Ghosts of the Prairie: Behind the Legends
Horror or Hoax?
A Look Behind the Facts -- & Fallacies --- of this Classic Case
by Troy Taylor
There seems to be little doubt that one of the most famous American hauntings to ever be documented occurred in the quiet town of Amityville, New York, a peaceful enclave on Long Island's South Shore. There stands no other case in the latter part of the 20th Century that so captured the imagination of the general public ---- and no other case that filled us with such fear.
It was a story that seemed almost too frightening to be true ... and the reason for that? Likely because it was!
I was barely a teenager when the sensational book by Jay Anson, "The Amityville Horror", was released. I will never forget snatching up a copy from a local bookstore, only to read it and then re-read it again. Could such things really happen? Could ghosts destroy a family the way that evil spirits did George and Kathy Lutz? Could a ghost force someone to kill, as demonic entities caused Ronald DeFeo to murder his entire family?
And most terrifying of all -- could the American public be so easily deceived into believing the events chronicled in the book were actually real? The answer to that question is a resounding "yes", as is proven by the fact that many people still believe in the veracity of "The Amityville Horror", one of the greatest paranormal hoaxes of all time!
But how did it all begin? How could we all be fooled so easily? And what events led up to the release of the book? To answer those inquiries, we have to go back to November 1974 and understand the true events that occurred in the house on Ocean Avenue.
THE DEFEO MURDERS
“High Hopes” -- the house on Amityville’s Ocean Avenue as it looked when the DeFeo family moved in. No one had any idea of trhe horror that was coming.
The horrific carnage that prefaced the story of the "Amityville Horror" began one dark fall night in November 1974. The DeFeo family, Ronald Sr. and Louise, their two young sons, Mark and John, and two daughters, Dawn and Allison, were sleeping peacefully in their comfortable, three-story, Dutch Colonial home in Amityville. The silence of the house was shattered when Ronald DeFeo, nicknamed "Butch", murdered his parents and his siblings with a high-powered rifle. One by one, he killed each of them as they slept, beginning a tale of terror that has endured for three decades.
The DeFeo's seemed to be a happy all-American family in 1974. Ronald Sr. had been born and raised in Brooklyn and had worked hard at his father's Buick dealership until he finally became successful in his own right. He moved his family to Long Island and into the large house at 112 Ocean Avenue. It was perfect for the family, with two stories, plus an attic, several rooms and a boathouse on the Amityville River. A signpost in the front yard read "High Hopes", a physical reminder of what the house meant to the DeFeo's.
Beneath the surface of success and happiness though, Ronald was an angry man, given to bouts of rage and violence. He and Louise often fought and he was a threatening figure to his children. As the oldest child, Butch often bore the brunt of his father's expectations and ill-temper. He was an overweight, sullen boy who was often picked on in school. His father harassed him to stand up for himself - but never at home. Ronald Sr. had no room for backtalk or disobedience.
As Butch grew older, he grew stronger and larger and was no longer as tolerant of his father's abuse. Their shouting matches turned into physical battles and even Ronald Sr., with his own anger issues, began to realize that his son's temper and violent behavior were not normal. He and Louise arranged for Butch to visit a psychiatrist but it did no good. The young man insisted there was nothing wrong with him and refused to work with the counselor. In the absence of any other solution, the DeFeo's began simply buying Butch whatever he wanted in order to placate him. At the age of 14, his father gave him a $14,000 speedboat to cruise the Amityville River. Whenever Butch needed money, he only had to ask and it was handed to him.
By the time that he was 17, Butch had been kicked out of the parochial school that he had been attending because of drug use. His behavior had also become more erratic and his violent outbursts more psychotic. The altercations with his father grew more frequent and more dangerous. One night, when Butch was 18, a fight started between Mr. and Mrs. DeFeo and to settle the matter, Butch grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun from his room, loaded a shell into the chamber and went downstairs. Without hesitation, he pointed the gun at his father and pulled the trigger. Mysteriously though, it did not go off. Ronald Sr. froze in place and watched as his son lowered the gun and walked out of the room. He was completely unconcerned that he had nearly killed his fathering cold blood. The fight was over but Butch's reaction was a foreshadowing of events to come.
