Friday, Mar 18, 2022 โ€ข 28min

Episode 2: Meet The DeFeos

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As the community reels from the shocking DeFeo murders, residents pack an Amityville church to mourn the loss of the family. Host Donnie Wahlberg dives deep into DeFeo history, only to find out that this picture-perfect family had very violent secrets. To learn more about how HLN protects listener privacy, visit cnn.com/privacy cnn.com/privacy
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Speakers
(9)
Donnie Wahlberg
Ric Osuna
Paula Uruburu
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Transcript
Verified
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Donnie Wahlberg
00:32
A quick note before we begin. This episode contains references to child abuse and domestic violence, so please be advised.
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00:41
Previously on Very Scary People: On November 13th, 1974, a mass murder shook the sleepy
Long Island
town of
Amityville,
New York.
That night, six members of the same family were killed methodically, one by one, execution style. Only the oldest son,
Ron DeFeo Jr.
., was spared, who told police he discovered the rest of his family slain at home in their beds.
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01:15
The
DeFeo
murders made headlines everywhere. In
Amityville,
police pored over evidence, trying to piece together clues, who killed every single member of this family but one? And why?
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01:29
It was one of Long Island's most chilling crimes. Six members of the
DeFeo
family shot to death in their
Amityville
home.
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01:36
They say there was no sign of robbery or struggle at the
Amityville
, Long Island home. Killed were auto dealer, Ronald
DeFeo
, his wife and four of their children.
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01:45
People we talked to seemed to feel that whatever was the motive for this crime, it had something to do with the family.
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Donnie Wahlberg
01:50
On November 18th, five days after the murders, residents grieved the loss of the family at St. Martin's Of Tours, a Roman Catholic church in the heart of
Amityville
.
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02:04
Laura DiDio was a television journalist in
New York
at the time of the murders.
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Laura DiDio
02:11
Because of the notoriety and the publicity surrounding the case, where you had the news media there, you were having the funeral mass for six members of the
DeFeo
family, and the church was packed to overflowing
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Donnie Wahlberg
02:25
Paula Uruburu was at the funeral that day. She was one of Dawn
DeFeo's
friends. Dawn, remember, was the oldest daughter in the family.
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Paula Uruburu
02:34
There was no sound except for the Oregon. It was very weird, it was very quiet. Suddenly the wheel in not one, not two, but six coffins.
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Donnie Wahlberg
02:45
Anthony Gangitano played football with the middle son, Mark
DeFeo
.
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Anthony Gangitano
02:50
I just remember all six coffins just in the front of the altar and it was just the most terrible thing you'll ever see in your life. I mean, it's terrible. You know, you're just in shock. I actually went outside for the wall and sat outside. It was overwhelming.
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Donnie Wahlberg
03:06
St. Martin of Tours, where the funeral took place, was founded in 1897. Nowadays it's surrounded by greenery, and when you walk through the churches, tall white double doors, the walls are lined with red, yellow and green mosaics that depict biblical scenes. Light streams in through colorful stained glass and from the intricate chandeliers. But that autumn day in 1974, six coffins were lined up in the middle of the church aisle. The funeral took place right across the street from the catholic elementary school in
Amityville
where the youngest
DeFeo
kids went to school.
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03:47
Here's Laura.
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Laura DiDio
03:48
The nuns decided not to let the classmates of the
DeFeo
children attend the funeral services for a number of reasons. Number one, it was crowded, but they didn't want the kids to be exposed to that. I mean, I guess it was Kinder through 8th grade and that's sort of sad when you think about it. Certainly they didn't want the school children to be exposed or be questioned by the news media or anything like that or they felt it would be upsetting, but it was still sad that those kids, the
DeFeo
kids classmates, were not able to attend the funeral.
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Donnie Wahlberg
04:29
This was the first time a lot of the older kids were exposed to such a violent and tragic loss of life. Here's Paula again
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Paula Uruburu
04:37
People's grandparents died or, you know, people in the family you weren't necessary close to as a kid, but when you're, you know, a junior in high school, a sophomore in high school and somebody your age dies, it has such an impact on you psychologically you suddenly have this sense of your own mortality, you feel like "well, I guess I could die".
