Despite all the alleged ghosts that roam the halls of 112 Ocean Avenue for a lot of people the real horror in Amityville occurred a year before the Lutzs moved in when the DeFeo family was executed in their sleep on November 13, 1974 by the eldest son Ronald. The haunting the Lutzs described on the talk show circuit made for interesting television but the story of the crime that set all of these events in motion is far more fascinating. If Ronnie hadn’t done what he did we wouldn’t even be talking about the town of Amityville at all, aside from the occasional mention in travel brochures.
There are several books out there about this crime, but only two were written in the immediate aftermath; Murder in Amityville by Hans Holzer and High Hopes: The Amityville Murders by Gerard Sullivan and Harvey Aronson. Both books talk about the DeFeo case so it makes sense to discuss them together.
Holzer (1920-2009) was a parapsychologist and worked closely with DeFeo’s defense attorney William Weber on Murder in Amityville. Released in 1979, just two years after Anson’s best seller, Holzer’s book focuses on the supernatural aspects of the case, riding the considerable wave caused by the movie version of Anson’s book released that same year. A large section of the book is dedicated to trial transcripts, all of which paint DeFeo as a disturbed young man who could go from polite to psychotic with little or no provocation, which according to Holzer is an obvious sign of demonic possession.
After DeFeo’s conviction on six counts of first degree murder the narrative shifts to Holzer’s own investigation of the alleged haunting of the abandoned Lutz home. This investigation was conducted a year after the Lutz family fled, in early 1977, when the story was just beginning to get national attention. Joining him in the empty house was trance medium Ethel Myers, who Holzer claimed had no prior knowledge of the DeFeo case or the Lutz’s claims.
There were a few glaring factual errors in the book, like when Holzer mentions that the house currently standing at 112 (now 108) Ocean Avenue has been there for 108 years. This fact was corrected later on in the narrative by Laura Didio, a Channel 5 reporter who had been covering the case since the Lutzs first went public in late 1976.
What I found most interesting about this version of the tale was Ronnie’s initial testimony about what happened the night of the murders. The story of the “figure with black hands” giving him the gun is well known but I had forgotten that he said on the stand that it was his sister Dawn, who he has repeatedly implicated as his accomplice in this crime.
Murder in Amityville served as the basis for the second film in the series, Amityville: The Possession. The film is easily the best of the “sequels” but if you are looking for a factual account of the DeFeo murders this isn’t the movie to watch. That’s not to say that the crime depicted in the film is any less chilling. It is actually very scary, but it isn’t what happened on 11/13/74.
High Hopes on the other hand was written by the prosecuting attorney Gerard Sullivan and journalist Harry Aronson and dives deep into the case against Ronald DeFeo Jr. After reading about how the Suffolk County police and DAs office pieced together the evidence against DeFeo makes it very hard to believe any other version of the story. DeFeo comes across as an angry, drug addicted man with no remorse for the crime he committed, but is very very sorry he got caught. This becomes obvious in the arrogance he displays while on the stand and the numerous threats he made against just about everyone who wasn’t on his side. Ronnie DeFeo is a hard man to like.
If you are a fan of true crime then I recommend both of these books. If I had to recommend one it would be High Hopes, hands down. The narrative in Sullivan and Aronson’s book is more cohesive and gripping than Holzer’s rambling. Reading them back to back really spotlights how the supernatural side of this story really doesn’t hold up against the facts. Whether you believe in the haunting or not the information here is definitely worth your time.