Previously: Highland Towers, Malaysia.
It might just be the most notorious address in America: 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, New York. But it’s not notorious for just one story; oh no. It’s the site of two infamous events: The 1974 mass murder of the DeFeo family by son Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr., and the so-called “Amityville Horror” haunting which plagued the next occupants of the house, the Lutzes, between December 1975 and January 1976. With a history like that, it’s no wonder that it still draws tourists and Looky-Loos — although it turns out that the history is much more complicated than most people probably think.
You see, the most fascinating thing about 112 Ocean Avenue is the fact that so many conflicting stories exist about what exactly happened there — both with regards to the murders, and to the alleged haunting. It’s to be expected that everyone involved would have their own point about it; however, the stories are so wildly contradictory and with such a lack of consensus that, by and large, the whole thing is a giant tangle of he-said-she-said accounts. We’ve managed to pull apart some of them over time — but there’s still plenty that will likely never become totally clear.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
Here’s what we know:
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1974, Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr. — then 23 and known around his hometown of Amityville, Long Island as Butch — went to work at 6am, as always. He worked at his grandfather’s car dealership. He left at noon to see his girlfriend and hang out with his friends; work was slow and he was bored, he had said. He told his friends that he didn’t seem to be able to get in touch with his family; he claimed his calls to the house went unanswered. It didn’t seem to bother him unduly, though, and at 6pm, he went home.
At 6:30pm, he entered Henry’s Bar — located at the time at 183 Merrick Rd. — saying something about needing help; his mother and father had been shot. Several of the bar patrons followed DeFeo home — 112 Ocean Avenue was just a few minutes away on foot — where they found a crime scene awaiting them. A local man named Joseph Yeswit called the Suffolk County Police from the house’s phone, saying that he wasn’t totally sure what had happened; “Guy come running in the bar and said his mother and father are shot,” Yeswit told the dispatcher. “We ran down to his house and everybody in the house is shot. I don’t know how long, you know.” He said he thought there were four bodies.
When the police arrived, however, they discovered that there were six bodies, not four: Every single member of the DeFeo family had been shot to death, except Butch himself. All of them — Ronald Sr., then 43; Louise, 42; and their children, Dawn (18), Allison (13), Marc (12), and John Matthew (9) — had been killed with a .35 caliber rifle. DeFeo told the police that he had arrived home to find that someone had broken in and killed his entire family; he said he suspected mafia hitman Louis Falini, with whom his family had some bad blood, of having done the deed.
But there were… oddities at the crime scene. The DeFeos were all found lying face down on their beds, for example, which suggested they may have been positioned that way by their killer; for another, they were all wearing their pajamas, which ran counter to Butch’s assertion that they must have been killed during the day while he was out. Strangest of all was the fact that there were no indications of a struggle having occurred, but, as toxicology reports later confirmed, neither had the family been tranquilized or sedated. Given that the rifle apparently hadn’t been used with a silencer, they would have heard the gunshots — so why didn’t they fight back?
And speaking of gunshots, none of the DeFeos’ neighbors reported hearing them. All they heard was a dog barking.
The facts just didn’t add up — and as the investigation continued, Butch DeFeo’s story unraveled. When it became clear that the DeFeos were killed in the early morning, around 3am, before Butch would have left for work, his story changed; he began saying that he had been home when the attack occurred — that Falini and a second man had arrived early that day when the family was still asleep, threatened Butch at gunpoint, and made him watch them kill his parents and siblings.
Also, the police found an empty box of .35 caliber rifle rounds in DeFeo’s room.
The pieces came together. The timeline became clear. The perpetrator was obvious. DeFeo ultimately confessed: “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop,” he said. “It went so fast.”
DeFeo’s trial began on Oct. 14, 1975. He was represented by attorney William Weber who pushed an insanity plea; a psychiatrist produced by the defense testified that DeFeo had a dissociative disorder, which would have resulted in him either experiencing the murders as if he were outside of his body, or in a complete lack of memory of the event — that is, he wouldn’t really have known what he was doing when he committed the crimes. The prosecution, however, had a psychiatrist of their own, who argued that Butch had antisocial personality disorder, not a dissociative disorder, and therefore would have known exactly what he was doing.
The jury found DeFeo guilty on six counts of second-degree murder, for which the judge sentences him to six consecutive life sentences. His story has changed several times in the decades since, alleging variously that his oldest sister, Dawn, killed Ronald Sr. before his mother everyone else, or that Dawn killed the entire family before Butch himself killed Dawn. Additionally, author Ric Osuna claimed in his 2000 book The Night The DeFeos Died that Butch had told him in a lengthy interview that he had committed the murders with the help of Dawn and several of his friends; however, DeFeo later denied having granted the interview.
DeFeo’s appeals for parole have all been denied.
