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The Amityville Murders: The family slaying that inspired a horror film

The Amityville Horror
Image: Unsplash Images

The Amityville Murders are covered in episodes 5 and 6 of Very Scary People season 3, available now on Crime + Investigation Play. Donnie Wahlberg takes a closer look at the tragic events of that night in 1974 to try and understand why six innocent people lost their lives.

Located along a quiet section of Amityville, a village of around 10,000, on the South Shore of Long Island, New York, is a large Dutch colonial style home. In the 1970s, this home was owned by the DeFeo family and they had aptly named it: ‘High Hopes.’ In 1974, however, this picturesque home was the scene of a brutal mass murder which still reverberates across the world today. The massacre and the aftermath would inspire a bestselling paranormal-inspired book, as well as a successful film and a number of spinoff movies.

It was around 6:30pm on the 13th of November, 1974, when 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. burst through the doors of Henry’s Bar, located around a block away from the large Dutch colonial home where DeFeo lived with his family in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Ocean Avenue. He exclaimed that somebody had killed his mother and father, Louise and Ronald DeFeo Sr.. A couple of the patrons followed DeFeo back to the family’s home where they found Ronald and Louise dead in the master bedroom. Each had been shot twice in the back. They immediately summoned police (The Courier, 15 November, 1974 – ‘Son Charged in Slayings’).

Inside the three-story home, police would uncover four more bodies. In a single bedroom on the same floor as the master bedroom, they found the body of daughter, 13-year-old Allison. She had been slain with a single bullet to the back of the head. The bodies of sons, 11-year-old Mark and 9-year-old John, were found in another bedroom on the same floor. They had both been shot once in the back. The eldest daughter, 18-year-old Dawn was found in the bedroom on the top floor of the home. She had been killed with a bullet to the back of the head.

All six victims had been found in their respective beds and all of them were wearing their nightclothes. There was no indication that any of the victims had put up any kind of struggle, leading to speculation that they had all been killed as they slept. Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Howard Adelman estimated that the family had been killed at some point between 10PM on the 12th of November and early the following morning.

According to some neighbours, they had awoken at 2:30AM to the sound of the family’s sheepdog, Shaggy, barking. The dog had been left unharmed (The Herald News, 22 November, 1975 – ‘Youth Guilty in Murder of Family’). Other than that, nobody heard a thing.

DeFeo’s defence attempted to argue that he was legally insane at the time of the murders and claimed that he had been rejected from the military due to psychiatric reasons. The prosecution, however, refuted this and claimed that the rejection was because DeFeo was a habitual narcotics user. DeFeo took to the witness stand and contended that he had heard voices during the months preceding the murders: ‘Whenever I looked around, there was no one there, so it must have been God talking to me.’

Police quickly noticed that there didn’t appear to be any kind of break in at the home and nothing appeared to be stolen. They would then reconstruct the events leading up to the murders. The family had been at home on the night of the 12th of November and then the following morning, DeFeo left the home to report for work at an auto dealership located in Brooklyn. The auto dealership was owned by DeFeo’s grandfather and he worked there alongside his father, who was employed as the service manager. At around 1PM that afternoon, DeFeo left work and headed back to the family’s home in Amityville. Later that afternoon, DeFeo went to Henry’s Bar for a couple of beers before heading back home and then returning a couple of hours later, exclaiming that his parents had been killed.

During questioning, DeFeo would suggest that his family had been the victims of a mob hit. However, suspicion soon began to fall on DeFeo himself and as his stories unravelled, he would admit that he had moved from bedroom to bedroom and systematically shot and killed his family with a .35-caliber Marlin rifle. DeFeo was arrested and charged with fatally shooting his father, mother, and his four siblings

Over the years, however, DeFeo concocted a series of versions of what took place inside the home. He claimed that his sister, Dawn, had murdered their father and then their distraught mother killed Dawn and the three other children. He alleged that his mother then shot herself and when he came home to find the gruesome scene, he fired one more shot to make sure that she was dead. According to DeFeo, he simply took the blame for the massacre out of fear of his grandfather, Michael Brigante Sr. and his uncle, Peter DeFeo, who was the head of the Vito Genovese crime family ( Newsday, 19 March, 1986 – ‘DeFeo’s New Story’).

DeFeo would stand trial for the murders in November of 1975. The prosecution had theorised that DeFeo murdered his family so that he could steal a large sum of money from inside the home. Assistant District Attorney Gerald Sullivan stated that the murders were committed for ‘big money, not just a few thousand and hundreds of thousands of dollars that were kept in that house in a strongbox buried in the floor of the closet in the master bedroom’ (The Evening Sun, 22 November, 1975 – ‘DeFeo Convicted in Murder of 6’). He put forward the theory that DeFeo wanted the money to impress people.

After two days of deliberation, a jury consisting of six men and six women would reject the defence’s argument and find Ronald DeFeo Jr. guilty of all six murders.

While the murder trial closed one chapter in the case, another one would be opened shortly thereafter. Following the murders at Amityville, the home on Ocean Avenue sat empty until December of 1975 when George and Kathy Lutz moved in to the home with their three children. 28 days later, the family fled from the home, leaving all of their possessions behind, never to return again. They claimed that the home was haunted and they had experienced a plethora of unexplainable and terrifying events.

According to the Lutzes, when the home was being blessed by the priest, they heard a disembodied voice shout: ‘Get out!’ They also alleged that windows would open and close and doors would rip from their hinges. On several occasions, they said that Kathy levitated above her bed and on one occasion when George pulled her down, her face had transformed into the face of an elderly woman. During the winter, they said that hundreds of flies assembled in one of the bedrooms and said that a crucifix hung by Kathy revolved until it was upside down and emanated a sour smell. They also claimed that the inside of the toilet bowls turned black and that one night, George saw the face of a pig with glowing red eyes in the window of his daughter’s bedroom (The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson).

Kathy and George even insisted that they found a secret room in the basement of the home which wasn’t included in the blueprints of the home. Here, they alleged that the room was painted solid red and smelled distinctively of blood. According to George, when he looked at one of the walls, he saw a vision of a man, a man who he identified as DeFeo. Then one evening, a white-hooded figure appeared in the fireplace in the living room. The figure had half of its face missing, as if blasted away with a gun. They claimed that this figure would be permanently burned onto the wall of the fireplace (Fort Worth Star Telegram, 9 March, 1978 – ‘Tale of ‘Possessed’ Home Haunts Family).

In 1977, Jay Anson would publish a novel titled: ‘The Amityville Horror’ which was based on the ordeal of the Lutz family. The book was understandably met with much criticism with many believing that the claims of the Lutz family were nothing more than an elaborate hoax. Nevertheless, the story of ‘The Amityville Horror’ seemed to pique the collective imagination of much of the world and the massacre at Amityville remains unsurpassed in Long Island crime annals. The home at Amityville has become a cult-like attraction with many curiosity seekers and paranormal fanatics showing up in hoards to catch a glimpse of the infamous house.

On the 12th of March, 2021, Ronald DeFeo Jr. passed away at the age of 69 at the Albany Medical Center, just two months shy of his parole hearing which was scheduled for July. A cause of death is yet to be released (The London Free Press, 19 March, 2021 – ‘Murderer Inspired Amityville Horror’).