High Hopes: The REAL Amityville Horror

By the title alone, I’m sure most of you readers will know what this blog post is all about. It really doesn’t need an introduction. I thought it was a fitting week to debut this blog because…we’re in the spooky season!  My favorite season, and I hope to cover some cases that might be the cause of some of the creepiest horror/thriller movies to have been made. But let’s start off the first week of October, with a case that I’ve always been passionate about. 

Let’s start from the very beginning. Ronald Joseph “Big Ronnie” DeFeo, Sr. was born on November 16th, 1930, to his parents Rocco and Antoinette DeFeo. (Can you get any more Italian than that?) When he was younger, Big Ronnie was slender, handsome, and had a powerful gaze reminiscent of any good looking Italian-bred actor.

Louise was born on November 3rd, 1931, to Michael and Angela Brigante. As she grew older, Louise had aspirations to pursue a modeling career. She was beautiful enough to hang out with the best, including legendary singer Mel Torme. (If you don’t know, Mel Torme composed the music, and co-wrote the lyrics for ‘The Christmas Song’, also known as, ‘Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire’.) 

With his suave looks, Big Ronnie was able to attract the attention of Louise Marie Brigante. After a brief courtship, Big Ronnie and Louise got married. Since the Brigante’s disapproved of Big Ronnie, they cut all ties with the newlyweds until September 26th, 1951, when Ronald Joseph “Butch” DeFeo Jr. was born. 

Growing up, Butch DeFeo had it hard. Because Butch was the first born and a boy, his father expected more from him. (#TheItalianWay) And Big Ronnie was not afraid to discipline Butch in the cruelest fashion. One minute, he would hug his son; the next minute, he would throw him across the room. (#ChildAbuse) Louise’s brother, Michael Brigante Jr., would later testify at the DeFeo trial about an incident he witnessed when his nephew was just two years old. He said, “We were all sitting down in the basement watching TV, and, I don’t know, the boy had done something. All of a sudden, he stood up, the father, and just pushed the boy this way into the wall. The boy banged his head or part of his shoulder or something.”

As a child, Butch was extremely overweight, and would remain so until his later teenage years when he began using amphetamines. Butch’s school life suffered because of his weight problem. Bigger kids would often make fun of him, calling him names like, “the blob,” “Bucky Beaver,” and “pork chop.”

Butch was not an only child for long. On July 29th, 1956, Louise gave birth to a daughter, Dawn Theresa DeFeo. A few years later, on August 16th, 1961, Louise gave birth to Allison Louise DeFeo, and then again on September 4th, 1962 to Marc Gregory DeFeo.

Sometime after the birth of Marc, Louise decided to leave her husband for reasons that remain unclear. (I’m just gonna go on record and assume that he was just an asshole.) To get his wife back, Big Ronnie decided to put his writing talents to good use. Needing to express his love for Louise, Big Ronnie co‑wrote a song called “The Real Thing.” And in 1963, Jazz great Joe Williams recorded the song for his album titled “One Is a Lonesome Number.” Apparently, Big Ronnie’s hard work and determination paid off because Louise went back to her husband.

On October 24th, 1965, Big Ronnie was blessed with a third son, John Matthew DeFeo. (#MakeUpBaby) By this time, the family had moved from their Brooklyn apartment to the affluent Long Island South Shore community of Amityville. Amityville, New York- a charming little town where any American would love to raise a family. (Besides the infamous murders, and the haunting allegations, Amityville is known for a couple other things. Gangster Al Capone allegedly owned a home within the community, and Alec Baldwin was born there.)

For many, it was a mystery how Big Ronnie could afford such a lavish home on a car dealer’s service manager’s salary. The answer however, was clear: His father-in-law, Michael Brigante, Sr. Built in 1925, and known for its two quarter‑moon windows that looked like eyes, the Dutch Colonial dark‑shingled house sat sideways with its front door facing an elongated driveway. The property is long and narrow- and at the end of the DeFeos’ 237‑foot‑long lot sat their boathouse, right at the edge of the Amityville Creek. But the most distinguishable characteristic of 112 Ocean Avenue is its dramatic front yard. On the front lawn stood a lamp post with a sign attached that read “High Hopes,” a symbolic title of the family’s life in suburbia. Kneeling behind the sign were three figurines of children praying to a larger statue of St. Joseph holding the baby Jesus. (Louise and Big Ronnie were evidently very religious- as most Italian families back then were.) With five bedrooms, three bathrooms and containing a swimming pool- and the boat house; it was a dream home for any family. (Currently, the home and boat house look more modern with new windows, shutters and siding. The pool has been taken out and the address has changed in order to help curb the amount of visitors trying to get a view of the home.)

