Ronald DeFeo: Startling and Horrific Family Killer Gets Life

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.

Suffolk County detectives excort Ronald DeFeo, Jr.
Suffolk County detectives excort Ronald DeFeo, Jr.

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.

The DeFeo house at 112 Ocean Avenue (Associated Press)
The DeFeo house at 112 Ocean Avenue (Associated Press)

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.

A newspaper announces Ronald DeFeo's arrest
A newspaper announces Ronald DeFeo’s arrest

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.

Deputies lead Ronald DeFeo out of a Long Island courtroom after a hearing in 1974 (AP)
Deputies lead Ronald DeFeo out of a Long Island courtroom after a hearing in 1974 (AP)

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.

Ronald DeFeo during a 2014 interview
Ronald DeFeo during a 2014 interview

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.

George and Kathy Lutz
George and Kathy Lutz

Epilogue

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.

A recent photo of the "Amityville Horror" house, now 108 Ocean Avenue. Note the addition of the sunroom (foreground) and that the creepy "eye" winodws have been replaced with square ones (SyFy.com)
A recent photo of the “Amityville Horror” house, now 108 Ocean Avenue. Note the addition of the sunroom (foreground)/ The creepy “eye” winodws have been replaced with square ones (SyFy.com)

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Mountain Meadows: Pioneering Families See Terror and Murder

Last week, we saw how, in 1990, Danny Rolling inflicted terror on the college students in Gainesville, Florida. This week, we look back more than 160 years to an incident even more terrifying. In 1857 Utah, Mormon militia members massacred between 120 and 140 people travelling from Arkansas to California at Mountain Meadows.

The Mountain Meadows

An oasis of grass in mountainous southwestern Utah, the Mountain Meadows was a spot where travelers could graze their animals. It was, if you will, a nineteenth-century rest stop on the old Spanish Trail. Utah in 1857 was not yet a state but a territory. Its governor was Brigham Young, who was also president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In effect, Utah then was a theocracy and Young was virtually its absolute monarch.

Panoramic view of the Mountain Meadows in 2009 (Phil Konstantin)
Panoramic view of the Mountain Meadows in 2009 (Phil Konstantin)

Joseph Smith founded the LDS church in western New York in 1830. The next year, Smith moved the church to Kirtland, Ohio. He also established an outpost in Jackson County, Missouri, where he planned to eventually move the church. But Missouri residents, perhaps jealous of Mormon success and definitely concerned about their growing political power, drove the Mormons out. Their next stop was Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were jailed in Carthage, Illinois in 1844, accused of treason. While in jail, a mob killed both men. Brigham Young then took over as leader of the LDS church and, in 1847, led his followers west to Utah.

Brigham Young. Historians continue to debate his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Brigham Young. Historians continue to debate his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

A decade later, what Young envisioned as a pre-millennial “Kingdom of God” was mostly flourishing in the deserts and mountains of Utah. Although Utah was a territory of the United States, the LDS was notably reluctant to accept federal authority.

The Utah War

Soon after taking office in March 1857, President James Buchanan decided to replace Young as governor. Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming and ordered about 2,000 U.S. troops under Colonel Edmund Alexander to the Salt Lake valley. They were to establish an outpost in the territory.

Utah Governor Alfred Cumming
Utah Governor Alfred Cumming

In Utah, officials and residents alike viewed the Federal troops as an invading army sent to annihilate them. They prepared for war. Both sides were, in fact, ready to fight. However, although the conflict lasted until 1858, the “Utah War” had a few skirmishes but no battles as such. In the end, both parties reached a compromise. President Buchanan offered a free pardon to all Mormons for acts incident to the conflict. In turn, the Mormons agreed to submit to government authority.

Siege at Mountain Meadows

If you were paying attention to the dates, you noticed that the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred during the Utah War. The chain of events leading to the tragedy in Utah began on May Day 1857. It was then that a wagon train led by Capt. John Baker and Alexander Fancher left Arkansas for California. The Arkansas emigrants followed the California Trail through present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming before ending up in Salt Lake City.

Refused supplies in Salt Lake, the wagons turned southwest following the old Spanish Trail. They reached the Mountain Meadows on September 5 or 6. There was plenty of grass for their animals and a freshwater spring.