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Donnie Wahlberg
04:58
Something like this was so unprecedented. And so shocking. There was almost a numbness, which made going to the funeral seemed like there was hardly an alternative.
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Paula Uruburu
05:09
Yeah, there was no sense of that you might be feeling grief or shock, any of the feelings that you would normally have, there was none of that, was like "go to school", you know? And then it was a question of, "well, if you want to go to the funeral, okay", and that was the extent of the conversation.
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Donnie Wahlberg
05:31
In the years since the murders, memory has smudged the sharp details of that day. But there are still a few things Paula remembers about her late friend's funeral.
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Paula Uruburu
05:42
The girl next to me felt like she was going to faint. I said "are you hot? Are you hot?" And she said "no, I just feel sick" and I kind of had that feeling too because I remember thinking that the coffins of the three younger children were white. I don't know that that was even true, but that was my memory of it. But I remember thinking: So, there were three adult sized coffins and then the three children, and I remember thinking, "Dawn is in one of those adult sized coffins".
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Donnie Wahlberg
06:10
That day during the funeral, the church was packed with neighbors and loved ones.
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Paula Uruburu
06:15
Was so heartbreaking, and again, to me there was no sound, every once in a while you'd hear a sob, maybe, or... but that was it. They wouldn't let us go out until everyone had filed out of the church. So, when we went out, all we saw was this huge procession of the hearse is now going to the saint Charles Cemetery. I mean, it really was a surreal kind of experience.
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Donnie Wahlberg
06:40
And in a strange turn of events, police wouldn't let
Ron DeFeo Jr
. attend his family's funeral. They wanted to keep him under the watchful eye of police, they said.
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06:52
Ric Osuna wrote the book "The Night the DeFeos died". Like we said in the last episode, Ric is one of the preeminent experts on the murders.
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Ric Osuna
07:01
In turn, he never got to say goodbye. You know, I don't even think he's really ever got to properly grieve for his family, especially his brothers and sisters. You have to understand that he really loved his brothers and sisters, very, very much.
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Donnie Wahlberg
07:16
But look a little closer and you'll see the cracks within the family begin to appear.
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07:23
From HLN, this is Very Scary People: The
Amityville
Murders. I'm your host
Donnie Wahlberg
. This is episode two: Meet the DeFeos.
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07:45
Before the DeFeos became a family, Ron Sr. and Louise Brigante were just too young kids living in Brooklyn. Ron Sr. was tall, slender, and handsome. Louise was a natural beauty who wanted to pursue a career in modeling.
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Ric Osuna
07:59
I've been told by the family and friends that, you know, Louise at one time was even dating Mel Torme
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Donnie Wahlberg
08:06
Mel Torme, that wildly successful big band jazz singer. He composed probably one of the most famous christmas songs to date, you know, like "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire". I happen to know this because new kids on the block did a cover of it. It's actually called "The Christmas Song".
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Ric Osuna
08:25
She had the pick of the litter. She was a beautiful woman and young girl.
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Donnie Wahlberg
08:29
Louise and her parents, the Brigantes, were tight, but much to their dismay, it wasn't Mel she chose to stay in a relationship with. Louise, fell in love with a man nicknamed "Big Ronnie". The Brigantes weren't crazy about him, but when you're young and in love, it all happened so fast.
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Ric Osuna
08:52
When Big Ronnie, Ronald
DeFeo
Sr. met Louise, it seemed like they had fallen in love pretty quick. And Louise's parents, the Brigantes, we're not a fan of Big Ronnie. He was crude, obnoxious, a braggart. They didn't really see Louise with him.
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Donnie Wahlberg
09:12
Still, Louise and Big Ronnie went ahead with their relationship, and they got married to each other in 1951. At first, Louise's parents completely cut her off, basically disowned her, but they wouldn't be out of the picture for long. Just a few months after the wedding, Michael and Angela Brigante came back into Big Ronnie and Louise's lives, just in time to welcome their first grandson,
Ron Jr.
to the family in September 1951.
