Sometime last week, probably on Tuesday night, a visitor entered the residence of the Smith family on Deerfield Drive in Pensacola, Florida, without much trouble. This alone was a bit unusual given just how reclusive the Smiths were; after all, some of their neighbors of many years have never even spoken to them, much less stepped inside their home.
But what happened next was even more strange, and far more disturbing: According to the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, all three of the Smiths were murdered in a ritualistic fashion that might have something to do with the recent "blue moon" (an extra full moon in a given lunar cycle). When pressed for details on what faith's rituals he might be referring to, Sheriff David Morgan didn't exactly mince words.
"It's witchcraft," he said Tuesday at a local press conference. "I'll say that right now."
Voncile Smith, 77, John William Smith, 49, and Richard Thomas Smith, 47, were killed by blunt force trauma, according to authorities, as the Pensacola News Journal reported on Wednesday. All three of the victims were hit with a claw hammer and had their throats slit.
Although the sheriff described the trio as "very, very comfortable" financially and indicated there was a safe full of money in their home, the Smiths were not robbed. Instead, authorities seem to be probing the occult angle.
"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," Sheriff Morgan told reporters. "Those of you that follow any of that will also note that at the time of death we believe on Tuesday it also coincides with what's referred to as a blue moon, which occurs every three years."
Dawn Perlmutter, the director of the Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence, told me that that ritualistic killings are "usually defined by when the trauma goes beyond whats necessary to kill someone," which means that this case technically fits the bill.
The Smiths' bodies were discovered last Friday during a welfare check after a neighbor called the police. The scene was complex enough that it took several days to investigate, and was complicated further by the fact that Richard Smith—who was also reportedly shot in the head—was an employee of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Escambia County Sheriffs Office wanted to make sure there were no national security issues presented by releasing his name to the public.
Police have identified a person of interest in the case, but they're only saying he was a white male with knowledge of the family. Sheriff Morgan also pointed out that just because he thought the person of interest was probably involved in witchcraft doesn't mean that all Wicca practitioners are crazies who carry out ritualistic slaughter. In the press conference, he mentioned a family member who was a Pentecostal, but who did not handle poisonous snakes, saying, "One of the great things about our country you can believe in pretty anything you want to believe in."
Meanwhile, there's already a Change.org petition where witchcraft defenders can push back on the idea that anyone practicing the Wicca faith can be violent.
"Wiccan religion is based on the love of nature and all things peaceful with harm to none, the petition reads. "No where in any history of our religion is sacrificing any living thing part of any religious ritual of any type."
Pensacola was gripped by another bizarre, high-profile murder case in 2009, when Byrd and Melanie Billings—a couple known for adopting special needs children—were shot to death in their home (with at least one of those children present) by five robbers dressed in ninja costumes. Eight people were ultimately arrested in relation to that incident, which was also investigated by Sheriff Morgan.
Morgan seems to have thought that case was a hit. "We'd all prefer it if this were a group of losers visiting a random act of violence on this family," he told TIME in 2009, "but with each passing day and each new witness, we're finding that's probably not the case."
People in Florida's Panhandle, which is characterized in part by the cultural conservatism and fundamentalist Christianity endemic to the Deep South, are apparently spooked by their region making the news rounds for this sort of story. Representatives from Pensacola's historical society either could or would not offer any information about the history of the occult in the city when reached for comment by VICE.
Former law enforcement officials were also reluctant to engage in conversation. One ex-FBI special agent who used to work in North Florida and now makes himself available for interviews would not even broach how one might determine a murder was "ritualistic" in the most abstract of ways.
"I do not know who you are, and this is making me very uncomfortable," the former agent said. "I'm going to have to terminate the conversation."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.