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The Science of <i>The Amityville Horror</i> (Part 2)

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I continue my three-part series interview with filmmaker/writer Ryan Katzenbach below as he says, "sometimes the truth is scarier." Part 11 can be found here.

Alexandra Holzer: Alrighty then. Tell us about this gun that landed you in Maxim and why you were looking for it... and why the canal?

Ryan Katzenbach: Well, I'd much rather talk about the eye candy of Maxim... but alright. You're the boss. In 2000 November, I think, Ronnie DeFeo told Ric Osuna that his friend had been involved in the killings that night and that he had fired a gun into Louise DeFeo, other than the Marlin rifle, thus producing a different caliber of bullet. I'm not going to spill the beans and spoil what's coming in Part II, and then also in III, but suffice to say, there was some new testimony that pushed us in this direction and offered a lot of veracity to the second gun story. Then, new documents surfaced, including witness statements that put a .38 caliber handgun in play. In fact, not just one .38, but TWO. Right after all of this emerged, we uncovered the second photo of the Coles Avenue waste can. It was like all of this all spilled out in the perfect order. Eyewitness... then the documents... then the photo. It was like a neon f*$%!*^ sign pushing us toward Coles Avenue. Now Coles Avenue is between Richmond Street, where they found the Marlin rifle off the bulkhead and the DeFeo house. So it was curious to me as to why there was, what I am convinced, based on the picture, is a pillowcase in that can. We know there were pillowcases used to dispose of the evidence, including a handgun holster in the Brooklyn sewer. As soon as I saw the pillowcase, I believed that this second gun may have been off the Coles Bulkhead. The psychology made sense... dispose of both weapons in the water immediately to avoid the risk of getting caught with them. So, hence, we felt we needed to look in the canal.

AH: How do you go about doing that? Do you just send in some divers and start digging?

RK: Well, I thought it would be that easy. Ya stop in and pick up some metal detectors at Radio Shack, send a diver down, and 20 minutes later, you find the pistol. But it wasn't nearly that easy at all, and we couldn't have done it without Bill Pfeiffer. Our producer, Gail Bleckman, was introduced on a referral to Bill, and Bill arrived on the scene knowing exactly how to handle this. First, we conducted a survey of the canal floor to learn about the geographical qualities... was it flat... how deep was the silt? Were there any sunken obstructions we would have to deal with... like for instance, was there a '64 Buick Riviera at the bottom? Once we knew depths of water, mud and such, then Bill Pfeiffer was adamant that we bring in Kenny Hayes. Kenny owns a company called AquaSurvey out of New Jersey, and they are heavyweights in this stuff. They look for treasure, and by treasure, I mean gold coins... small stuff... or big stuff, like bombs for the government... you name it, and they work, usually, in pretty deep conditions... conditions that are far more pressing and demanding than an 8-foot-deep canal. And this was where Amityville got fun....

AH: The science... not the ghosts, demons and dead Indian spirits?

RK: Exactly. The science. The science and the forensics was the most fun I had on this project because you got to work with teams... experts... who knew the field and they gave you a whole different perspective on things. You weren't just speculating... you were putting a hypothesis to the test. Before this, throughout 2009 or 2010, I had been working with the forensic team headed by Drs. Hickey and Puckett, and they brought a tremendous element of psychology to the case. We worked for upwards of 9 months or so on the forensic autopsy of the DeFeo murders, and that was very engrossing. And I must add... that forensic background... that psychology really helped with the dive. The dives were piggybacked, so to speak, on the psychology. I went to Dr. Hickey and discussed with him the psychology of tossing guns in the water, and he felt like my hypothesis was correct. So, we felt confident in spending the resources to go after the gun. So Kenny brought in his team... Mark Padover... Kyle Kingman and the other guys... and they did an electromagnetic survey to find metallic objects buried in the canal floor. And they found 317 of them. Now, back at the lab, they had actually taken, if I remember what I had been told, an actual handgun of the approximate size that we were looking for and had performed some dry runs over it to capture a metallic signature. They could then take the data from the canal floor and compare the signature... the size, readings and so on to the hits from the canal floor and those would become our prime targets to dig on a priority basis, meaning the ones that were most likely to be a gun, those were the ones we focused on first. Of course, that's the simplified version... it's a bit more complicated than that based on depth of the mud and what-not, but you get the idea, but this allowed them to narrow it down to those most likely to be the gun.

AH: This process took you seven months, I think you said? Was that process frustrating?

RK: Yes and no. We were really only in the water for about six total days, and only three of those days were actually spent digging, with three spent surveying. So the discovery came relatively quick... roughly... twenty hours of dive time, if even that and in large part due to Bill Pfeiffer's intense, methodical organization and attack plan. What took time was permits, coordination with the village, and also trying to coordinate our own team. AquaSurvey is tremendously busy, as is Bill Pfeiffer and his divers, and other than ASI, who was paid, Pfeiffer and his guys were all volunteering their time. So you have to work with everyone's schedule. The permit process with Amityville was interesting. They required that all divers be certified, for which we had to provide certifications, they demanded a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance. They stated that we could only work weekdays from 9-5, we had to have oversight by the police department, and, also as a condition, absolutely NO publicity, which I thought was extremely interesting. Well, we agreed to all of those things and had no problems meeting their requirements, but it took a great deal of time to get it all coordinated. The Village Clerk, Diane Sheridan, was working directly with me on all of this and Diane was great... she was friendly, professional and really, I thought, went a distance to make this happen.

