Paranormal researchers — if they are prudent — trust little of what’s heard, and nearly nothing of what is read. Sensational stories, one finds, particularly of the supernatural sort, are catnip for a media often geared more to profit than truth.
Such was the case with Amityville.
The evolution of this infamous story traces back to November 13th, 1974: Ronald De Feo, the Long Island son of a prosperous car dealer, fired eight shots from a.35 caliber rifle, killing his mother, father, two brothers and two sisters as they lay sleeping in their spacious, three-story Dutch Colonial home.
News of the murders sent ripples of anxiety through the normally placid town, lifting the floodgates of speculation. Unexplainable wax drippings –leading a trail between rooms in the house — evoked dark murmurs of Satanic ritual and sacrifice. Others pondered the mystery of how De Feo managed to commit each of the six murders without arousing his victims from sleep, asking why no one in the neighborhood had heard gunshots, and why all six victims were found lying face-down in death.
As Amityville’s gossip mill ground overtime, prosecutors in the case hunted for a motive. They did not need to look far. Abundant evidence showed De Feo harbored a deep-seated malice for his family along with a “thirst for money”: prosecutors cinched their supposition of robbery with the discovery of a $200, 000 life insurance policy and an empty cash strongbox found hidden beneath the saddle of a closet in the family’s master bedroom.
At first protesting his innocence, De Feo finally broke down and confessed. “It all started so fast,” he told police. “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop.” He mentioned he had heard “voices” just prior to the murders and upon looking around saw no one there, and assumed “God was speaking to him”. William Weber, De Feo’s attorney, pushed for an insanity plea, but lost. On December 4, 1975, De Feo was sentenced to twenty-five years to life on each of the six counts of second-degree murder for which he had been convicted.
Many residents expected that with De Feo’s conviction the ugly fog of sensationalism which descended upon Amityville would at last begin to disperse.
But it didn’t; in fact, it thickened.
George and Kathy Lutz, a young, married couple from Deer Park, Long Island, were busy house-hunting. George worked as a land surveyor, and earned a respectable income. Lately, however, business had fallen off sharply, placing him in a financial squeeze. Of the 70 houses he and his wife had inspected, the De Feo house about the only one they found they could afford. Undaunted by its tragic history, high taxes and heating costs, they purchased it, and moved in with their three children on December 18, 1975.
The Lutzes had bought the house for $80,000, half of which was held in escrow by the title company because of a legal complication tied to the De Feo family estate. Sporting six bedrooms, 3-1/2 baths, an enclosed porch, and a matching boathouse and garage, it was — in the Lutzes’ words — a dream come true. That dream, as much of the world already knows, was rudely shattered when, 28 days later, the Lutzes fled their home, declaring it was infested by demonic forces.
Newspapers such as Newsday and the now defunct Long Island Press splashed coverage on the story, reporting that De Feo’s defense attorney, William Weber, had been introduced to the Lutzes in January by “mutual friends” and was now providing them “legal advice.”
The Lutzes, Weber said, had expressed concern over “strange noises, doors and windows which opened mysteriously, inexplicable changes in room temperature, and sudden personality changes from pleasantness to anger”, in the Amityville house. He added he had discovered that the land on which the house was built in 1928 was once a “forbidden” burial gound, and that one of the original owners had the name of a cultist who appears in colonial folklore.
Based on the Lutzes’ paranormal complaints, and providing an early whiff of foul play, Weber announced he was seeking a new trial in which he planned to argue that Ronald De Feo had been suborned into murdering his family through “demonic possession.”
In the spring of 1977 — and ironically enough in Good Housekeeping – journalist Paul Hoffman presented a chronological summary of the Lutze’s alleged experiences in a piece entitled “Our Dream House Was Haunted.”
Hoffman had conducted extensive interviews with the family, and provided a dozen or so examples of paranormal activity that supposedly terrorized them into leaving. Many of the examples, however, were surprisingly mild in nature: senses of “unseen forces”, temperature changes, strange noises and odors, mood shifts, episodes of obsessive-compulsive behavior — unsettling, no doubt, but far from extraordinary.