In the early 1970’s, Big Ronnie decided that he wanted a series of life-size portraits created to immortalize his family. So once more, Big Ronnie’s father-in-law, Michael Brigante Sr., picked up the tab, which was estimated to be at least $50,000. Painstakingly detailed, the portraits took over a year to complete. Upon their completion, the life‑size portraits hung in large golden frames on the staircase wall in between the first and second floors of the DeFeo home.

Fast forward to Wednesday, November 13th, 1974. The weather throughout the day was around 60 degrees- warmer than usual for that time of year in Long Island. (And, from what I’ve gathered, it probably rained on and off for some of the day.) In the early evening hours, the patrons at Henry’s Bar- a tavern located at the corner of Merrick Road and Ocean Avenue, chatted amongst themselves while they sipped on their cocktails. It was like any other normal evening in Amityville: calm and uneventful. By night’s end, however, life in Amityville would never again be the same. The patrons at the bar had no idea that in mere hours, their sleepy and cozy town would go down in infamy. 

At 6:30 p.m, Butch DeFeo came bursting through the bar’s door and yelled out for all to hear, “You got to help me! I think my mother and father are shot.” One of the patrons seated at the bar was Robert “Bobby” Kelske, an out‑of‑work brick mason and Butch’s best friend. Bobby raced to his friend, who had fallen to his knees. 

Crying hysterically, Butch again pleaded for help, “Bobby, you got to help me. Somebody shot my mother and father.”

Bobby initially asked Butch if maybe he was mistaken, asking him if maybe Butch’s parents were asleep. But, when Butch replied that he had actually seen his parents bodies, Bobby grew convinced. He tells Butch that they need to go. Butch got to his feet and called for others at the bar to follow Bobby and him back to the house. Answering Butch’s call was John Altieri, Joey Yeswoit, Al Saxton and William Scordamaglia, owner of Henry’s Bar. The six men piled into Butch’s 1970 blue Buick Electra 225. Butch climbed in the back while Bobby took the wheel. (Don’t ask me why Butch didn’t drive his own vehicle… I just find it odd.) 

Although the DeFeo house was only a block away, Bobby drove frantically down the street. One of the men yelled out for him to slow down, but Bobby ignored the comment, arriving at 112 Ocean Avenue in a matter of seconds. Bobby pulled the car to a quick halt and climbed out. As he ran up the front‑porch steps, one of the other men cautioned, “Be careful! Somebody might be in there!”

“I don’t care,” Bobby yelled as he opened the unlocked door to the DeFeo home.

The house was quiet, except for the barking of Shaggy, the DeFeos’ sheepdog, who was tied up to the inside of the kitchen’s back door. Because the dog was not totally housebroken, the family routinely tied the animal there.

The interior of the DeFeo home was just as impressive as the exterior. To the right of the marble‑covered foyer was the formal dining room with red, velvet‑textured wallpaper lining the walls. In the center of the room, over the Dutch‑style table seated for six, hung a crystal chandelier. A textbook belonging to one of Butch’s younger siblings sat, unopened, on the table next to a bouquet of wilting red roses.

Across the foyer was the living room, which contained a baby grand piano. Sitting in front of the large fireplace was a pair of white satin‑cushioned chairs. Lavish paintings and statues were scattered throughout the room. It was evident that Butch’s parents had exquisite- and expensive taste.

With Bobby Kelske in the lead, the five men hurried up the stairs to the second floor. Bobby, a regular visitor to the DeFeo household, knew exactly where the master bedroom was located. As they reached the second floor, they were overwhelmed with the stench of death.

Bobby stopped at the doorway to the master bedroom and hit the light switch. Before him, lay Big Ronnie aged 43, and his wife Louise aged 42. A hole in the center of Big Ronnie’s bareback was the first indication that the couple wasn’t sleeping. Dried blood had trickled out of Big Ronnie’s wound, disappearing beneath the obese man’s blue boxer shorts.

In contrast, Louise’s wounds were not clearly ascertainable because her body was buried beneath an orange blanket as if she were protecting herself against the evening chill. Behind the bed was a mirrored wall, which eerily reflected the macabre scene.