In the weeks before the murders, the relationship between Butch and his father reached a breaking point. He was unhappy with the money that he "earned" from his father (he had been an easy job at the Buick dealership and a weekly allowance that he used on drugs and alcohol) and so he arranged to be "robbed" one day on the way to make a deposit at the bank.
Ronald Sr. was at the dealership when his son returned from being "robbed at gunpoint" and exploded into a rage when he heard Butch's story, berating the staff member who had entrusted him with the money in the first place. The police were called and when they arrived, the naturally wanted to speak with Butch. Instead of devising a fictional story about the robbery, he became tense and irritable with them. He soon became outright violent when they began to suspect that he was lying. Butch began to curse at them, banging on the hood of a car in his grandfather's lot to emphasize his rage. The police backed off for the moment, but Ronald, Sr. had already come to his own conclusion about the motive for his son's behavior - he knew that he had stolen the money.
On the Friday before the murders, Butch had been asked by the police to look at some mug shots on the chance that he might be able to identify the thief who had allegedly robbed him. He initially agreed to do it but then backed out at the last minute. When he father heard this, he confronted Butch and demanded to know why he would not cooperate with the authorities. The two began shouting at one another and then Butch ran to his car and drove away. This fight had not turned into a violent one - but that was coming.
The night of Wednesday, November 14 was a cool one in Amityville. The streets were quiet and so was the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. Everyone had gone to sleep with the exception of Butch, who was brooding in his room. The more that he simmered in his thoughts, the more determined he became to solve his problems once and for all. He took out a .35-caliber Marlin rifle from storage space were he kept several weapons and started off, silently but purposefully, toward his parent's bedroom. He opened the door and walked in, raising the rifle to his shoulder and without hesitation, opening fire on his father's prone body. The first shot ripped into Ronald Sr.'s back, tearing through his kidney and exiting through his chest. Butch fired another round, again into his back, and this shot pierced his father's spine and lodged in his neck.
Louise DeFeo had now awakened but had no time to react before Butch fired at her too. He shot her twice, shattering her rib cage and collapsing her right lung, and then left her to empty into the spreading pool of blood on the bed.
Despite the crack of the rifle shots, no one else in the house stirred. Butch left his parent's room to continue the massacre, making his two young brothers, John and Mark, his next victims. He entered the bedroom the two boys shared and fired one shot into each of them as they lay sleeping. Mark was killed instantly, while John, whose spinal cord was severed by his brother's attack, twitched for a few moments and then lay still. Again, the shots had not roused the remaining members of the family and Butch went unchallenged into the bedroom that his sisters Dawn and Allison shared. Dawn was the closest in age to Butch, while Allison was in grade school with John and Mark.
As Butch walked into the room, Allison stirred and looked up just as he pointed the rifle at her face and pulled the trigger. His youngest sister was killed instantly. Butch aimed his weapon at Dawn's head as well, literally blowing the left side of her face off.
It was just after 3:00 a.m. In a span of less than fifteen minutes, Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, Jr., had brutally slain every member of his family in cold blood. Butch calmly showered, trimmed his beard, and dressed in jeans and work boots. He then collected his bloody clothing and the rifle, wrapped them up in a pillowcase, and headed out to his car. In the minutes before sunrise, Butch drove into Brooklyn, and disposed of the pillowcase and its contents by tossing them into a storm drain. He then returned to Long Island, and reported to work at his grandfather's Buick dealership.
From work, Butch called home several times and when his father failed to show up, he acted bored with nothing to do and left around noon. He called his girlfriend, Sherry Klein, and told her that he had left work early and planned to come over. On the way to Amityville, he ran into his friend, Bobby Kelske, and stopped to talk. After that, Butch went to Sherry's house and casually mentioned that he had tried to call home several times but there had been no answer. He tried again in her presence just to show her what he meant. Acting puzzled, but unworried, he and Sherry spent the afternoon shopping and then met up with Bobby Kelske later at a local bar. He was now feigning concern about being unable to reach anyone at home and he told all that would listen that he planned to go there and to see what was going on. He returned a few minutes later in a state of apparent agitation. "Bob, you gotta help me," he told his friend, "Someone shot my mother and father!"