AH: So you told Amityville what you were looking for?

RK: Absolutely. We explained why we were looking for this weapon, why we believed it was in the canal and we made no bones about what we were looking for. They knew from the onset.

AH: The discovery of the gun... give me the beat by beat, Ryan.

RK: I flew in from California on a red eye on Wednesday night, which was the 18th of January. I got to JFK, hopped straight on the Long Island Railroad, and hauled tail for Amityville. I didn't get to the dock before about 11 a.m. or thereafter. Right about the time that I was arriving, the first divers were really digging into the bottom of the canal on their first, or maybe second, target. AquaSurvey was there, on the boat, guiding them, and I had really missed nothing because of how much time it takes to stage the scene. At around 12:30, the divers were moving to their third target and I got a phone call from Los Angeles wanting an update, and I also took a phone call from Geraldine asking how things were going, and then, I called Blue-T Pizza and ordered up lunch for our crew. The furthest I paced up the street was to Coles and Ocean, so I never really left the scene and I was gone, maybe, 15 minutes. When I came back, the scene was electric. Something was obviously very different. That's when they told me that they thought they had a gun.

AH: That must have been just unbelievable to you?

RK: It was. It was. I looked at Bill Pfeiffer and the look on his face and I knew this was serious, but it wasn't until Kyle [Kingman, from AquaSurvey] yelled from the boat and said "Ryan, I think you just hit the lottery" I was really... just... shocked. And then, on the reel, you hear the guys yell "what was the caliber again?" and I yelled back "Thirty-eight" and one of them yelled back "it's either a .32 or a .38." That's when I thought I had swallowed my heart. [The frame of the gun found was used for both .32 and .38 caliber models by many manufacturers]

AH: Who was the first person you told?

RK: Well, I called Diana. [Diana Maiocco is Ryan's partner on the project.] And I knew she was unavailable all day, barring the phone call I had received from her. So, I got her voice mail. I left a message and said "Diana, it's Ryan. Hey, when you get a chance you need to call me. Your partner just pulled a gun out of the Amityville Canal." I don't know how long it was before Diana called me back, it was sort of a vacuum of time at that point. The next call I made was to Geraldine.

AH: Wow! What did she say?

RK: When she answered the phone, her voice was a bit tense or perhaps serious and she said, "So what's going on?" And I said, "Well, things got interesting." She says, "How so?" I say to her, "We just pulled what we think is a .38 from the canal." All I hear on the other end is screaming... she was screaming... "OH MY GOD, RYAN! YOU WERE RIGHT!" She was more excited with the discovery than I was.

AH: Did you, throughout the process, encounter any of the neighbors or locals?

RK: Oh yeah. And they were all pretty cool. One of the neighbors, his rear deck backed up to the canal, came out on his deck and was yelling across the water, "What are you looking for?" No one answers... it sort of deferred to me. I yell back, "We're looking for a weapon in a murder case." He yells back, "Old or new?" I yell back, "Old." He yells back something along the lines of, "Can you give me a hint?" SO... I just pause for a moment and without answering directly, I stick my arm in the air, and with my thumb I point northerly, toward the house. I see him grin. He came over later to the bulkhead and we had a chat about the case and the project... nice guy. The Blue-T Pizza guy showed up with our order right around the time we were entrenched in our discovery of the pistol. He chatted with us for a little while, too. We saw a great deal of hospitality from Amityville. Very nice people... and I have no complaints. Good people.

AH: Now, from the discovery you didn't find a whole gun. You only found half, so how can you be sure that this gun is connected?

RK: There's no way to authenticate that the gun we found was involved in the DeFeo case. BUT, there's also no way to rule out that the gun we found wasn't involved, either. The remnants we found was that of a frame, trigger guard, trigger... it was missing the chamber and the barrel. And even today if we found the chamber and the barrel, they would likely be so corroded that there would be no way to test it against item 33 to conclude whether or not the rifling was consistent.

AH: Item 33?

RK: Item 33, in the Suffolk Police inventory is the second bullet removed from Louise DeFeo which doesn't match the rifling qualities of the other bullets. The fact that someone spent the time to take the hinge-pin from the handgun we found, and to dispose of the gun in two, or three separate pieces indicates, to me, and to my forensic psychologists, that whomever threw the gun in the canal was definitely trying to conceal what the gun had been involved in. You don't spend the time to break down a gun and get rid of it in three pieces unless you are covering something up.

AH: Interesting. So who threw the gun in the canal?

RK: I'll never tell. Well. Not before Part 3 comes out, anyway.

AH: Is it possible that the gun could be connected to another crime and not DeFeo?

RK: It's entirely possible, Alex. But in my mind, I don't think likely. Again, I fall back to witness statements that said that there was a .38 at play. They confiscated all the guns from the DeFeo house and yet they were still looking for this second gun, according to eyewitnesses. That .38 wasn't among the guns that were recovered. We know it existed. We know that to be a fact. So the gun had to have gone somewhere. If this were a gun connected to another crime, I'd certainly expect to see, in the SCPD's defense, a slew of cases brought to light wherein a .38 had been used and the pistol was never found. This hasn't been the case. Other than to say I am wrong, there has been no evidence presented to counter my beliefs.

The final part of our series interview on the Science of Amityville concludes in the next post.

To learn more about Shattered Hopes and Writer/Director Ryan Katzenbach please follow him on Twitter at: @AmityvilleFilm and website at: