A FILM BY RYAN KATZENBACH

SHATTERED HOPES: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS

 

 

 

November 13, 1974. It was a day that would live in infamy for the small south-shore village of Amityville Long Island.
HORROR IN AMITYVILLE:

THE STORY

PART II: DEATH & DISCOVERY


Sitting down for dinner, the phone rang at Barbara's house. Barbara, her husband and their five children lived in Farmingdale, which was but 10 minutes from the south shore Long Island village of Amityville. When you have five kids in the house, several of which are teenagers, a ringing phone before or during dinner was not an uncommon event. In addition, one of Barbara's younger sons was involved with the Massapequa Mustang football team, and during the fall of the year, there was a fair amount of phone traffic in the evenings by which practice sessions and games were scheduled and discussed with coaches and other parents. Barbara and her husband would often pick up other kids and drive them along with theirs to practice or games, or other parents would be calling them to coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs. When Barbara answered the phone, she was not at all alarmed by the voice on the other end----another parent of one of the kids on the football team. It took a moment for the words, however, of this particular phone call to settle in on this chilly, winter evening.

"The DeFeos are all dead," the voice on the other end informed.

Barbara stood stunned. "What happened......did the house explode or something?"

The DeFeos, for the past few years, had been friends with Barbara and her husband Gene. The couple had met at a football practice session, struck up a conversation, and soon found that they had many things in common---mainly, the fact that they both had five children that were almost exactly the same ages. Both couples, Big Ronnie and Louise DeFeo, as well as Barbara and Gene, were both Italian Catholics raising upper-middle-class families. Now, even as Barbara stood here, in her own kitchen, listening to the news that the DeFeos were all dead, it suddenly occurred to her that she and Louise DeFeo were scheduled to take a bus into New York City later that week for a "girls day out" of shopping and fun. Such excursions were not uncommon, and in fact, Big Ronnie DeFeo encouraged them. Big Ronnie enjoyed Gene's company, so it pleased him that their wives got along so famously and had became such good friends. In the two football seasons that had passed since they met, Barb and Gene were often invited to Ronald and Louise's house for dinners or other events, particularly pool parties during the summer. The DeFeos were one of the few families in Amityville that had an in ground pool in the backyard of their dark-shingled three story Dutch Colonial---something that might have seemed strange, if not opulent, to neighbors and friends considering that the DeFeo home backed up to the Amityville canal, which led directly out to the Great South Bay. If the kids wanted a dip in the summer, surely they could have jumped in the canal. In September, less than two months earlier, Barbara had shot a series of photographs of the DeFeos standing next to their pool. The photos of Marc, Dawn, Louise, and Dawn's best friend, Grace Fagan seemed to capture smiles and happiness. Now, to think, save Grace Fagan, everyone captured within those pictures were dead.

"They were murdered," came the reply from the other end of the phone in response to Barbara's question.

Without thinking, and with a gasp, Barbara responded with the first word that came to mind: "Butchie."

Looking back, Barbara says, "I'm not sure why I said that. I am not sure if they said 'everyone's dead except for Butch or what, but that was the first thing I said, Butchie.'"


• • •

Several miles down the road, in Amityville, local radio personality and news anchor Joel Martin heard the same speculation about the DeFeo's eldest son. Martin had been one of the first reporters to respond to the scene of the murders, having been dispatched by the United Press International newswire.

"I approached a few of the neighbors and I asked them what happened. And one kid says 'Ronnie shot his family,' just like that, one kid says. And I said 'excuse me, but who is Ronnie?' and the kid says 'Ronnie, the DeFeo's eldest son...'"

It seemed that right from the beginning, everyone had a pretty clear idea of who the perpetrator of Long Island's worst mass murder might have been. Everyone was eyeing the DeFeo family's eldest son and brother, Butch, as the most likely suspect. The image of Butch held by those in Amityville differed significantly from the image of folks like Lucy Burkin or Vito D'Aurio, and this image was far from flattering. Butch had a terrible temper and he was a reported drug user----heroine. Butch's infamous temper and wild antics grew worse with each alcoholic drink or shot of heroine he consumed. He started bar fights, threatened enemies with guns, and was generally regarded as a bad seed.

Butch was also a reported gun enthusiast, bragging to friends that he could take any of his guns apart and put them back together again "blindfolded." He also had a criminal track record. A year or so before, Butch had been arrested in connection with some stolen outboard boat motors. In addition, he claimed that he had burglarized the neighbor's house, and he also claimed that he had burned the family's boat at the instigation of his father, Big Ronnie DeFeo, who apparently wished to collect on the insurance. Author Ric Osuna discovered, in writing his book "The Night The DeFeos Died" that Big Ronnie DeFeo actually received a check for a little more than $2,200 for the destroyed watercraft a day after his murder---a check he never cashed.

