A 'horror' revisited
Ronald DeFeo Jr. is no longer the young man he was in 1974, when he was arrested for murdering his parents and four siblings in Amityville.
But as he sits in a prison in upstate New York and revisits the now infamous "Amityville Horror" slayings, a thin, balding and at times agitated DeFeo tells the same story he has told for years.
"How can one person go through the house and kill six people the way they think they were killed?" asks DeFeo in "First Person Killers: Ronald DeFeo, Jr.," a documentary set to air on A&E tonight at 9.
Throughout the three decades DeFeo has spent in prison, intrigue in the murders and the house where they were committed has never abated, propelled largely by those hoping to profit.
One family who moved into the DeFeo home after the crime claimed the house was haunted. Books were written. Movies were made. And remade.
Although DeFeo has claimed in court that he did not act alone, he has never told his full story on camera, said filmmaker Sarah Teale, 44, of Manhattan.
"I just wanted to hear him out," Teale said.
Much of the film takes place in Green Haven Correctional Facility, where DeFeo, now 55, is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence. (He has been denied parole several times.) In a visiting room, DeFeo re-creates the haunting details of the murders to Dr. Steven Hoge, a psychiatrist from Bellevue Hospital Center.
"When I saw his body getting ready to make a move, I just pulled the trigger," DeFeo says about killing his father.
The film features interviews with retired detectives, a medical examiner, DeFeo's judge, a juror. There are photos of the victims, the murder weapon and other evidence, along with footage of the family's funeral.
But DeFeo is clearly the star.
He details the abuse his father inflicted on him, how it fueled his heroin habit and made him feel like a "dog on a long leash."
"The man knocked teeth out of my mouth," DeFeo tells Hoge. "How much abuse did you think I was going to take?"
DeFeo's friend, Barry Springer of Blue Point, who is also in the film, recalls DeFeo's house as tumultuous. "It was a crazy home; somebody was always screaming at somebody," he says in the documentary.
Reached by telephone Saturday, Springer's wife, Traci, said her husband would not comment about the film.
"He doesn't do anything without Ronnie's approval," she said.
DeFeo's wife, Tracey Lynn DeFeo of South Carolina, did not return a phone call or reply to e-mail requesting comment.
In November 1974, after his father broke a pool stick over his head, DeFeo said he decided to kill him. But on the night of the murders, DeFeo said he and his sister, Dawn, then 18, had only intended to scare Ronald DeFeo Sr. The younger DeFeo, then 23, grabbed a shotgun and yelled, "Hey fat man, fat man, get up!" he tells Hoge. But when his father awoke, DeFeo got scared and shot him. His mother, Louise, woke up and reached for a gun, so he shot her, too, he said.
After that, DeFeo said he left. When he was gone, he said Dawn shot their siblings Alison, 13, Mark, 12, and John, 9, in their sleep. When DeFeo returned, he and Dawn fought and DeFeo said he accidently shot her.
"When I realized what I did, I was sick," he recalls for Hoge.
During his trial, DeFeo admitted to killing all six relatives, but now says it was an effort to appear insane. In 1992, when DeFeo sought a new trial, he claimed Dawn was responsible for three of the deaths and said he had a witness to prove it, his former attorney Gerald Lotto of Bohemia said. The judge said the witness didn't exist and rejected the appeal, Lotto said.
"He said so many things that after a while you began to wonder what was real and what was not real," Amelia Franza, a juror in the trial, says in the film.
By the end of the film, even Hoge questions DeFeo's honesty. He tells DeFeo he believes he suffers from anti-social personality disorder, which DeFeo dismisses. After leaving the prison, Hoge is even more forthcoming.
"I didn't find anything credible about the Dawn story," he says. Instead, Hoge said, what was most believable was DeFeo's emotional honesty, how he became visibly uncomfortable when he talked about his three youngest siblings.