Sheriff: ‘Ritualistic’ killings may be tied to blue moon
PENSACOLA, Florida (AP) — More than a week after the gruesome deaths of an elderly Florida woman and her two adult sons — in what authorities suspect was a ritual killing — neighbors and family on Wednesday said they have many questions but few answers.
Meeks Willard, who lives in the rural, west Pensacola neighborhood where the Smith family was killed, said he is frightened and doesn’t sleep at night because of the crime.
“This is causing me a lot of stress,” said Willard, who never met the Smiths despite living on the same street for years.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said Tuesday that authorities had identified a person of interest in the deaths of Voncile Smith, 77, Richard Smith, 49, and John Smith, 47.
All three victims were struck multiple times with a claw hammer and their throats were slit. Richard Smith was also shot in his right ear.
Morgan’s office declined all requests for interviews Wednesday, saying only that authorities were waiting on lab analysis of evidence gathered in the ongoing investigation.
A day earlier, Morgan said the initial investigation pointed toward some kind of “ritualistic killing.”
“The method of the murder — blunt force trauma ... positioning of the bodies — and our person of interest has some ties to a faith or religion that is indicative of that,” Morgan said at a news conference Tuesday.
He added that that the time of death “coincides with what’s referred to as a blue moon, which occurs every three years.”
The blue moon, a rare second full moon in a single month, occurred on Friday, July 31. While the bodies were discovered that day in the home, authorities believe the killings occurred three days before.
The leader of a Pensacola-area Wiccan group, responding to comments by the sheriff about ritual killings, said the victims were not associated with any of the area’s pagan or Wiccan organizations.
Nor do the murders relate to any tradition followed by pagans or Wiccan organizations, said Keith Vallas of Three Moon Wiccan Grove.
“The entire pagan community is outraged by what the sheriff is saying,” he said. “No one I’ve ever been exposed to in the community would do anything like this.”
Voncile Smith’s grandson said he was completely shocked to learn of the deaths of his grandmother and two uncles.
“They sounded perfectly happy the last time I talked to them,” Donald Hartung of Virginia Beach, Virginia, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “It’s a shock to me, too. Everything sounds crazy.”
Hartung said he had little contact with his grandmother and uncles and that he talked to them only a couple of times each year. He said he has called Florida authorities but gotten little information.
Hartung’s father, Donald Hartung Sr., also lives in the Pensacola area, about three miles (5 kilometers) from the slain family members. Hartung Sr. did not respond to phone messages or a note left at his home Wednesday.
Authorities have said there were no signs of forced entry to the slain family’s home and nothing was taken from the home. A large amount of cash was left in a safe that wasn’t touched, authorities said.
Richard Smith was employed by the Department of Homeland Security and worked at Naval Air Station Pensacola, but officials with the Naval Criminal Investigative Services “have determined there are no issues involving ... national security elements,” Morgan said.
Officials at the Naval base in Pensacola referred all questions to their colleagues in Washington. Officials in Washington declined comment or referred inquiries to the sheriff on Wednesday.