Police blamed murders on blue moon and witchcraft but motive was far more simple

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A blue moon – a rare second full moon in a lunar cycle – only occurs every two or three years, hence the saying, ‘Once in a blue moon.’

It is considered a spiritual time to many and authorities in Pensacola, Florida, were convinced it had triggered the murders of three family members.

‘It’s witchcraft, I’ll say that right now,’ a sheriff declared at a press conference to an astonished room of media.

It was July 2015 and Voncile Smith, 77, and her two sons, John, 49, and Richard, 47, had been slain in their home with the blue moon fast approaching.

The brutal killings were described as being ‘ritualistic’ by the local authorities. It seemed something beautiful was being blamed for causing something very tragic indeed.

Voncile lived with her sons, John and Richard. They kept themselves to themselves with many neighbours later saying they’d never even spoken to the family – and they certainly had no idea they were very comfortably well-off, because they’d all worked hard over the years.

Retired Voncile would spend her days quietly watching QVC shopping shows on TV. John had worked tirelessly for 20 years at the local Walmart, while Richard was an IT specialist for the Department of Homeland Security. The trio were a close family unit.

Voncile had another son – Donald Hartung, 58, who she had given birth to as a teenager. Hartung would come over every week to have dinner with his mum and half-brothers. On July 28, Hartung had visited, as he did every Tuesday.

Three days later, Richard’s colleagues were concerned he hadn’t been showing up for work, which was very unlike him. They contacted police who did a welfare check on July 31, the date of the blue moon. They discovered a crime scene at the family home. Voncile and her two sons were all found dead.

They had all had their throats cut and they’d all been beaten over the head with a claw hammer. Richard had also been shot in the head near his right ear – he was the bigger of the three victims, so it was assumed the killer had to attack harder to bring him down. The end of Voncile’s little finger had been cut off, too – as though she’d been tortured.

There was a safe full of money in the house and yet nothing had been stolen. At first, it was thought the killing might have been connected to Richard’s work with Homeland Security, but that was quickly discounted.

Investigators concluded that because the family had been killed on July 28, all three had been slain in a ‘ritualistic fashion’ and connected the killings to the imminent blue moon.

‘The method of the murder – blunt force trauma… positioning of the bodies,’ all pointed to an occult-themed killing, they said.

But they also mentioned they had a person of interest who had ties to a ‘faith or religion’ they believed would connect them to having an urge to kill during the blue moon. With no money taken from the wealthy family it seemed like the only motive.

Their prime suspect was Hartung. He had been the last to see his mum and half-brothers and although neighbours saw him leave on the night of his weekly dinner, he unusually drove away later than he normally did and with no headlights on. Police found Hartung’s DNA throughout the crime scene, which wasn’t a surprise for a man who often visited the home.

Hartung practised the pagan witchcraft Wicca. He had a Wiccan ‘worship room’ in his house, with books about witchcraft and even an Ouija board. Local pagan followers were outraged at the suggestion that Wicca traditions had anything to do with murder.

‘No one I’ve ever been exposed to in the community would do anything like this,’ they insisted, as the press continued to refer to the murderer of the Smith family as the Blue Moon Killer. So why else was Hartung a suspect? And could the motive be something far less fanciful than coinciding with a rare moon?

One of Hartung’s co-workers came forward to say that Hartung had admitted that he’d inherit his mum’s assets because he was the eldest living heir.

Hartung wasn’t in his mum’s will – but if she died, and so did his half-brothers, he would get it all. And ‘all’ was a surprisingly large amount. In total, the family had close to $900,000 in their accounts. It seemed the blue moon had been a coincidence – the motive was money.

Hartung was arrested in the October and charged with the three murders. It would be four and a half years before the case came to trial. The prosecution said Hartung had killed his family for financial gain.

‘This family of three was minding their own business, staying to themselves and taking care of one another for years,’ they said. ‘And no one tried to harm them until, that Tuesday July 28, 2015, when this defendant, Donald Hartung, already had in his mind that he was going to retire.’ They said that Hartung wanted the fortune and knew he could only get it if they all died.

They had an inmate testify against Hartung. Marlin Purifoy, who was serving time for attempted murder, had been in jail with Hartung and said that he’d confessed to the killing, and that he’d been planning it for years.

The defence said they were simply the words of a convict who was trying to negotiate a deal. But Marlin did know that the end of Voncile’s finger had been cut off – which was believed to have been an attempt by Hartung to get her to reveal the combination to the safe. It was a detail that wasn’t common knowledge.

Hartung’s defence insisted he didn’t know the details of his mum’s will, and had done nothing but try to help investigators. He’d willingly given DNA and had even offered to take a lie detector test, which had been declined.

They suggested the offer was turned down out of fear that he would pass and blow a very high-profile case wide open. They said the crime had been an act of rage and he loved his family.

But the prosecution concluded Hartung did it for the money and they read aloud from Voncile’s last will and testament.

‘I hereby give, devise and bequeath to my husband Richard A. Smith providing he will survive me,’ the prosecutor read. ‘But if he does not survive me, then an equal share to my two sons, Richard Thomas Smith and John William Smith, to be theirs absolutely. I intentionally make no provision herein to the benefit of my son Donald Wayne Hartung Jr., not for lack of love or affection but because he has sufficient assets of his own.’

Any suggestion that the Wiccan practice was connected to human sacrifice was expertly denied in court. It seemed the blue moon had been a red herring.

In January, Hartung, now 63, was found guilty on all three counts of premeditated first-degree murder. At the sentencing, Hartung made a statement.

‘I loved my jury,’ he said to the judge. ‘They paid close attention but your honour, they were duped, and you were duped.’ He criticised his legal counsel for not allowing him to testify but his request for a mistrial was denied. ‘You knowingly and voluntarily waived your right to testify during trial,’ the judge said. ‘That was the decision you made.’

There were personal statements made by the loved ones of the victims. ‘As far back as my memory of my aunt, I idolised her,’ said Voncile Smith’s niece Faye Hass. ‘She was beautiful, not only on the outside, but on the inside as well.’

Friends of John and Richard echoed the sentiments that they were good, honest men.

‘To this day, I miss John with all my heart,’ said co-worker Audrey Dewey. ‘He was so sweet and loved.’ Richard was praised for always taking care of his family.

Hartung narrowly avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. It was thought that he had killed his family on the whim of a rare moon, but the motive was far more common. Pure greed.

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