The Baker-Fancher pary's campsite at the Mountain Meadows in 2005 (author's photo)
The Baker-Fancher pary’s campsite at the Mountain Meadows in 2005 (author’s photo)

On Monday, September 7, a party of Mormon militia disguised as Paiute Indians attacked the emigrants in their camp. Despite the surprise attack, the Baker-Fancher party quickly regrouped, chained their wagon wheels together, and returned fire.

However, the Arkansans couldn’t withstand a protracted siege. Their ammunition and food quickly dwindled, and they were unable to reach the spring for fresh water. Although a few actual Paiutes participated, it was clear to the besieged emigrants that white men were among the attackers.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

After five days under attack, Mormon militia leader John D. Lee approached the campsite under a white flag. He offered to conduct the travelers safely to Cedar City, about 35 miles away. But the emigrants would have to surrender their wagons and their weapons. As outlandish as that sounds, the Baker-Fancher party probably had little choice by then but to accept those terms.

John D. Lee, the only person convicted of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
John D. Lee, the only person convicted of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

The Mormon militia divided the emigrants into three groups: the men, the women and children, and the wounded. A militia escort accompanied each male member of the Baker-Fancher party. Then, according to a pre-arranged, plan, a signal was given. The militiamen then turned and shot the man they were escorting. More militia hiding in nearby bushes ambushed and killed the women and children. Seventeen children, thought to be too young to tell the story, survived.

Christopher "Kit" Carson Fancher was 6 at the time and survived the massacre
Christopher “Kit” Carson Fancher was 6 at the time and survived the massacre

Every militiaman was sworn to secrecy. The plan was to blame Native Americans for the murders. There was considerable effort to cover up the massacre as well. Although the Los Angeles Star printed a report in 1857, the killings didn’t become general knowledge until two years later. In that year, Brevet Major James H. Carleton, who led the first federal investigation, published his findings.

James Henry Carleton conducted the first federal investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
James Henry Carleton conducted the first federal investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Epilogue

LDS leaders blamed the Baker-Fancher party themselves for the massacre, citing their allegedly disorderly and violent behavior. Most historians reject claims that the emigrants were overly unruly. It’s likely a combination of war hysteria, violent Mormon sermons, and jealousy of the emigrants’ obvious wealth were all factors.

Sarah Frances Baker Mitchell  (L) , then 3, and Nancy Sophrina Huff Cates (R), then 4, both survived the massacre
Sarah Frances Baker Mitchell (L) , then 3, and Nancy Sophrina Huff Cates (R), then 4, both survived the massacre

Seventeen years after the massacre, LDS leader (and Brigham Young’s adopted son) John D. Lee stood trial for the massacre. His first trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial in 1876 resulted in a conviction. Lee was executed by firing squad at the Mountain Meadows in 1877, twenty years after the original tragedy. Lee never denied his complicity but claimed he had not personally killed anyone and was nothing but a scapegoat. However, in his Life and Confessions of John D. Lee maintained that Brigham Young himself instigated the massacre. Historians have debated Young’s involvement ever since. Given the immense power he wielded in Utah, it’s difficult to believe that the massacre could have happened without at least Young’s knowledge.

Memorial at the Mountain Meadows campiste of the Baker-Fancer party in 2005 (author's photo)
Memorial at the Mountain Meadows campiste of the Baker-Fancer party in 2005 (author’s photo)

The Mountain Meadows Massacre remained largely unknown, hidden by LDS obfuscation for almost a century. Then Juanita Brooks, herself an active member of the LDS Church, published The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950. This was the first book to shine a critical light on the incident. Although the Church didn’t take any official action, unofficially Brooks faced ostracism for criticizing the LDS. In 2002, Will Bagley built on Brooks’ initial work in his book, Blood of the Prophets.

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Colin Ferguson: Sensational Shooting on the LIRR

In last week’s blog, we saw “Dapper” Dan Hogan. St. Paul, Minnesota’s “Irish Godfather” blown to kingdom come by a car bomb. This week, we look at Colin Ferguson and a scary shooting on a New York commuter train.

