Ronald DeFeo Jr., who massacred his entire family in 1974 in their Amityville home while they slept, a case that gained national attention and spawned multiple books and movies, died Friday while imprisoned, according to state prison records.
DeFeo, 69, was serving a 25-years-to-life sentence at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate Fallsburg for each of the six slayings, records show.
A State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokeswoman said DeFeo was transferred to Albany Medical Center and was pronounced dead at 6:35 p.m. Friday. The cause of death will be determined by the Albany County Medical Examiner’s Office, the spokeswoman said.
The nature of the killings — DeFeo's parents and four siblings were found dead in their beds, each with a single bullet in their back — and tales of angry spirits haunting the Dutch Colonial-style Ocean Avenue home in the aftermath, stunned Long Island and much of the country.
"If you grew up on Long Island," said Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a retired NYPD sergeant raised in Plainedge, "you knew about the home on Ocean Avenue."
He said the killings' lore was elevated with the 1977 novel "The Amityville Horror," by Jay Anson, and the 1979 cult horror film of the same name starring James Brolin. The movie was based on claims by the Lutz family, who bought the house following the DeFeo murders, and said they had been forced to flee after being terrorized by paranormal activities. Other books and films based on the murders would follow.
"As kids, we rode our bikes just to see the house like every other kid who grew up in the area," Giacalone said. "The movie made it famous. You’d go down there as kids, not really understanding the gravity of it, but you heard about all the murders in the house."
DeFeo, 23 at the time, shot each of his family members with a .35-caliber Marlin Lever action rifle, police said.
The victims were DeFeo’s father, Ronald DeFeo Sr., 43, his mother Louise DeFeo, 42, and siblings Dawn, 18, Allison, 13, Mark, 11 and John, 9, according to newspaper articles at the time.
During his 1975 trial, DeFeo admitted the killings.
He was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Stark called the murders the "most heinous and abhorrent crimes."
DeFeo’s lawyer had argued his client was insane when he killed his family. DeFeo said he did it in self-defense after hearing voices that told him his family was plotting against him. A prosecution expert testified that while DeFeo was an admitted LSD and heroin user, he was sane at the time of the murders.
Former Newsday reporter and editor Bob Keeler, 77, of Stony Brook, interviewed DeFeo at the Attica Correctional Facility in 1986. During the interview, DeFeo changed his story and blamed his sister and mother for the deaths.
He told Keeler, "People look in my eyes, that I’m possessed or something. I’m sick of it."
DeFeo said in the interview that his sister Dawn shot their father, and his distraught mother shot Dawn and the other children.
"I believe he wanted to tell another side of the story," Keeler said. "I really wasn’t quite believing it."
Keeler recalled the widespread attention the case drew.
"It was a vicious crime, and it happened on quiet Long island," Keeler said. "People didn’t think of Long Island as a place where mass murder happens. It was maybe a combination of the suburban setting and the zeitgeist of that era, which was a little bit on the kooky side."
Giacalone, who once worked cold cases in the Bronx, said DeFeo’s murders will always live in infamy in New York.
"From a former investigator’s standpoint, I couldn’t imagine the scene that the cops had to witness," he said. "I never saw a case that would amount to what DeFeo did in his own home."