In the weeks before the DeFeo murders, Butch had been robbed at gunpoint while on the way to the bank with the deposit for his grandfather's dealership in Brooklyn. Accordingly, the armed individual abscondered with close to $20,000 in checks and cash. While Butch was uninjured in the heist, it was apparently his father who doubted the veracity of Butch's story, believing that his son was the mastermind behind the robbery and had pocketed the cash. According to those who knew the DeFeos, the matter was the subject of repeated fights in the weeks leading up to the murders. It even, reportedly, was the subject of a fistfight that would leave Butch DeFeo beaten and bruised in the days before the murders. There's even a report that says that DeFeo Sr. was planning a formal confrontation with his son on the Tuesday after work.

Even Louise DeFeo had conceded that her son was a terror. "She said Butchie is bad," Barbara recalled, "and I said he's a teenager and they all act up and have their bad moments, and she [Louise] said 'no, he is BAD.'"

• • •

Above, pictured in approximately 2003, the strip mall at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Merrick Road. Blue-T Pizza, which was in operation at the time of the DeFeo murders is next door to Cloud Nine, the bar the ultimately replaced Henry's where the initial drama of the November 13, 1974 played out when Ronald Butch DeFeo ran into the bar and proclaimed that his family had been shot. Cloud Nine is no longer in business, but Producer Ryan Katzenbach did get a chance to visit the location while it was still in operation. Since the time this photograph was taken, the location has become a 99¢ store. Accordingly, that store is no longer in business as of 2009.

That evening, November 13, 1974, Butch had visited with his friend Robert Kelske at Henry's Bar. Henry's was a neighborhood hangout dubbed "the working man's bar" positioned between Blue-T Pizza and Sportackular in a small strip-mall shopping center at the busy corner of Merrick Road and Ocean Avenue. Butch, in plainspoken, conspicuous fashion, told Kelske and anyone with earshot that he had been calling home all day to speak to his family but that there had been no answer at their home. His father had not reported for work that morning at the dealership, which was something that seemed to alarm young DeFeo at first. Later in the morning, dealership employee Lucy Burkin reminded Butch that his father wasn't coming to work because he and Louise were taking Marc DeFeo to a doctor's appointment around 3 p.m. . DeFeo Sr., had advised the dealership that if anyone needed to reach him, they would most likely be able to do so at around 4 p.m. on that Tuesday afternoon once he had returned home. Marc DeFeo, 11, had suffered an injury to his ankle during a football game and become dependent on a wheel chair and crutches for mobility; this doctor's appointment was a check-up to make sure the injury was healing properly. DeFeo reportedly left work early that afternoon and returned to Amityville, advised by Lucy Burkin that his father's absence was planned. However, Butch reportedly grew nervous later that evening when he drove by the house and saw all of the vehicles in the driveway-----a green Buick station wagon belonging to his mother, and his father's canary yellow Buick LeSabre. However, he was able to raise no one at the door. DeFeo, in front of fellow bar patrons, also disclosed that he did not have his keys for the front door of his parent's house and would most likely have to break in to gain access if he was still unable to get anyone to answer the door.

Above, Amityville star-athlete Robert Kelske. Kelske had been friends with Ronald DeFeo Jr. for approximately six years at the time of the DeFeo murders. In this picture, Kelske is pictured while on the Amityville High School football team. Known to his friends as "The Brick" Kelske was reportedly, at one time, scouted to play professional sports.
Above, Bobby Kelske [David Moretti] turns from his beer at Henry's Bar as Butch DeFeo cries out that his family has been shot. Kelske and other bar patrons would accompany DeFeo to his home at 112 Ocean Avenue where they would confirm the macabre scene. [KATCO MEDIA, Copyright 2010]

Butch DeFeo left Henry's and drove to his parent's home just down a mature-tree lined Ocean Avenue. Driving down this street, which runs parallel with the canal, it would be virtually impossible to conceive that anything could ever be wrong in such an All-American neighborhood. The yards and houses were equally pristine; equally manicured and equally boasted a well-to-do South Shore way of life. It was something of a Norman Rockwell painting; a portrait of what life was

like for those who had done well for themselves in pursuit of the American dream. Now, beginning to unfurl, was the American nightmare of mass murder.

The beautiful, upscale Ocean Avenue boasted larger, older homes, many Dutch Colonial like the DeFeo residence, that backed up to the Amityville Canal, which was an outlet into the Great South Bay. Pictured here, approximately 2009, is the DeFeo house, right.