The two friends were joined by a small group of patrons from the bar and they all piled into Butch's car. When they arrived at the house, Kelske ran upstairs to the master bedroom and found Ronald Sr. and Louise in the blood-soaked bed. He returned outside to find Butch beside himself with grief. Joey Yeswit had found the telephone in the kitchen, and called 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 now sobbing uncontrollably. The officer went inside and then called the headquarters from the kitchen. Butch was now at the kitchen table, still crying. As he listened to Geguski's call about his murdered parents and brothers, he told the officer 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. There was too much blood for them to even guess what kind of gun had killed the DeFeo's.
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 curiosity-seekers gathered on the front lawn. Suffolk County detective Gaspar Randazzo was the first to question Butch, the massacre's sole survivor. Butch claimed that the family might have been killed by a notorious mafia hitman who had long had a grudge against his family. Detective Gerard Gozaloff joined in the questioning and was suggested that if the murders were indeed linked to organized crime, that Butch might still be a target. Any further questioning should take place at police headquarters. It was here that they were joined by a third detective, Joseph Napolitano.
The police arrive on the scene on the night of trhe murders. By this time, several hours had passed since Butch had “discovered” the bodies of his family.
Ronald DeFeo Jr.
It was also here that Butch gave police his written statement. He claimed to have been home the night before, and that he stayed up until 2:00 a.m. watching television. At 4:00 a.m., he reported walking past the upstairs bathroom and 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.
After Butch submitted his signed statement, the detectives continued to question him about his family, about his suggestion that a hitman, Louis Falini, might be the killer. Butch explained that Falini had lived with them for a period of time, and that 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. The argument with Falini had stemmed from an incident where Falini criticized some work Butch had done at the auto dealership. Around 3:00 a.m. the detectives had finished their questioning, and Butch went to sleep on a cot in a back filing room. He gave every appearance of being a cooperative witness, and so far the detectives had no reason to hold him under suspicion.
That soon began to change as investigators continued examining the evidence. Butch had been stupid enough to leave boxes of Marlin .35-caliber ammunition in his room, which detectives learned matched the murder weapon and subsequent questioning of Bobby Kelske led to the discovery that Butch was a gun fanatic, and that he had recently staged the robbery of the receipts from the Buick dealership.
The detectives 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. When roused, he asked if the detectives had found the "killer" yet but Harrison had not come with news of Falini - he was there to read Butch his rights. DeFeo protested that he had been cooperative all along and 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. Rafferty re-read Butch his rights, and proceeded to question him about the prior two days. Rafferty focused 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. Rafferty continued to press Butch until he was able to pry him away from his earlier version of when the crime took place (Butch claimed that it had been after he had gone to work), establishing that the crime actually took place between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.
Butch's story began to crumble. Dunn and Rafferty hammered at the discrepancies in Butch's version of events and what the 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 make the detectives 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 Rafferty continued on, telling Butch about the ammunition that had been found in his room.
More desperate then ever, Butch continued to lie. He claimed that he had been awakened at 3:30 a.m. and that Louis Falini had been there with a gun to his head. He had forced Butch to accompany him as he went from room to room and killed the DeFeo family. 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. They let him keep talking, shouting more questions at him and then finally one of them asked him if it had really happened that way?
"No," Butch finally confessed. "It all started so fast. Once I started, I just couldn't stop. It went so fast."
The trial of Ronald DeFeo Jr., for the murder of his entire family, began on October 14. 1975, nearly year after the murders took place. The prosecution of DeFeo was the responsibility of Gerald Sullivan, an assistant district attorney of Suffolk County, New York. Despite DeFeo's confession, despite the fact that he had been able to lead investigators to the exact spot where he had disposed of the evidence, and despite the fact that Butch's rifle was positively identified as the murder weapon, Sullivan took no chances in his approach to prosecuting.
During the period of pre-trial interviews and jury selection, Sullivan had studied DeFeo and had questioned him and he knew that Butch was a pathological liar. He had retained well-known area attorney William Weber for his defense and his pattern of behavior before the murders would afford Weber the opportunity to plead innocence by reason of insanity on his client's behalf. But Sullivan knew that Butch DeFeo was not crazy, but a violent, cold-blooded killer. His opening statement said as much and asked the jury to consider all of the facts and to not provide DeFeo with an excuse for his actions.
The question of DeFeo's mental state at the time of the murders would remain the defining piece of evidence upon which his acquittal or conviction would rest. Prior to the trial, Weber had attempted to have the case dismissed, alleging that Butch had been refused access to counsel right before the police took his confession. He also claimed that the confession itself was obtained under duress but neither of these claims allegations was accepted by the judge and Weber was left to defend his client's actions on the grounds that he was legally insane at the time they took place.
