This week, people across the country have been freaking out about a crime story that sounds like it came straight out of the good season of True Detective. A sheriff in Florida's Panhandle, which is also known as the Redneck Riviera and characterized by conservatism and religiosity, announced at a press conference that a ritualistic triple-murder took place in Pensacola last week.
When pressed for specifics, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan cut right to the chase. "It's witchcraft," he announced Tuesday. "I'll say that right now."
There are a few reasons to be skeptical, of course. For one thing, you might argue Morgan is a backwoods sheriff who's been whipped up into a religious fervor over a gruesome crime, the details of which we still don't know. There's also the fact that Morgan's spokesman name-dropped a religion, Wicca, whose followers generally say they're dedicated to peace, suggesting he might not know what he's talking about at all.
But is it possible that we should be taking the allegedly ritualistic part of this tragedy more seriously? Dawn Perlmutter, an expert on ritual killings and former director of the Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence, says her phone has been blowing up since the news of the murders broke. (I managed to catch her 20 minutes before she took the stage at the International Association for Identification Crime Scene Conference, where she was giving a lecture on—you guessed it—ritual murders.) Apparently, these kinds of crimes are more prevalent than people might think. "I've worked on cases in Ohio, and Florida, and New York," Perlmutter said. "They're international, and not specific to either rural places or cities. They can happen everywhere."
VICE: Hey Dawn. First off, what makes something a ritual murder?
Dawn Perlmutter: What distinguishes a ritualistic killing from a standard homicide is that it goes beyond what's necessary just to kill someone. There's overkill or mutilation. But even more than that, it's usually some kind of symbolic evidence. For example, symbols carved into the body, there can be symbols painted on the floor, it can be the positioning of the body, the staging. These are your pretty standard signs. They tend to be multiple homicides also. And then you get into other types of things, like significance of dates, or significance of holidays specific to different ideologies.
Sheriff Morgan said the killings were linked to the Blue Moon. Have you ever heard of something like that?
Astrological events definitely have significance in a number of traditions, and the Blue Moon would have a particular meaning, although the Wiccan aspect is odd. They are nonviolent. When someone who practices Wicca conducts a ritual homicide, then they're no longer practicing Wicca—they've crossed over to the dark side, which would be Satanism. They definitely would not be accepted in that tradition if they were doing this. That's odd that they are attributing it to that. So they might be misinterpreting what they're looking at.
People seem very riled up by this—understandably. But how common is ritual murder?
I've worked on dozens of ritual murders and testified on them. In terms of statistics, I don't think they're as common as bank robberies, but they're certainly more common than serial killing. They occur. They definitely occur. A lot of people don't believe that they happen, but I just testified in two cases in LA, one last month, that was a ritual killing by a couple. And one was by a young Satanist in LA who murdered his mother. In both of those cases, there was severe mutilation and positioning of the bodies, so there was no doubt they were ritual murders.
What's the most interesting case you've worked on?
I don't know if interesting is the right term. One of the cases that was very disturbing to me was one in Toledo, Ohio, that involved a priest who ritually killed a nun in the sacristy of the chapel on Easter Saturday. It was a 25-year-old cold case, so it was nice that we could still solve it, and he was convicted. But that was disturbing because so many victims came out saying that had been done, and it was actually horrifying in a number of ways that it had gone on for so long.
What's the motivation for someone to do this? Is it like a sacrifice that's required as part of certain religions, usually?
It depends on the ideology or the psychology of it. In general, if they're a true believer, they will do it because it's required as part of their belief system, like a sacrifice that's required on a Blue Moon. Or they may feel they have to target a certain person that day. If it's a true criminal, they might be doing it because it satisfies other needs and they're using it as sort of an excuse. But most of the time, the motivation is they think magically and they think it's gonna give them power or protect them. They believe that by doing that, it will give them more control over their life.
You keep mentioning Satanism. Are there any other groups who do this?
Technically a serial killer can commit a ritual murder and he's not connected to any subculture at all. It could just be something he's making up in his mind. So the term ritual murder can apply to a serial killer, it can apply to a Satanist, it can apply to a Mexican cartel killing, it can apply to a beheading. It's really defined more by the act, and the trauma, and the evidence. It certainly helps if you see certain types of symbolism specific to a certain group.
Is Satanic ritual abuse real? Many people are skeptical, but some argue that you can't risk dismissing it entirely.
This comes up often. It's not really my area of expertise. I do not work with the victims. I don't like to comment on the Satanic ritual abuse, because i think there are victims, but there are also issues with contaminating evidence. There are definitely murder victims tied to Satanic ideologies, so it would make sense there's ritual abuse also.
Is there a danger to what the sheriff said? Is he fear-mongering? Is this going to be another West Memphis Three situation?
I think unfortunately when there's a triple murder like this, [people] are so limited in knowledge, that most people in the West only think of Satanism. They don't know there's other types of ritual murders. I think there's just not enough information for them to understand. Satanism is what everyone thinks because that's just what's been in the media a lot.
What other ideologies do this?
There's all kinds. International populations in Africa, they have what's called Muti murder where people are killed for their skin, which is a ritual kind of murder. You have Palo Mayombe, which they won't kill them but they'll take the human bones and human skulls. You have Mexican cartels that are now worshippingSanta Muerte, and they do ritual murders and put the heads on the altar. You have jihadist murders where throats are cut, and they are beheadings. There are really quite a number of things there can be.
I would think especially in the South, which is full of Evangelicals, people would be quick to point a finger at Satanism.
Again, I think with Christianity, the dark side is Satanism. And I don't think it's specific to the South, because I've seen other people misinterpret this in other parts of the country. Even attributing it to Wicca is a misconception, because if a Wiccan did this, they are no longer a Wiccan—it goes against their entire ideology. It sounds to me more like someone was doing their own types of rituals or taking it in their own direction.
What do you say to people who have laughed at this news story and implied that the sheriff couldn't possibly be correct that this was a ritualistic killing? They better not be joking about this. These ritual murders happen a lot more than people realize. I guarantee if that sheriff is saying it's a ritualistic killing, he has good reason for saying that. They know enough to know if a body's been positioned a certain way. I'm sure that the sheriff has good reason to call it a ritual killing, and I doubt very much he would be exploiting that case in any way whatsoever. We're not going to have a Satanic panic here. I think what's happening is Wiccans are probably feeling persecuted and immediately say, "Oh, he doesn't know what he's doing." Well, he knows enough to know a ritual murder when he sees it. I'm sure of it.
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