Seeing that Bobby was ready to pass out, the other men led him downstairs, past the life‑size portraits of family members that hung on the staircase wall.

John Altieri remained on the second floor and checked out the northeast bedroom. Clipper ships, cannons and eagles dotted the room’s wallpaper. On the dresser, to the left of the door, lay several statues and figurines that one would expect to find in a devout Catholic home. Strewn across the floor were athletic shoes and toys signaling that the bedroom belonged to a boy, two boys to be exact.

On opposite sides of the room lay the bodies of two young boys, face down like their parents. In the bed on the left lay the body of John DeFeo aged 9. Altieri could not pinpoint the bullet hole in John’s back since the “Knicks” sweatshirt he was wearing was covered in blood. In the other bed lay John’s brother, Marc DeFeo aged 12. Next to Marc’s bed was a pair of crutches and a plain, gray wheelchair. Marc had recently suffered a football injury and needed assistance to get around. At the foot of his bed lay a crumpled‑up green and yellow bedspread and an orange blanket. This time, Altieri could make out the wound: a single bullet hole in the center of the boy’s back. Reminiscent of Marc’s father.

Seeing more than he had wanted, Altieri left the room and rejoined the others on the ground floor. There, Joe Yeswoit called 911, giving details to an emergency operator.

When the police arrived, and did their own initial investigation, besides finding Big Ronnie, Louise, John and Marc, investigators also found Allison aged 13, just like her parents and brothers. Death looked like it was instantaneous, as the bullet impacted Allison’s left cheek and exited her right ear. It almost seemed like Allison’s wounds were meant to disfigure the beautiful girl. Then, there was Dawn aged 18. Like the rest of the family, she was found face down on her bed and covered by a blanket. But, unlike the rest of the family, her death looked much more brutal. Her head was almost completely obliterated by a gunshot blast. 

It was later revealed that the weapon used was a .35 caliber lever action Marlin 336C rifle. Butch was immediately taken to the police station for his own protection after he made a comment at the crime scene, when he suggested to police officers that the murders were committed by a mob hit man by the name of 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. Butch 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. 

Upon further investigating, authorities narrowed down the time of death for all six victims. Instead of the early evening that Butch had implied at the bar, investigators learned that the murders actually happened around three o’clock in the morning. That explains why the upstairs bedrooms smelled like decomposing bodies when Butch’s buddies initially discovered what had happened. Big Ronnie and Louise had both been shot twice, while all four children were only shot once. Physical evidence suggests that Louise and her daughter Allison were both awake at the time of their deaths. 

Butch’s trial began on October 14th, 1975- almost a whole year after the murders. It was clear to some that Butch DeFeo was not being afforded the fullest protections of the American judicial system, so alternative methods were needed, including persuading Butch to plead insanity by pretending, among other things, to hearing voices in the house. It was the early beginnings of the Amityville haunted house hoax. However, Butch was no actor and his testimony actually backfired when he admitted that he didn’t hear any of the so-called voices the night of the murders. The insanity plea however, was supported by the psychiatrist for the defense, Daniel Schwartz. The psychiatrist for the prosecution, Dr. Harold Zolan, maintained that, although Butch was a user of heroin and LSD, he had antisocial personality disorder and was aware of his actions at the time of the crime. After a lengthy trial that concluded right before Thanksgiving of 1975, Butch DeFeo was found guilty of killing his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters. On December 4th, 1975, Justice Thomas Stark said that the crimes were “the most heinous and abhorrent,” and sentenced Butch to six concurrent sentences of 25 years to life. (Butch is currently held at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in the town of Fallsburg, New York, and all of his appeals and requests to the parole board to date have been denied. There’s no way, aside from a miracle, that Butch will ever see the outside of a jail cell ever again.) No other suspect was ever prosecuted for the crime. Officially, Butch DeFeo acted alone in the grisly crime. Unofficially, the evidence pointed to a conspiracy. 

