This gun was just pulled from the canal behind America’s most famous haunted house. It could change everything we thought we knew about the grisly murders that took place there 38 years ago.
Photographed by Bill Pfeiffer | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
The team of divers on the Coles Avenue bulkhead in Amityville, New York, just one block down from the most famous haunted house in America, quiets for a heartbeat.
“Please say again,” recovery diver Bill Pfeiffer replies into the transmitter.
“We’re gonna need an evidence bag,” repeats geophysicist Kyle Kingman, from the motorboat, floating 70 feet out from the bulkhead in the empty canal. “We have a part of a pistol.”
“It’s definitely a pistol?” Pfeiffer asks.
It’s January, and the upper-30s waterfront weather is chilly, but mild by the standards of Long Island winters. The sun is out, but most of the locals’ boats have been put away for the season, and the canal, which runs behind a tidy row of large Colonial homes with private boathouses, feels deserted.
When the gun’s discovery is announced, the team of a half-dozen or so recovery divers and underwater archaeologists breaks into a scene of restrained excitement.
It’s then that Ryan Katzenbach—the man paying for everyone to be there—jumps onto the bulkhead. The 37-year-old filmmaker sports a patchy beard, a permanently flushed face, and a uniform of torn jeans and sports shades that makes him look like a cross between Dan Cortese and a Wayne’s World extra. He had stepped away to take a phone call, and when he got back and saw the commotion—caused by the crew he brought here as part of the production of Shattered Hopes, his documentary on the Amityville murders—he knew instantly what they had found.
“Are you shitting me?!” he screams.
[pagebreak]Amityville just wants it to go away.The sleepy waterfront village, 40 miles from Manhattan on the south shore of Long Island, is tired of the horror movies (10 to date). Tired of the goth tourists and drunk teenagers who flock to the house on Ocean Avenue to gape at its facelike facade and ring its doorbell. Tired of the Eminem songs (“Mentally ill from Amityville / Accidentally kill your family still”). Tired of the stories of oozing walls and demonic pigs’ heads.
Basically, Amityville is tired of being known for the one-two punch of a mass murder and a haunted house.
“I wanted to sell shirts that played up the Amityville Horror thing and was told, ‘Do not do it, you’ll irk the town elders,’ ” says Erica Reichlin, the 34-year-old owner of the village’s Cornucopia’s Noshery café. “The way the townspeople view The Amityville Horror is you just don’t talk about it. They want it put under the rug. They don’t like the tourists.”
So one can only presume the village won’t be happy about the attention that could be coming soon. Because if Katzenbach is right, the gun his team of divers just recovered from the canal is the long-missing second murder weapon in one of the most famous crimes in American history.
This is a big deal for one very simple reason: Officially, there is no second murder weapon. And if there is, everything we thought we knew about what happened that night in 1974 is wrong.
The house on Ocean Avenue was actually the site of two horrors: one very real, one likely made up.
First came the killings.
In the early morning of November 13, 1974, six members of the DeFeo family were shot and killed: Ronald and Louise DeFeo and four of their children—Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John, who was just nine years old. A day later the sole surviving family member, 23-year-old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr., confessed to the murders. Reports at the time suggested that he had either murdered them in the cold-blooded pursuit of cash or had snapped in the face of endless abuse.
“Me and my father, you know, it was just one problem after another. He was just abusive,” DeFeo told a parole board in 2007. “He never stopped. He never stopped. He never stopped. He never stopped.”
The official story: Butch acted alone, with a .35-caliber lever-action Marlin rifle as the only weapon. None of the victims were said to have stirred from their beds.
“I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I thought somebody was inside moving me,” DeFeo told the court during his trial. After unsuccessfully trying for an insanity plea, he was found guilty on six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to six consecutive terms of 25 years to life at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, where he remains today.
The haunting came 13 months later.