Sullivan knew that he could not argue only that DeFeo was not insane. He needed to present a full portrait of a man who was capable of murdering six defenseless members of his own family. He called a number of witnesses, including police officers and detectives who worked the case, as well as relatives and friends of Butch's. He used their testimony to get his point across but no witness was as damning as DeFeo himself.
Weber called Butch to testify and attempted to lead his client to supply responses that would enhance his claim of insanity. On the stand, DeFeo failed to identify photos of his mother and then when asked if he killed his father and other family members, he admitted that he did but said that it was in self-defense. The district attorney refused to react to this, even when some of the members of the jury gasped aloud. Weber continued on unfazed and he asked Butch why he had done such a thing.
Butch quickly replied: "As far as I'm concerned, if I didn't kill my family, they were going to kill me. And as far as I'm concerned, what I did was self-defense and there was nothing wrong with it. When I got a gun in my hand, there's no doubt in my mind who I am. I am God."
To the jury, Sullivan feared that DeFeo's testimony might seem to be that of a deranged lunatic and so he assaulted his diatribes during cross-examination. He ridiculed Butch's seeming inability to identify his mother's photograph and worked to expose the inconsistencies between his testimony and the statement he gave police on the night of the crime. His questions then began to center around the murders themselves and DeFeo's conflicting accounts of his actions. Sullivan knew that he would not get a straight accounting from Butch in regard to what had happened but he wanted to goad him into anger and perhaps into revealing the twisted sense of pleasure that he had gotten from killing his entire family.
He admitted that he had felt good about what he had done and he was able to make Butch so angry that he actually threatened the prosecutor's life. "You think I'm playing," he shouted from the stand. "If I had any sense, which I don't, I'd come down there and kill you now."
The ability to prove or disprove DeFeo's claimed mental state was crucial to the success of both sides and leaving nothing to chance, each retained the services of two highly reputable psychiatrists. Dr. Daniel Schwartz was retained for the defense and was experienced in the criminal field. He had interviewed a number of defendants and had testified in hundreds of cases. He would later gain widespread national notoriety as the psychiatrist who found David Berkowitz to be criminally insane in the wake of the "Son of Sam" slayings.
Sullivan knew that what he did at this point in the trial was crucial to his case. Despite the fact that he had his own expert witness, he had to rely on his own skills to keep the trial on track. As he later wrote about the case: "The jurors had been learning about DeFeo and his murders for almost two months. They had listened to his lies and vituperation for days. Dr. Schwartz had only talked to him for hours. I would show that the psychiatrist didn't know the real Butch DeFeo.
As it happened, Sullivan caught a fortunate break in the form of Weber's questioning of his own witness. In a move that could clearly be interpreted as overconfidence in Schwartz's ability on the stand, Weber posed only a few preliminary questions to his witness, then proceeded to let Schwartz deliver a lecture on psychosis, disassociation, and criminal insanity. However, Sullivan noticed a number of key points that Weber let go and did not challenge and he would soon focus on those.
Sullivan opened his line of questioning by referring to Schwartz's prior experience as an expert witness, attempting to rattle him by demonstrating the extent to which he had researched the witness. He then moved to the case at hand and began questioning Schwartz about why DeFeo would have removed evidence from the crime scene if he was truly insane? Why bother with this?
Schwartz offered several opinions but Sullivan continued to press him. Hotly, Schwartz finally retorted that he was "not hiding this crime from anybody by picking up the shell. The bodies are there. The bullets are in the people."
"Everything that he could get that would connect him with the crime, he removed from the house, didn't he?" pressed Sullivan.
"What you are talking about is trivia compared to the six bodies," Schwartz responded flatly.
His indifferent response angered the prosecutor. "Trivia that he removed the evidence out of that house that would connect him to the crime, trivia that has nothing to do with whether he thought that the crime was wrong?" thundered Sullivan.
Sullivan next took aim at Schwartz's actual diagnosis of DeFeo as a neurotic.
"So it's your testimony, as I understand it, Dr. Schwartz, that the fact that it wasn't too bright to throw everything in that sewer drain all together in one location is significant of the fact that it was neurotic that he did this?" Schwartz responded that this was the case, noting that DeFeo appeared to be acting without any clear purpose in mind, someone distracted by paranoid, neurotic delusions. This would become Schwartz's greatest mistake ion his testimony.
