Ritual Baiting By Journalists Follows Arrest In Pensacola Triple Murder
On July 31 of this year in Pensacola, Florida, the bodies of Voncile Smith and two of her adult sons were found. They had been murdered, by gunshot, bludgeoning with a hammer, and by the cutting of their throats. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan quickly declared that the murders had been committed as part of a Wiccan blue moon blood ritual. Morgan claimed that the bodies had been found together in specially arranged ritual positions, and that the method of killing indicated a ritual. Morgan also asserted that the murder had been motivated by the blue moon that took place on July 31, and cited the Wiccan identity of a “person of interest” as reason to believe that the murders were part of a Wiccan ritual.
Quickly, art theorist and right wing activist Dawn Perlmutter declared that the crime was certainly a ritual murder. Perlmutter had not seen the crime scene herself, and has no professional background or education in criminal justice, but has claimed the authority of an expert in ritual murder. The national news media eagerly fed on the sensationalistic idea of a ritual murder, and repeated the claims of murderous Wiccan ritual traditions, but cooler heads noted that there is no actual tradition of ritual violence in Wicca, that blue moon ceremonies are not at all common in Wicca, that the murder almost certainly did not take place on the day of the blue moon, and that there didn’t appear to be anything ritualistic indicated by the crime as it was described by Sheriff Morgan’s office.
Yesterday, the Escambia County Sheriff’s office arrested Donald Hartung, a son of Voncile Smith and half brother of the other two murder victims, in relation to the crime. He will be charged with three counts of premeditated murder. A grand jury indictment of Donald Hartung will be sought within the next few weeks, and prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
It seems that, contrary to rumors in late August, Sheriff Morgan has not yet abandoned his belief that a Wiccan blue moon ritual was somehow responsible for the murders.
At a press conference yesterday, when asked by a reporter about his claims in August that the murders had been a ritual act of witchcraft, Morgan replied, “There were actually three prevailing theories that we were looking at, Amber, that you do in the getting together, and hopefully that will assist to the conclusion of the case. We were looking at, you know, was the DHS angle a part of, you know, a motive for this? Was the fact that Mr. Hartung was engaged in that, you know, the reason that I say that, there were some statements that he made, and there was some evidence that was found at his home that clearly indicated that tie in. That will come out, and I won’t speak to that issue… and lastly, a motive for possible financial gain. Those were the three prevailing ones that we had, and so is that still in play? Yes, it is.”
Bill Eddins, Florida State Attorney for the First Judicial Court, appears less enthusiastic about the ritual murder theory than Sheriff Morgan. When a reporter asked Eddins about investigations in to the motive for the murder, he replied, “We will review all aspects of the case as we move forward to ensure that the motive, the proper motive is addressed. There are some indications of what the motive is. Those will become clear as initial paperwork is made public. I really would not go into those at this time, but as the Sheriff said, there are two or three possibilities, and all of those will be explored and narrowed down when the case is presented in court.”
When Eddins was asked, “Are you claiming that his religion or anything like that had anything to do with?” the State Attorney replied simply, “We can’t go into that at this time.”
Once again, journalists are eagerly repeating the claim that Voncile Smith, Richard Smith and John Smith were the victims of a Wiccan murder ritual. A report by WFLA TV asserts cites the following evidence: Donald Hartung was said to own a book about Wicca, and has been described by family members as being “loosely” involved in witchcraft. Also, WFLA says, there is “the night of a blue moon, which is heavily referenced in witchcraft lore, and occurs once every three years.”
WFLA’s report doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the murder did not occur on the night of the blue moon in August. WFLA’s reporters also seem not to have actually investigated Wicca lore, which actually does not heavily reference the night of a blue moon. WFLA couldn’t even get the astronomy of the blue moon right. Blue moons don’t take place every three years. The next blue moon will happen early next year.
Sloppy journalism about this case isn’t limited to WFLA, however. The Pensacola News Journal still refers to the crime as a “ritualistic murder”, as does USA Today. Nina Golgowski wins the award for the most painfully inaccurate clickbait, with her headline for the New York Daily News: ‘Blue Moon killer’ murdered family in witchcraft-like ritual. Golgowksi arrived at her sensationalist inaccuracy by conflating yesterday’s press conference with a press conference held almost three months ago, pretending that no the critical examination of the ritual claims has happened in the meantime. She wrote, “A north Florida man slashed his family’s throats and beat them with a claw hammer as part of a ‘ritualistic killing, inspired by witchcraft, authorities said.” In fact, that’s not at all what was said at yesterday’s press conference.
WFLA’s report on the investigation yields one small bit of critical thinking: It acknowledges that Sheriff Morgan’s claim that the bodies of the murder victims had been arranged together into a ritual pattern is completely unsubstantiated. In fact, investigators tell WFLA, the murder victims were found in completely different rooms from one another. Nina Goglowski continues to perpetuate the rumor that the victims’ bodies were ritually displayed by the murderer, but that’s not actually what happened.
It’s not even certain that Donald Hartung actually considers himself Wiccan. We have a great deal more to learn about this case, and a great deal more will emerge about the Escambia County Sheriff Department’s rush to declare the crime a Wiccan blue moon cult ritual murder.