The Frantic Phone Call
It was another routine evening at the Suffolk County, NY, emergency dispatch switchboard. Calls had not been pouring in,
and anyways, this placid New York City suburb scarcely had any crime to complain of, at least by City standards. Suddenly,
at 6:35 p. m., the calm was destroyed by a phone call that would shatter the safe suburban aura that pervaded the county.
Transcripts from the conversation demonstrate the caller’s rattled composure as he tried to relate to an operator the
horrifying scene he and his friends had been led to:
Operator: This is Suffolk County Police. May I help you?"
Man: "We have a shooting here. Uh, DeFeo."
"Sir, what is your name?"
Man: "Joey Yeswit."
Operator: "Can you spell that?"
Man: "Yeah. Y-E-S
W I T."
Operator: "Y-E-S . .
Operator: ". . . W-I-T. Your phone number?"
"I don't even know if it's here. There's, uh, I don't have a phone number here."
Operator: "Okay, where you calling
Man: "It's in Amityville. Call up the Amityville Police, and it's right off, uh . . .Ocean Avenue in Amityville."
Man: "Ocean Avenue. What the ... ?"
Operator: "Ocean ... Avenue? Offa where?"
right off Merrick Road. Ocean Avenue."
Operator: "Merrick Road. What's ... what's the problem, Sir?"
"It's a shooting!"
Operator: "There's a shooting. Anybody hurt?"
Man: "Yeah, it's uh, uh -- everybody's dead."
Operator: "Whattaya mean, everybody's dead?"
"I don't know what happened. Kid come running in the bar. He says everybody in the family was killed, and we came down here."
"Hold on a second, Sir."
(Police Officer now takes over call)
Police Officer: "Hello."
Police Officer: "What's your name?"
Man: "My name is Joe Yeswit."
Police Officer: "George
Man: "Joe Yeswit."
Police Officer: "How do you spell it?"
Man: "What? I just ... How
many times do I have to tell you? Y-E-S-W-I-T."
Police Officer: "Where're you at?"
Man: "I'm on
Police Officer: "What number?"
Man: "I don't have a number here. There's no number on the
Police Officer: "What number on the house?"
Man: "I don't even know that."
"Where're you at? Ocean Avenue and what?"
Man: "In Amityville. Call up the Amityville Police and have someone come
down here. They know the family."
Police Officer: "Amityville."
Man: "Yeah, Amityville."
Officer: "Okay. Now, tell me what's wrong."
Man: "I don't know. Guy come running in the bar. Guy come running
in the bar and said there -- his mother and father are shot. We ran down to his house and everybody in the house is shot.
I don't know how long, you know. So, uh . . ."
Police Officer: "Uh, what's the add ... what's the address of the
Man: "Uh, hold on. Let me go look up the number. All right. Hold on. One-twelve Ocean Avenue, Amityville."
Officer: "Is that Amityville or North Amityville?"
Man: "Amityville. Right on ... south of Merrick Road."
Officer: "Is it right in the village limits?"
Man: "It's in the village limits, yeah."
"Eh, okay, what's your phone number?"
Man: "I don't even have one. There's no number on the phone. "
Officer: "All right, where're you calling from? Public phone?"
Man: "No, I'm calling right from the house, because
I don't see a number on the phone."
Police Officer: "You're at the house itself?"
Officer: "How many bodies are there?"
Man: "I think, uh, I don't know -- uh, I think they said four."
Officer: "There's four?"
Police Officer: "All right, you stay right there at the house,
and I'll call the Amityville Village P.D., and they'll come down."
By the end of the evening, police investigators would find an additional two bodies, bringing the Ocean Avenue
death toll to six. Six of seven members of the Ronald DeFeo family had been methodically murdered as they slept in their beds,
leaving Ronald DeFeo, Jr., as the sole survivor of the grisly suburban bloodbath.
Rage and Resentment
Ronald DeFeo, Sr., had attained a trophy-size piece of the American dream when he
purchased the house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island. Having been born and raised in Brooklyn, Ronald had worked
hard in his father-in-law’s Brooklyn Buick dealership, and after many years began to reap rich benefits. Money was no
longer a concern when he finally made the decision to leave the City and move to Long Island. The home he chose was a classic
piece of Americana, two stories plus an attic, several rooms, and a boathouse on the Amityville River. There was plenty of
room for him, his wife Louise, and four children. A signpost in the front yard read "High Hopes," a testament to what the
new home had symbolized for the DeFeos.