As for physical evidence, the Lutzes mentioned “black stains” that appeared on bathroom fixtures they could not remove and “trickles of red” that occasionally ran from some of the keyholes. The front door, which George Lutz claimed he’d double-latched earlier one evening, was discovered “wide open” the next morning; windows opened and closed by themselves. And once, George Lutz claimed, he awoke to find his wife sliding across the bed “as if by levitation.”
Not long after Hoffman’s article hit newsstands, Jay Anson, a screenwriter noted for his work on The Exorcist, conjured up real terror with his book The Amityville Horror: A True Story — creating an instant bestseller.
Within just a year, hardback sales of the book climbed to 3.5 million, and a movie — staring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, and penned by Anson himself — followed, and became a box-office smash, raking in over $40 million in one month in New York alone. Anson and the Lutzes split all proceeds 50-50, making the Amityville story, not only one of the most publicized, but one of the most profitable in the history of the paranormal.
What instantly struck me while reading Anson’s 200-page book was how dramatic and varied the phenomena had become since it had been reported to journalist Paul Hoffman earlier that same year. This kind of improvement — experience has taught me — is a sure sign of trouble.
How could anyone, for example, believe the Lutzes would have forgotten to tell Hoffman about something as shocking as a red-eyed pig named “Jodie,” a ceramic lion that attacked and bit them — or green, gelatinous ectoplasm that oozed down from the ceiling? If anyone’s memory is that bad, then it obviously cannot be trusted at all!
Smelling a large rat in the woodpile, and anxious to expose what more and more I came to believe had been a tragic hoax, I began an official investigation into the case in November of 1977. Working in collaboration with a New York photojournalist named Rick Moran, I studied Anson’s book carefully, and over a period of several months followed a trail of evidence that eventually forced the case to crumble under an avalanche of contradictions, half-truths, exaggerations — and, in some cases, outright lies. In reality, one could devote an entire volume to all of the discrepancies dislodged during our investigation; in this condensed report, we will confine ourselves to the most glaring.
A central figure in Anson’s book is a priest from the chancery of the Rockville Centre Diocese. Anson credits this individual with a baffling array of hair-raising experiences, masking his identity with the name Father Frank Mancuso. The priest, it is claimed, was asked by the Lutzes to bless their new home and, upon entering the front door, was confronted by a disembodied voice commanding him to leave. Later, as the priest was travelling along the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens, his car was forced upon the shoulder of the road, the hood flew open, and, as he attempted to brake the car, it stalled. Shortly thereafter, Mancuso was supposedly afflicted with abnormally high temperatures accompanied by red, blistery splotches which appeared on the palms of his hands.
At the same time, reports Anson, the putrefying odor of human excrement pervaded the priests’ quarters at Sacred Heart and caused other priests to flee the rectory.
The priest — whose real name is Ralph Pecoraro — was forced to leave his practice in New York as an ecclesiastical judge in the wake of massive publicity stirred by the release of the book. Pecoraro filed a lawsuit against the Lutzes for “invasion of privacy,” claiming that was reported in Anson’s book concerning him had been “grossly exaggerated.” The suit was eventually settled out of court.
In addition, a fellow clergyman who alleged he was with Pecoraro on the evening of that fateful drive on the Van Wyck claims they experienced nothing more than an ordinary flat tire! The impact of the vehicle as it struck a curb reportedly caused some minor damage opening the hood and door, but the reason for the accident was an old car in disrepair — not the intervention of unseen forces, as Anson implies.
In a final blow to the story, Father Alfred Casola, pastor of Sacred Heart, dismisses the report of a pervasive odor in the rectory as “nonsense.” Priests present at the time of the supposed incident also have no recollection of any such stench and deny being forced at any time to leave the building.
More troubling inconsistencies emerge with regard to Sergeant Pat Cammorato of the Amityville Police Department. Shortly after the publication of Anson’s book, Cammorato found himself burdened with chronic problems over trespassing and vandalism at the Amityville house. Although by then the house was occupied by new owners (Jim and Pat Cromarty) who had not reported any psychic activity, this seemed to have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the steady stream of thrill-seekers who nonetheless came at all hours of the day and night to inspect it.
