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DeFeo's New Story; In his first newspaper interview since the 1974murders that spawned `The Amityville Horror,' Ronald DeFeo now claims that he did not massacre his family. The House On Ocean Avenue.
Newsday; Long Island, N.Y.; Mar 19, 1986; By Bob Keeler Newsday State Editor. By D.J. Hill;

 

THE LAST face that Ronald DeFeo pre sented to the world was the face of madness. At his 1975 trial, DeFeo admitted killing his parents and all four brothers and sisters in a crime that spawned the book and movie, "The Amityville Horror." His attorney offered an insanity defense, painting DeFeo as an irrational young man driven to insanity by an abusive father and a bizarre family life. The jury rejected the defense and DeFeo was given six 25-to-life sentences.

For more than a decade, DeFeo has served his time in maximum security prisons, saying nothing publicly, while the crimes gave birth to a whole new sub-genre of horror literature. Now, in his first newspaper interview since the 1974 murders, DeFeo is trying to present a new face: He claims to be a husband and father and he says that he did not massacre his family.

In a 2 1/2-hour interview at the Attica Correctional Facility, DeFeo, now 34, gave a new version of what happened in his home on Ocean Avenue in Amityville - a version in which his mother and his sister share the guilt for the deaths.

DeFeo also talked about his "marriage," which he says took place a month before the murders, and about his life in prison. And he expressed disgust for the occult myths that have grown up around the case, tagging him with the prison names "Mr. Amityville" and "Mr. Horror," and prompting anonymous callers to ask his "wife" whether their 11-year-old daughter is the antichrist.

"This ain't funny no more," said DeFeo, who wears a full beard and mustache and has his long, brown hair pulled back in a pony tail. He sat next to Geraldine, the woman he calls his wife, in a smoky visiting room at the prison. "People look in my eyes, that I'm possessed or something. I'm sick of it."

The Ronald DeFeo of the visiting room is vastly different from the swaggering, macho figure of the courtroom who burst into anger at one point and threatened a prosecutor. Working with weights, a prison pastime, has put muscle on his slight frame. He speaks calmly, softly. But if the words are lucid, they aren't persuasive to others involved in the case.

DeFeo now claims that his sister, Dawn, 18, shot his father, Ronald Sr. Then, he says, his distraught mother shot Dawn and her three youngest children, Allison, 13, Mark, 11, and John, 9. He claims that his mother finished by shooting herself. DeFeo admits flying into a rage when he came on the scene - firing one rifle bullet into his already-wounded mother.

DeFeo claims that his wife's brother was with him the night of the murders, but the man has not made himself available for an interview. "It's all preposterous," said Gerard Sullivan, the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted DeFeo. The new story is inconsistent with key physical evidence, Sullivan said, but completely consistent with DeFeo's personality.

"I think he enjoyed all the attention," Sullivan said. "I think it's been several years since he had any of that attention. What the hell else does he have to do in prison?"

AS TO DeFeo's story about being married, not even his own attorney, Wil liam Weber, knew until recently about his wife and child. There is no official record of the wedding or the birth in New Jersey.

The story that DeFeo now tells about the events of Nov. 13, 1974, has nothing to do with the occult legends that grew up around the case. The murders, he says, were a bloody climax to a long series of arguments between his father and his sister Dawn, that were typical of his family. "Two people have been protected for this crime since the day it happened, and I am not one of them," DeFeo said. "My mother and sister did the killings. My mother shot herself. That is a fact. There's another gun involved. That is a fact."

DeFeo said he had gone to prison rather than tell the story, because he was afraid of retaliation if he said that his mother, Louise, had committed the murders. He particularly feared his grandfather, Michael Brigante Sr., and his father's uncle, Peter DeFeo, identified by police as a captain in the Vito Genovese crime family.

His grandfather treated Louise DeFeo like a goddess, DeFeo said. If he had told the world that his mother had killed anyone, DeFeo said, his own wife would have been endangered. "They would have got her {and} her brother. I really believe Pete DeFeo would have stooped low enough to get my daughter." Now, he said, "Pete DeFeo is dead, Mike Brigante is dead. I ain't got nothin' to worry about no more." (Michael Brigante Sr. died in 1985, but Michael Brigante Jr. said in an interview that Peter DeFeo is still alive, and New York City police sources agree.)

This is the new story of the murders told by DeFeo and the woman he calls his wife:

His father, DeFeo and others said, was a violent man who often beat his wife. He gave DeFeo all the money he wanted, and DeFeo supplemented that allowance by running a stolen-outboard-motor ring. Ronald Jr., usually called Butch, got away from his family as often as he could and spent his money buying drinks and impressing people in bars in Amityville, Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey.

