Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Real Life Amityville Horror

Unmasking a Murderer

Ronald DeFeo, Jr. (AP)
Ronald DeFeo, Jr.

Butch did not remain at work for long. He called home several times, and when his father failed to show up, he acted as though he were bored with nothing to do, and left around noon. He called his girlfriend, Sherry Klein, to let her know that he would be home early from work, and that he wanted to stop by and see her. On his way back into Amityville, Butch passed his friend, Bobby Kelske, and the two stopped to talk. Butch proceeded on to Sherry's house, arriving at about 1:30 p.m. Sherry was 19 years old, a shapely and popular waitress at one of the many bars Butch frequented with his friends. Upon arriving, Butch casually mentioned that he had tried to call home several times, and, although all the cars were in the driveway, there was no response. To demonstrate, he called home from Sherry's apartment with the same, predictable result.

Acting puzzled but unconcerned, Ronald took Sherry shopping during the afternoon. From the mall in Massapequa, they drove to Bobby's house. Ronald gave Bobby the same report he had given Sherry, that his family appeared to be home, but that there was no answer when he called on the phone. "There's something going on over there," he said. "The cars are all in the driveway and I still can't get in the house. I called the house twice and nobody answered." Abruptly shifting gears, Butch asked if Bobby was going out later. Bobby replied that he was going to take a nap, and that if Butch wanted to meet him out, he would be at a local bar called Henry's around 6:00.

Butch spent the remainder of the afternoon visiting friends, drinking, and taking heroin. He finally arrived at Henry's after 6, and Bobby followed him in shortly thereafter. Once again, Butch feigned concern over his inability to reach anyone at home. "I'm going to have to go home and break a window to get in," he told Bobby. "Well, do what you have to do," his friend replied blithely. Ronald exited the bar on his supposed journey of discovery, only to return within a few minutes in a state of agitation and dismay. "Bob, you gotta help me," he implored. "Someone shot my mother and father!"

The two friends were joined by a small group of patrons, and they all piled into Butch's car, with Bobby at the wheel. It had been approximately 15 hours since the murders took place. Within moments after arriving at the house, Bobby Kelske had entered the front door and raced upstairs into the master bedroom. There lay the bodies of Ronald, Sr., and his wife, Louise. He returned outside to find Butch beside himself with ostensible grief and dismay. Joey Yeswit had found the telephone in the kitchen, and was calling the police. Within ten minutes the first policeman was on the scene, Officer Kenneth Geguski. As he arrived, he found a group of men gathered on the DeFeo's front lawn. Butch was among them, sobbing uncontrollably. "My mother and father are dead," he said as Geguski approached the group.

The Village of Amityville patrolman entered the house and immediately went upstairs. He first discovered the bodies of Ronald and Louise, as well as those of John and Mark DeFeo. He returned downstairs to phone village headquarters from the kitchen. Ronald was seated at the kitchen table, still crying. As he listened to Geguski's description, he alerted the officer to the fact that he also had two sisters. Geguski put the receiver down and hurried back upstairs. By this time another village patrolman had arrived, officer Edwin Tyndall. The two of them found Dawn and Allison's room together. It would take a forensics investigator to locate where the girls had been shot, and what kind of gun had killed them: there was too much blood for the officers to even begin to guess.

The DeFeo house with officers both inside and outside (CORBIS)
The DeFeo house with officers both
inside and outside (CORBIS)

Shortly after 7:00 p.m., the neighborhood was buzzing with word of what had transpired in the house called High Hopes. The house itself was filled with police personnel, while neighbors and assorted gawkers gathered on the front lawn. Suffolk County detective Gaspar Randazzo was the first to question Butch, the massacre's sole survivor. They sat together in the DeFeo kitchen, as Randazzo asked Butch who he thought could have done such a thing. "Louis Falini," Butch replied after a moment's pause. Falini was a notorious mafia hit man whom Butch claimed held a grudge against his family as a result of an argument between the two of them a few years prior.

The interview continued at the next-door- neighbor's house, where a temporary police command center had been established. Detective Gerard Gozaloff joined in the process. It was suggested that, if the murders were indeed linked to organized crime, that Butch might still be a target, and that any further questioning should take place at police headquarters. It was here that they were joined by a third detective, Joseph Napolitano. And it was here that Butch gave police his written statement. In it, he claimed to have been home the night before, and that he stayed up until 2:00 a.m. watching the film Castle Keep on television. At 4:00 a.m., he reported walking past the upstairs bathroom, and that his brother's wheelchair was in front of the door. He also claimed to have heard the toilet flush. Since he couldn't go back to sleep, he decided to head to work early. He described the rest of his day, leaving work early, visiting with Sherry and Bobby, drinking, and trying to reach his family by telephone. He said that when he finally returned home to check on his family, he entered the house through a kitchen window, and went upstairs where he discovered his parents' bodies. Upon his discovery, he raced downstairs and back to Henry's Bar, where he rounded up some men who subsequently alerted the police.