Colin Ferguson

Colin Ferguson was born in Jamaica in 1958. His father was a wealthy pharmacist and the managing director of a large pharmaceutical company. Young Colin had a normal upbringing, although one that was privileged by Jamaican standards. His high school principal described him as a “well-rounded student.” He graduated in the top third of his class.

Colin Ferguson in court.
Colin Ferguson in court.

His privileged life fell apart though when Colin was 20. First, his father died in a car crash in 1978. Then his mother died of cancer shortly thereafter. The deaths left the family fortune in shambles. In 1982, Colin left Jamaica for the United States.

In the US, Colin Ferguson met and married Audrey Warren, an American woman of Jamaican ancestry. He and his wife moved to Long Island, New York and had a son. There Colin attended a community college, making the dean’s list three times. However, Audrey sued for divorce in 1988 and won custody of their boy. Colin ended up living in what was essentially a flophouse in Brooklyn.

Terror on the Long Island Railroad

The Long Island Railroad is a series of commuter lines running from Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station to Queens and Long Island. Several branches run to different destinations on the island.

Colin Ferguson staged his attack here, at the Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)
Site of the shootings, Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)

On December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson boarded the third car of an eastbound train at the Flatbush Avenue station in Brooklyn. He carried a Ruger P89 handgun and a canvas bag with 160 rounds of ammunition. As the train approached the Merillon Avenue stations near Garden City he drew the gun and stood up. Then he opened fire. During the next three minutes, he walked slowly toward the front of the car shooting people on the left and the right. The New York Times wrote that he was “as methodical as if he were taking tickets.”

Ferguson emptied two 15-round clips during the shooting spree. As he was loading a third, someone yelled, “Grab him!” Michael O’Connor, Kevin Blum, and Mark McEntee tackled him and pinned him to a seat. These three and other passengers kept the shooter pinned down until Andrew Roderick, an off-duty LIRR policeman, boarded the train and handcuffed him.

Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)
Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)

The shooting spree left six people dead or dying. Nineteen other passengers suffered bullet wounds while two suffered injuries in the stampede of passengers trying to exit the train.

Colin Ferguson under arrest.
Colin Ferguson under arrest.

Colin Ferguson on Trial

A Nassau County grand jury indicted Colin Ferguson in January 1994 on 93 counts. The district attorney announced that he would not accept a plea bargain. In March of that year, radical attorney William Kunstler and his partner, Ron Kuby, agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis.

Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein). Kunstler volunteered to defend Collin Ferguson without fee.
Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein)

Kunstler and Kuby decided to argue a “black rage” defense. They contended that racial prejudice he suffered in America had driven Ferguson temporarily insane. Apparently, even Ferguson himself found this offensive. The lawyers also questioned his competence to stand trial. But Ferguson insisted he was competent, although his bizarre courtroom behavior suggested otherwise. When his attorneys filed notice that they would pursue an insanity defense, he fired them and insisted on representing himself.

Ferguson conducted a disjointed an ineffective defense. His list of potential witnesses included President Bill Clinton, although in the end he called no witnesses. He argued that another person was the actual shooter, but every eyewitness identified him. His cross-examination often repeated witnesses’ statements, a legal no-no as it mostly reinforces the original testimony. And by failing to object to testimony and during closing arguments, he lost the right to appeal on those points.

Epilogue

Unsurprisingly, the jury found Colin Ferguson guilty of murder and attempted murder. Judge Donald E. Belfi sentenced him to 315 years and 8 months to life. He will be eligible for parole in August 2309.

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John List — A Killer’s Secret Life Exposed by Art

The bombings I featured last week shock us because the random act of a stranger can cause such widespread damage. This week’s case is even more chilling. It’s the story of John List, a seemingly normal guy who murdered his entire family, then disappeared. He successfully eluded law enforcement for 18 years before television and an artist led to his arrest.

John List – Outwardly Normal

John Emil List was a native of Bay City, Michigan born in 1925. He joined the army in 1943 during World War II. After the war, he earned a degree in business administration and a master’s degree in accounting. In 1950, the Army recalled List to active duty in Korea (he was a reserve second lieutenant). While in the military, he met and married Helen Taylor, the widow of an officer killed in Korea.