The DeFeo murders are clouded with conspiracy theories and contradictions.  Why hadn’t any family members woken up after the first gunshot? The police investigation concluded that the rifle had not been fitted with a sound suppressor. Investigators also initially think that they found evidence of sedatives having been administered. Butch admitted during his interrogation that he had drugged his family. But, he later recanted that part of the confession and admitted that he hadn’t drugged his family. The autopsies showed that there were no drugs or alcohol found in their bloodstreams. Even more troubling, the DeFeos were all discovered in the same position–lying face down in bed, apparently deep in sleep. The family’s bedrooms were on two different floors of the house. So, you would think that at least one of the family members would have heard/woken up and tried to stop the massacre from happening. What about the neighbors, surely someone heard something!? During the trial, it was concluded that Butch’s lawyer, William Weber, said the gun could be heard four to five blocks away and yet, all the neighbours heard was the family’s dog barking. Since Brigante did not feel that his grandson had done all that he was accused of, he wanted Herman Race, a licensed investigator and friend, either to prove or disprove the case against Butch. Brigante had testified at trial that he did not feel that his grandson acted alone. Herman Race eventually uncovered evidence that showed there were multiple gunmen and at least two guns used during the commission of the crime. During a private court hearing and at trial, Race’s findings were corroborated by the prosecutor and the medical examiner, who was astonished that only one man sat accused of being the sole gunman.In a 1986 interview for Newsday, Butch claimed his sister Dawn killed their father and then their distraught mother killed all of his siblings before he killed his mother. Butch stated that he took the blame because he was afraid to say anything negative about his mother to her father, and his father’s uncle, out of fear that they would kill him. His father’s uncle was Pete DeFeo, a caporegime in the Genovese crime family. In this interview, Butch 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. Subsequently, he drove to Amityville with Geraldine’s brother, Richard Romondoe, who was with him at the time of the murders and could verify his story completely. ⇨ In 1990, Butch 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. Again, he asserted he was married to Geraldine and that her brother was with him at the time of the murders. An affidavit from Richard Romondoe was submitted to the court and it was asserted he could not be located to testify in person. Evidence was submitted to the court by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office suggesting that Richard Romondoe in fact did not exist and that Geraldine Gates was living in upstate New York and was actually married to someone else at the time of the murders. Geraldine Gates did not testify at this hearing because the authorities had already confronted her about the false claims, and in 1992 secured a statement under oath where she admitted Romondoe was fictitious and that she did not actually marry Butch until 1989 in anticipation of the filing of a 440 motion. ⇨ During a November 30th, 2000 meeting with Ric Osuna, author of ‘The Night the DeFeos Died’, Butch confessed that, along with his sister Dawn, he and one of his friends actually committed the murders out of desperation. In his own handwriting, Butch wrote, “…it was cold-blooded murder. Period. No ghosts. No demons. Just three people in which I was one.” This is what Butch says really happened: The DeFeo household had been in a frenzied state during the evening of November 12th, 1974. According to Butch, Big Ronnie routinely abused his family. (As previously stated.) After that evening’s tirade had settled down, Butch, his sister Dawn, and two of Butch’s friends proceeded to get high in the basement. Incensed that her father was preventing her from joining her boyfriend in Florida and worn out from the years of physical abuse, Dawn approached her older brother about killing their parents. Butch initially refused. But after a culmination of drugs, alcohol, and desperation over the next few hours, Butch finally gave into Dawn’s ghoulish request. Employing his two friends, Butch and Dawn left the safety of the family’s basement and headed for their parents’ bedroom on the second floor. While one friend waited as a lookout, the other, with his Colt Python, followed Butch, who had armed himself with a .35-Marlin rifle. The parents were attacked while they lay in bed. Big Ronnie, however, was able to struggle to his feet to attempt a counterattack on his assassins. A second bullet struck him dead before he was able to reach his target. Louise lay in bed, moaning for help, as she slowly bled to death. A second bullet silenced her. Although the original plan was for the younger children to be taken to the grandparents’ house in Brooklyn, Dawn, according to Butch, killed them to eliminate the children as witnesses and potential threats. Butch claimed he was not in the house at the time of the children’s murders, but giving pursuit to one of his friends, who had fled the scene, in order to lure him back to assist with the cleanup. Butch claims that Dawn callously ordered the boys face down and shot them once in their backs. The next room that Dawn entered was Allison’s. Standing in the doorway, Dawn raised the rifle, taking aim as Allison slightly raised her head before looking into the muzzle flash. Butch, upon his return and enraged at the senseless murders of his younger siblings, confronted Dawn in her third-floor bedroom. After briefly wrestling for the gun, Butch got the upper hand and slammed Dawn against the bed knocking her out. As she lie unconscious on her bed, Butch placed the back of the rifle to Dawn’s head and fired. The murderous spree had finally ended. Today, Butch has once again decided to blame the entire crime on his sister, even though the evidence clearly supports Butch’s involvement. Nevertheless, evidence also supports the claims that more than one gun and killer were involved in the DeFeo murders. Although several attempts were made by Ric Osuna to contact one of the accomplices named by Butch, rumor had it he (Butch’s accomplice) had entered into a witness protection program for something unrelated to Amityville. The other accomplice named by Butch died on January 1st, 2001. The man refused author Osuna’s request for an interview or a chance to clear up any speculation over his involvement.  As for Dawn, the post mortem examination discovered that she had “unburned” powder burns on her nightgown, which lent further credence to Butch’s claims of his sister’s involvement. However, at trial, the ballistics expert, Alfred Della Penna, testified that unburned gunpowder is discharged through the muzzle of a weapon, indicating that she was in proximity to the muzzle of the weapon when it was discharged and not that she fired the weapon. He reiterated this on an A&E Amityville documentary. Moreover, the medical examiner found nothing to indicate that Dawn had been in a struggle; the bullet wound was the only fresh mark on her body. (I will say, given the frequency with which Butch has changed his story over the years, any new claims from him regarding the events that took place on the night of the murders should be approached with caution.) Butch said he heard strange noises and “different things at night” starting on his very first night in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. “You felt as though somebody may have been walking around, pipes banging, all these strange noises,” Butch adds. “In fact, everybody thought there was somebody in there a week after we moved in.” Butch has said that sometimes the family could hear people screaming, even though no rational source of the sound was ever discovered. He claims that a painting was moved from one floor to another, but everyone in the family denied they had done it. He said his parents believed that the devil was in the house, and that was the reason for the extreme amount of religious idolatry on the property. Butch in particular, felt tormented by whatever was happening in the house, and ran away several times, warning his father that he feared he would kill everyone in the house if he wasn’t allowed to leave. 

