Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Haunted Crime Scenes

Amityville Controversy

Amityville House
Amityville House

In Amityville, New York, a family massacre was carried out one night that would make the place and the crime famous well beyond that neighborhood. Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, Jr., 23, grew up in an affluent home. On November 13, 1974 at approximately 3:00 A.M., he took a .35-caliber lever-action Marlin rifle and murdered his father, mother, two sisters, and two brothers in their beds. The youngest was nine. Butch then removed his clothing, bathed, and redressed. He cleaned up the crime scene, picking up cartridges and stuffing them with his bloody clothing into a pillowcase. This "package" he stuffed into a sewer on his way to work and tossed the rifle into a canal.

By evening, he called the police to report that his family had been murdered, and hinted at the Mafia's involvement. Then his story changed, and it was not long before he became the primary suspect. And still his story shifted and changed.

To a psychiatrist, he admitted to (or malingered) blackouts in which he did things that he did not recall. Eventually he said he had behaved in self-defense during a violent family argument, and then that it was his sister who had done it with his gun. Finally, he claimed that the police had coerced a false confession out of him. Ultimately he said that he had killed because he was God, and he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Some say he was hoping to beat the rap and end up with the family money.

Ronald "Butch" DeFeo,

Dr. Daniel Schwartz, a psychiatrist, affirmed the delusions and Butch's belief that his family had it in for him. He had acted out against them while in a psychotic state, Schwartz indicated, and could not be held responsible for his actions. Schwartz relied on Butch's self-report that he had not heard the gun firing as evidence of psychotic dissociation, and denied that he could be malingering. Butch had carried out the executions without any feeling, the argument went, so he had to be insane. His attempt to hide the evidence was just irrational.

There was also a psychiatrist for the prosecution: Dr. Harold Zolan. He diagnosed Butch as having antisocial personality disorder, which was not the same as being psychotic. He knew right from wrong and appreciated the consequences of his act; hence he had hidden the evidence that linked him to the crimes. His psychiatric record from adolescence indicated that he was passive-aggressive and socially impotent.

After the murders, Butch drew up a long list of fifty other people he wished to kill. He repeatedly indicated that he had no feelings about killing his family, aside from being glad or relieved they were gone. While some professionals who had studied the case indicate that family violence and the modeling of deception and theft may ultimately have been responsible for Butch's slaughter, in truth, no one really knows.

Book cover: The Amityville Horror
Book cover: The Amityville

The house was sold and it ended up being the setting for another fraud, The Amityville Horror, a book and movie based on the idea that the house had been built on an Indian burial ground (or a place where the Shinnecocks kept their insane) and the restless spirits had caused anyone who lived there to become insanely violent. George and Kathy Lutz had moved into the house and were soon under attack. George supposedly took on Butch's appearance and Kathy had persistent dreams about the family murders. A priest who came to bless the house supposedly grew quite ill.

Their attorney later claimed they'd all devised the scheme together, but he sued them for money and they sued him for what he'd said, and no one quite knew what to make of the whole affair. Some ghost hunters affirmed that the place was indeed haunted, but skeptics pointed to the numerous errors in the story and the fact that the family who moved in after the Lutzes experienced no negative effects.

Nevertheless, there appear to have been cases where a house just needed some recovery time after a "stigmatized event," as happened in Chicago.

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