"Did he tell you about not wanting to leave clues for the police?" asked Sullivan.
"I asked him about the casings, and he said he didn't want to leave the police any clues as to what kind of gun it had been. He was not a friend of the cops, and he didn't want to help them."
Schwartz had now just contradicted himself. Sullivan knew it and it's likely that the psychiatrist knew it as well. The district attorney almost laughed. "Okay, now you know why he removed the casings, don't you?" he asked derisively.
Dr. Harold Zolan testified for the prosecution. Sullivan devised an elaborate question-and-answer exchange with Zolan, making every deliberate effort to give the jury access to Zolan's thought process, so that they might come to understand how Zolan had reached his assessment, and that they might even reach the same assessment themselves. Unlike Schwartz, Zolan attributed DeFeo's behavior to an antisocial personality, a form of personality disorder he distinguished from any form of mental illness. Essentially, those with such a personality disorder are fully aware of their actions, are fully able to comprehend the difference between right and wrong, but are motivated by an imperious, self-centered attitude. When finished, Sullivan was confident that between his methodical questioning and Zolan's well-thought-out responses, the jury was finally in possession of clinical evidence that Butch was guilty of murder.
On Wednesday, November 19, 1975, the judge sent the jury into deliberations. Despite Sullivan's painstaking efforts, the prosecutor knew that a guilty verdict was not a sure bet. He was rewarded for his skepticism when the jury's first vote came back 10-2, with two holdouts who were still uncertain about DeFeo's mental state at the time of the murders. After reviewing transcripts of DeFeo's testimony, however, the vote came back at a unanimous 12-0. On Friday, November 21, 1975, Ronald DeFeo, Jr., was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder. Two weeks later, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on all six counts. He remains incarcerated with the New York State Department of Corrections today.
THE HORROR & THE HOAX
The tragedy in Amityville made grim local news but few outside of New York ever heard about the house until some time later. The horrendous events that followed began on December 18, 1975, when a young couple named George and Kathy Lutz bought the house on Ocean Avenue for $80,000. Just a week before Christmas, they moved into their new "dream home" with Kathy's three children from a previous marriage. They would later claim that the "dream home" soon became a nightmare.
George & Kathy Lutz in the late 1970’s
Almost from the moment that they moved into the house, the Lutz family would insist they noticed an unearthly presence in the place. They began to hear mysterious noises that they could not account for. Locked windows and doors would inexplicably open and close, as if by invisible hands. George Lutz, a sturdy former Marine, claimed to be plagued by the sound of a phantom brass band that would march back and forth through the house. When a Catholic priest entered the house, after agreeing to exorcize it, an eerie, disembodied voice told him to "get out".
After the aborted exorcism, the events began to intensify. The thumping and scratching sounds grew worse, a devilish creature was seen outside the windows at night, George Lutz was seemingly "possessed" by an evil spirit and green slime even oozed from the walls and ceiling. The family was further terrified by ghostly apparitions of hooded figures, clouds of flies that appeared from nowhere, cold chills, personality changes, sickly odors, objects moving about on their own, the repeated disconnection of their telephone service and communication between the youngest Lutz child and a devilish pig that she called "Jodie". Kathy Lutz reported that she was often beaten and scratched by unseen hands and that one night, she was literally levitated up off the bed.
The family managed to hold out for 28 days before they gathered up their possessions and fled from the house. According to their story, they left so quickly that they didn't take their furniture or many of their other possessions with them. The demonic spirits, they said, had driven them from their home!
And then, things started to get really scary....
In February 1976, not long after the Lutz family left the house, local residents were stunned to see New York Channel 5's news team doing a live news feed from the house on Ocean Avenue. The news crew filmed a séance and a dramatic "investigation" of the place conducted by Ed and Lorraine Warren, two of America' most famous "demonologists".
For those not familiar with the Warrens, Lorraine claims to be a clairvoyant and a trance medium who is said to have the uncanny ability to contact the spirit world. On the other hand, her husband Ed, purports to be an expert on hauntings and exorcism. From the 1950's through the 1980's, the Warrens, who are based in Connecticut, were recognized as authorities when it came to ghosts and demons. While they were still active until recent years, their methods have been replaced by more scientific standards of investigation. Regardless, in 1976, their stamp of approval on the events reported at Amityville caught the attention of a nation.