• 112 OCEAN AVENUE

The DeFeo's house, which Butch's grandfather Mike Brigante had purchased for the family in 1965 for the tidy sum of $65,000, stood out like a sore thumb. No less immaculate and cared for than any other home on the street, the DeFeo house was nonetheless unique. Virtually every house on the street was painted white or stained in some organic color that seemed somewhat native to the seafaring landscape or rich historical heritage of a community that dated back into the early 1600's-----except for the DeFeo's 112. The house was stained a dark Payne's grey on the western and southern two sides, and was painted white on its northern and eastern-facing facades. The boathouse and garage, positioned at the rear of the property, was painted black on all sides. The shape of the DeFeo's property, like the very house positioned on it, was unique. No other lot down Ocean Avenue had the narrow 50 foot width of the DeFeo property, which ran around 235 feet deep. The lot was so skinny and deep that the 29-foot-wide-house had been built "sideways" when compared to any other house in the immediate vicinity. The driveway ran down the southern edge of the property parallel with what should have been the "front" of the house when compared to other such homes on the street. The end of the house, with the two now-infamous quarter moon windows, looked out over Ocean Avenue and the intersecting Ireland Place. Hanging in the front yard of the DeFeo property, directly next to the drive hung Ronald DeFeo Sr.'s "High Hopes" sign; a sign he had reportedly hung in front of the house upon moving in. The sign encapsulated the DeFeo family's grand hopes for the future, having just moved from a small, cramped apartment on Brooklyn's Foster Avenue. Little did Ronnie DeFeo Sr. realize that his home would be known as "high hopes" to the community well beyond his years at that address. As if all of these features, however, were not enough to distinguish the property from every other home on the street, it had the added distinction of being laden with religious landscaping. Among other religious statuary present around the home, the most noted was the 48" St. Joseph statue on the front lawn, positioned atop a wide circular stone altar. St. Joseph was holding the Baby Jesus as the statues of three young children knelt before him in prayer. Suffolk County Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Howard Adelman, who would arrive at the residence within the next two hours, noted the religious icons in the front yard, as well as the religious icons and paintings inside the house. "It almost looked quite churchlike," Adelman said.

The south facing "front" of the DeFeo's home at 112 Ocean Avenue. [Photo courtesy Geraldine Gates]

Less than ten minutes after Butch DeFeo had left Henry's, he returned. He screeched into the parking lot in his Buick Electra. Bringing the large sedan to a stop, he jumped out of he car, and as fast as his two legs could carry his 165-pound frame, he raced toward the front glass doors of Henry's.

The bar was nothing exceptional, an all-too typical large rectangular strip-mall space lacking any real charm, ambience or atmosphere; it was the type of place where the locals hung out to get drunk or shoot pool, its bland exterior fluorescent backlit "Henry's" sign as sedate and rectangular as the interior bar space. It could have just as easily been a retail furniture or clothing store given the large plate glass windows that looked out onto Merrick Road, an east-west corridor of busy traffic.

Tables were positioned to the right, the bar to the left of the front doors and pool tables and pinball games at the rear. The bar is where Butch turned his attention to Bobby Kelske, still seated at it. He bellowed, "You have to help me. I think my mother and father are shot." Kelske put down his beer, and rushed to the side of his friend who was now slumping to the red tile floor. "Are you sure Butch? Are you sure they're not sleeping?"

By now, Henry's was quieting with but the jukebox unwavering to the shock. Surrealistically, locals watched what was unfolding. They looked at Butch and Bobby, then to each other, faces blank, as a grim reality settled over the bar thicker than the cigarette smoke that hung in the air: Butch DeFeo was not joking around. This was serious. Quite serious.

It took but moments for Butch DeFeo's friends to rally to his side. Bobby comforted his buddy, while trying to learn the details, as patrons and pals Al Saxon, Joey Yeswoit, bar owner William "Scully" Scordamaglia, and John Altieri gathered around. Pleading for help, DeFeo's act convinced them that they needed to return to the DeFeo house to see if any help could be provided to Butch DeFeo's parents.

Butch DeFeo and his friend of approximately 6 years, Bobby Kelske, ran out the front doors and piled into Butch's Buick as whiskey and beer drinkers, stunned, watched on in quiet bewilderment. Bobby took the driver's seat, as Scordamaglia, Altieri, Yeswoit, and Al Saxon pushed their way into the car.

The Buick returned down Ocean Avenue at a high rate of speed. Within a few moments, they arrived at the DeFeo house, the Buick turning in the drive behind Butch DeFeo's parent's cars----the green Buick station wagon of his mothers and his father's yellow Buick LeSabre. Filing out of the Electra, Butch was losing composure again as Bobby pleaded with him to return to the interior of the house. He flagrantly refused, proclaiming, in hysterics: "I am not going back into that house."

Giving up, Bobby Kelske and the other men plodded down the drive to the brick steps leading to the front door. Bobby, as a friend of Butch's, was all too familiar with the layout of the property as well as that of the DeFeo house. A stonemason, Kelske worked for the Brigante dealership when he found himself out of work as such in the sinking construction industry of Long Island's bad economy. He spent a great deal of time, by various accounts, at the DeFeo house as Butch's friend. Ronald DeFeo Sr. had even enlisted Kelske to construct the stonework on which he placed his religious statuary.

When Butch had fled but fifteen minutes earlier upon discovering his parents, he had exited through the front door leaving it unlocked. Now, as the five men entered the house, they found it quiet. Deathly quiet. A strange smell permeated the air and assaulted the noses of each man; a smell not native to a home like that of the DeFeos. It was the smell of death.

INSIDE THE DEFEO HOME

 

 

The True Story of the Amityville Murders

 

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