Amityville cop Ken Greguski had just gotten a sandwich— roast beef or ham and cheese, he doesn’t remember— from a deli on lower Broadway when he got the call. He ambled his squad car down Merrick Avenue and made a right onto Ocean Avenue. Pulling up to the Dutch Colonial at 112 Ocean, Greguski spied a distraught young man, Ronald DeFeo Jr., whose family lived in the house, standing outside with three other men. Greguski walked into the house, climbed the circular staircase and entered the master bedroom.
“I didn’t check their pulses, ’cause they were already turning color,” he recalls. “I went into the boy’s room next, then into the sister’s room. There was blood all over the walls.”
Greguski was first on the scene of a murder 25 years ago this November that would transform a modest residence on a sleepy street into the Amityville Horror, the most famous haunted house in America.
“I went back downstairs and called into headquarters and said there were five bodies,” Greguski says. “Then DeFeo said, ‘I have another sister.’ I hadn’t gone up to the third floor because I thought it was an attic. On the third floor was Dawn.”
With his entire family lying in six separate pools of blood on the floors above his head, 23-year-old Ronnie DeFeo— his friends called him Butch— sat in the kitchen, crying softly. He wasn’t crying hard enough to suit Greguski. “If that had happened to me,” Greguski, 62, now retired and living in Dix Hills, says, “I wouldn’t be able to speak. I wouldn’t be able to walk.”
Ronnie DeFeo had his own reasons for showing little emotion. He was the one who had taken a .35-caliber Martin rifle and methodically moved from room to room, shooting his family in the back as they slept.
The next year, George and Kathy Lutz moved into the house. Twenty-eight days later, the couple fled in terror, ranting and raving about evil spirits, floating pigs and oozing slime. And the place on Ocean Avenue has been an American icon ever since.
Everyone agrees that six people died a violent death in the house. Some people believe the horror stories are true, that Ronnie DeFeo somehow heard voices that commanded him to kill, that the spirits re-emerged after the Lutzes moved into the house. Most people think the horror stories are bullshit.
But the question still lingers for people who 20 years ago saw the movie that was based on the best-selling book about the case. The mystery furrows the brows of tourists who flock to Amityville each year on the anniversary of the slaughter to see the house, now designated 108 Ocean Ave. in an unsuccessful attempt to confuse rubberneckers. Fueled by the unspeakable gore, the Amityville horror has spawned numerous websites and hotwired conspiracy theorists around the world. Did DeFeo hear voices? Was it the house that drove him to kill?
Take a Good Look At My Face
“The guy was a scumbag,” says Pat Cammaroto, a retired Amityville police sergeant who still lives around the block from the DeFeo house and once busted Ronnie for being in possession of a stolen outboard motor. “Anybody who can kill his family, brothers and sisters. The father, I can understand, ’cause he was a scumbag, too.”
Sure, an ex-cop wouldn’t like the guy, but what about Ronnie’s drinking buddies? One of them now works at the town library.
“He was a guy who tried to buy his friends,” recalls Irene Reichelt, a clerk/typist at the Amityville Public Library who 30 years ago used to hang out with DeFeo at Henry’s bar on Merrick Avenue. “He was always buying people drinks. He used to say his father would give him five thousand dollars if he asked. Always fancy clothes, fancy cars. He had a car with one of those cucaracha horns.”
DeFeo liked guns, drugs and soul music. “You know that song ‘They smile in your face, all the time they want to take your place, the backstabbers,’ ” Reichelt says, referring to the O’Jays hit. “He used to play that song all the time. One on one, he was nice. But if you pissed him off, he was crazy.”
And you couldn’t ever be sure that he was bluffing. Reichelt reaches back for one memory: “One time, he picked up a cash register and threatened to throw it through the window of the Blue T.” That pizza place still stands at the corner of Merrick and Ocean. “He didn’t do it, it was just to scare people.”
When the slaughter happened, however, there was little question whose gruesome work it was. “Every one of us thought he did it,” she says.
It’s clear that Ronnie DeFeo was an obnoxious, spoiled bully as an adult. Had he suddenly soured after a blissful childhood and promising teen years? We think not.
