The death of Ronald DeFeo closes another chapter in the story that gave rise to one of the greatest ghost stories of all time.
DeFeo, who convicted for the shocking murders of his mother, father and four siblings, died following an illness in upstate New York, where he’s been in prison for more than four decades. He was 69 years old.
Over the years, as a journalist, I have had close ties to the story. I’ve had correspondence with DeFeo, and his defense attorney, spent one night in the Amityville house, participating in a séance, and I’ve been in half a dozen documentaries talking about it. The next one will be on CNN Headline News in May.
Sadly, with DeFeo’s death, he takes to the grave with him the true story of what transpired the night of Nov. 13, 1974 in that house at 112 Ocean Avenue. DeFeo has offered so many accounts over the years, but the one that has sustained the test of time is that he and he alone murdered his whole family.
In handwritten letters to me, he claims his sister Dawn began the killing spree and that he shot her in self-defense while trying to wrestle the gun away from her. In other accounts, he claimed the mob shot everyone. At the outset, he said he was high on pot in the basement and didn’t hear the shooting. But at one point he confessed, suggesting he heard voices telling him to kill everyone.
“Once it started I couldn’t stop,” police quoted him as saying. “It went so fast.”
Another tale intimated he had at least one accomplice.
The jury that convicted him didn’t buy the insanity defense offered by his lawyer, William Weber, and found him guilty on all six counts of murder.
“There was no insanity,” DeFeo wrote in one letter. “Only people talking to Weber about books, movies, about me being possessed.”
He scoffed at claims of supernatural activity in the house, saying once, “There was no demon. You know who the demon is. I am the demon.”
Despite the passage of time, a clear motive for the killings has never surfaced. According to DeFeo’s lawyer, the closest he ever came to explaining why he did it was when he said he felt his family was conspiring against him. Another theory was that he was after his father’s $200,000 insurance policy.
About a year after the murders, George and Kathy Lutz bought the house and moved in with their three children. They fled in panic 28 days later, leaving everything behind, claiming they were driven out by demons. Americans love good ghost stories, and as tales of the supernatural evolved, readers couldn’t get enough of it.
Green slime oozing from the walls, infestation of flies, frigid temperatures, a mysterious red room and strange voices crying out during the night are just some of the bizarre tales offered by the Lutz’.
The story caught the attention of Jay Anson who wrote the best-selling book, “The Amityville Horror,” which has subsequently, become a cottage industry. There are dozens of books and movies out there and an overwhelming amount of chatter on social media.
After almost half a century, the story of the alleged occult activity in Amityville continues to attract new generations of believers.
I am not one of them. I spent a night in the house back in 1976, joining in a séance with parapsychologists, psychics, and noted demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren. We sat at the kitchen table with a blessed candle and crucifix at the center.
Despite chilling incantations by the psychics, nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Neither did anything during the following five hours we spent in the house. At 3 a.m., with a single candle flickering in the darkness, Lorraine and I sat in the sewing room, the so-called location of the strongest demonic force. While I did not experience any sensation, Lorraine declared, “Marvin, this is the closest to h–l I ever want to get.”
It surely was a night to remember. As I’ve often said when asked if I was frightened the night I stayed there, absolutely not. The two hours I spent watching the movie with a rowdy pot smoking audience, was much more of a horror than the five hours I spent in that house in Amityville.
You can read my full chapter on Amityville in my book: “As I Saw It: A Reporter’s intrepid journey,” which is available on Amazon.