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Ric Osuna
09:43
The Brigantes loved Louise very, very much, and they wanted to make sure she was provided for. So they actually bought the house in
Amityville
for the DeFeos. They continue to buy furniture and so forth.
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Donnie Wahlberg
10:00
After
Ron Jr.
was born, four more children followed. Louise and Big Ronnie seemed to be a happily married couple. Big Ronnie had a soft smile and thick brown hair, and his wife Louise had high cheekbones and big auburn hair. And the life sized oil paintings that hung along the Ocean Avenue house staircase: Louise is wearing a delicate red long sleeve dress and pearls around her neck. Friends said Louise was a loyal wife and a committed mother. She cooked a lot of Italian food and loved to take her kids to museums in
New York
city. In family photos, the
DeFeo
kids looked alike. All of them with dark hair and wide searching brown eyes.
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Ric Osuna
10:43
You had Dawn
DeFeo
, Allison
DeFeo
, you had Mark
DeFeo
and then you had John Matthew
DeFeo
. So it was a big family.
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Donnie Wahlberg
10:55
In 1974, Dawn was 18, five years younger than her big brother,
Ron
aka "Ronnie" or "Butch". Dawn was outgoing, well liked and had plans to go to secretarial school after high school.
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Ric Osuna
11:11
Dawn looked up to Butch and actually Butch looked up to Dawn. Butch told the children, you know, his younger brothers and sisters, that they should take after Dawn's example. She was going to school where Butch had not finished school.
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Donnie Wahlberg
11:26
Here's Paula again.
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Paula Uruburu
11:27
We first connected on C. Y. O. Softball, we were in the softball league together, and she seemed like such a genuine person with, she always had this, you know, nice smile, she was always friendly.
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Donnie Wahlberg
11:39
Even though Dawn was older, and by teenage rules hipper, she didn't make Paula feel less cool.
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Paula Uruburu
11:46
There were other girls who, because they were older than you by a year, they didn't really want to associate with you. But she was never like that. We were just 13, 14 year olds having slumber parties and pool parties. There was nothing out of the norm.
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Donnie Wahlberg
12:01
Younger kids in the neighborhood knew Alison, Mark and John Matthew
DeFeo
from grade school. Alison was 13, barely a teenager when she was killed.
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Ric Osuna
12:12
So Alison
DeFeo
was, if you had to say it,
Butch DeFeo's
favorite sibling. She was very petite, very neat and organized, and she loved puzzles. She loved writing in Butch's boat.
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Donnie Wahlberg
12:29
Then came Mark, who was 11 then, and recovering from a football injury. John Matthew was the youngest
DeFeo
.
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Ric Osuna
12:36
Butch
DeFeo
was very close to his brothers. He loved him. Little John Matt, he was nine when he died, and he was just your typical nine year old boy, loved playing with their dog, Shaggy, and he was just a sweet kid.
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Donnie Wahlberg
12:55
The family had money, but the kids didn't flaunt it. Here's journalist Laura DiDio.
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Laura DiDio
13:01
They did not walk around like, "hey, we're rich kids flashing money", they had normal lives. They rode their bikes, you know, in those days before computer, before the internet, before video games, you went and you played outside, or you went over to your friend's houses and visited. They were happy, they liked their siblings.
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Donnie Wahlberg
13:21
In a lot of ways, the DeFeos were your average white middle class family living in the suburbs.
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Laura DiDio
13:27
They were well adjusted. They had a lot of friends and engaged in all of the normal activities for kids their age.
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Donnie Wahlberg
13:36
In other words, they were, well, pretty normal, at least that's how Dawn's friend Paula remembers it.
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Paula Uruburu
13:43
The pool parties were fun and there was nothing out of the norm. You would never think that there was anything weird, anything that would happen, that would disrupt this, you know, typical suburban 1970s childhood.
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Donnie Wahlberg
13:57
The two became friends playing softball together. Paula remembers what Dawn looked like as a teenager.