But beneath the veneer of success and happiness, Ronald was a hot-tempered man, given
to bouts of rage and violence. There were stormy fights between him and Louise, and he loomed before his children as a demanding
authority figure. As the eldest child, Ronald, Jr., bore the brunt of his father’s temper and expectations. As a young
boy, Ronald, Jr., or Butch as he would come to be called, was overweight and sullen, the victim of schoolyard taunts and unpopular
with other children. His father encouraged him to stick up for himself, but while his advice pertained to the treatment of
schoolyard bullies, it apparently did not apply to how young Ronald was treated at home. Ronald, Sr., had no tolerance for
backtalk and disobedience, keeping his eldest son on a short leash, and refusing to let him stand up for himself the way he
was commanded to at school.
As Butch matured into adolescence, he gained in size and strength, and was no longer
a sitting duck for his father’s abuse. Shouting matches often degenerated into boxing matches, as father and son came
to blows with little provocation. While Ronald, Sr. was not highly skilled in the art of interpersonal relations, he was astute
enough to realize that his son’s bouts of temper and violent behavior were highly irregular, even in relation to his
own. He and his wife arranged for their son to visit a psychiatrist, but to no avail as Butch simply employed a passive-aggressive
stance with his therapist, and rejected any notion that he himself needed help.
In the absence of any other solution, the DeFeos employed a time-honored strategy
for placating unruly children: they started buying Butch anything he wanted and giving him money. At the age of 14, his father
presented him with a $14,000 speedboat to cruise the Amityville River. Whenever Butch wanted money, all he had to do was ask,
and if he wasn’t in the mood to ask, he simply took it.
By the age of 17, Butch was forced to leave the parochial school he was attending.
By this time he had begun using serious drugs such as heroin and LSD and had also started dabbling in petty thievery schemes.
His violent behavior was becoming increasingly psychotic as well, and was not confined to outbursts within his home. One afternoon
while out on a hunting trip with some friends, he pointed his loaded rifle at a member of their party, a young man he had
known for years. He watched with a stony expression as the young man’s face turned white. He fled, and Butch calmly
lowered his gun. When they caught up with their friend later that afternoon, Butch asked him why he had left so soon.
At the age of 18, Butch was given a job at his grandfather’s Buick dealership.
By his own account it was a gravy job, where little was expected of him. Regardless of whether or not he showed up for work,
he received a cash allowance from his father at the end of each week. This he used for his car (which his parents had also
purchased), for alcohol, and for drugs such as speed and heroin. Altercations with his father were growing ever more frequent
and correspondingly more violent. One evening, a fight broke out between Mr. and Mrs. DeFeo. In order to settle the matter,
Butch grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun from his room, loaded a shell into the chamber, and charged downstairs to the scene of the
altercation. Without hesitating or calling out to break up the fight, Butch pointed the barrel of the gun at his father’s
face, yelling, "Leave that woman alone. I’m going to kill you, you fat fuck! This is it." Butch pulled the trigger,
but the gun mysteriously did not go off. Ronald, Sr. froze in place and watched in grim amazement as his own son lowered the
gun and simply walked out of the room with casual indifference to the fact that he had almost killed his father in cold blood.
That fight was over, but Butch’s actions foreshadowed the violence he would soon unleash not only upon his father, but
his entire family.
Shots In The Night
In the weeks before the slayings, relations between Butch DeFeo and his father had reached the breaking point. Butch, apparently
dissatisfied with the money he "earned" from his father, had devised a scheme to further defraud his family. Two weeks before
the slayings, Butch was sent on an errand by one of the staff at the Buick dealership, given the responsibility of depositing
$1,800 in cash and $20,000 in checks in the bank. Instead, Butch arranged to be "robbed" on his way to the bank by an acquaintance,
with whom he later split the loot.
Butch and another accomplice from the dealership departed for the bank at 12:30. They did not return for two hours, and
when they did, they reported that they had been robbed at gunpoint while they were waiting at a red light. Ronald, Sr., was
at the dealership when his son returned, and exploded with rage when he heard Butch’s story, berating the staff member
who had sent him in the first place. The police were called, and when they arrived they naturally asked to speak to Butch.