Cammorato’s headaches were compounded by claims made in Anson’s book that the police officer once conducted an “official investigation” into reports of psychic disturbances at the Lutz’s home during which he witnessed a wrecked garage door, the snow prints of a “cloven-hoofed” animal, and was overcome with “strong vibrations” upon entering the house. Cammorato punctures deep holes in these claims, and hauled out police logs to show why they couldn’t possibly be true: on the very day Anson claims Cammorato visited the Lutzes, the logs indicate Cammorato was out on sick leave for surgery. The logs also testify to the fact that the Lutzes had not contacted the police once during their entire stay in the house, only afterwards, at that time requesting that the house be watched on account “it was empty.”
For me, however, a nagging question about Seargeant Cammorato remains. Was he implicated in Anson’s story merely by accident? Or was there possibly an ulterior motive? An incident regarding Ronald De Feo and Cammorato that occurred in the summer of 1973 suggests a possible answer.
While driving home from work one evening, Cammorato stopped at the De Feo house to talk to Ronald (whose nickname was Butch). Commarato had known the De Feo’s since they had first come to Amityville, and his daughter was a good friend of Ronald’s sister, Allison. “You know, Butch, we’re having an awful lot of larcenies of outboard motors,” he told him. “We have reason to believe you may be involved. If you are involved, you bettter stop because we’re going to get you.” “I don’t steal outboards,” De Feo replied.
Near the end of September, Cammorato spotted Suffolk Police arresting De Feo outside the latter’s home. The officers were standing next to the open trunk of De Feo’s car, which contained an outboard motor. Cammorato stopped to get the details. The seventeen-hundred-dollar motor had been stolen from a Marina in Copiague. Although Cammorato had nothing to do with the collar, he couldn’t resist saying something. “See, Ronnie,” he told De Feo, “we did get you.” A few weeks later, the sergeant’s daughter told him that Butch De Feo had threatened his life. The sergeant phoned Ronald De Feo, Sr., who blew up at his son.
Did Anson learn of De Feo’s contempt for Cammorato by entering into a secret collusion with him?
Alex Tannous, a noted psychic, recalls an interesting visit he made to the Lutzes’ Amityville house in the spring of 1976. While there, he says he could sense nothing of a paranormal nature. Deciding to try psychometry, he asked the Lutzes if they might happen to have anything personally connected to De Feo. He was handed a sample, he says, of De Feo’s handwriting that he was shocked to see was part of a legal contract outlining he distribution of profits from a proposed book and movie. The experience served to reinforce his original feelings that the matter was a collective hoax.
The “horror” in Anson’s book about Amityville is supplied, in large measure, by manifestations of physical damage — at times mushrooming into epidemic proportions. Throughout the story are countless reports of damage to the house, garage and grounds we are told were fixed by outside repairman. Proof of this, however, is notably absent.
The book states that George Lutz contacted the services of the same repairmen and locksmiths that were originally used by the De Feo family. Checks, however, made with these businesses failed to confirm the commission of any such repairs at the Lutz home. More importantly, my investigation into this case with Rick Moran culminated in a detailed inspection of the entire house and no signs of damage were visible anywhere – no new hardware, no new locks, and no signs of repairs to any doors.
A comic perversion of logic was never more striking than in Anson’s report of how George frantically nailed boards across the doorway to one room he felt was most negatively “tainted” by the surrounding forces of evil. We could not help noticing, however, that the door to this room, as do all doors on that floor of the house, opens inwardly — and, once again, showed no signs of damage.
In another scene from Anson’s book, Cathy Lutz hurls a chair at a red-eyed entity through her daughter’s bedroom window; yet there are no signs of any such damage and that particular window is at least as old as the others on the floor.
As for the third-floor window which the Lutzes often claimed “opened by itself,” Moran and I found it surprisingly easy to reproduce this effect merely by stomping our feet in the center of the room. The window, it turns out, is counter-weighted improperly, with the weights heavier than they need be. The result is that any moderate-sized vibration will cause the window to open if they are not latched properly; that latch is broken now and was broken when the Lutzes lived at 110 Ocean Avenue. On interviewing the De Feo housekeeper we learned that finding the window open was no surprise, as it happened even when the De Feo’s lived there.