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Paula Uruburu
14:03
She had a very round face and she was just beaming all the time. And she, I remember she had this long, really long hair that we always marveled at it. And we used to joke with her that, when we were playing softball, that it was going to get in the way, but she would never put in a ponytail. That was sort of her crowning glory.
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Donnie Wahlberg
14:21
Paula remembers being really impressed by Dawn. She was confident and not afraid to bend the rules.
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Paula Uruburu
14:30
I think the one I smile about is we all have recess at the same time. I was in seventh grade, she was in eighth grade and the nuns were very strict about having your shirt tucked in and you had to have your skirts at a certain length. And I remember her looking and doing what we all did, which was to roll up our skirts a little bit to be in fashion and, you know, to be cool. I saw her do what we all did when we weren't around our parents. And I remember thinking, "wow, she's crazy because the nuns are going to say something". I looked at her and she smiled at me as if to say, "you know what I'm doing right?", and it was like this little moment and I just remember that's so funny. That was who she was, you know.
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Donnie Wahlberg
15:13
Like so many teenagers, Dawn wanted to get away from her parents after high school. This naturally created some strife in the family.
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Ric Osuna
15:21
She wanted out of the house and she was willing to do just about anything for it.
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Donnie Wahlberg
15:27
Dawn had a boyfriend named William Davidge. He was the same age as Dawn. His family had moved to
Florida
from
Long Island,
and Dawn longed to start a new life with him.
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Ric Osuna
15:40
Dawn was trying to get to
Florida
to be with him, and he said that, she would have done just about anything to get out of that house, including riding with the devil all the way to
Florida
, if that is what it took.
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Donnie Wahlberg
15:51
In an affidavit, Davidge wrote Louise and
Big Ronnie
wouldn't let Dawn move away. He also said Dawn would use Butch for money and talks about a time Butch gave him cash to take Dawn to the high school prom. So what was it? Was Dawn running to
Florida
or away from
Amityville
?
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16:14
The more investigators looked into the DeFeos. The more details began to emerge about the family. Remember, Dr. Ziv Cohen from our last episode?, he's the forensic psychiatrist who studied the
Amityville
murder case closely. Dr Cohen says, "children who were abused at home, more often than not, keep the abuse to themselves".
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Dr. Ziv Cohen
16:36
It's very common that the families are extremely good at hiding it. In fact, nobody is better at hiding it than the kids, and the kids learn from a very young age what is okay to talk about outside the family and what is not.
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Donnie Wahlberg
16:50
In his research, Dr. Cohen also found there was some tension between siblings, and the way
Ron Jr.
spoke about his younger siblings after the murders, felt stilted and disconnected.
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Dr. Ziv Cohen
17:02
When he talks about them, it's very superficial. There's very little sadness, if any, that I can see about their deaths. He'll say things about Mark and John, like "we would always play in the car, I would take them for a drive". It's these very flat anecdotes, there's very little emotional complexity, there's no real sense for who they were as people, which is what you usually hear when someone talks about someone that they have real love for and that they're grieving for, they will share certain anecdotes that really give you a sense for who that person was in life and the quality of the relationship.
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Donnie Wahlberg
17:41
Dr. Cohen says,
Ron Jr.
had real issues with his sister Dawn.
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Dr. Ziv Cohen
17:46
So when
DeFeo
talks about his siblings, I think what's most notable to me is the callousness with which he talks about them, certainly about Dawn. He talks about her with clear hostility.
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Donnie Wahlberg
18:38
At the center of the
DeFeo
family was the patriarch, Big Ronnie. Laura DiDio says he was a man with a big personality who had a reputation.
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Laura DiDio
18:48
In trying to describe to today's audience what Big Ronnie Sr. was like, as an archie-bunker on steroids type character. So he was of his time. He was Italian, he was chauvinistic, he had a temper.
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Donnie Wahlberg
19:09
Here's Joel Martin, one of the first reporters at the scene of the murders back in 1974.