However, instead of engaging in a charade of cooperation, instead of at least devising a basic description of the fictional
bandit, Butch became tense and irritable with the police. He became outright violent as they began to suspect that he was
lying, and their questions started to focus on the two hours he was away. Wouldn’t he have hastened back to the Buick
dealership once he had been robbed of so much money? Where had he been during that time? In response to their questions, 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.
On the Friday before the murders, Butch had been asked by the police to examine some mug shots in the possibility that
he might be able to finger the thief. He initially agreed, but pulled out at the last minute. When Ronald, Sr. heard of this,
he confronted his son at work, demanding to know why he wouldn’t cooperate with the police. "You’ve got the devil
on your back," his father screamed at his son. Butch didn’t hesitate. "You fat prick, I’ll kill you." He then
ran to his car and sped off. This fight had not come to blows. But the final confrontation was imminent.
The still shroud of night blanketed the village of Amityville in the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 14, 1974.
Stray house pets and the odd car were the only signs of life as families and neighbors slumbered. But hatred and savagery
were brewing beneath the seeming calm at 112 Ocean Boulevard. The entire DeFeo family had gone to bed, with the exception
of Butch. As he sat in the quiet of his room, he knew what he wanted to do, what he in fact was going to do. His father and
his family would be a nuisance to him no longer.
Butch was the only member of the family with his own room. His violent disposition and the fact that he was the eldest
had afforded him this small luxury. It also afforded him a private storage place for a number of weapons he collected and
sometimes sold. On the night of the murders, Butch selected a .35-caliber Marlin rifle from his closet, and set off, stealthily
but resolutely, towards his parents’ bedroom.
He quietly pushed aside the door to their room and momentarily observed them as they slept, unaware of the horror at the
foot of their bed. Then, without hesitation, Butch raised the rifle to his shoulder and pulled the trigger, the first of 8
fatal shots he would fire that night. This first shot ripped into his father’s back, tearing through his kidney and
exiting through his chest. Butch fired another round, again hitting his father in the back. This shot pierced the base of
Ronald, Sr.’s spine, and lodged in his neck.
By now, Louise DeFeo had roused herself, and had barely a few seconds to react before her son began to fire upon her. Butch
aimed the weapon at his mother as she lay prone on her bed, and fired two shots into her body. The bullets shattered her rib
cage and collapsed her right lung. Both bodies now lay silently in fresh pools of their own blood.
Despite the distinct snap of each rifle shot, no one else stirred in the house. Butch quickly surveyed the destruction
he had wrought, before resuming his massacre of the innocent. His two young brothers, John and Mark, would be the next victims
of Butch’s murderous sense of self-righteousness and rage.
He entered the bedroom the two boys shared and stood between their two beds. Standing directly above his two helpless brothers,
Butch fired one shot into each of the boys as they lay sleeping. The bullets tore through their young bodies, ravaging their
internal organs, laying waste to the lives that lay ahead of them. Mark lay motionless, while John, whose spinal cord had
been severed by his brother’s heartless attack, twitched spasmodically for a few moments after the shooting. Again,
the shots had not roused the only remaining members of the DeFeo family, and Butch skulked unchallenged to the bedroom 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 entered the room, Allison stirred and looked up just as he lowered the rifle to her face and pulled the trigger.
His youngest sister was murdered 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 each
defenseless member of his family in cold blood. The DeFeo’s dog Shaggy was tied up out by the boathouse, and was barking
violently in reaction to the brutality occurring in the house. His barking didn’t distract Butch one bit, however. Aware
that he had completed the task he had set out to do, he now turned his attention to cleaning himself up and establishing an
alibi to throw the inevitable police investigation off the trail. Butch calmly showered, trimmed his beard, and dressed in
his jeans and work boots. He then collected his bloodied clothing and the rifle, wrapped them up in a pillowcase, and headed
out to his car. He threw the evidence into the car, and took off into the pre-dawn hours before sunrise. Butch drove from
the suburbs into Brooklyn, and disposed of the pillowcase and its contents by casting them into a storm drain. He then returned
to Long Island, and reported to work at his grandfather’s Buick dealership, business as usual. It was 6:00 a.m.
Unmasking a Murder
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.