“I knew him from Brooklyn as a kid,” recalls Sandy, owner of the Cloud Nine bar in Amityville. “I was going out with his best friend. Ronnie used to chase me down the block, get me up against the wall and try to kiss me. He was always after me. He was scary. Those eyes, boy. Piercing, dark eyes.” In a freaky twist of fate, the bar Sandy just bought a year ago used to be called Henry’s— the same joint where DeFeo used to gulp vodka and 7-Up every night. It’s also the bar DeFeo ran into for help after he “discovered” his family was dead.
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.
The producers may have gotten rich, but you wouldn’t want to bank on the authenticity of the story. Soon after the book was published in 1978, naysayers began calling it a fraud. Setauket psychic Stephen Kaplan, who had been contacted by the Lutzes to take a “reading” of the house but was dropped in favor of more notable psychics, later wrote a book called the Amityville Horror Conspiracy, in which he tried to discredit the ghost stories.
Kaplan claimed George Lutz invented the story because he couldn’t pay off the house’s mortgage and realized he and his wife were in over their heads. Kaplan spent years trying to get the book published; shortly after the book went to press in the ’90s, he died of a heart attack.
Ronnie DeFeo’s attorney, William Weber, blew the whistle after claiming he and the Lutzes created the story “over many bottles of wine.” But believers say Weber was just getting back at the Lutzes for supposedly screwing him out of profits from the original book by Anson.
Local cop Pat Cammaroto wound up as a character in the book, which claims he visited the house. Reality check: “The way I was portrayed was bullshit,” Cammaroto says. He was in the Amityville station the day Lutz came in and surrendered a gun because he feared what the house’s “demons” would make him do to his wife and his three step-children. “He brought in the gun and said he was afraid of having the gun ’cause the house was haunted,” Cammaroto recalls. “It was all nonsense.”
The Lutzes’ subsequent storytelling didn’t enhance their credibility in most eyes. In 1982, the couple wrote a sequel with Anson in which they claimed that “Jodie the demon pig,” the specter George had seen in his stepdaughter’s window, had followed them to California on the wing of their airplane (à la the Twilight Zone episode starring William Shatner). In subsequent books, the demons chase the Lutzes around the globe. “The Exorcist was out at the time, and they saw a chance to capitalize,” says Purdy.
The Horror Continues
The Amityville franchise is still alive and kicking. Ric Osuna, 26, a website builder from Las Vegas, is associate producer for a documentary called The Amityville Horror: 25 Years Later. “I’m hoping that if we can get the cooperation of the homeowners,” he says, “we can do a sonar scan of the backyard to see what’s underneath.” His website gets 2,000 hits a week. He also claims he has new information that “is gonna blow everyone away.” It’s proof, he says, that the house truly is haunted. There are rumors that another movie, called Amityville 2000, is in the works.
The house sits on what is one of the most beautiful streets on Long Island. The trademark fan windows in the attic have been replaced, but the house’s sideways appearance is a dead giveaway for people trying to find it. The current resident of the house is sick of the media bugging him. Apparently, the owner doesn’t understand that an annoyance tax comes with buying one of the most famous houses in America.
Ronnie DeFeo, his bid for parole recently rejected, still sits in a cell at Green Haven state prison in Dutchess County. His stories about the murders have shifted over the years like the swirling of so many ghosts. At various times, he has accused everyone else of the crime, from the mob to his mother, to his sister Dawn— who he says acted with an accomplice while he was in the basement playing pool. He claims that when he heard gunshots he confronted his sister, took the gun away from her and shot her. Then, realizing the murders would be pinned on him, he tried to hide the evidence by throwing the rifle in a river and picking up the shell casings.
One of the case’s biggest mysteries is how the family members could remain asleep as someone was shooting a rifle in the house. Autopsies showed that, contrary to early reports, the family had not been drugged at dinner. But no one else has ever been fingered as an accomplice. And nobody has ever bought Ronnie DeFeo’s stories.
“He used to say, ‘Big things are gonna happen to this town. You just wait and see,’ ” DeFeo’s bar buddy Reichelt recalls.
She and the rest of the people of Amityville didn’t have to wait very long.