In August 2015, we took a hard look at a story of a triple murder that gained worldwide attention when the police alleged it was related to the “blue moon” and practice of witchcraft.
Voncile Smith, 77, died of blunt force trauma from a claw hammer. Her two sons, Richard, 49, and John, 47, were also killed, John, in the same manner as his mother, and Richard, shot in the head. All had their throats cut.
The Escambia County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Andrew Hobbes told NBC News, “It appears that this might be connected to some type of Wiccan ritual killing and possibly tied to the blue moon.” Hobbes received widespread backlash for the comments that Wiccan practice and the moon phase was related to the incident.
Now, an arrest has been made in the case. Donald Wayne Hartung Sr., 58, was taken into custody Tuesday morning and charged with three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths. He is the son of victim Voncile Smith and the half-brother to the other two victims. The prosecutor will seek the death penalty.
But what of the “ritualistic killing” claims? These are being downplayed.
Recall that the incident was three days prior to the “blue moon” full moon phase so that holds no weight. The sheriff’s office is now saying that the witchcraft claim was based on statements from Hartung and evidence found in his home. But the family previously denied that the moon or the occult had anything to do with this. Yet, authorities still think that this may be related. Hartung was a person of interest they initially suspected. It took them months to sift through all the evidence in order to make an arrest. They said they didn’t think Hartung was a flight risk. This seems unusual – if they made public the accusations about witchcraft so early, wouldn’t Hartung know he was suspected?
Hartung is said to have “loosely” practiced some form of witchcraft or Wiccan religion, and kept a Wiccan book in his office. This is not clarified at all. But the authorities now contradict an initial report that the bodies were found in a ritual pattern. They apparently were not.
Hartung had no major criminal history or noted dispute with his family. But police also noted that there may be a motive of financial gain and a relation to Richard Smith’s work with the Department of Homeland Security. The initial hype about witchcraft remains as apparently unnecessary. The authorities were quick to label this as part of the motive but took the necessary time to study the evidence in order to make an arrest. The case remains quite confusing with insufficient information provided at this time to make sense of it. It’s unfortunate the police didn’t exercise such restraint from the beginning.