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
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?" he 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
"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."
|Ronald DeFeo mugshots|
Butch DeFeo’s case came to trial on Tuesday, October 14, 1975, almost one year after the murders took
place. The prosecution of DeFeo, the responsibility to see to it that such a man would never be a danger to anyone in
the community again, rested with Gerard Sullivan, assistant district attorney with Suffolk County, NY. 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 .35-caliber rifle was positively ID’d 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, questioned him, observed how he behaved and interacted with others. He knew that Butch was a pathological liar,
that he was evasive. He had retained well-known area attorney William Weber for his defense; 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, was indeed a violent, cold-blooded killer, and he was determined to put
him away for good. His opening statement to the jury was crucial, as it would set the stage in his attempt to reveal
the truth about DeFeo’s criminal character. He could not afford to take for granted that the jury would see DeFeo
as he did, as a sane, methodical murderer.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said, “each of you will be changed to some degree
by this case. You will leave this courtroom after rendering a verdict perhaps a month from now, carrying with you an
abiding memory of the horror that occurred in that house at 112 Ocean Avenue in the dead of night eleven months ago.”
“Bear in mind that the evidence establishing and bearing upon how these crimes were carried out is as
important to your verdict as the proof bearing upon who carried them out,” he continued, anticipating an insanity defense.
“Much of the evidence of ‘How?’ will bear upon the issue of whether you will excuse the defendant for his
action by reason of some mental disease or defect. If you will keep your minds open, carefully evaluate and assess all
the proofs, I’m confident that at the end of the case you will come back into this courtroom and find Ronald DeFeo,
Jr., guilty of six counts of murder in the second degree.”
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 shrewdly attempted to have the case
dismissed outright, alleging that Butch had been refused access to counsel right before the police took his confession.
He further contended that the confession itself was obtained under duress, the product of physical abuse on the part of the
police. Neither of these claims stood up under scrutiny, however, 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 was prescient enough to see that a one-dimensional argument that DeFeo was in fact sane and responsible
for his actions might not be enough to convince the jury of his guilt. Sullivan called a number of witnesses, including
police officers and detectives who had worked the case, and assorted relatives and friends of Butch’s. Through
their testimony, he sought to present to the jury a more three-dimensional portrait of the man who was capable of murdering
six defenseless family members. But no witness offered him this opportunity more so than DeFeo himself.
Weber called his witness and led the questioning, predictably leading his client to supply responses that
would burnish DeFeo’s claim of insanity. Holding a picture of his mother as she lay slain in her bed, Weber asked
his client, “Ronnie, that’s your mother, isn’t it?”
“No, Sir,” Butch responded. “I told you before and I’ll say it again.
I never saw this person before in my life. I don’t know who this person is.”
Weber proceeded to show Butch a photo of his father’s body, and asked, “Butch, did you kill your
“Did I kill him? I killed them all. Yes, Sir. I killed them all in self-defense.”
Sullivan wore his straightest poker face, while some members of the jury gasped out loud in response to DeFeo’s
courtroom confession. Weber continued unfazed, asking why Butch had done such a thing.
“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 average layman member of the jury, DeFeo’s testimony might have seemed to be that of a deranged
lunatic, someone with a fleeting grasp on reality. And it was precisely this possibility, the possibility that DeFeo
would escape judgment by duping the jury, that Sullivan worked the hardest to prevent. He wasted no time in assaulting
DeFeo’s testimony during cross-examination. He ridiculed Butch’s seeming inability to remember who his own
mother was, he exposed inconsistencies between his testimony and the statement he gave police on the night of the crime.
Most of all, Sullivan pushed DeFeo’s buttons, aggressively set forth to rattle his composure, to enflame his arrogance
and hatred. Sullivan wanted the jury to see that, rather than the victim of insanity, Ronnie “Butch” DeFeo,
Jr., was a lucid, devious, cold-blooded killer.
His questions began to center around the murders themselves, and DeFeo’s conflicting accounts of his
actions that night. Sullivan knew that he would not be able to get a straight accounting from Butch in regard to what
had transpired, but he did know that he could goad the murderer into revealing the twisted sense of enjoyment he got from
killing his entire family.
“You felt good at the time?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir. I believe it felt very good,” Butch responded
“Is that because you knew they were dead, because you had given them each two shots?”
“I don’t know why. I can’t answer that honestly.”
“Do you remember being glad?”
“I don’t remember being glad. I remember feeling very good. Good.”