The Warrens went to the house for the first time in February and while George Lutz allegedly refused to accompany them, he did loan them a key. The Warrens stated that they found old newspapers around the house and that the refrigerator was still stocked with food. It was obvious to them, they said, that the Lutz family had left in a hurry. The Warrens brought two other psychics with them to the house to conduct their séance. They later reported that they "sensed" an "unearthly presence" in the house and Ed Warren also claimed to experience heart palpitations that he blamed on the occult forces. The house was haunted, they said, by the angry spirits of Indians who had once inhabited the area and by "inhuman spirits". The story was that the Shinnecock Indians had used that very parcel of land as a place where sick and insane members of the tribe were isolated until they died. They did not bury the dead there however because they supposedly believed the land was "infested with demons".
Not long after, the George and Kathy Lutz teamed up with a writer named Jay Anson and together, they authored what would become a best-selling book called "The Amityville Horror". The book would then go on to spawn a bad movie and a number (of even worse sequels) and not surprisingly, the Warrens were hired by producer Dino de Laurentis and the production company to serve as consultants about the supernatural occurrences portrayed in the film. They also made the rounds of the talk show circuit, discussing the horrifying events in Amityville.
The "Amityville Horror" grew from news reports and newspaper articles to books, magazines and television. The story would become internationally known and around the world, people recognized the name of Amityville. Most amazing was the fact that this terrifying story was absolutely true --- or so it read in bold print on the cover of the phenomenally selling book. But not everyone was convinced, even in paranormal circles. In fact, a few of them smelled something bad in Amityville!
One of those was a paranormal investigator from New York named Dr. Stephen Kaplan. George Lutz had approached him on February 16, 1976 about conducting an investigation of the house on Ocean Avenue. This was shortly before Lutz turned to the Warren's instead. At that time, Kaplan was the executive director of the Parapsychology Institute of America, based on Long Island and he was a frequent guest on the popular WBAB radio program "Spectrum with Joel Martin". He received a phone call from Lutz and wanted the society to investigate the house for supernatural activity. He asked about a fee for the group's services and Kaplan told him that they did not charge for the investigation but that "if the story is a hoax...the public will know".
A few days later, Lutz called and cancelled the investigation. He claimed that he and his wife did not want any publicity about the house. This may have been why the Channel 5 news story came as such a surprise to Kaplan and his colleagues a few days later.
Kaplan would later claim to have been suspicious of the call, and the Lutz's motives, from the very beginning. When he began asking questions, he asked what specifically had happened to the family in the house. Lutz said that he was unable to describe the phenomena but that there were demons in the house that he knew by name. When asked to name them, Lutz refused, claiming that they would appear if he mentioned their names aloud. Kaplan asked who told him that and Lutz said that he had read it in a book. He could not remember the title, he said, but it had been one of many about demonology, ghosts and psychic phenomena that he had read since buying the house on Ocean Avenue.
As the story of the "Amityville Horror" became an international sensation, Kaplan was at work collecting evidence and materials about the house and the claims made by the Lutz family, Jay Anson, the Warrens and the media. Although convinced of the validity of the paranormal and supernatural activity, Kaplan was not convinced of the truth behind the Amityville case. While it was possible that a haunting could have occurred at the house, especially in light of the violent events that had taken place there, there was something not quite right about the accounts of the Lutz's. After some initial investigation, Kaplan became sure that a hoax was being perpetrated on the public and such a hoax could prove to be damaging for legitimate paranormal cases in the future. With that in mind, he became determined to show that the entire story was a farce.
Little did he know that he would face an uphill battle, not only against the Warrens, but against the general public as well. By this time, the Warrens had become too firmly entrenched to back out of the case. They continued to resolutely support the Lutz claims of the house being haunted, or possessed, by evil forces. They began their own campaign to try and discredit Stephen Kaplan, especially after his untimely death a number of years later. To this day, in spite of confessions and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Warrens still maintain that the house was haunted.