A prominent feature of Anson’s tale is a “secret” red room, hidden behind a bookcase in the basement of the Amityville house. The room is approximately 2 feet by 3 feet, with head room too low for anyone – except perhaps a hunchback mouse — to stand in. In reality, it is part of an existing gravity-fed water system from an earlier house built on the lot. The land was originally owned by Jesse Purdy, who was then in his 90s and lived in the house that once stood at 110 Ocean Avenue. This house was moved in the early 1920s to lot several hundred yards away. Part of the water storage system for the old house, the “secret” room is now used to give access to the water pipes that otherwise would have been walled up. Why is it painted red? Local neighborhood children said they painted it that color. As they indicated this is where they customarily stored their toys, red seemed an appropriately bright and cheerful color. Anson, though, blithely ignores these facts, and links the room to images of blood, demons and animal sacrifice.
In discussing the physical phenomena Anson claims held the Lutzes in a visegrip of fear for 28 days, I would certainly be remiss were I not to make mention of the infamous green. gelatinous substance said to have nearly flooded their home. This material has undergone a radical change in both form and color since I first saw it mentioned in Paul Hoffman’s article in Good Housekeeping, in which the Lutzes witnessed a keyhole in one room oozing a “red, blood-like substance, a few drops at a time.” In Anson’s expanded version, however. the material looks more like lime gelatin, although George Lutz tasted it, and remarked that it was not. The substance, according to Anson, ran in such quantity that it had to be taken out in bucketfuls and dumped into the Amityville River. Here again we are faced with a truly unfathomable mystery: why would George Lutz be so curious as to taste and smell the offending material, but not curious enough to save some for analysis?
Anson closes his book of horrors with a description of a dramatic seance conducted at the Lutz home on February 18th, 1976. Seated at the dining room table were a handful of psychics, one newsman, and a representative from he Psychical Research Foundation (PRF) in Durham, North Carolina. The participants, according to Anson, reported impressions which ranged from glimpses of dark menacing shadows to shortness of breath, heart palpitations, numbness, quickened pulse rates, and nauseous unrest. Except for PRF’s field investigator, psychics present at the seance, says Anson, were firm in their belief that the house on Ocean Avenue harbored a demonic spirit and could only be removed by an exorcist.
In contacting Jerry Solvin, Project Director of the Psychical Research Foundation, however, I was informed that while the book’s description of the seance is basically accurate, Anson, Solvin charges, tends to “select facts to support his own conclusions.” Solvin, for instance, dismisses Anson’s claim that George Kekoris, PRF’s representative at the time, suddenly became “violently ill” and was forced to quit the room. Solvin claims he momentarily became “queasy”, but does not find this odd given the hot, stuffy, “emotionally-charged” situation. Moreover, he explains, the room was small — approximately 12 feet by 15 feet — and more than 20 persons were present, including a film crew using hot movie lights. Solvin also explained that members of the Psychical Research Foundation did not conduct a full investigation of the Amityville case for two reasons: 1.) the family had moved out of the house at an early stage, reducing in PRF’s opinion the probability of continued activity; 2.) the phenomena reported were far too “subjective” to be reliably measured.
Given the foregoing, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that Anson’s account of what transpired at Amityville was largely, if not entirely, one of fiction. This is based not only on conflictual evidence and testimony, but on disturbing revelations published by People magazine and other sources in 1979. William Weber, Ronald De Feo’s defense attorney, announced that year he was suing the Lutzes for “breach of agreement” and for a share of the Lutz profits on grounds they had “reneged on a deal with him and another writer.” “I know this book’s a hoax,” Weber confessed. “We created this horror story over many bottles of wine. I told George Lutz that Ronnie De Feo used to call the neighbor’s cat a pig. George was a con artist; he improvised on that in the book he sees a demon pig through a window.”
While under oath, George Lutz began to repudiate some of the book’s more spectacular claims, accusing Anson of abusing his creative license. A solid wooden door which, according to Anson for example, was wrenched off its hinges by a “demonic force” was in reality, Lutz said, a frail metal screen door which had blown off during a winter storm.
Lutz also deflated Anson’s account of the infamous green “slime”, noting it was more “like jello”, and that there had only been small “dabs” of it which appeared here and there.
Being a charitable sort, I will concede the possibility the Lutzes may, in fact, have been telling the truth when they first reported their experiences of light paranormal phenomena to the press in February of 1976, and to Paul Hoffman the following year. Allowing for this, however, hardly dissuades parapsychologists from consigning the case to the circular file.
So badly tainted is the affair, so slippery the characters involved, that in the end one is left wondering as to who the demons of Amityville really were.