Sullivan’s efforts to this end culminated in his provoking Butch to the point where he actually threatened
the prosecutor’s life. “You think I’m playing,” he barked hatefully 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 mental state at the time of the killings was crucial to the
success of both his defense and prosecution. Leaving nothing to chance, both sides had retained the services of two
local, highly reputable psychiatrists. Dr. Daniel Schwartz was retained for the defense, and was no stranger to criminal
proceedings. He had interviewed a number of defendants, testifying 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 was aware of the crucial juncture the trial had now reached. All of the groundwork he had laid,
all of his attempts to flesh out Butch DeFeo’s murderous persona for the trial would be for naught if he were to allow
Weber and Schwartz to take control of this final stage of the trial. Despite the fact that he had retained the services
of another very prominent psychiatrist, Sullivan knew that he had to rely on his skills as a prosecutor and cross-examiner
as on the abilities of his expert witness. As he wrote in his account of the trial, “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 blithely deliver a mini-lecture on psychosis, disassociation,
and criminal insanity. Sullivan noticed that the jury was indeed affected by his professional delivery, by what appeared
to be his expert grasp of the subject and how it applied to Butch DeFeo’s actions on the night of November 14, 1974.
Despite this, Sullivan silently noted a number of key points Schwartz had made which Weber failed to challenge or ask Schwartz
to expand upon. He smiled, silently planning to do so himself during cross.
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. Seeing that this provided
only limited benefit over a short period of time, Sullivan moved swiftly to the case at hand, contesting Schwartz’s
characterization of DeFeo’s behavior after he had slain his family.
“Is this not indicative of a person who has gone to very careful lengths to remove evidence of the crime,
that would connect him to that crime, out of that house?” Sullivan asked incredulously.
“It’s evidence of somebody who is trying to remove evidence from himself, too, that he has done
this,” Schwartz responded. “We are now speculating as to the motive for the cleaning up. If you are
familiar with Lady Mac Beth’s complaint -- ‘What, will these hands never be clean?’ -- she’s not hiding
a murder from anyone, but she can’t live with the imagined blood on her hands.”
Sullivan didn’t buy a word of it, and was determined not to let the jury buy it, either. “Doctor,”
he roared, “is that your considered psychiatric opinion?”
“My considered psychiatric opinion, Counselor, is that he’s not hiding this crime from anybody
by picking up the shells,” Schwartz retorted hotly. “The bodies are there. The bullets are in the
“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 ignited the prosecutor’s sense of outrage. “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.
“The evidence is there in the victims,” was Schwartz’s only response. But Sullivan
had him on the run, the respectability of his earlier testimony vanishing, receding in the face of the prosecutor’s
furious onslaught. 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 affirmatively, noting that DeFeo appeared to be acting without any clear
purpose in mind, someone distracted by paranoid, neurotic delusions. In doing so, he fell straight into Sullivan’s
trap, a trap constructed with the very notes Schwartz had taken during his interview of Butch.
“Did he tell you about not wanting to leave clues for the police?” asked Sullivan. He indicated
the passage in Schwartz’s notes where DeFeo had made exactly such a statement.
“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.”
The trap was sprung, Schwartz was now caught in his own testimony, and Sullivan stood triumphantly over his
prey. “Okay, now you know why he removed the casings, don’t you?” he asked derisively.
“I know one of the reasons. There are others,” Schwartz responded angrily. But his
testimony had been fatally wounded by Sullivan’s aggressive questioning. “I have no further questions,”
the prosecutor announced as he strode back to his table.
Dr. Harold Zolan testified for the prosecution. Unlike Weber’s style of questioning his expert
witness, 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. Sullivan and his witness were thorough in
their dissection of DeFeo, presenting an ironclad case to the jury in crystal-clear language that Butch was indeed responsible
for his actions on the night of November 14, 1974. While Weber tried to rattle Zolan as Sullivan had rattled Schwartz,
the prosecution’s witness held fast to his diagnosis. 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
After each expert witness had been questioned and cross-examined, a few more witnesses were called by Sullivan
to testify. While not central to his case, their additional testimony helped to bolster Sullivan’s case against
DeFeo. However, the verdict of innocence or guilt rested upon the question of DeFeo’s sanity, as he knew it would.
Weber and Sullivan made their summations. Then, on Wednesday, November 19, 1975, a year and five days since the murders,
the presiding judge instructed the jury to gather in the deliberation chamber, and return to the court with a verdict for
Ronald “Butch” DeFeo, Jr.
Sullivan’s painstaking efforts, he 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 twenty-five years to life in prison on all six counts. He remains incarcerated with
the New York State Department of Corrections today.
|A more recent photo of Ronald DeFeo|