Four Years on Line with the Amityville Horror

They ran meds before breakfast, so I used to see the back of Ronald DeFeo Jr.'s head every morning before the sun was up.

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Sep 18 2014, 5:00am

Ronald DeFeo Jr., center, is escorted by police officers after being arrested on charges of murdering his parents, two brothers, and two sisters. AP photo

They ran meds before breakfast, so I used to see the back of Ronald DeFeo Jr.'s head every morning before the sun was up. Heroin addiction had taken me from my desk at a literary agency to an alley with a pocketknife to this line for medication at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for men in Dutchess County, New York. DeFeo was the biggest celebrity we had—Son of Sam was nearby in Fallsburg, and Robert Chambers had been released the year before. An inmate pointed DeFeo out to me on my first day, and because of the alphabetical proximity of our last names, I was to spend my waking hours with him for the next four years.

As the only guy in that prison who'd been to DeFeo's family home in Amityville, a town on Long Island, I had a good opening line. Strangely enough, my grandparents had lived in Amityville for 20 years. By the time they moved there in the early 80s, Ronnie had already murdered his entire family and gone away a decade earlier, but the myth lived on. It started with a book by Jay Anson called The Amityville Horror: A True Story, which was originally published as nonfiction in 1977 and spawned as many as a dozen films between 1979 and 2014. Although the book sits on the shelves of many Amityville residents, it barely mentions Ronnie's murders, instead chronicling the 28 days when the Lutz family lived at 112 Ocean Avenue about a year afterward. They bought the house cheap, paid $400 to keep the DeFeo furniture, and then claimed that they had to flee because of the haunting. According to the book, the house was beset by a phantasmal marching band and—my favorite—Jodie, an evil, demonic pig who was an imaginary friend to five-year-old Missy Lutz.

To a 13-year-old boy, this is exciting stuff—especially if it's Halloween and he knows a secret way into the house. In 1991, three of us took a rubber dinghy over a fingertip canal to the back of the property in the middle of the night and sneaked into the empty house to look for the red room beneath the stairs, where the devil allegedly resided. We did not find it. Thirteen years later, Ronnie confirmed to me that there was no evil room beneath the stairs.

Every morning Ronnie received a little plastic cup full of OxyContin pills. He would methodically chew through the time-release coatings and get chatty once the drug kicked in. I never understood what was so wrong with him that he needed a large dose of painkillers, which prisons are not usually keen on handing out. Once we had our small talk about the best pizza spot in Amityville and the continued existence of the bar he burst into on the night of November 13, 1974, claiming that someone had killed his family, Ronnie became comfortable with me and shared the details of his odd life. He sent paintings out to his wife, who, he claimed, clandestinely sold them—though he maintained he didn't really need the money because he was (supposedly) paid for the use of his image in the films.

As we got to know each other, the murders came up. During my first year with Ronnie, he spun me a story out of Goodfellas. He claimed his great-uncle Peter DeFeo was a caporegime in the Genovese crime family. Some dispute over mob money caused the mafia to send out hit men, who killed everyone except for Ronnie, who somehow managed to get away. I nodded my head without judgment. The wise guys inside were aware of Ronnie's connection to "made men" but did not accept him as one of their own because of the nature of his case. He told me about "button men" and kisses of death and Joe the Barber's 1957 meeting in Apalachin, New York, at which Peter DeFeo got made. It would be a while before Ronnie decided I was worthy of knowing the real story.

Once the OxyContin hit, and a good year had passed during which I had not made fun of him or gossiped about him or asked him for pills or a loan, he admitted that he'd made up the mobster killers. His sister had lost it, DeFeo now claimed; Dawn was always unstable and hated the family and ended up executing them all with a shotgun. Ronnie survived by wrestling the gun away from her and killing her himself. I nodded my head politely.

Another year passed, and Donnie's dose of opiates was upped, and he considered me a fellow Amityvillian. Now it was time for the truth.

Slurring his words and staring at me with his arresting gaze, Ronnie told me that his parents had been monsters. They treated his four siblings better than him and made a big deal about his taste for LSD and PCP. In other words, they had it coming. At 6:30 one winter morning, during my last year in Green Haven, Ronnie said that they deserved what they got and if he had the chance he'd pull that trigger six times over again.

Oh, and there was no demon pig.

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