After Butch submitted his signed statement, the detectives continued to question him about his family, about his suggestion that Louis Falini might be the killer. Butch replied that Falini had lived with them for a period of time, and during that time he had helped Butch and his father carve out a hiding space in the basement where Ronald, Sr., kept a stash of gems and cash. His argument with Falini had stemmed from an incident where Falini criticized some work Butch had done at the auto dealership. Butch also voluntarily confessed to being a casual user of heroin, as well as to the fact that he had set one of his father's boats on fire so that Ronald, Sr., could collect on an insurance claim rather than paying for the motor, which Butch had originally damaged. Around 3:00 a.m. the detectives had finished their questioning, and Butch went to sleep on a cot in a back filing room. Ronald, Jr., gave every appearance of a cooperative witness, and so far the detectives had no reason to hold Butch under suspicion.

That circumstance was beginning to change, however, as investigators continued to examine physical evidence, both at the crime scene and in the police laboratory. A crucial discovery was made around 2:30 a.m., November 15, when Detective John Shirvell was making a last sweep through the DeFeo bedrooms. Rooms where the murders had taken place had been scoured thoroughly, while Ronald's room had so far been given a cursory once-over. But, upon a second look, Det. Shirvell spotted a pair of rectangular cardboard boxes, both with labels describing their recent contents: Marlin rifles, a .22 and a .35. Shirvell was unaware that a .35-caliber Marlin had been the murder weapon, but snagged the boxes anyway in the event that they may be important evidence. Indeed they were! Shortly after arriving at police headquarters with the new evidence, Shirvell learned exactly what make of weapon had been used in the murders. Subsequent questioning of Bobby Kelske led to the discovery that Butch was a gun fanatic, and that he had staged the robbery of the Brigante Buick receipts.

In short order, the detectives on the case began to seriously consider the possibility that Butch had been playing them, that he may be their suspect, that he at least knew much more about the killings than what he had told them so far. At 8:45 a.m., Detective George Harrison shook Butch awake. "Did you find Falini yet?" DeFeo asked. But Harrison was not there with any such news: he was there to read Butch his rights. DeFeo protested that he had been trying to be cooperative all along, and that it wasn't necessary to read him his rights. He went so far as to waive his right to counsel, all to prove that he was an innocent witness with nothing to hide.

By this time, Gozaloff and Napolitano were exhausted. Two other officers, Lt. Robert Dunn and Detective Dennis Rafferty, took over. These two meant business. Rafferty re-read Butch his rights, and proceeded to question the suspect about his activities and whereabouts over the prior two days. Rafferty zeroed in on the time of the murders. Butch had written in his statement that he was up as early as 4:00 a.m., and that he heard his brother in the bathroom at that time. "Butch, the whole family was found in bed lying in their bedclothes," said Rafferty. That indicates to me that it didn't happen at like one o'clock in the afternoon after you had gone to work." Rafferty continued to press Butch until he was able to pry him away from his earlier version of when the crime took place, establishing that the crime actually took place between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.

With this slight fissure, Butch's crudely constructed story began to crumble. Dunn and Rafferty hammered at the discrepancies between Butch's stated version of the events and what the physical evidence led police to believe actually happened. Butch was physically linked to the scene once the time of the murders was established. At first, Butch tried desperately to make the best out of a deteriorating situation, trying to lead the detectives to believe that while he had indeed been present in the home during the murders, he had only been in each bedroom after the murders had taken place. But the police weren't biting.

"Butch, it's incredible," said Rafferty. "It's almost unbelievable. Butch, we know we have a thirty-five-caliber gun box from your room. Every one of the victims has been shot with a thirty-five-caliber. And you've seen the whole thing. There has to be more to it. It's your gun that was used."

More desperate than ever, Butch continued to lie, even as his lies put him more squarely in the middle of the murders. He told his interrogators that at 3:30 a.m., Louis Falini woke him up and put a revolver to his head. Another man was present in the room, Butch said, but upon further questioning, he could not provide any kind of physical description for the police. According to Butch's new version of events, Falini and his companion led Butch from room to room, murdering each one of his family members. The police let Butch keep talking, and he eventually implicated himself as he described how he gathered and then discarded evidence from the crime scene. "Wait a minute," said Rafferty. "Why did you pick up the cartridge if you had nothing to do with it? You didn't know it was your gun that was used."

Butch didn't respond to the question, so the investigators allowed him to talk some more. They had already mined a good deal of evidence implicating Butch, all the while pretending to believe that Falini and his accomplice had taken Butch along on their killing spree while sparing his life alone. Once they had been given a solid description of how the murders took place, Dunn went in for the kill. "They must have made you a piece of it," he told Butch. "They must have made you shoot at least one of them — or some of them." Butch fell for it, and the trap was sprung.

"It didn't happen that way, did it?" asked Rafferty.

"Give me a minute," Butch replied, his head in his hands.

"Butch, they were never there, were they? Falini and the other guy were never there."

"No," Butch finally confessed. "It all started so fast. Once I started, I just couldn't stop. It went so fast."

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