112 Ocean Avenue went up for sale not too long after the DeFeos met their end within its walls — but, perhaps understandably, it had a hard time finding a taker. Indeed, despite its generous description — “Exclusive Amityville area: Six- bedroom Dutch Colonial, spacious living room, formal dining room, enclosed porch, three and a half baths, finished basement, two-car garage, heated swimming pool and large boathouse,” according to Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror — its asking price was a mere $80,000, no doubt an attempt to offset the property’s history. $80,000 in 1975 had the same spending power that $356,000 has today. Given that comparable properties in the Amityville area go for a minimum of $550,000 these days, that’s a steal — and for the Lutz family, it outweighed both the fact that it was outside their original budget of around $30,000 to $50,000, and the fact that six people had died brutally and messily inside. When they decided to purchase it, they also secured a variety of furniture left by its previous occupants for just $400 more.
George and Kathy Lutz, newly married as of July 1975, moved into the house on Dec. 18, 1975 with Kathy’s three children from a previous marriage, Daniel, Christopher, and Melissa, and the family dog, Harry. They were aware of what had happened in their new home barely a year prior — their real estate broker had informed them of its history when they were making the purchase — but they were willing to roll with it. It was a beautiful house, after all.
But it wouldn’t last. The Lutz family moved out after just 28 days, and the experiences they claim to have had while living in that house would become 112 Ocean Avenue’s enduring legacy.
There were cold spots — “one in the stairway… one in the basement… and one out in the boathouse,” George Lutz would later say in an interview with Ghost Village in 2005. There was a “deadness of sound”; if you were to walk from the living room to the front porch, said Lutz, “you would see cars go past, but you wouldn’t hear them.” Doors would slam shut of their own accord — or at least, you’d hear them, but when you went to investigate, nothing would be out of place. George began waking regularly at 3:15am for no reason he could explain, while Kathy began periodically feeling someone “embracing” her when there were no other people present. The scent of a perfume Kathy didn’t use could occasionally be detected. The sound of a badly-tuned radio would play from somewhere in the house, only to cease when the noise was investigated.
But that wasn’t all, the Lutzes claimed. It got worse. Much worse. The walls would ooze with a green, slimy substance. A green-eyed, pig-like creature stalked them, appearing frequently at the windows. And they found a room — a hidden room, one not in the building’s blueprints. Kathy found it behind a bookcase in the basement, said George; it was painted red. They had no idea what it was for, though, or why it was absent from the house’s plans and paperwork. It smelled odd, and the dog wouldn’t go near it.
At the urging of a friend, they had had the house blessed by a Catholic priest before they moved in — but after a particularly bad night which resulted in Christopher and Daniel “[coming] down in the morning absolutely frightened” (details are scant), they called the priest back.
The priest suggested they leave the house temporarily — just for the night, so they could all get some sleep. So, the Lutzes packed a few bags and headed to Kathy’s mother’s house. What they didn’t realize then is that they’d never return. “When we left, we didn’t know we weren’t coming back,” said George Lutz in the 2005 interview. “We didn’t know that what we were leaving behind, we would never see again.”
Whatever had been terrorizing them at 112 Ocean Avenue followed them briefly to Kathy’s mother’s, they claimed; while there, they allegedly experienced levitation, and the children had terrible nightmares. Finally, they left New York entirely. Their belongings remained in the house, according to a 1979 article in the Washington Post, while they themselves moved to San Diego. It was the middle of January, 1976 — just a month after they had first moved into what was supposed to be their dream house.
The Loose Ends
But there are… holes in the cases. Both of them.
Although Ronald DeFeo, Jr.’s story keeps shifting, there’s no question that he committed the murders; what’s still somewhat up in the air, however, is whether he acted alone. A theory has long persisted that a second assailant aided Butch in the crime, and indeed, a 2012 documentary purported to offer newly-discovered evidence in support of that theory. However, the presence of a second gunperson has never been satisfactorily proven, and at this point, it’s doubtful that it ever will.
More tangled, though, is the web from which the haunted house story is woven. As you probably already know, it’s widely regarded as a hoax — and tied up within it is a trail of lawsuits and conflicting accounts.
Most of what we know about the alleged haunting comes from the 1977 book The Amityville Horror and the movie franchise it spawned. According to Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, the book itself has a somewhat manufactured history; George Lutz had called publisher Prentice-Hall to gauge interest in his family’s story, and Prentice-Hall, hoping to capitalize on the demonology fad popularized by The Exorcist in the early ‘70s, paired the Lutzes with writer Jay Anson. Anson never actually worked directly with the Lutzes, however — he crafted the book from a series of taped interviews. A film adaptation starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathy Lutz followed in 1979. And as the story took the nation on by storm, the Lutzes maintained that it was all true.
But prior to that, the Lutzes had met with William Weber — Butch DeFeo’s lawyer. And although both the Lutzes and Weber agreed that the meeting had occurred, exactly what was discussed depended on who you asked about it.
