Ronald Joseph DeFeo Jr. was an American mass murderer who was tried and convicted for the 1974 killings of his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters in Amityville, Long Island, New York. Condemned to six sentences of 25 years to life, DeFeo died in custody in 2021. The case inspired the book and film versions of The Amityville Horror.
Age and Murders
It was on November 13, 1974, when the 23-year-old DeFeo entered Henry’s Bar in Amityville, Long Island, New York, and declared: “You got to help me! I think my mother and father are shot!” DeFeo and a small group of people went to 112 Ocean Avenue, which was located near the bar, and found that DeFeo’s parents were dead inside the house. One of the group, DeFeo’s friend Joe Yeswit, made an emergency call to the county police department, who searched the house and found that six members of the same family were dead in their beds.
The victims were Ronald Jr.’s parents: Ronald DeFeo Sr. (age 43) and Louise DeFeo ( age 43); and his four siblings: Dawn (18), Allison (13), Marc (12), and John Matthew (9). All of the victims had been shot with a .35 calliber lever action rifle around three o’clock in the morning of that day. The DeFeo parents had both been shot twice, while the children had all been killed with single shots. Physical evidence suggests that Louise DeFeo and her daughter Allison were both awake at the time of their deaths. According to Suffolk County Police, the victims were all found lying face down in bed. The DeFeo family had occupied 112 Ocean Avenue since purchasing it in 1965. The six victims were later buried in nearby Saint Charles Cemetery, in Farmingdale.
Ronald DeFeo Jr., also known as “Butch”, was the eldest son of the family and its lone surviving member. He was taken to the local police station for his own protection after suggesting to police officers at the scene of the crime that the killings had been carried out by a mob hit man, Louis Falini. However, an interview at the station soon exposed serious inconsistencies in his version of events. The following day, he confessed to carrying out the killings himself; and Falini, the alleged hitman, had an alibi proving he was out of state at the time of the killings. DeFeo told detectives: “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It went so fast”. He admitted that he had taken a bath and redressed, and detailed where he had discarded crucial evidence such as blood-stained clothes and the Marlin rifle and cartridges before going to work as usual.
Trial and Conviction
Right after his confession, the trial began on October 14, 1975. He and his defence lawyer, William Weber, mounted an affirmative defence of Insanity, with Ronald claiming that he killed his family in self defence because he heard their voices plotting against him. The insanity plea was supported by the psychiatrist for the defence, Daniel Schwartz. The psychiatrist for the prosecution, Dr. Harold Zolan, maintained that, although DeFeo was a user of heroin and LSD forms of hard drugs, he had antisocial personality disorder and was aware of his actions at the time of the crime.
On November 21, 1975, DeFeo was found guilty on six counts of second degree murder. On December 4, 1975, Judge Thomas Stark sentenced DeFeo to six sentences of 25 years to life.
DeFeo was held at the Sullivan correctional facility, in the town of Fallsburg, New York, and until his death all of his appeals and requests to the parole bond had been denied.
All six of the victims were found face down in their beds with no signs of a struggle. The police investigation concluded that the rifle had not been fitted with a sound suppressor and found evidence of sedatives having been administered. DeFeo admitted during his interrogation that he had drugged his family. However, the autopsy report indicates that is a lie. Neighbours did not report hearing any gunshots being fired, and those who were awake at the time of the murders simply heard the family’s dog, Shaggy, barking.
DeFeo had a volatile relationship with his father, but the motive for the killings remains unclear. He asked police what he had to do in order to collect on his father’s life insurance, which prompted the prosecution to suggest at trial that his motive was to collect on the life insurance policies of his parents.
Since his conviction, DeFeo has given several varying accounts of how the killings were carried out. In a 1986 interview, DeFeo claimed his sister Dawn killed their father and then their distraught mother killed all of his siblings, apparently with a revolver, before he killed his mother. He stated that he took the blame because he was afraid to say anything negative about his mother to her father, Michael Brigante Sr., and his father’s uncle, out of fear that they would kill him. In this interview, DeFeo also asserted he was married at the time of the murders to a woman named Geraldine Gates, with whom he was living in New Jersey, and that his mother phoned to ask him to return to Amityville to break up a fight between Dawn and their father.
In 1990, DeFeo filed a motion, a proceeding to have his conviction vacated. In support of his motion, DeFeo asserted that Dawn and an unknown assailant, who fled the house before he could get a good look at him, killed their parents and Dawn subsequently killed their siblings. He said the only person he killed was Dawn and that it was by accident as they struggled over the rifle.
DeFeo died on March 12, 2021, at the Albany Medical Centre. An official cause of death is yet to be determined.