On December 18, 1975, George Lutz, an ex-Marine and third-generation land surveyor; his wife, Kathy; and her three children from a previous marriage moved into the old DeFeo house. They scooped up the classic Dutch Colonial waterfront estate, with its eerily eyelike quarter-moon windows, for the discount price of $80,000 (about $337,000 in 2012 money), plus an extra $400 for much of the DeFeo family’s furniture.
Four weeks later the Lutz family was gone, supposedly driven from their dream home by bleeding walls and disembodied voices. A best-selling book (Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror: A True Story) followed, along with a parade of movies—a fright franchise whose appeal has always been its supposed basis in fact.
Since then skeptics have spent decades chipping away at the Lutz story. One popular theory: The “haunting” was an obvious—and remarkably successful—attempt to cash in on the true horror of the DeFeo murders.
“I later found out that George Lutz owned 94 percent of Amityville Horror Enterprises, LLC, which had its hand in almost every Amityville book and movie made,” Katzenbach says.
[pagebreak]And according to Butch DeFeo’s defense attorney, William Weber, many of the Lutz family’s claims can be easily explained.
“They said there was green all around certain doors, and I said, ‘That’s the residue left after the detectives fingerprinted the area,’ ” says Weber. “They said they saw eyes outside a window, and I told them it was probably the neighbor’s cat.”
Weber says that The Amityville Horror story—which he was involved in conceiving before the Lutz family cut him out of the book project—also used details he had supplied to Lutz and was written with a large amount of poetic license for dramatic effect.
Even Butch DeFeo—the one person who would stand to gain the most from the perception that evil spirits actually lived in his old house—has stated his disbelief of the Lutz haunting.
“Where do you think the premise of the movies or the books came from?” An officer asked him at a 2007 parole hearing.
“I didn’t start it. The people who sold the house started it, making up the stories about…” DeFeo said, before he was abruptly cut off.
Butch DeFeo is the very definition of an unreliable witness. In the decades since the murders, he has changed his story countless times. “I’m going to be truthful with you,” DeFeo told a parole board in 2003. “I was so involved with heroin and alcohol, I was so out of control and trying to run away from myself, I really don’t know what happened.”
Still, at least two elements that are not a part of the official narrative pop up again and again: that there was a second weapon and that Butch committed the crimes with the help of his sister Dawn, who would wind up dead before the night was through.
“It’s common sense,” DeFeo told a parole board in July 2011. “One person couldn’t have done this. Not the way they said.” This opinion was shared by the attending medical examiner, who testified at DeFeo’s trial that he was “totally mystified” that a single person could shoot six people without waking anybody up.
In one version of events, which DeFeo described to author Ric Osuna in 2000, and which Osuna recounted in his book The Night the DeFeos Died, Butch and Dawn hatched the plan with two friends: They would kill their abusive father and enabling mother, make the murders look like a burglary gone wrong, and then drive their siblings to safety.
According to this story, Dawn first went to the children, who were in bed but not asleep, and ordered them to stay put no matter what they heard, because burglars were in the house. Then she and Butch, along with one of their friends, went to
their parents’ room with the Marlin rifle. Butch held the gun, but when he hesitated to fire, Dawn grabbed it and shot their father. Butch then snatched the rifle back and shot their mother.
The wounded father then rose from the bed. Butch shot him a second time, killing him. Their mother, meanwhile, was still alive, flailing and moaning in pain. The friend then pulled out a .38 revolver and shot her a second time, killing her, before dropping the gun and fleeing.
Butch ran after him and dragged him back to the house to help clean up the mess. But when they returned, they found that Dawn had taken a dark detour from the original plan and had killed their younger siblings. There was an altercation, in which Dawn grabbed the rifle and Butch overpowered her and shot her in the back of the neck.
[pagebreak]While it’s difficult to say how much of this story is true, one thing is clear: Sometime after the shootings, the rifle was tossed off the Richmond Street dock, a few blocks from the house, while pillowcases full of other evidence were disposed of in a storm drain in Brooklyn. Police found these items exactly where Butch told them to look.
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.”