Despite having a comfortable childhood in Amityville, New York, Ronald DeFeo grew up emotionally troubled. In 1974, he murdered his entire family as they slept. The murders were popularized in several novels and films, including The Amityville Horror: A True Story.
Ronald "Butch" DeFeo Jr. was born on September 26, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York. DeFeo was the oldest of five children born to Ronald and Louise DeFeo, a successful car salesman and his wife. Ronald Sr. worked at his father-in-law's Brooklyn Buick dealership and provided the family with a comfortable, upper-middle-class lifestyle. But he also served as a domineering authority figure and engaged in hot-tempered fights with his wife and children. The most frequent target of abuse was their eldest child, Butch, of whom much was expected. It only got worse at school, where the overweight and brooding boy was the victim of relentless taunting from his classmates.
As Butch matured, he began lashing out physically against his father, as well as his few friends. His concerned family took him to a psychiatrist, but the visits didn't sit well with Butch, who denied that he needed help. The trips to the doctor stopped, and in their place the DeFeos used the incentive of cash and presents—including a $14,000 speedboat—in the hopes that the gifts would placate their troubled son. But the new tactic only made the problems worse; by the age of 17, Butch had become an LSD and heroin user and was expelled from school for his violent outbursts.
In spite of his academic setbacks, the DeFeos continued to reward their son. At the age of 18, Butch received a prized position at his grandfather's car dealership, with little to no expectations. He also earned a weekly stipend from his father, regardless of his attendance or job performance at work. Butch funneled this salary into his new car—another present from his parents—as well as guns, alcohol and drugs.
Conflicts With His Father
Butch DeFeo's strange behavior seemed only to increase with time. He threatened a friend with a rifle during a hunting trip then, later that day, acted as if nothing happened. He also attempted to shoot his father with a 12-gauge shotgun during a fight between his parents. Butch pulled the trigger at point-blank range, but the gun malfunctioned. His surprised father ended the argument, but was left stunned by the confrontation. The incident foreshadowed the more violent events to come.
In 1974, Butch, feeling irritated by what he believed a meager salary, plotted methods for embezzling money from the car dealership. In late October, the dealership entrusted DeFeo with the responsibility of depositing more than $20,000 to the bank. Butch planned a mock robbery with a friend, agreeing to split the money evenly with his accomplice. The plan went off without a hitch until police came to the dealership to question DeFeo. Instead of calmly answering the officers' questions, Butch exploded into rage. When police, suspicious that Butch was lying, asked him to come in to the station to check out mug shots of possible suspects, he refused to comply. Ronald Sr. began to suspect that his son had committed the robbery. But when he questioned his son about his lack of cooperation with police, Butch threatened to kill his father.
Murder of the DeFeo Family
In the early morning hours of November 13, 1974, Butch DeFeo acted on his threat. Using a .35-caliber Marlin rifle from his secret gun stash, he entered his parents' bedroom and shot them both while they slept. He then entered his brothers' bedroom, shooting them both in their beds. He ended by shooting his sisters, point-blank, in their bedrooms. All the murders took place within 15 minutes. Butch then showered, dressed for work, and collected his bloody clothing and the murder weapon in a pillowcase. He dumped the evidence in a storm drain on the way to work at the dealership at 6 a.m.
Upon arriving to work, Butch called home, pretending not to know why his father hadn't shown up for work. Saying he was bored around noon, he left work and spent the day with friends. He attempted to secure an alibi by telling each of the people he visited that he couldn't seem to reach anyone at home. At 6 p.m., he called a friend in mock surprise, saying that someone had broken into the house and shot his family.
Friends came to the home and contacted authorities. When a Suffolk County detective questioned DeFeo about who could be a suspect in these murders, he told them he believed mafia hit man Louis Falini may have been responsible. Butch cited an old grudge between the made man and the DeFeo family over some work Butch did for him at the dealership. He then told police he had been up late watching TV and, unable to sleep, left for work early. He said he believed his family was alive when he left for work, then told them of his whereabouts for the rest of that day. Police placed Butch in protective custody as they searched for a suspect.
After police more carefully searched the DeFeo house, however, Butch's testimony began to crumble. Finding an empty box for a recently purchased .35-caliber Marlin gun in Butch's room gave authorities pause. As the timeline came together, it seemed more realistic that the murders had happened early in the morning—the family had all still been wearing their pajamas, so it couldn't have happened earlier in the day—placing Butch at home at the time of the homicides.
When authorities questioned Butch about the new evidence, he began changing his story. He said that Falini had appeared at the house early that morning, and put a revolver to DeFeo's head. He then said Falini and an accomplice dragged Butch from room to room as they murdered his family. As the story unraveled, police extracted a confession from DeFeo. He finally broke down. "Once I started, I just couldn't stop," he said. "It went so fast."
Trial and Imprisonment
DeFeo's trial began on October 14, 1975, nearly a year from the date of the murders. DeFeo's defense attorney, William Weber, attempted an insanity plea for Butch, and the murder suspect told jurors that he heard voices that told him to kill his family. The psychiatrist for the defense, Dr. Daniel Schwartz, supported the claim, saying that DeFeo was neurotic and suffered from dissociative disorder. But the psychiatrist for the prosecution, Dr. Harold Zolan, proved that DeFeo suffered from antisocial personality disorder. The illness made him the defendant aware of his actions, but motivated by a self-centered attitude.
Jurors agreed with the assessment, and on November 21, 1975, they found DeFeo guilty on six counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences, and sent to Green Haven Correctional Facility in Beekman, New York. His appeals to the parole board have all been turned down.
After his imprisonment, several novels and films appeared about the slayings. The first of them, entitled The Amityville Horror: A True Story, was published in September of 1977. The account followed the Lutz family, who lived in the DeFeo house after the murders. The story detailed the allegedly true stories of poltergeists that terrorized the Lutz family. A movie based on the book, called The Amityville Horror was released to popular appeal in 1979. Subsequent remakes and sequels to this film include the most recent 2005 film remake produced by Michael Bay, and a factual account of the DeFeo tragedy in the book Mentally Ill In Amityville (2008) by Will Savive.
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