"One way or another, Ronnie found a way to escape," said Geraldine. "If the drinks didn't make him numb, he'd put the needle in his arm."

It was on one of his bar visits, just before Thanksgiving, 1973, that DeFeo claims he met Geraldine Rullo, who had grown up in Long Branch, N.J., and already had two daughters from a relationship with another man.

One night, she was in Greenwich Village with a friend and stopped at a place called The Ninth Circle. DeFeo offered to buy her a drink. She resisted. "At first, I didn't really like Ronnie," she said. "I thought, what an arrogant, brash person he was. But he persisted and persisted and persisted."

The drink led to dating. Despite his swaggering way, she said she found something to love. "Ronnie DeFeo is a very sweet, tender, loving, giving young man - he really is," she said. "I saw all the big macho image he did was a facade."

Before long, Geraldine was pregnant. She and DeFeo claim their daughter was born in New Jersey on Aug. 21, 1974. But there is no record of her birth on that day, or any day in 1974, at the state registrar of vital statistics.

Once the child was born, they claim, marriage followed. "My father just about forced me into doing it," DeFeo said. The marriage supposedly took place on Oct. 17, 1974, at the Garfield Grant Hotel in Long Branch, not far from her home in Elberon, N.J. Geraldine produced a photocopy that she says is their marriage certificate, but no such certificate is on file in the records maintained by the City of Long Branch or the State of New Jersey. The city magistrate whose name appears on the photocopy, Thomas J. Baldino Jr., said in a telephone interview that he left the city's service in 1964 and stopped acting as a justice of the peace. "I did not perform any {marriages} after 1964," he said.

By late 1974, DeFeo said he was spending much of his time at Geraldine's home in Elberon and very little in Amityville. "I was never home," he said. "If I wasn't with Gerry, I'd be out running around someplace."

On the evening of Nov. 12, 1974, DeFeo said, he was in Elberon with Geraldine, her children and her brother, Richard Romondoe. "I was drinking all day with her brother," he said. "I was playing around with the heroin, which was my regular."

At about 8 p.m., Louise DeFeo called. She wanted her son home right away. "She was screaming," Geraldine said. "She said, `Dawn is fighting with Daddy.' "

The fight was triggered by Dawn's desire to move to Florida to be with her boyfriend, DeFeo claims. Before the murders, Dawn spoke to a classmate, Beverly Nonnewitz, whose mother cleaned the DeFeo house. She asked Nonnewitz to take her with her to Florida. "She asked me numerous times," Nonnewitz said in a recent interview.

But, DeFeo said , "There was no way my father was going to let her go to Florida."

The father's violence was common knowledge. He was a powerfully built man of about 280 pounds, and he often used that bulk on his wife, DeFeo and others said. Roger Nonnewitz, Beverly's father, said: "It must have been hell for the people living there with this man." William Weber, who represented DeFeo at the trial, agreed. "It was the most crazy family you could imagine," said Weber.

One source of the problem, DeFeo said, was Louise's close relationship with her father, Michael Brigante, and the family's dependence on him. Brigante paid the mortgage on the Amityville house, employed both Ronald Sr. and Jr. at his Buick dealership in Brooklyn, and showered his daughter with gifts. When she asked for a bottle of perfume, her father would send a case. When she asked for a washer-dryer, he bought her two.

Geraldine said that even Butch, despite his animosity toward his father, once said: "How the hell can my father be a man when her father's always there?"

In the last weeks of her life, Louise DeFeo became more and more upset for a variety of reasons, including her husband's violence and what she considered his dishonesty at the car dealership. "They were ready to get a divorce," DeFeo said of his parents.

"She wanted to die," said Linnea Nonnewitz, Louise's housekeeper and confidante. "She wanted to put her head in the oven." Just a short time before she died, Louise DeFeo had a premonition, Nonnewitz said: "She said to me, `Linn, I'm preparing you. Something so tragic is going to happen.' "

DeFeo said: "My mother's out of her mind. She's running around making statements, `You're all better off dead.' "

When she phoned on Nov. 12 and asked that DeFeo come home, he and Romondoe drove to Amityville. "My brother-in-law came home with me to the house, because I was a mess," DeFeo said. He said they found his father and sister embroiled in a long, angry quarrel. "Then she picked up a knife and tried to kill him. I took the knife away from her." He said he gave her his car keys and told her to disappear and cool off.

His plan was to give Dawn some of the $38,000 he had stashed away from his theft ring and send her to Florida. "This was the last straw," he said. "After that knife incident, I seen it all. I didn't like that at all."

Dawn returned before 11 p.m., he said. "Her and my mother had words. My father yelled something smart out of his room."