“There was no doubt in our minds that [DeFeo] was influenced by what was in that house,” George Lutz said to Ghost Village in 2005. Weber, he said, “told us a number of strange stories about the housekeeper for the DeFeo family, and different events that had taken place over the years that he had heard.” Continued Lutz, “He brought back a criminologist — a guy that was supposedly a criminologist — he turned out to be a writer — his name was Paul Hoffman, who eventually wrote an article about is un Good Housekeeping magazine, of course without our permission.”
The article was titled “Our Dream House Was Haunted”; it was published in the April 1977 edition of the magazine. An earlier version of it had also appeared in the New York Sunday News on July 18, 1976 under the title, “Life In A Haunted House.” According to ABC News, the Lutzes felt pressured by Weber; Weber also allegedly wanted to offer DeFeo a cut of the profits from whatever their hypothetical collaboration ended up being, which they weren’t wild about doing. As such, they opted not to work with him, instead working with Anson. The Lutzes later sued Weber, Hoffman, their associates Bernard Burton and Fredrick Mars, and the publications who had run the stories about them for invasion of privacy.
But the way Weber told it, his meeting with the Lutzes turned into a brainstorm session in which they fictionalized the entire account purposefully and knowingly. “It is a hoax,” he said to People in 1979, shortly after the big screen version of The Amityville Horror’s release. “I know this book’s a hoax. We created this horror story over many bottles of wine.” He said, for example, that Ronald DeFeo Jr. use to call the neighbor’s cat, which liked to hang around the house, a “pig” — and so, Lutz “improvised on that and in the book he sees a demon pig through a window.” In a 1988 interview with A Current Affair, Weber reiterated his position, stating according to the New York Times, “We took real-life incidents and transposed them. In other words, it was a hoax.” He, Hoffman, and Burton countersued the Lutzes for fraud and breach of contract. The Lutzes’ suit was thrown out, and the counterclaim settled.
There were other issues, too. The priest the Lutzes spoke about, who is known as “Father Mancuso” in the book? He was actually Father Pecoraro. But although the Lutzes’ account in The Amityville Horror had “Mancuso” coming to the house in person to bless it while they moved in, only to have him report hearing a voice telling him to “GET OUT!”, other reports — including some from court documents, according to How Stuff Works — note that Pecoraro only spoke to the family on the phone. In these reports, he never physically went to the house at all. The Catholic Church also disputes the Lutzes’ story, writing in a letter dated May 15, 2002 to Amityville researcher and writer Ric Osuna:
“The Diocese maintains that the story was a false report. In November of 1977, Diocesan attorneys prepared a substantial list, to be submitted to the publisher [of The Amityville Horror], of numerous inaccuracies, factually incorrect references and untrue statements regarding events, persons and occurrences that never happened.”
Oh, and a police officer who was named in the book sued both the Lutzes and the publisher, too. According to the Washington Post, the publishers “fictionalized a policeman’s name between editions and softened their endorsement of the claims.” That also matters, by the way — there have been multiple editions of the book, with small details changing from version to version. This, I think, is perhaps the most convincing argument for the fact that the book is a heavily fictionalized account.
For what it’s worth, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who investigated 112 Ocean Avenue twice, believe the Lutzes’ story to be true. “If this was a hoax, we wouldn’t be in on it, or the priest,” Ed Warren said to the Washington Post in 1979. “Why would they leave behind all their possessions on the mere chance of a best seller? They lost $400,000, but that’s not the point.” Whether or not this statement bears any water for you, however, probably depends on how you feel about the Warrens in general.
The Warrens took the “demon boy” photograph that’s often associated with this case, by the way; some believe it to be an image of John Matthew DeFeo, who was 9 years old at the time of his death at the hands of his oldest brother.
Although George and Kathy Lutz divorced in 1988, Kathy died of emphysema in 2004, and George died of heart disease in 2006, they each maintained right up until the end that what they said they experienced really happened — even though, as Brian Dunning of Skeptoid puts it, “plenty of evidence exists to indicate that none of the events in the book actually happened, and the only evidence that anything did happen are anecdotal personal accounts by parties with clearly vested commercial interests.” Still, though, Dunning is right on the mark when he suggests, “If you want to read the book — and most readers report that it is a great scary story — enjoy it for a work of fiction that launched one of pop culture’s most engaging and long-lived ghost stories.”
Just don’t go looking for 112 Ocean Avenue itself. It doesn’t exist anymore. Well, the house does, even if it’s changed somewhat over the years (gone, for example, are the much-discussed “eye-like” windows on the front); so does the property. But the address itself was changed to 108 Ocean Avenue by James and Barbara Cromarty when they bought it in 1977, according to Newsday. Since then, it’s been sold several more times — in 1987 to Peter and Jeanne O’Neill, in 1997 to a Brian Wilson, in 2010, and most recently in March of 2017, according to Zillow.
None of the owners after the Lutzes have reported any paranormal or demonic activity.