But one question has always confounded observers: If the only weapon was a rifle, as the official story states, why did one of the pillowcases contain a handgun holster?
Shattered Hopes, Katzenbach’s epic three-part, six-years-in-the-making documentary on the Amityville murders, is one of those movies—Apocalypse Now and virtually everything made by Werner Herzog come to mind—where the sheer insanity of the production threatens to overshadow anything that ends up on-screen.
The trilogy (part one was released in December, and parts two and three are scheduled to come out by this summer) uses a mixture of narration (delivered by Ed Asner, who voiced the old man in Up), interviews, and Unsolved Mysteries–style reenactments to recount the case.
Because Katzenbach couldn’t film at the old DeFeo home, he built a pitch-perfect half-scale replica of the house as it looked in 1974. Then, when filming was complete, he dismantled the structure and burned its remains to the ground.
“I wanted it to be exclusive to my project,” Katzenbach says. “I didn’t want to sell it, then see someone make another film with my house.”
When it came time to look for the missing weapon, Katzenbach consulted with two different psychics. According to Katzenbach, both said that a gun was in the canal.
Then came the dive itself.
Katzenbach spent tens of thousands of dollars hiring underwater surveyors to scan the canal floor for a weapon that might or might not have existed. (It would have cost him much more to hire the divers as well, but they’re adventure-seeking types and agreed to do it for free.)
“Ryan is a pep talk by himself,” Asner says. “He’s the Energizer Bunny,”
It was like a scene from a cyber-thriller. On January 24, 2011, the disc full of documents Katzenbach had requested from Suffolk County—1,200 pages related to the Amityville case—arrived at his office. And just as he had been warned, the juicy stuff had been redacted—pages crossed out, names removed, details drawn over with thick black lines.
But there was also something on the disc that he didn’t expect. While most of the files were relatively small, one dwarfed the rest: a PDF that clocked in at 70 megabytes.
“I open it, and I sat there going, ‘No, no, no, no, this can’t fucking be! No way! No way!’ ” Katzenbach recalls. “I thought I would wet my pants. Here it was: the whole file. Handwritten reports, notes, ballistics documentation. You name it, it was there.”
Included in the unredacted file: evidence suggesting that a .38-caliber handgun was involved in the crimes—and that police at the time knew it.
First there was the ballistics report that showed one bullet was a different size from the rest. Then there was the police report filed a day after the shootings, in which an officer wrote that he had overheard a man say that “DeFeo was trying to obtain a silencer for a .38 revolver two weeks prior.”
And there was the sworn testimony by a friend of Butch’s, stating that just a few months prior to the killing he had seen a .38 pistol “in the top left drawer of his dresser, with shells.”
But perhaps most important of all was the picture of the trash can. Scattered among crime-scene photos of slain DeFeo family members and retrieved evidence, there was a single photograph of a garbage can. The evidence list also showed that police had retrieved a “piece of rag” from the receptacle.
“It made no sense that the police had taken a photo of this random trash can,” Katzenbach says. “There had to be something to it.”
Katzenbach later came across another crime-scene photo showing the trash can, but in this picture the retrieved “rag”
appeared to be something else entirely—a pillowcase.
“Notes in the homicide file revealed that Butch, and possibly others, had used pillowcases to carry evidence off the scene,” Katzenbach says, referring to the stash retrieved from the storm drain in Brooklyn. “So when I saw the photo and realized it was possibly a pillowcase, it was a sort of X-marks-the-spot as to where they had gotten rid of the gun.”
The location of the trash can: the Coles Avenue bulkhead, one block from the DeFeo house and just steps from the canal.
Katzenbach’s theory: Butch DeFeo or an accomplice drove to the waterfront with the .38 wrapped in a pillowcase. The pillowcase was then tossed in the trash can and the gun thrown into the water. If Katzenbach was correct, that meant his
target area for the dive was pretty much as far out as a fit 23-year-old could toss a pistol.
“To mark the dive zone, we chucked chunks of cinder block out, just to see how far we could get them. The farthest we got was 70 or 75 feet,” Katzenbach says.
The target area thus marked, Katzenbach enlisted a geological survey and underwater metal-detection company called Aqua Survey to use a high-powered electromagnetic detection coil to scan for every single piece of metal that sat on the canal bottom.
Aqua Survey then ran the metallic hits (there were a total of 317) through a computer program that narrowed them down to objects that were similar in size and shape to a handgun. This winnowed the field to 50 or 60 possible targets—a number small enough that the divers could systematically pull them all up to the surface, one at a time, until they came across the gun.
“I had no idea what I had in my hand,” says diver Bryan Joyce, who used his gloved hands to dig the gun out from three feet of mud and a thin layer of gravel.
The weapon was encased in a block of mud, and as the divers chipped away the sludgy shell, it became obvious that parts of the weapon were missing. The rusted skeletal frame and the grip were there, but the chamber and barrel were gone.
If the police in 1974 believed that a second weapon was involved—and evidence suggests that at least some of them did—then it’s likely authorities would have wanted to keep the case shut, despite this. They had a confession and a murder weapon, and the high-profile crime was bringing unwanted publicity to the village. There was simply no reason to delve deeper than necessary.
Today that attitude seems to remain intact. About two hours after it was recovered, the pistol was confiscated by the Suffolk County homicide department, and authorities remain skeptical. “There is no reason to believe there is a connection between the weapon and the murders,” a Suffolk police spokesperson said in a coolly worded e-mail. “The gun is unable to be analyzed because it’s only part of a gun. It’s just a handle and part of the frame.”
So with the gun likely to spend the foreseeable future in a county building, trapped in a Ziploc bag in the back of some drawer—like a small-scale version of the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse—we may never know if it was used the night the DeFeos died. No evidence yet rules it out. Various forensics experts and firearms historians were shown photos of the re-covered weapon, and all of them said the gun was likely a .38-caliber handgun manufactured before the crimes took place.
“The gun could have been a .32 or a .38,” says Doug Wicklund, senior curator at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia. “If I had to guess going by the contour of the grip frame, I’d call it a .38 Iver Johnson revolver made circa 1890 to 1910. There are similar guns in collections today that could be lost now and, in 40 years, wind up looking just like this one.”
The weapon’s depth in the mud was also in line with an object that had been sitting on the canal floor for 38 years, according to marine biologist Ken Hayes, the owner and president of Aqua Survey.
But proof or no, within the small world of amateur sleuths and conspiracy buffs who have doggedly followed the Amityville case for almost four decades, Katzenbach alone can claim he actually uncovered an object that may, in fact, be a once-smoking gun.
“I’ve been called a tool, and I’ve taken a lot of heat,” Katzenbach says. “I have never in my life felt the satisfaction I felt at that moment. I said there would be a gun, and I was right. And if I am right about this, then I have to believe I am right about a lot of things uncovered in this case.”