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Joel Martin
19:15
People did not like Ronnie, I'm sorry to say. I don't want to put him down and I don't want to criticize him despite holy terrible things they say he has done. It's not my place necessarily, but the family itself has a reputation from some of the neighbors who I've spoken to, of having a lot of problems. And this is the problem. The problem is that they Don't get along sometimes.
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Donnie Wahlberg
19:40
Neighbors whom Joel talked to that night, remember there was a lot of fighting at the
Ocean Avenue
house, and it got pretty loud.
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Joel Martin
19:48
Ronnie
and his father fight, the wife and the husband sometimes don't get along and they argue. And so, there is dissension in this conflict within the
DeFeo
family. It's not the happiest place you want to be. Far from it, it was just not very good. And this is the neighborhood's reputation or thoughts about the family and the house.
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Donnie Wahlberg
20:13
At those summertime pool parties Paula Uruburu remembers hanging out with all the
DeFeo
kids and their mom Louise. Big Ronnie was usually absent, but the moment he showed up, you couldn't miss it.
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Paula Uruburu
20:25
Her father was controlling the barbecue outside and shouting orders to whomever. He was a big presence, you know, he had a big personality. There were some fathers that didn't make an impression on you and in this case the impression that he made was simply that, I don't want to say the term "bully", you were a little afraid of him. He was a little scary because his voice was a little loud.
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Donnie Wahlberg
20:47
Paula felt similar vibes from
Ron Jr.,
but there was something a little off about him too, and not just in a weird "he's my friend's older brother" type of way.
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Paula Uruburu
20:57
And he just was this loner and was really kind of not attached to the whole social aspect of the family.
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Donnie Wahlberg
21:04
Back to that family violence we alluded to earlier, journalist Laura DiDio says Big Ronnie allegedly had a history of getting physical with his wife.
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Laura DiDio
21:16
There are stories about how Louise was coming up from the basement because in those days many people had their laundry room in the basement, and she was carrying a wash basket full of clothes, and he slapped her and she went down the basement stairs. So there was some of that, and there was that mentality probably among chauvinists that "hey, women had to know their place and keep to it".
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Donnie Wahlberg
21:41
Gloria Gangitano witnessed Ron's strong personality firsthand on a couples trip. She was friends with Louise.
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Gloria Gangitano
21:49
Well, we did go to Montreal to Canada with Ronnie and Louise, and my husband and myself. We went for a few days, and that was quite an experience. He was a strange guy, Mr.
DeFeo,
he kind of wanted to be in control of Louise and me. We went to a church and the priest was taking us on a tour and we were like, you know, reacting "wow, I can't believe it, I can't believe it", and he got insulted because he said "I told you all about this already and you sounded like you never heard it before". So he wanted a following that everyone should just listen to him, and do what he says, and agree with him. He kind of thought that he was in charge of everything. So it was kind of an interesting weekend. I was glad I got home.
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Donnie Wahlberg
22:54
Ric Osuna had a theory about where Big Ronnie's abusive behavior came from.
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Ric Osuna
23:01
I think that was to compensate for him living in the shadow of his father in law. Without his father in law, he wouldn't have a job, he wouldn't have a house, his father in law even paid for the expensive family portraits that Big Ronnie wanted. So Big Ronnie compensated by being big and loud and, you know, beating his family.
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Donnie Wahlberg
23:26
We'll get to know Big Ronnie's father in law, Michael Brigante, soon. But first, let's spend some time getting to know the only
DeFeo
who survived that night,
Ron DeFeo Jr
.
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Ronald DeFeo Jr.
23:36
I'm Ronald Butch DeFeo
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Donnie Wahlberg
23:38
According to Ron Jr., his father's abusive and controlling tendencies were on full display at home.
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Ronald DeFeo Jr.
23:45
We're all like animals, and like a dog on a leash, everybody in that house. Nobody could be free.