DeFeo claims that he and Romondoe were in the basement, playing pool and watching television with the sound turned very low. He left the door open to the upper part of the house. He called Geraldine to tell her they'd be home soon, but Romondoe wanted to stay and watch a war movie called "Castle Keep."

`WE HEARD a noise," DeFeo said, "but I can't tell you it was a gunshot . . . We came up and went in the foyer. We stood there maybe two min utes. We didn't hear nothing. So we went back downstairs."

Later, as they were in the hallway, getting ready to leave, he said, they heard a gunshot and rushed upstairs.

"The lamp on my mother's side of the bed was on," DeFeo claimed. "There was a rifle on the floor in the hallway. . . . My mother is laying in the bed, shot. There is a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson right there, her handgun. She had one hand on her chain, saying, `Oh, my God, Butch.' I'm looking at my father, see two holes in his back.

"I picked the rifle up. I hit the lever and an empty cartridge jumped out. I shot my mother. My mother was already shot. I was mad. I just went out of it."

He and Romondoe looked into the other bedrooms. "We went from room to room," DeFeo said. "Everybody was dead. . . . I was sick.There's no doubt in my mind that Dawn killed my father. My mother killed Dawn and the kids."

He said that Romondoe started going throughout the house, picking up cartridge casings and cleaning up evidence. "He was trying to protect me," DeFeo said. "That was the first words out of his mouth: `They're going to hang this whole thing on you and me, we're going to get electrocuted,' all that crazy stuff."

Geraldine said that Romondoe was willing to corroborate DeFeo's story, but he left town on business. "He called and he said he was afraid to talk . . . because the cops would pick him up as an accessory," she said. Later, Romondoe said by telephone that he was willing to be interviewed, but he did not keep the appointment or explain why. They got back to Elberon at about 4 a.m., Geraldine said. Her brother took two bottles of liquor from under the sink and disappeared into his room upstairs. DeFeo simply said to her, "Later," and left. He said he went to Brooklyn and bought two bottles of Dewar's scotch, then went to Harlem and bought some heroin. "Somewhere along the line, I forgot everything that happened," he said.

But he ended up back in the Amityville house that evening, and what had happened there was all still very real. "It was like a nightmare," he said. "I almost defecated all over myself."

It was then that he ran to Henry's Bar, nearby on Merrick Road, and gathered some friends to come back to the house with him. Shortly afterwards, police began a long interrogation, during which DeFeo told them that he had shot everyone in his family. "It all started so fast," he told Lt. Robert Dunn and Det. Dennis Rafferty. "Once I started, I just couldn't stop."

That interrogation is what sticks in Dunn's mind now, and he remembers DeFeo becoming emotional when he said he had shot his young brother Mark. "I would say that, if ever he was truthful, he was truthful on that occasion," Dunn said. He doesn't believe DeFeo's new version, calling it "almost literary."

Gerard Sullivan, who prosecuted DeFeo, said that no one recovered any .38-cal. shell casings or bullets in the house. "There are no casings, no bullets of any caliber other than .35," Sullivan said. And, said the prosecutor, neither of Louise DeFeo's wounds could have been self-inflicted.

The accounts of the police and DeFeo are marked by other contradictions. For example, Geraldine DeFeo said that she had been called several times recently by Rafferty and Dunn, who asked if she had been in the Amityville house that night helping DeFeo. "Absolutely not," Dunn said.

If, as Sullivan suggests, DeFeo craves attention, he insisted that he's growing weary of the strange looks that his reputation gets him. Geraldine said that she is also weary of it. Outside the walls, she once found a note on her car: "Dear Mrs. Amityville: You should be dead, along with your husband, too." At home, people call her on the phone, breathe heavily and whisper, "Death, death, death." "They call up and ask if the baby was an antichrist," she said.

The baby is now 11 years old. For years, she was told that her father was dead. But someone at school apparently told her that her father was alive and that he was the "Amityville Horror" killer. Two years ago, on Christmas Eve, Geraldine claims, the movie "The Amityville Horror" was on television at 3:15 a.m., and her daughter asked to watch it. Last year, she insisted on being taken to Long Island to see the house and the gravesites, and to the auto-dealership site in Brooklyn. "He started writing her," Geraldine said. "She started writing him."

For years, DeFeo and Geraldine had been out of contact. "He sent me away," she said. "He told me he was going to have to do this time . . . He just kept telling me not to come, not to come, not to come."

She supported herself partly on the money he had left behind, partly on a job she held with a welfare-advocacy group, and for a while, she said, partly on money his grandparents sent her for the child. At one point, she said, she found herself broke in Binghamton and wrote $78,000 in bad checks, spending 14 months in prison as a result. A little over a year ago, she began visiting him in prison.

DeFeo's own prison record is marred by a charge that officers found heroin taped to his bed when he was at the Clinton Correctional Facility, but he insisted he had been set up by another inmate. Later, at Auburn, he says he lived on the honor block and that he and his wife won permission for a family-reunion visit, which would have allowed him to spend several days alone with her in a trailer at the prison.

But James Flateau, a spokesman for the Department of Correctional Services, said a search of DeFeo's records "found nothing to show that he had an approved visit upcoming on family reunion. They also found no indication in his file that he had been in honor housing at Auburn or Clinton."

DeFeo said that he was also scheduled to see his daughter for the first time since his incarceration, at a Lifer's Day picnic at Auburn. Last July 10, just days before the picnic and the trailer visit, he said, he was moved to Attica. Prison officials give the reason only as "separation of inmate."

"I've been locked up ever since I got here" with no job or regular program, he said. "There's a trailer program, and I reapplied, and they told me I can't have a trailer visit because I don't have a program or a job." Flateau said DeFeo has refused to participate in programs.

Now, angry about his transfer and convinced he can talk safely, DeFeo is telling his new story of the Amityville murders. It is a story that even his defense attorney, William Weber, agrees is unlikely to get him out of prison. But Geraldine hopes that it will at least convince the world that the man she calls her husband is not a demon.

"Ronnie DeFeo is a human being," she said. "He doesn't sit in the jail cell and talk to Chief Rolling Thunder. He does not sit in the cell and froth at the mouth." The House on Ocean Avenue By D.J. Hill I N KEEPING with its 100-year-old trees and sprawling lawns, the street made famous by the mythical "Amityville Horror" is once again a quiet residential neighborhood where dogs can saunter down the middle of the street, and elderly couples can pedal their bicycles with only occasional traffic to disturb them.

Nine years ago - and for a few years afterward - national notoriety surrounded one of the homes on Ocean Avenue and turned the street into a sideshow. Motorists drove slowly up and down the street and even left their cars to trespass onto the property in hopes of seeing green slime oozing from the walls or a red-eyed pig named Jody peering into the windows.

Now there is only occasional interest in the 89-year-old Dutch Colonial house, where the murders of six members of the same family led to a spate of books and movies. "Things have quieted down there immensely, except when they show the movie on television, on cable or somewhere," said Lt. William Smith of the Amityville police, referring to "The Amityville Horror," the 1979 film about purported supernatural events in the house. "Then there is a new surge of interest, a few more passersby."

The house on Ocean Avenue was of no particular interest to anyone in 1964 except a car dealer named Ronald DeFeo Sr. and his pregnant wife, Louise, who had moved their brood of four children there from Brooklyn to Ocean Avenue, where the hot tempers of father and a son sometimes interrupted the quiet of the street. On Nov. 13, 1974, the neighborhood was shattered by the news that the couple and four of their children had been murdered in High Hopes, the name lettered in black on a white board in front of their house. The fifth child, Ronald DeFeo Jr., 23, was accused of the killings and convicted in 1975.

The house stayed empty until December, 1975, when George and Kathleen Lutz bought it for $80,000. But they fled with their three children after just 27 days. A month later, they held a news conference and claimed the house was haunted by the murdered DeFeos.

On April 1, 1977, Barbara and James Cromarty moved into what they felt was a bargain. They bought a three-story house that backed onto the Amityville River and came complete with an in-ground pool and boathouse for just $55,000.

A week after the Cromartys moved into the house, Good Housekeeping magazine published an article on the Lutzes' claims. The following September, "The Amityville Horror - A True Story," by Jay Anson, was published by Prentice-Hall. The Cromartys were to learn that they had bought more than they bargained for - a house where they became the objects of vandals, ghoulish gawkers and inebriated nocturnal invaders in search of the supernatural.

The Cromartys filed suit against Anson, Prentice-Hall and the Lutzes, claiming that the story, and the subsequent movie, had brought quite natural terror to their lives on Ocean Avenue. They even left their dream house for several months in 1979. The couple finally settled their suit out of court in 1982.

The Cromartys have said in interviews that they never have seen anything supernatural in the house, where they have hosted large Halloween parties. Halloween still seems to attract crowds outside the house. Sequels to the movie, a television broadcast and other books about the murders also stir the curious. But it is nothing like seven or eight years ago, police said.

Barbara and James Cromarty could not be reached for comment, and relatives brushed off inquiries with the plea that calm be allowed to remain on Ocean Avenue.

However, James Cromarty's mother, Belle Cromarty, offered one observation: "It's a lovely house, and things don't come flying out the wall."