In November of 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. slew his entire family and inspired one of the greatest horror stories of all time: the Amityville murders.
Just the mention of Amityville, New York can send chills down your spine. After all, one of its iconic Dutch Colonial houses made TIME’s Top 10 List of Haunted Places thanks to the notorious Amityville murders.
This is almost entirely due to the 1977 book and later movie franchise The Amityville Horror. Though, despite the book’s claim that it recalls the ‘true story’ of the hauntings within its walls, there’s evidence that the residents of 112 Ocean Avenue – George and Kathy Lutz – fabricated the story that became an urban legend.
What wasn’t fabricated, however, were the unimaginable murders that occurred in the home before the Lutz’s occupancy.
In the early morning hours of November 13, 1974, six members of the DeFeo family were slain in their beds with a .35 caliber rifle.
Twenty-three-year-old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr., the eldest child, confessed to murdering his entire family in cold blood. Dead were parents Louise and Ronald DeFeo Sr., and his siblings 18-year-old Dawn, 13-year-old Allison, 12-year-old Marc, and nine-year-old John Matthew.
The gruesome Amityville murders are regarded as a catalyst for the spirits haunting 112 Ocean Avenue. However, some argue that the DeFeo family were also victims of the house.
So, did an evil presence already reside at the house before the Amityville murders and force a young man to kill his entire family?
What we do know is that Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s childhood was monetarily very comfortable, but not content. His father was a domineering and abusive man, and his mother seemed to fade into the background under his overbearing personality. From that, Ronald DeFeo Jr. grew increasingly troubled into young adulthood.
He began to rely on drugs and alcohol to cope. He lashed out physically and even threatened his father with a gun. DeFeo’s parents hoped that a weekly stipend and gifts would appease their troublesome son. By age 18, Ronald technically held a job at the family-owned auto dealership but rarely bothered to show up.
So on that day in 1974, it wasn’t unusual that DeFeo decided to leave work at noon out of boredom. He met with friends at a bar, constantly calling his house to no answer and complaining about it to anyone who would listen. He eventually left. The next time anyone saw Ronnie, the entire town of Amityville would be changed forever.
According to the book American Mass Murderers by Valrie Plaza, DeFeo re-entered the bar around 6:30 a.m., yelling “You got to help me! I think my mother and father are shot!” Some patrons followed him back to the house on Ocean Avenue and became witness to the horrifying scene within.
All six bodies were found in their beds, positioned on their stomachs. The victims appeared to be shot with a high powered rifle at around 3:15 a.m.
However, there were some things that don’t quite add up. There were no signs of any struggle present on the bodies or evidence that they were drugged. No neighbors who were awake reported hearing any gunshots; only the DeFeo’s family dog, barking into the night.
Upon a police investigation, Ronald DeFeo’s alibi of being at work and then the bar began to crumble, as police noted the family had been dead before 6 a.m. DeFeo frantically changed his story, as he would several more times throughout the Amityville murders investigation.
At one point he claimed that mob hitman Louis Falini killed his family, and made DeFeo watch. But Falini had a solid out-of-state alibi and soon DeFeo confessed to police what was assumed to be the truth: he murdered his family by himself.
DeFeo stood trial on October 14, 1975. His attorney William Weber mounted an insanity plea, stating that the defendant heard voices that told him to kill his family.
However, the prosecution argued that while the drug-abusing DeFeo was indeed troubled, he knew what he was doing when he committed the Amityville murders. A jury convicted him on six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced him to six concurrent sentences of 25 years to life.
In a later version of Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s changed story, he alleges that his sister Dawn killed their father, and then their distraught mother killed all the siblings. In this scenario, DeFeo only killed his mother.
Then, in another telling by DeFeo in 1990, he has Dawn shooting all the DeFeos before he himself kills Dawn.
There are yet other theories that place a second shooter in the house.
Though the stories of the Amityville house being haunted are subject to debate, there is very little doubt that Ronald DeFeo Jr. was present for the mass murder of his family in the home. But the question still lingers: is the Amityville house really haunted?
Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s attorney William Weber was more involved in the lore than you may expect. He claims that George and Kathy Lutz – the home’s next occupants for only 28 days – approached him about an idea for a book and said, “We created this horror story over many bottles of wine… It is a hoax.”
Weber has since brought a lawsuit against the Lutzes for taking the ‘story’ of the haunting to another publishing partner. He demanded a share of the profits of a cool $60 million. Eventually, they settled out of court for $2,500 plus $15,000 for his services connected with the book and subsequent movie.
Whether you choose to believe the Amityville house is haunted or not, some interesting information is still out there. One of their sons, Daniel Lutz, claims that he was possessed by a spirit much like Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist.
Their other son, Christopher, vehemently insists he did have run-ins with the paranormal, including the time he saw a presence “as definite as a shadow” in the shape of a man that moved toward him and then dissipated.
Interestingly enough, both George and Kathy Lutz took a lie detector test about their story and passed.
Enjoy this article on Ronald DeFeo Jr. and the Amityville murders? Read about more about Hollywood’s urban legends, and then visit Los Angeles’ Killer Hotel, the Cecil Hotel. Finally, read the gruesome story of the Anneliese Michel exorcism.