it from its lurid past.
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