This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.
In the middle of the night of Nov. 13, 1974, a 23-year-old, disaffected, recovering teenager, Ronald (Butch) DeFeo Jr., who by using drugs, stealing outboard motors and posturing pathetically in a local saloon already had demonstrated that he was hell-bent on becoming a loser, sneaked around the rooms of his parents' handsome Dutch Colonial house at 112 Ocean Ave. in Amityville, brandishing a .35-cal. rifle, with which he shot to death every member of his immediate family: father, mother, two brothers and two sisters. His siblings were 18, 13, 12 and 7.
Later that evening, DeFeo presented himself to persons familiar with him two blocks north, at a bar then called Henry's, on the corner of Merrick Road and Ocean Avenue, where he announced with melodramatic anguish that he had happened upon a horrible murder scene in his house. A friend and several patrons visited the house and could not believe what they saw. They summoned the Amityville police, who summoned the homicide squad of the Suffolk County Police Department.
Because of the DeFeo family's size and the range of ages of the children - this in a 2 1/2-square-mile, notoriously insular village - nearly everybody in Amityville felt connected in one or another way to the DeFeo family, through kids, teachers, shoe store proprietors, auto mechanics or St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church.
My late father, Lt. Ed Lowe, was second in command of the village police department at the time, and thus was charged with maintaining the crime scene. A classmate of mine from high school was the DeFeo family's favorite priest and confessor. And because I was something of a saloonist myself, I knew both the partners and the patrons of Henry's, whom I quietly introduced to the Newsday police reporter covering the story.
Assigned to Newsday's Nassau County office, and with the crime having occurred one-eighth of a mile into Suffolk, I was spared from officially having to work on the story as a reporter. Unprofessional as it may seem, I felt lucky to avoid the certain animosity of my neighbors.
Because of collectively felt hurt and humiliation, the media invariably becomes the enemy of an otherwise quiet and tight-knit place at the time of so spectacular a tragedy, though the neighbors understandably are even more curious than the rest of the world about what actually happened.
But no one could have predicted how the antipathy would escalate and how the story would become twisted, nor how protracted and ultimately global the media assault would be.
My luck finally ran out with this assignment, to review what would have been merely one of the most horrific true-crime stories in the history of Long Island, but which instead became buried under the hoopla and folderol of "The Amityville Horror - A True Story," among the nation's most commercially successful scams.
Despite self-serving protestations that DeFeo had heard mystical voices and only followed their phantasmagorical orders to kill, the State of New York convicted him in 1975 and he was sentenced to serve six consecutive 25-year prison terms, or 150 years, for the murders.
Under normally abnormal circumstances, that would have been the gruesome end of it. But in December, 1975, George and Kathy Lutz - he a land surveyor whose business had just declared bankruptcy - suddenly bought the DeFeo house for roughly the market value, $80,000, a figure mysteriously above their means. They lived in the house for 28 days, during which time they never once called the Amityville Police Department, and after which they held a press conference, of all things, at which they claimed to be abandoning the place in terror of its demons.
Previously, they had registered no complaints about so much as a creaky floorboard (let alone a free-floating, window-peeping piggy's head, a violently unhinged front door, swarms of carnivorous flies or an ominously whispering, disembodied voice).
For months, neighbors and residents of Amityville periodically witnessed visitations alternately as bizarre as they were comedic, as ghost-hunters from all over the country - some wearing tweed suits and carrying notepads, others wearing flowing black robes and wielding medieval scepters - paraded about the house and yard, occasionally chanting incantations and even prying off shingles, presumably for future psychic analysis.
And we in Amityville thought that was annoying.
The Lutzes moved to California. People wondered how they could afford to do that.
"The Amityville Horror - A True Story" was published in 1977, by Prentice-Hall. A pedestrian piece of imitative fiction penned by the late soap-opera writer Jay Anson, it included a series of episodic scenes reminiscent of recently successful horror films, notably "The Exorcist," with its projectile vomiting, ominous voices, visiting swarms of flies and scenes of doors being violently ripped off their hinges, presumably in full view of anybody living across the street.
Aside from the Lutzes, only one true name was included in the book, that of Amityville Police Sgt. Pat Cammarato, who threatened to sue after he saw it, so that future editions of the book referred to his fictional counterpart as Pat Zammarato.
Still, with its jacket emblazened with the words, "A True Story" - in blood red, of course - the book invaded the nonfiction sections of stores and libraries and sold out everywhere across the country. New hordes of people descended on Amityville: unofficial ghost-hunters, curiosity hounds, believing and disbelieving readers, and obnoxious drunks.
Meanwhile, the house had traded again, for $55,000 - the reduction in price due to the notoriety - but after a year or two, and especially after the release of the movie starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, the new owners moved out. Amityville saw the entire country, and later emissaries from the world, through a prism of mass hysteria and unfathomable stupidity.
Friends of mine bought the house but sold out, too, because it seemed the harassment would never end. As recently as last Halloween, a local radio station offered prizes to any listener with the gall to knock on the door of the house while simultaneously talking to the radio DJ on a cell phone. When a protective next-door neighbor intervened, he involuntarily wound up on-air as "the angry neighbor," a character in a cruelly intrusive would-be comedy bit.
Always, hopelessly obscured in all the hype and media madness was this: Dawn DeFeo would be about 42, had she lived; her sister, Allison, 37; brothers Mark, 36, and John, 31. By now they might all have provided their parents, Ronald and Louise, with grandchildren. They might own other houses in Amityville. Instead, Ronald DeFeo murdered them, and their memory has been all but lost to our collective and evidently boundless fascination with events that never happened.