The people, science and technology behind discovery

Amityville weapon resurfaces

Almost 40 years after one of America's most famous mass murders, a second weapon is detected and recovered with marine geophysics.

by Graham Chandler on June 4, 2012 applied

It was the perfect horror classic. With stars like Rod Steiger, James Brolin and Margot Kidder, and driven by the horrific true murder story behind it, 1979’s The Amityville Horror was just one of a series of blockbusters, most of them based on the subsequent haunting of the house where it all happened. But of the original 1974 crime investigation by New York’s Suffolk County police department, one thing was missing—a second murder weapon.

Now thanks to some sleuthing by documentary producer Ryan Katzenbach and a detailed underwater electromagnetic survey conducted by US-based Aqua Survey Inc, it has surfaced, quite literally.

Katzenbach is producing a three-part feature series entitled Shattered Hopes, about the murders to which Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. confessed the day after. The official story is that he acted alone, in a heroin- and alcohol-fuelled rage, in killing six members of his family in their beds with just a .35-caliber Marlin rifle. Methodically, starting with his abusive father. But other versions of the story are much more complicated: it was hypothesized by some that Butch acted along with his sister Dawn—who was shot by Butch the same night. For this to happen there must have been another murder weapon. And supporting that theory, among some discarded evidence found nearby was a handgun holster. But no handgun.

According to a feature story by writer Seth Porges that appeared in the May 2012 issue of Maxim magazine, during his research of (heavily redacted) police files and reports of the original investigation Katzenbach had learned of ballistic and other evidence that strongly suggested a .38-caliber handgun had been involved too. If so, Katzenbach theorized the gun may have been thrown into the canal that fronts the now-famous house.

But how to find it? Katzenbach engaged the services of Aqua Survey, to undertake an electromagnetic survey of the canal. Aqua Survey had the requisite skills. Their work, and expertise in ecotoxicology and marine geophysics, has taken them everywhere from Cleopatra’s Palace off Alexandria, Egypt, to the Bahamas, where they have helped hunt for sunken treasures.

To narrow the search area and keep costs to a minimum, they combined proven geophysical techniques with some deductive reasoning. Aqua Survey owner and founder Ken Hayes explains their approach: “First, we took chunks of asphalt that weighed the same as a .38 handgun andpitched them into the canal. Then we added about 25 feet, reasoning that the kid was on heroin and had just killed six people, so there was a strong likelihood he had greater strength.”

That focused the search area down to about 125 feet directly out from the bulkhead and approximately 200 to 300 feet in length. Towing an electromagnetic time domain detection system behind their boat, they then began the pattern. “Our survey lanes were one metre wide,” says Hayes. “We used a DGPS (Differential Global Positioning System), survey-grade GPS, setup for navigation and tracking control and, as they say in the business, ‘mowed the lawn’. ”The survey took less than five hours.

Next, Aqua Survey geophysicists performed an advanced computer analysis on the targets in order to distinguish and prioritize them. Different filters were applied to the data using Geosoft montaj UX- Detect, says Hayes. They ended up with over 317 metallic targets, so had to winnow them down. “We could guess how thick the mud was there,” says Hayes. So they took an actual handgun of similar size and weight, and scanned it from incremental distances starting at one foot to see what a handgun signature would roughly look like at various depths under the muck. From that, “we narrowed the potential targets down to a probable ten,” he says, “using the analysis and filtering tools in UX-Detect.”

“We were able to eliminate a whole lot of signatures to prioritize the ten,” says Hayes. To accurately zero in on those so divers could locate a suspected item, they made their own electromagnetic probe. “We used it in real time,” says Hayes. “With it we went out with our precision GPS and got onto the location. We were in about eight feet of water and we knew the mud was four, maybe five, feet deep.” On each location they would push the EM probe into the sediment until the target was reacquired, because they could see the EM signatures on their computers, on the boat, in real time. “Then we put the probe right on the target—we knew when we were touching it—and the diving team would excavate right down the probe pole. On just the third dig-out the diver came up with a glob of mud; it was obviously metal by its weight. “We washed it off, and the chamber and part of the barrel were missing, but it was clearly a top-break snub-nose,” says Hayes.

There could be grounds for skepticism admits Hayes, but he’s confident with their role in the discovery. “Do we know it was the gun used in the commission of the crime?” he questions. “We don’t, but from all the evidence this is where it was. We know the diver didn’t plant it, and I know my guys didn’t. While we considered that the producer might be pushing for sensationalism, it’s cost him money to fund the survey with no guarantee of results.”

When the recovery team came up with the handgun, they had it for all of about 20 minutes. “The Crime Scene Investigation people watched our every move,” says Hayes “and it was promptly put into an evidence bag and taken away by the Suffolk County Police Department.”

In the end, it was another experience for Aqua Survey to add to their portfolio of geoscience detective work, and Hayes believes the producer got what he wanted:  “All of a sudden it’s no longer just a movie, it’s a sensational movie.”