After his discharge from the Army in 1952, John List took a job with an accounting firm in Detroit. Next, he worked as an audit supervisor for a Kalamazoo paper company. He and Helen had a daughter and two sons in Kalamazoo. After working at Xerox in Rochester, New York, he assumed a position as vice president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. He moved his family, including his mother into a Victorian mansion in Westfield, New Jersey.

The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)
The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)

To his friends and neighbors, John List was a successful professional with a typical American family.

Signs of Trouble

Despite their normal outward appearance, all was not well in the List household. For one thing, John List was a devout Lutheran and a Sunday school teacher. One might even call him a religious zealot. He convinced himself that his family members were leading unholy lives. Another problem was that Helen List was an alcoholic and was becoming increasingly unstable.

Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty and burned down nine months after the murders.  Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.
Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty after the murders and burned down nine months later. Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.

Then List lost his job and bills started to pile up. With debts mounting, List’s world was crashing in on him. He began to dissociate from reality. He pretended to commute to work each day. Instead, he sat in the Westfield train station and reading the paper. He also siphoned money out of his mother’s bank account to pay the mortgage on the mansion.

In this state of mind, List feared his family was straying from the paths of righteousness. He decided to “ensure their place in heaven” by killing them all. He expected to join them there later. At least that’s the story he told authorities after his arrest.

A Family Murdered

On November 9, 1971, John List put his plan into action. When the children left for school, he shot his wife and his mother to death. When his daughter and youngest son came home, he shot them in the back of the head. That left his oldest son. He watched John Jr. play soccer at school, then drove him home and killed him, too.

List left his mother’s body in her upstairs apartment. He laid out the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the mansion’s ballroom. He then turned on all the lights, tuned a radio to a station that played classical music and walked out.

John List planned his exit carefully. He closed his and his mother’s bank accounts. Next, he stopped the mail, milk, and newspaper deliveries. List even sent notes to the children’s schools and part-time jobs saying the family was taking an extended vacation. Consequently, no one knew anything was amiss for almost a month.

Neighbors noticed that the lights in the List house burned day and night, although they saw no activity. When the lights began to burn out one by one, they called police, who found nothing wrong and left. A few days later, police were again called to the mansion. They found daughter Patricia’s drama coach calling to her from the front of the house. He convinced officers to enter the home through an unlocked basement window. Once inside, they found the bodies.

John List had left behind a five-page letter to his pastor that was essentially a confession. But there was no sign of the man himself.

John List on the Lam

John List was in the wind. Police later learned that he had traveled to Michigan and then on the Denver, Colorado. He settled there as Robert “Bob” Clark (he “borrowed” the name from someone he knew in college). Like List, “Bob Clark” was a CPA. Also like List, he joined a Lutheran church, where he ran a carpool for shut-in church members. In 1985, he married an Army PX clerk named Delores Miller.

In May 1989, the television program America’s Most Wanted featured the List murders. By now it had been seventeen and a half years since John List disappeared and old photos would have been of little use. Instead of photos, the program commissioned forensic artist Frank Bender to create an age-progressed clay bust of List. The bust featured prominently in the broadcast.

Frank Bender's age-progressed bust of John List
Frank Bender’s age-progressed bust of John List

By this time, “Bob Clark” had moved with his new wife to Midlothian, Virginia. However, one of his former neighbors in Denver recognized the bust and notified authorities. They arrested List on June 1, 1989. Bender’s bust had been almost a dead ringer. Strangely, List continued to insist he was Robert Peter Clark. That is, until faced with a fingerprint match to John List’s military records.

Photos of Bender's bust of List (left) and of List  (right) taken after his arrest show the  uncanny resemblance between the two
Photos of Bender’s bust (left) and of List (right) taken after his arrest show the uncanny resemblance between the two

Trial and Conviction

At trial, John List claimed that financial stress and concern for his family’s spiritual well-being led to the murders. He was convicted anyway. The judge sentenced him to five consecutive life terms. During his appeals, List contended that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service. He also tried to claim that the letter left behind was a confidential communication to his pastor and therefore inadmissible. Not surprisingly, these arguments failed.

John List prison mugshot ca. 2005
John List prison mugshot ca. 2005

John List died in prison on March 21, 2008.

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