The Amityville Saga, Part One: The DeFeo Murders

Nobody could have predicted how the events of November 13th, 1974 would forever change the sleepy little town of Amityville, Long Island. Indeed, the crime and the spectacle that followed have cemented their place in the forefront of modern conciseness and strikes a chill to this day. 

The case brought together the realms of true crime and the paranormal and created its ow perfect storm for writers, filmmakers and those of an unscrupulous nature to come to profit off the family massacre that occurred there.

That being said, let’s explore how the Dutch Colonial style house on 112 Ocean Avenue came to become, perhaps, the most famous “haunted house” in the world.

Police photograph of the DeFeo house, November 1974. Bettmann/Getty Images

The DeFeo Murders – The True Amityville Horror

“Please! You’ve got to help me! I think my mother and father are shot!”

This was the plea of 23 year old, Ronald DeFeo Jr., as he entered Henry’s Bar around 6.30pm on November 13, 1974. Better known as Butch, DeFeo was a familiar face in the bar with it being no more than a few blocks away from his family home. As such, it was filled with friends and acquaintances who, upon hearing this gruesome news, raced back to the house on Ocean Avenue, named High Hopes. When the party entered the house, they were met with a scene of true horror. 

Ronald DeFeo Sr. and his wife Louise, both 43 years old, were found shot to death in their bed, as were four of the five DeFeo children – 18 year old Dawn, 13 year old Allison, 12 year old Marc and 9 year old John Matthew. Only, Butch, the eldest, was left. 

Over the course of the subsequent investigation, police verified the following:

  • The murders occurred around 3am on the morning of 13th November.
  • All six had been shot with the same .35 caliber Marlin rifle. 
  • All were found face down in their beds.
  • It is commonly said that the entire family were asleep during the murders, but this is untrue. Contrary to popular belief, the medical reports show that Louise and Allison were awake at the time of their deaths. The two boys, Marc and John Matthew, were likely also awake.
  • There was no evidence to suggest a silencer had been used. 
  • The neighbours could only recall the sound of the DeFeo’s dog barking that night. 
  • The dog was unharmed, and found tied to the inside of the kitchen door. 

Being the sole surviver of a family massacre, Butch was under immediate suspicion, although he maintained the family were killed as part of a hit, due to their Mafia ties. This became one of Butch’s many accounts of that night, before he eventually admitted guilt and confessed with the following statement: “It all started so fast. Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It went so fast.”

Ronald”Butch” DeFeo Jr.’s Mugshot, Suffolk County Police Department

The Trial Of Butch DeFeo And His Subsequent Claims

Butch DeFeo and his court appointed attorney, William Webber (hold on to that name, we’ll come back to him) pled insanity during the trial, which was to them, really the only way to mitigate Butch’s prior confession. 

This insanity plea was supported by defence psychiatrists, after Butch claimed to have heard voices – which he identified as the “voice of God” or, alternatively, the voices of his family plotting against him. Prosecution psychiatrists countered that he was “aware of his actions at the time of the crime”, although acknowledging  a history of LSD and heroin usage, as well as a diagnoses of an antisocial personality disorder. Crucially during the trial, DeFeo stated under cross-examination, that he did not hear voices during the night of the murders.

Butch was eventually found guilty of 6 counts of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison. He died in custody on 12th March, 2021, aged 69. 

Throughout a number of appeals, DeFeo made a series of claims regarding the night of the murders and his varying degrees of involvement, some of which include:

  • A claim where he was awoken by a mafia hitman and forced to shoot his own family.
  • Butch claimed to have drugged the family before murdering them. Upon the results of extensive toxicology reports, police came to the conclusion that there was nothing to show in any of the 6 bodies. 
  • Butch also placed blame on varying family members, claiming:
  • It was his sister, Dawn, who murdered their father and, distraught, their mother killed Dawn and the other children. In this version, Butch only claims to kill his mother.
  • Dawn and an unknown assailant murdered the family, with the assailant fleeing before Butch could identify him. He and Dawn then struggled over the rifle, which accidentally discharged, killing Dawn.  
  • Butch, Dawn and two friends worked together to murder the family. In this version, Butch claims that they agreed to shoot their parents, but Dawn decided to kill the remaining siblings to “eliminate witnesses”. He then struggled with Dawn, knocked her out and shot her.