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Donnie Wahlberg
24:31
Ric Osuna refers to
Ron DeFeo Jr
. by his nickname, Butch. Ric's own journey with the Amityville family started in 2000, when he was a researcher working on a history channel documentary about the murders. After the project was over, he followed his curiosity to learn more about the
DeFeo
family. That led him to
Ron Jr
.. Ric would later get to know
Ron Jr.
pretty well.
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24:59
The abuse at the hands of his father started early. Ric says that Louise's brother once saw Big Ronnie push
Ron Jr.
into a wall when the child was just two years old. They'd all been sitting in the basement just watching tv. Sometimes Big Ronnie would be affectionate and playful, the next moment he got physical. And things didn't get easier, as
Ron Jr.
grew older. Rick says as the firstborn DeFeos' son, the pressure to excel was really high. By the time
Ron Jr.
was in his twenties, he was a stocky guy with a full beard and thick bushy eyebrows. But as a kid, Butch was overweight and his dad didn't let him forget it. It took a toll on
Ron Jr.
aka "Butch".
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Ric Osuna
25:45
Butch DeFeo
, when he was a teenager, took a lot of speed to lose weight. He wanted to get skinnier and he got into drugs and alcohol.
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Donnie Wahlberg
25:54
Here's Ron Jr. in an interview from 2014
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Ronald DeFeo Jr.
25:58
Every day I got high, I used heroin, I was using a lot of heroin back then. I was drinking to a successful Scotch on the rocks.
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Donnie Wahlberg
26:10
It's hard to tell which came first for
Ron Jr
.: the drugs and alcohol, or the run ins with the cops. But in his teens, he started getting into trouble with the law.
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Ric Osuna
26:20
He did get arrested prior to the murders for grand larceny and stealing an outboard motor. And so, Butch would never look for trouble, but he would never run away from it either.
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Donnie Wahlberg
26:32
At 23,
Ron Jr.
was in and out of trouble. But his mom, Louise, looked the other way. Ric recalls
Ron Jr.
was particularly close with Louise.
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Ric Osuna
26:41
Butch was her pride and joy. The relationship strained over the years because Butch started blaming his mother for allowing his father, her husband, to get out of control with the abuse.
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Donnie Wahlberg
26:59
Louise's friend, Gloria, believed there was something sinister about
Ron "Butch" DeFeo Jr
.
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Gloria Gangitano
27:07
Louise used to tell me that Butchie was bad. I didn't know what she meant, but she said "no, Butchie is bad, you know, he's always troublesome".
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Donnie Wahlberg
27:19
So there was sibling rivalry and physical abuse in the
DeFeo
household on
Ocean Avenue
. And Ric says there was something else.
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Ric Osuna
27:28
Folks in
Amityville
knew, they were connected to the mob as well.
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Donnie Wahlberg
27:35
And so, investigators began to follow a new lead. Did the mob have something to do with the
DeFeo
murders?
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Ronald DeFeo Jr.
27:43
I knew something bad was gonna happen to my mother and father. I didn't know when it was going to happen, I didn't know who was going to do it, but I could say that I knew something was coming.
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Donnie Wahlberg
27:53
That's next time on Very Scary People
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28:01
Very Scary People: The
Amityville
Murders, is hosted by me,
Donnie Wahlberg
. It's a production of HLN in collaboration with Neon Hum Media. It is based on an original series created by CNN Executive producer, Nancy Duffy. At CNN, our senior producer is Sabina Rheiman. Our producers Alison O'brien, and our executive producer is Abbie Fentress Swanson. Alexander McCall leads audience strategy for our show, and James Andreas designed our artwork. From Neon Hum Media, our executive producer is Jonathan Hirsch. Kate Mishkin is our producer, and our associate producers are Chloe Chaobal and Navani Otero. Our editor is Stephanie Serrano. Samantha Allison is our production manager. Sam Bear and Josh Hart are a mixed engineers. Theme and original music composed by Asha Ivanovich. Additional music came from Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound. Special thanks to
Sarah Lawrence
,
Michael Reyes
, Kourtney Coop, Tameka balanced colostomy, Ashley Lusk, Robert Mathers, Christian de Chateau, Lisa Nah Moreau and John Dinora.
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