The general public had been so force-fed the story by the media, that Kaplan's evidence against the house being haunted seemed to fall on deaf ears. Thanks to the fact that the truth was not as glamorous or as dramatic as the original story, the new story was scarcely reported and was barely noticed at first. In fact, Kaplan's diaries of the investigations were turned into a book that did not get published for many years after the events took place. The problem remained that the public loved the story and the house on Ocean Avenue became a Long Island landmark. People traveled from all over the country to drive past and stare at it. Tourists made it their first stop on Long Island and locals soon began calling the sightseers the "Amityville Horribles". The trouble with curiosity seekers and complaints from locals were so bad in the late 1970's that they drove one Amityville police chief into early retirement.
Kaplan had discovered that the "Amityville Horror" was pure invention. In 1979, attorney William Weber confessed to his part in the hoax during a paranormal radio show hosted by author Joel Martin. Weber admitted that he and George Lutz had concocted the story of the haunting over a few bottles of wine. Weber's motive was to get a new trial for DeFeo, using a "Devil made him do it" defense. According to Weber, Lutz merely wanted to get out from under a mortgage that he couldn't afford. His business was in trouble and he needed a scheme to bail him out. Weber later filed a $2 million lawsuit against the Lutz's, charging them with reneging on their book deal.
Kaplan found ample proof, outside of the glaring confession, that the story was a hoax. He gained access to the house on many occasions and found that the so-called "Red Room", where the book claimed occult ceremonies took place, was nothing more than a small pipe well that gave access to them if they needed to be repaired. No "demonic face" had ever appeared on the bricks inside of the fireplace. He also noted that the original front door of the house (blown off its hinges in the book) was still in place and intact. In fact, the extensive damage to doors and windows that was recounted in the book never happened at all. All of the old hardware - hinges, locks and doorknobs - was still in place and there were no disturbances to the paint or the varnish.
In addition, Kaplan found a writer for the local newspaper that had also been suspicious of the story. After some searching, the columnist discovered that the Lutz's had returned the day after "fleeing" from the house to hold a garage sale. He also charged that during their "28-day nightmare" that never once called the police for assistance, something that would have been commonly done under the circumstances. He also found that there had been no snowfall when the Lutz's claimed that they found "cloven hoof prints" in the snow.
He also learned that the role of the priest was completely exaggerated in the drama. In the book, the priest character named Father Mancuso is terrorized by a demon while trying to bless the new home. He is then stalked by the specter back to the rectory, where he is afflicted with boils, bleeding palms, a fever, and the smell of excrement. In real life, a priest did bless the house, and did have some concern about the possibility of a haunting. Both the real priest and rectory were unharmed by any such demon though.
More recently, author Ric Osuna has stated that George Lutz - now divorced from his wife and criticized by his former stepsons - informed him that "setting the record straight is not as important as making money off fictional sequels."
The list of things that did not happen in the house went on and on and to most researchers, like Kaplan and many others, the evidence for an "Amityville Hoax" was overwhelming.
Jim and Barbara Cromarty, who later moved into the house, also maintained that it was not haunted. Because of the problems they had experienced with the curiosity-seekers, they sued the hardcover and paperback publishers of the "Amityville Horror", as well as Jay Anson and George and Kathy Lutz. They stated that the entire case had been a put-on from the beginning and it had "blighted their lives". The suit was later settled with the new occupants for an undisclosed amount.
This, along with the publication of "The Amityville Horror Conspiracy" by Stephen Kaplan, should have put an end to the case, but it did not. In fact, more than two decades later, people still often question the facts behind the case and the real events that may, or may not, have occurred in Amityville. Today, most researchers concede that the story was mostly, if not entirely, fabricated. To the general public though, the truth remains much more of a shadowy thing and some theorists believe that there are still things about the story that do not add up.
All of the weak utterances of "truth" in this story continue to be arranged to look like something they are not. To this author, they are a perfect example of this entire case as a whole --- a blending of fact with fiction in an attempt to titillate and terrify the American public.
© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Sources & Bibliography:
Anson, Jay - The Amityville Horror (1977)
Auerbach, Loyd - ESP, Hauntings & Poltergeists (1986)
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen - Encyclopedia of Ghosts & Spirits (2000)
Jarvis, Sharon - True Tales of the Unknown: Beyond Reality (1991)
Kaplan, Dr. Stephen & Roxanne Salch Kaplan - The Amityville Horror Conspiracy (1995)
Lynott, Douglas B. - The Real Amityville Horror (2001)
Sullivan, Gerald & Harvey Aronson - High Hopes: The Amityville Murders (1981)