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The Disturbing New York Family Massacre That Inspired A Horror Movie Hit
In 1999, Ronald DeFeo Jr. said, “I loved my family very much.” But 25 years earlier, he had killed all of them in an infamous slaying.
In 1974, as his parents and four siblings slept in their three-story home in Long Island, New York, a 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. executed them.
It was the stuff of unthinkable nightmares. In the aftermath it has been churned into books and a hit movie series, "The Amityville Horror."
Nearly a half-century later, it remains one of the most infamous cases of familicide, preceding that of Chris Watts and more. This disturbing kind of crime is featured in “Family Massacre,” streaming now on Oxygen and Peacock.
Here’s everything you need to know about the real-life “Amityville Horror.”
Who were the victims?
On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Sr., 43, a car salesman; his wife, Louise DeFeo, 43; and four of their five children including Dawn, 18; Allison, 13; Marc, 12; and John, 9, were shot to death with a .35 caliber rifle inside their upscale home in suburban Amityville, New York.
“Homicide detectives said it was the largest number of victims in a single slaying on Long Island in recent memory,” reported Newsday in 1974. Victims were found in their nightclothes and were shot in the back, apparently while they were asleep. There were no signs of a struggle inside the home, where a sign hanging outside the main entrance read, “High Hopes.”
“They seemed like an average good family,” the Rev. James McNamara, an assistant pastor at the family's church at the time, told reporters.
Who was the killer?
The killings were reported by the only surviving member of the family: the oldest son, Ronald J. DeFeo Jr., Newsday reported.
He told police that he arrived shortly after 6 p.m. but found the front door locked. He claimed he then crawled into the house through a window and stumbled across the bloody scene.
He later confessed that he killed his family around 3:30 a.m., acting out the murders for detectives as he described how he shot his family one by one, according to the outlet. The murder weapon was eventually found in Amityville Creek.
What was the motive?
Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s trial began in October 1975. His defense attorney, William Weber, tried to make a case that the defendant, who allegedly heard voices, was innocent by reason of insanity, NBC News reported. He claimed to have heard voices that told him to kill his family.
Meanwhile, a prosecution expert testified that while DeFeo was an admitted LSD and heroin user, he was sane at the time of the murders, according to a Newsday report in 2021.
The jury rejected the insanity theory. On November 21, 1975, just over a year after the slayings, DeFeo Jr. was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to six concurrent 25-year-to-life sentences.
Was there a retrial?
DeFeo Jr. tried but failed to get a retrial in the case in 1992 after claiming that his 18-year-old sister Dawn had murdered the other family members and he had only killed her, according to the Associated Press.
“I loved my family very much,” he said at a 1999 parole hearing, according to AP.
How has this family massacre become part of pop culture?
A year after the murders, George and Kathy Lutz purchased the DeFeos' old home but left in less than a month, claiming it was haunted. Their story inspired author Jay Anson’s 1977 book “The Amityville Horror.”
In the book, the Lutzes fled the house in terror after 28 days of windows slamming, an oozing slime appearing from the walls, and ghoulish visions appearing. Those details, and others, have come under scrutiny, with most believing that the Amityville haunting was all a hoax.
The 1979 horror movie classic of the same name starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder became a big-screen hit. Since then there has been a 3-D movie take on the story and a 2005 remake of the original film starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George.
Where is the killer today?
Following his trial, DeFeo was imprisoned at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Fallsburg, New York. He made multiple appeals and parole board requests throughout his imprisonment, but all were denied.
DeFeo, 69, died on March 12, 2021 at Albany Medical Center, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The cause of death has never been released to the public.
Originally published Mar 30, 2023.