By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Neighbors paint a similar picture of the young Ronnie.
A Mrs. Nemeth recalls that her son heard the DeFeos' dog howling like mad the night of the murders. That helped police determine the time of the crime. Ronnie DeFeo's history with the Nemeth family didn't exactly help him. He once threatened to punch Mrs. Nemeth in the nose after he accused her daughter of throwing stones at a statue of St. Joseph in front of the DeFeo house. "We don't discuss it, because it's nothing but problems," Mrs. Nemeth says of the horror a quarter of a century ago. "People seem to look at the insanity, which it wasn't, and not that it was a terrible thing that happened."
It's easy to piece together a conclusion that Ronnie never got along with his family. He claimed he hated his sisters and despised the family dog, which once bit him as he was trying to sneak a girl down to the basement. He once claimed to have put a loaded shotgun to his father's chest and pulled the trigger, only to have the gun jam.
DeFeo was the town braggart with a short fuse, a heroin problem and a gun collection. He was also eyeing his parents' reported $200,000 life insurance policy, of which he would be the sole beneficiary if he wiped out his brothers and sisters, too. He didn't need a house to tell him to kill. But it could have taught him how to load the gun.
In the first edition of The Amityville Horror, the book that spawned the franchise, author Jay Anson claims George and Kathy Lutz had visited the Amityville Historical Society during their 28-day stay in the house and received dramatic information about the property.
One tidbit said a man named Ketcham, a practicing witch who was chased out of Salem during the witchhunt era, had set up shop 500 feet from the property, centuries before the murders. Another story read that an Indian chief's bones had been discovered on the premises. Another said the area where the house sat was once used by the Shinnecocks to house their sick, dying and dead.
All great stuff, but Seth Purdy, curator of the Amityville Historical Society, says none of it's true.
Purdy remembers the Lutzes coming into the society's building on Route 110, but he denies ever giving them any information. "They were rather distant. They didn't have a lot to say," Purdy recalls of the Lutzes' visit in 1976. "They wanted us to confirm their beliefs. They wanted to know if the area had been used as an Indian burial ground. It wasn't. The water table is too high." And although Ketcham is a common name in Amityville, there are no records to substantiate the witchcraft claim.
Purdy had no information on the house at the time. Since then, however, he has had to respond to worldwide hunger for data by creating a pamphlet detailing the property. Far from buying into the hype, the pamphlet calls the ghost story a hoax.
Which is not to say the property lacks a colorful history. It was originally owned by respected builder John Moynahan, who in the 1890s moved his small dwelling from Muncie Island to the Ocean Avenue site. Moynahan, it turned out, was smart to leave, since the island was later destroyed to make way for a shipping channel in the Great South Bay.
On the mainland, Moynahan's expanding family outgrew the tiny home. Not wanting to give up the waterfront site, Moynahan moved the house to the corner of South Ireland and Carman Place, making room for him to put up the big Dutch Colonial that has stood since 1924, oddly situated on the lot at 108 Ocean. "He didn't like to mow the lawn, so he built the house sideways," Purdy says.
A family named Riley bought the home from the Moynahans in the early '60s and sold it to the DeFeos later in the decade. Purdy's pamphlet notes that the DeFeos modernized the house and added a swimming pool and landscaping. "Louise DeFeo, the mother, loved her new home very much," the pamphlet notes, "but the DeFeos were not a really happy family. This unhappiness was not caused by their house, however, but it did eventually result in the now well-known tragedy which befell them in November of 1974."
After the murders, the house sat vacant for a year.
It wasn't the murders that made the Amityville house such an attraction. You don't see cars lined up outside 342 Herricks Road in Mineola to catch a glimpse of the house where, in 1961, Mate Ivanov, an escapee from Central Islip State Hospital, took a kitchen knife to his brother-in law, his wife, their three children and a poodle.
It was the movie that made the Amityville house. Specifically, the outlandish "true story" by George and Kathy Lutz about their 28 days of terror. Six homicides cannot stack up to a 50-piece marching band in the living room, green slime oozing from keyholes, swarms of flies and Jodie the floating pig.
Audiences loved the tale. Filmed not in Amityville but in Toms River, New Jersey, the movie was directed by TV veteran Stuart Rosenberg and starred minor celebrities James Brolin and Margot Kidder. It debuted in 1979, earning $35 million in the first three weeks.