Sadly, we’ll probably never know the answers to these questions, as the one person who could answer them keeps changing his story. But what do you think happened? Did Butch have an accomplice? Did the house make him do it? Was it an untreated mental illness that made him kill? Here’s what I think. I think that (based on testimony) Butch was borderline tortured and abused by his father, which led to severe mental illness. I also believe that he was dabbling in recreational drugs, which might have contributed to Butch thinking that he heard voices in the home. I truly believe that he was pushed to the edge on the night of November 12th- possibly getting into another heated and violent altercation with Big Ronnie. I believe that he went downstairs to the basement and used drugs. After a few hours, (again, this is my take on what happened) Butch went uptairs with his rifle, and murdered his whole family. Now, I can’t ascertain whether or not Dawn was involved, or why no one heard the gunshots. But, I really do think that he committed the hideous murders out of angst and bitterness, and fueled by drugs and his mental instability. Although again, we’ll never truly know what happened to Big Ronnie, Louise, Marc, John, Allison and Dawn. I just pray that their souls are at peace.
The story of 112 Ocean Avenue continues. Stay tuned for part two, coming soon.

Old eagle’s eye view of the property. Note that the driveway is alongside of the house.
A more contemporary look of the house.
One can easily access the web and find more photos of the night in which the family was found. These are just some… top left is the kitchen entry. Notice the dog’s food or water bowl. Top right is the dining room- take note of the open text book. Bottom left is the living room with the piano, and bottom right is a different view of the living room, but with bad exposure. Cameras were different back then.. sorry.
Life size portraits done of the family. Top left is of Michael Brigante, Sr. Top middle is of Marc and John DeFeo, top right is of Allison and Dawn DeFeo, bottom left is of Louise DeFeo, and bottom right is of Big Ronnie and Butch DeFeo.
Please be advised, that the rest of the photos will be graphic. Proceed with caution.
Crime scene photograph of Louise and Big Ronnie. Louise is on the left, Big Ronnie is on the right.
Crime scene photographs: top left is of John, bottom left is John’s mattress, top right is of Marc, bottom right is Marc’s mattress.
Crime scene photograph of Dawn DeFeo.
Crime scene photographs of Allison DeFeo.
Photographs taken the day the family was found of crime scene investigators and of the bodies being taken out of the home.
Photograph taken of a rifle box found in the closet of Butch’s room.
Evidence of how Butch tried to get rid of the murder weapon.
Butch DeFeo, after his arrest.
Gravestone for the DeFeo family… may they rest in peace.

Published by caitiejobug

I’m a SAHM of one, a loving wife, daughter, and sister. Reading and writing are my favorite hobbies, along with watching true crime documentaries.

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