A year later, after a seven-week trial, he was found guilty of shooting the other members of his family at close range with a rifle and was given six consecutive terms of 25 years to life for second-degree murder.
“I couldn’t care less what happens to me or the rest of my life,” he said.
Over the years, Mr. DeFeo recanted parts of his story and tried to pin the blame on others, but his efforts to be paroled were denied, and he would never regain his freedom.
He was 69 when he died March 12 at a hospital in Albany, N.Y. He was still an inmate of a maximum-security prison in Sullivan County, N.Y. The death was confirmed by the New York Department of Corrections and Community Services, and an autopsy is pending to determine the cause of death.
The gruesome killings of the DeFeo family would be only the first step in a never-ending stream of books and movies about what lurked in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. In December 1975, the house was bought by George and Kathleen Lutz, a young couple with three children. They fled the house 28 days later, leaving all their possessions behind.
The Lutzes described a series of bizarre phenomena at the house, detailed by writer Jay Anson in his book “The Amityville Horror: A True Story.” Before they moved in, a priest blessing the house for its new occupants supposedly heard someone behind him shout, “Get out!” When he turned around, no one was there.
The Lutzes said they witnessed all sorts of unexplained phenomena during their four weeks in the house: a “greenish black slime” seeping from the walls and flowing down the staircase; heavy doors suddenly coming off their hinges; windows spontaneously shattering; the image of a demon appearing in the fireplace; cash disappeared from safe hiding places; swarms of predatory flies gathering inside the house.
A strange giant pig with glowing red eyes seemed to be peering through the windows — and sometimes appeared to be inside the house, looking through top-floor windows that resembled the eyes of a jack-o’-lantern. Huge cloven footprints were found in the snow.
Kathleen Lutz would sometimes levitate above the bed or would temporarily look like a 90-year-old woman. A marching band could sometimes be heard playing inside the house when the family was sleeping. When George Lutz went to investigate, the living room furniture had been moved and the carpets rolled up. He awoke in a panic almost every night at 3:15 a.m., believing that was the time that Ronald DeFeo Jr. had walked through the house, shooting his family to death.
Anson, a writer for documentary films, published his account of the cursed house in 1977, sharing some of the profits with the Lutzes. Within three years, more than 7 million copies of “The Amityville Horror” had been sold. It was made into a 1979 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger. Critic Roger Ebert described the movie as “dreary and terminally depressing,” but it became the year’s second-largest box-office hit, after best-picture Oscar winner “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
The house on Ocean Avenue became a tourist destination, much to the dismay of the people of Amityville. Several people involved with the “Amityville Horror” franchise — the Lutzes, Anson, lawyers, the publisher and police officers — sued one another.
Elements in Anson’s book appeared to be drawn from popular horror movies of the 1970s, such as “The Exorcist” and “The Omen,” prompting skeptical reporters to investigate the story. Many concluded that Anson’s book was pure fiction, but psychics and self-proclaimed demonologists declared that the house was haunted.
“I wrote down what they told me happened,” Anson told Writer’s Digest in 1979, one year before he died at 58. “And I believe that they believe what they told me. Do I believe my own book? I neither believe it nor disbelieve it.”
No priest could be found who had blessed the house or suffered strange afflictions afterward. The name of a police officer who supposedly investigated the cloven footprints in the snow was made up. Neighbors did not recall seeing shattered windows or doors coming unmoored.
“What would you do if your doors were ripped off and your windows broke and $1,500 mysteriously disappeared?” a police officer told The Washington Post in 1979. “You’d call the police, right? Well, the Lutzes never contacted the police until after they moved out.”
The couple later divorced; Kathleen Lutz died in 2004, George Lutz in 2006. A later owner of the house modified the spooky eye-shaped windows, and another demanded that the town change the house number; 112 Ocean Drive no longer exists.
“There’ve been four owners since the murders,” real estate agent Jerry O’Neill told The Post in 2016, “and none of them ran out of the house screaming, and there were no strange experiences.”
Ronald Joseph DeFeo Jr. was born Sept. 26, 1951, in New York City. His grandfather owned a prosperous Buick dealership in Brooklyn, where his father was the service manager.
Ronald Jr., who was nicknamed Butch, was the eldest of five children and worked with his father. He was known to have been a heroin user, had been convicted of stealing an outboard motor and was suspected of other thefts.
His 280-pound father was volatile and overbearing, and there was frequent strife at home.
“The man knocked teeth out of my mouth,” Ronald DeFeo Jr. said in a 2006 A&E documentary. “How much abuse did you think I was going to take?”
Nevertheless, the neighborhood was shocked when the younger DeFeo was charged with methodically killing his parents, his two sisters and two brothers as they slept. He told police that he drugged them with barbiturates to keep them from waking up from the gunshots. Police found a rifle in a nearby stream.
“People look in my eyes, that I’m possessed or something. I’m sick of it,” Mr. DeFeo told Newsday in 1986. At different times, he sought to blame his sister and his mother — both of whom were found dead in their beds — for the killings. Police said any such scenario was impossible.
Mr. DeFeo sometimes said he had been married once in 1974 and another time in 2004, but those accounts cannot be verified.
“I guess the Amityville Horror really is supposed to be me,” Mr. DeFeo said in a 1994 prison interview, “because I’m the one that got convicted of killing my family. I’m the one they say who did it, I’m the one that’s supposed to be possessed by the devil.”