Amityville, New York is a quiet community on a lake. Its name means “friendship,” and its citizens try their best to live up to that name. In 1977, the town gained infamy from a haunted house story that claimed to be true, one that played on a real tragedy from three years before. While every town has seen its share of tragedy, few events receive as much attention as those that rock the community to its core. Thirty-five years ago today, real horror enveloped the quiet bayside town, and it has been trying to recover ever since.
Long before George and Kathy Lutz moved into the house that used to be numbered 112 Ocean Avenue, the dwelling belonged to the DeFeo family. “Big Ronnie”, Sr., a car dealer’s service manager, and his wife, Louise, moved into the house in the 1960’s along with their five children — three boys and two girls. It was not, by most accounts, what one would call an “idyllic family life.” According to Ronnie “Butch” DeFeo, Jr., his father was verbally and physically abusive. By 1974 Butch had developed an antisocial personality disorder and began using drugs.
What actually happened that night is unknown because the evidence simply doesn’t add up. What is know is that, at 6:30 p.m., Butch ran into a local bar and begged for help, saying that his mother and father had been murdered. When the group went to his home, they found not just his parents, but all of his family, dead in their beds. All six had been shot with a Marlin rifle at close range. Butch later confessed to the crime, claiming to have heard voices in the house that told him carry out the execution as part of an insanity defense. He’s since recanted but has continued to tell people that once he started, he just couldn’t stop.
But what really happened? The DeFeo family occupied all three floors of the house, meaning that, whomever he shot first, Butch had to fire, reload, fire again, and climb stairs, all without waking his family. While the neighbors claimed they heard no gunshots (and it has been proven that on windy nights such a thing is possible), not hearing the report of something so loud as a Marlin 336C rifle fired off inside one’s own house doesn’t seem likely. Medical examiners determined that no sedatives were administered to the victims, nor had the rifle been fitted with a silencer, so how did he manage to shoot six people without waking a soul?
Over the years Butch has offered several conflicting stories of how the night played out, most often stating he had an accomplice. On one occasion the accomplice was supposedly his mother (whom he shot twice in the back while she lay sleeping). On another it was his sister, Dawn, and a friend of hers. After a terrible fight with Big Ronnie, the two (he claimed) decided to kill their parents for insurance money and murder their siblings to eliminate witnesses. Forensic examiners did find traces of gunpowder on Dawn’s nightgown, indicating she might have fired a gun that night, but once Butch confessed, no one seemed to care anymore. According to one of his stories about how the night played out, Dawn and a friend killed everyone, and when he discovered what they’d done, he knocked his sister unconscious and shot her in the head. What happened to the “friend” was never discussed. In fact, Butch has changed his story as to what exactly happened that night so many times that no one is sure what to believe.
Butch was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to six consecutive 25-year imprisonment terms. The house sat empty for more than a year, until it was purchased by George and Kathy Lutz, who used the murders as a jumping-off point for their own story, The Amityville Horror.
In 2002 author Ric Osuna’s book The Night the DeFeos Died attempted to shed some light on the events of that evening. Osuna interviewed Butch, who told yet another version of what happened, this one involving his sister and two friends.
Thirty-five years ago today, regardless of the books and movies and remakes, the real Amityville horror took place. Regardless of the truth or fiction of the much-embattled book and movies, the people that should be remembered were six lives tragically cut short in an outpouring of rage.
What really happened in the house, we may never know.