The real life of a crime: Amityville, New York, Nov. 18th 1974

By Paula Uruburu

It was not your typical obituary, written for one person. It was written for six.

As reported in the New York Times: "Nearly 1,000 friends, relatives, and village residents gathered here today at the funeral services for the six members of the DeFeo family who were found murdered in their beds last week. While the Mass of the Resurrection was held at the St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church, a Suffolk County grand jury in Riverhead handed up an indictment charging the 23‐year‐old surviving son of the family Ronald Jr., with six counts of murder in the second degree. The indictment charges that the victims—Ronald DeFeo Sr., 43 years old, his wife, Louise, 42, daughters, Dawn, 18, and Allison, 13; and sons, Mark, 11, and John Matthew, 9 —were shot by Ronald Jr. early last. Wednesday with a .35 caliber rifle as they slept in their beds at the family home at 112 Ocean Avenue here. A spokesman for the family said that the services were to have been private but that the “response from sympathizers was overwhelming.” The pews were packed, and outside, watched by a heavy police detail, stood scores of bystanders. The police are still trying to establish the motive for the multiple killings.”

I remember that day because I was sitting up in the choir loft at the rear of the church with other former classmates of the four DeFeo siblings who had been killed. 

St. Martin’s was my church and it was my elementary school directly across the street from the church where Dawn DeFeo had been my schoolyard captain in 1970. I was in the 7th grade and Dawn was a year ahead of me. She was one of the cool but not aloof girls, with long thick dark brown hair and a round-faced sometimes self-conscious smile, evident in the family photo that was widely published after the murders. Her uniform was always in some stage of either rebellious or carefree disarray, her plaid skirt rolled just short enough to earn disapproving looks from Sister Grace Edward. She had an equally laissez-faire attitude about supervising the girls in our class during recess. Of course, we never really gave her any trouble, not like the boys who played handball against the gym wall until Sister Moira caught them and pulled them around by their ears. Dawn saw this as amusing theater.

The graduating class that year had put together what they called a yearbook, which was really a dozen or so mimeographed pages with badly xeroxed photos and personal tidbits, catch phrases, etc. underneath the photos. She seemed unconcerned about the fact that she was what was then called “chubby” and the photo captured a genuinely happy smile. Underneath Dawn’s picture, written in her loopy schoolgirl cursive, it said her nickname was Pudgy. 

She gave me one of the precious copies of that yearbook, and even invited me to a party at her house that summer after she graduated. The DeFeos lived right on the waterfront where the Amityville creek ran parallel to Ocean Avenue. They had a built-in pool and a boathouse, which seemed to me the height of suburban luxury. The face of the house did have two unique-looking attic windows, like a pair of jack o’lantern eyes. But I cannot lie. There was nothing else that struck me as especially remarkable or memorable about the large Dutch Colonial house at the time -- only that it had big rooms and high ceilings, like the kind you saw in old houses in the movies. There was a long bannister leading up the stairs to the second-floor landing which wrapped around itself. That was where the bedrooms were. 

That November morning in 1974 I remember looking down on the six caskets, three normal sized and three smaller ones, as they were rolled in and lined up down the long center aisle. It was hard to believe that it was Dawn in one of those three adult-sized caskets, and it felt as if I were watching the scene unfold in slow motion through a cloud of incense.  Mr. Specht, my former music teacher and parish organist, accompanied the service. I cannot recall the specific hymns he played, and I want to say that the children’s coffins were white, but I may have imagined that detail. 

Father James McNamara, the young bespectacled assistant pastor of the church who had been called to the house the night of the murders (and who had administered the last rites to the DeFeos the week before), read from the Scriptures and delivered a short eulogy in the solemn soft-spoken voice we all knew from confession. Then a phalanx of dark-suited pallbearers carried the caskets out the doors to six hearses which stretched for more than half the block, waiting to take all but one of the family members to the St. Charles Cemetery in nearby Pinelawn. All but the murderer.

The police had quickly determined that it was 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. who shot his two sisters and two brothers and both parents while they slept. He had used a .35 Marlin rifle. The story going around in the days and weeks after the murders was that Butch DeFeo (as he was known to friends), a heavy drug user who hated his bullying father, had put some sleeping pills in the family’s dinner. He then waited at a bar only a few blocks away for several hours before going back home that night. He would later tell police that "the voices from the house made him do it,” although no one really believed him and his insanity plea was ultimately rejected.* 

It was two years after that when Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror came out and Dawn’s family became a sort of footnote to what was now a sensational paranormal-horror story of another family -- the Lutzes -- who had moved into 112 Ocean Avenue only eight months after the murders.  Anson used all the well- known genre tropes – especially the whole “I wonder how we got such a great house so cheap” thing. We all scoffed at the lurid and ridiculous accounts of flying pigs and plagues of flies and a voice telling the family to “get out!’  But the book managed to shift the narrative away from the real horror, and that would not be the end.

When the inevitable film adaptation came out (the first of what has now become a franchise like the Paranormal Activity movies) William Weber, the defense lawyer on DeFeo's case, told People Magazine in 1979 that Anson's book was a hoax. According to Weber, he and the Lutzes conjured up the story over several bottles of wine. (The Lutz family would sue Weber over the invasion of privacy, and Weber countersued for fraud and breach of contract. A judge nixed the Lutz case, and Weber settled out of court.) It was not surprising when the town refused permission to have the film’s premiere at the Amityville movie theater (only a stone’s throw from our schoolyard.) The whole sordid business seemed crass and insensitive and likely to invite nothing but bad memories. Even though it was nearly a decade later, the residents still felt they shared in the burden of the tragedy somehow.

The unhappy Lutz family moved out, and over the years, other families moved in. And while none has ever reported any flying pigs or bleeding toilets (as far as I know), subsequent owners have made a few changes to the house and property in a futile effort to discourage aggressive souvenir seekers and curious ghost-hunters. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the jack o’lantern “evil eyed” windows were changed and so was the address, by a mere four digits. Of course, everyone knows where the horror house still sits. Other rumors and legends have grown up around it over time like the wrought iron fence with the No Trespassing signs that are now a permanent fixture on the property. The most persistent rumor is that the house was built on an ancient Shinnecock burial ground.  Of course, if you know anything about local history, that would mean most of Long Island is haunted. 

After the funeral mass that dismal morning, I was upset that I had not kept in touch with Dawn. But teenagers are fickle creatures and we went to different high schools, which might as well have been different universes. When I got my learner’s permit earlier that same year of the murders, I occasionally passed Dawn’s house. But I never stopped. And I never saw her again. 

It seems almost surreal now, since the house on Ocean Avenue gets decorated for Christmas and its current occupants give out treats on Halloween, having apparently embraced history rather than fighting it the way some former owners did. As you can imagine, it is a popular place for  the ghoulish and the curious every Halloween.

I’m not sure why exactly, but a number of years ago I started taking pictures of the house. Perhaps as I have gotten older, I feel compelled to document the passage of time reflected in the life of a house that is so connected to both youthful memories and death. Or maybe I do it because 45 years later, I can still remember Dawn’s broad and genuinely happy smile in her picture in the makeshift yearbook, which has long since disappeared.

Ronald DeFeo Jr. is currently serving six consecutive life sentences at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, New York. All of his appeals and requests to the parole board to date have been denied.

 

Copyright 2019 by Paula Uruburu. All Rights Reserved.

Paula Uruburu is an author and is the a Professor of English and Film Studies at Hofstra University. Dr. Uruburu has acted as a consultant to A&E, PBS, the History Channel, and the Smithsonian Channel.

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