PENSACOLA, FLORIDA – On Friday, July 31, three residents were found murdered in their home on Deerfield Drive in the coastal city of Pensacola. The victims were Richard Thomas Smith (age 49), his brother John William Smith (age 47) and their mother Voncile Smith (age 76). The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) found them at 9:30 a.m. during a welfare call, which was requested by Richard’s concerned employer.
During that morning check, officers found the three bodies. Their throats were slit, and Richard had a gun shot through his neck. As has been reported, the family was killed on Tues, July 28. and their deaths were caused by blunt force trauma by hammer. The police have ruled out robbery and are currently investigating.
This gruesome reality turned media frenzy after the department held an Aug. 4 news conference. During the opening speech, Sheriff David Morgan called the case “odd at best,” describing the family as reclusive. Then when he was asked about motive, he responded:
… initial research has led us to believe that there is a potential that it was a ritualistic killing … The method of the murder, blunt force traumas, slit throats, positions of bodies and then our person of interest has some ties to a faith or religion that is indicative of that.
When asked for more, Sheriff Morgan noted, “Well, again, the time of the blue moon every three years, the method of the murders and also our person of interest is known to practice this.” He was then asked directly “What religion?” Sheriff Morgan responded, “It is Witchcraft.” The full news conference was uploaded to You Tube.
That was all it took. Within minutes, the local, national and, eventually, international media were reporting on the triple murder. “Witchcraft suspected in savage murder of family” reported the local CBS affiliate WKRG. The Washington Post announced, “Florida triple murder tied to ‘witchcraft’ and blue moon, police say.” And NOLA.com asked,”‘Witchcraft’ and ‘blue moon’ behind Pensacola triple homicide?”
Shortly after, NBC quoted ECSO’s own Sgt. Andrew Hobbes saying, “It appears that this might be connected to some type of Wiccan ritual killing and possibly tied to the blue moon.” Witchcraft suddenly changed to Wicca. Several ABC and CBS affiliates around the country picked up the wording change. For example, one in Texas reported, “Wiccan ritual may be motive behind deaths of three family members in Fla.” And, the UK’s Daily Mail announced, “Florida family murdered with a hammer in ‘ritualistic Wiccan killing planned to coincide with the Blue Moon‘ ”
As the story continued to gain media traction throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday, Pagans began to speak out publicly against both the sensationalist, and often false, coverage and the Sheriff’s premature speculation. Peg Aloi at “The Witching Hour” wrote, “I am fairly certain there is nothing in any book on Wicca that has ever been published on Planet Earth that describes body positions consistent with ritual murder.”
Lady Liberty League (LLL), who has been investigating the situation, published a statement, saying, “We are deeply concerned by the misrepresentations of Wicca, witchcraft and Paganism that have resulted, and are currently working to respond to the situation … We ask that all Wiccans, Pagans and those concerned send prayers and energy for healing to those affected by the murders, local law enforcement, the local community and the cause of religious understanding and Pagan civil liberties worldwide.”
LLL’s Rev. Selena Fox is one of two Pagans quoted in a Guardian article titled, “Wicca experts slam Florida sheriff for linking triple murder to ‘witchcraft.‘” Published Aug 5, the UK news outlet took a very different approach from others agencies by talking to actual Pagan practitioners. The Guardian quoted Fox as saying, “Ritual murder is not part of the Wiccan religion, it never has been, and it’s not now.” She also said added, “There are so many crime shows on TV and the Internet [that involve witchcraft], and I think that some story lines can complicate reporting on actual crimes.” Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, was also quoted and said, “If they had done even a modicum of research it would be clear this had nothing to do with Paganism.”
Riki Lee Para started a change.org petition titled “Stop the Witch Hunt!” It reads, in part, “We send our deepest condolences to the victims and families involved, however the Wiccan community will not stand for allegations from a high ranking office of justice that these murders were due to a ‘Blue Moon Ritual by a Wiccan Practitioner'” In less then 24 hours, it has earned over 817 signatures.As is typical, the media storm caused some confusion on what had actually been reported by the sheriff’s department. In attempt to clarify, ECSO republished the portion of the news conference transcript that specifically mentioned Witchcraft. The second press release, titled “Statement Concerning Transcript of news conference,” read:
The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office has received numerous inquiries relative to the triple homicide in Escambia County, specifically as to its potential ties to a ritualistic murder. We encourage everyone concerned about the truth and facts to read the following transcript …
In the following abridged statements, ECSO noted that Sheriff Morgan said “While it doesn’t bother me to release it being their being [sic], most assuredly, you do not want to want to [sic] defame or demean any particular practices.” He also noted that “our country” allows for the belief in “anything.”
The Wild Hunt reached out to ECSO and spoke with its PIO Sena Maddison, who said, “The department by no means meant to imply that Wiccans are killers.” She offered apologies to the community for this confusion. When asked about Hobbes statements to NBC, she said that Hobbes was misquoted. He never said the word “Wicca.” She further explained that it was the media confusion that prompted ECSO to release that second statement and to also post the news conference on its You Tube channel and Facebook page.
ECSO may not have intended to create the media frenzy, but the department did cause it by using hot button, or so called click-bait, terms in its initial news conference, which included reference to the blue moon. Unfortunately, the repercussions of such acts are not always limited to news reports and sensational banter. They can also lead to the real-life bullying of modern Witches and Wiccans. The Wild Hunt has received reports over the last day indicating that several Pagans living in small conservative communities have been harassed. Unfortunately, none of these people would go on record.
However, in the online petition, Pensacola Wiccan Katharine Jones did refer directly to this danger. She angrily, wrote, “I am a minister with Fire Dance Church of Wicca, operating in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. The slanderous statements made by Sheriff Morgan present a risk to the safety of the residents of this county. He is inciting hate crimes against anyone who appears to be non-Christian, including essentially everyone who is a member of any counter culture. He is personally responsible for any violence which results from his comments.”
At this point, there are many dots that do not connect within the publicly available story. When asked why ECSO had linked the crime to Witchcraft at all and who this practicing “person of interest” was, Maddison said that she could not reveal any more details on the case, because it is still an open investigation. And, that is standard practice. Additionally, we asked if any officers had contacted local Pagan organizations or individuals, she said, “not yet.”
There currently is just not enough publicly available data to know exactly what happened. Did anyone in the family or associated with the family actually practice Witchcraft or any religion for that matter? Why was the crime considered ritualistic? And, why was the act linked to the blue moon, which actually occurred three days after the reported murder? There are many questions yet to be answered.
As for the media, the local CBS affiliate WKRG has since spoken to the victims’ family members, who are quoted as saying “witchcraft” had nothing to do with the murders. They also added – as proof – “the Smith family were normal folks.” In addition, WKRG followed The Guardians’ lead and is now reporting that “Witches say they’re not linked to Triple Murder.”
The latest news release from ECSO states that samples from the scene are currently being analyzed, and that the department will not update the media until the lab reports are back. Maddion invited us to contact her directly with any future questions. We will continue to follow the case and update as we learn more. In the meantime, the mainstream media will most likely continue to speculate, sensationalize and feed.