Unanswered Questions?

Upon review of the evidence, it’s universally accepted that Butch DeFeo carried out the murders, but some of those involved in the case still ponder one unanswered question: Did Butch DeFeo act alone?

As we’ve discussed, although there were initial reports of drugging, toxicology reports found no sedatives in any of the six victims. It’s also accepted that Mr DeFeo was shot first, followed by his wife, who’s autopsy showed was awake at the time of her death, was rising out of bed when she was shot. Allison was likely next, with evidence showing that she was also waking when she was killed. Next, the two boys, Marc and John Matthew were killed. Marc had suffered a recent sports injury requiring him to sleep on his back, due to the pain, and it is therefore theorised that he was ordered to lie face down by the gunman. The same theory also suggests that John Matthew had also been woken and was approaching the door as Butch appeared, ordering him back to bed in the same position. Crime scene photographs show John Matthew above the covers of his bed.

It seems then, that Butch could have acted alone, but what about Dawn? Her bedroom was logically the last one on Butch’s route through the house, as it was on the third floor, above the others. 

In the stories which include Dawn’s involvement, Butch claims the two fought and he either knocked her out or killed her accidentally. Crime scene photos and medical findings contradict this, showing that Dawn was in a “natural sleeping position” under the covers, and with no recent injury other than the bullet wound that killed her. 

Perhaps she came home later? Perhaps she heard something unusual, but was calmed by Butch and told to go back to bed? Perhaps she just didn’t hear anything? Although it’s still not inconceivable for Butch to have carried out the murders alone, many, including the trial’s medical examiner remains “mystified” at the thought that a single gunman could kill six people in such a manner. 

Alternative narratives surrounding the murder are examined in depth in various websites, books and documentaries, but as we’ll go on to discuss, many of these are far more divisive that the murder trial itself. 

Police Recover The Alleged Murder Weapon, New York Daily News/Getty Images

The Motive

A question that is so often cast aside in the Amityville case, why did Ronald DeFeo Jr. murder his entire family in the first place?

Some claim the possibility of monetary gains from the DeFeo’s life insurance policies was reason enough for the murders, but to truly understand the context of the massacre, we must delve a little further into the dynamics of the DeFeo family themselves.

“Big Ronnie” DeFeo Sr. was by all accounts, a beast of a man. Friends and family, both during the trial and in later interviews told of violent incidents perpetrated by Ronnie Sr. Allegedly Louise, Butch and Dawn bore the brunt of his controlling behaviour, which included regular beatings, followed by lavish spending and gifting – a cycle of lovebombing seen all too often in domestic abuse.

Despite this, Big Ronnnie was also said to be incredibly religious, proven by the statues and iconography both inside and outside of the home. In fact, friends interviewed for the documentary Shattered Hopes: The True Story of the Amityville Murders even claim that Big Ronnie received visions and predictions from St. Joseph and God – an interesting side note given Butch’s insanity defence. 

We’ve already discussed that insanity defence, and it’s often mentioned flippantly as one of Butch’s many claims. Then again, isn’t it convenient that a convicted murderer talks of “hearing voices” in a house that later becomes the “most haunted of haunted houses”? We’re not finished with Weber yet, but his defensive tactic certainly added a strange hint of credibility into the incredible lore of the Amityville aftermath.

Either way, it’s clear the family’s relationship was hostile, and their home was not a happy one. There is a reported incident of an argument between Louise, Dawn and Big Ronnie which culminated in Butch pointing a loaded rifle at his father to defend them. In fact, Butch is said to have actually pulled the trigger, but it jammed – Something Big Ronnie supposedly took as divine intervention. If it hadn’t, maybe things would have been different in Amityville.

Even given the context, the question of why Butch DeFeo ultimately decided to murdered his entire family that November night still remains unanswered, but even if he hadn’t, the DeFeo house was a tragedy waiting to happen.

Every twist, turn, accusation and character in the DeFeo murder case deserves more than I can cover in a single article, and if it interests you, I recommend giving some time to investigate it yourself. 

Unfortunately, the  horrific murder of six people isn’t even the end of our story. 

Next week, we’ll find out what happens when a new family moves into the house on Ocean Avenue. It’s time to separate the fact from the fiction, because, unfortunately, we’ve only just scratched the surface of the Amityville Horror.

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