Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, breaking news, sweepstakes, and more!
‘Blue Moon Killer’ Tortured Mom And Murdered His Own Family After Making Them Dinner
Were the brutal murders of the Smith family in Pensacola, Florida tied to a pagan ritual?
On July 31, 2015, the Pensacola Sheriff’s Office made a welfare check at the home of Richard Smith, a 49-year-old IT specialist for the Department of Homeland Security.
His boss had reached out to officials when Richard failed to come to work for three days. No one answered the door of the home Richard shared with his mother, Voncile, 77, who was widowed and retired, and his brother, John Smith, 47, who worked at Walmart.
Police contacted Richard’s half-brother, Donald Wayne Hartung, who gave them permission to enter the house. Inside, authorities found Voncile, Richard, and John dead. Each one was buried separately under “a mountain of clothing and blankets,” investigators told Oxygen's “Family Massacre."
“Once the medical examiner investigators arrived on scene, we pulled the blankets off, and you could tell that they had been there for at least a couple of days,” said Wayne Wright, an investigator with the State Attorney’s Office.
John and Voncile both had injuries to their heads and gashes in their necks. She also had defensive cuts on her hands and part of her pinky finger was missing. Richard had been beaten, stabbed, and shot in his right ear.
A bloody hammer and paper towels, as well as cigarette butts, were collected at the scene. Hartung was transported to the Sheriff’s Office, where Escambia County Homicide Detective Matt Infinger hoped he could shed light on the brutal triple homicide.
Hartung, Voncile’s son from a previous marriage, said he last saw his mother and John three days earlier when he cooked dinner for them at their house. He was their caretaker. Voncile had trouble walking and John had special needs. He’d left a plate of food in the oven for Richard, he said.
“Donald agreed to give us a DNA sample,” said Infinger, adding that he had no criminal record and was being cooperative. “We had no reason not to believe him. He was not a suspect.”
Because the bodies were covered the medical examiner couldn’t pinpoint when the murders happened. It was estimated that the family was killed at least two days before their discovery.
An internet search turned up the idea that during cult or ritualistic slaying, blankets and clothes are heaped on bodies to warm them. A blue moon, used by pagan and Wiccan followers to guide rituals, occurred around the time of the murders, which added heft to this theory.
“There was some speculation that maybe the bodies were to be kept warm until the actual blue moon occurred, which would have been in a few days,” said Wright.
At a press conference outlining the crime, a sheriff stated that “the method of the murder positions of bodies led us to believe that there's a potential that was a ritualistic killing.”
The leader of a local Wiccan group, however, said the victims were not associated with any of the area's pagan or Wiccan organizations, reported the Associated Press.
But at the press conference, the murders were called the Blue Moon Killings. “Suddenly this was making headlines not just in Pensacola, Florida, but throughout the world,” said journalist Mollye Barrows.
Investigators dug deeper into the background of the Smiths, who, sources said, stuck to themselves. Detectives considered the possibility that Richard’s hush-hush work with Homeland Security could be tied to the crime, but a thorough investigation cleared this as a line of investigation.
“We conducted another interview with Donald Hartung and during the interviews with Donald I learned that he practiced Wicca,” said Infinger. “This was a red flag.”
Police obtained a warrant to search Hartung’s home. They found a prayer room and some books about witchcraft but no weapons or anything connected to the triple murder.
“Just because somebody has an alternative belief system doesn't necessarily mean that they're doing anything wrong,” said Wright.
But Hartung remained a suspect and investigators explored his background. A coworker told them that Hartung bragged of his family’s wealth and that he stood to inherit that fortune.
An interview with a relative of the Smith family suggested that Hartung, who’d been portrayed as a caretaker, had another side.
“He was mean,” said Faye Haas, Hartung’s cousin. “If he saw a weakness in you as a child or something, it would pick on that weakness.” People also said he was jealous of Richard’s success and had regularly sought financial help from his mother.
Investigators found that Voncile Smith’s estate was worth close to $1 million. Although Hartung had been excluded from the will, he would be the sole heir if his half-brothers were deceased.
Investigators interviewed the Smiths’ neighbors to check Hartung’s account about his comings and goings before the bodies were found. He said that he’d left the home before sundown. Neighbors recalled seeing his car there later than that and added that when he drove away, he kept his headlights off.
Detectives hoped that DNA evidence collected from the crime scene could move their case forward. Hartung’s DNA was found on cigarette butts mixed in with paper towels covered in Voncile’s blood.
On October 27, 2015, Hartung was arrested by the Escambia County Sheriff's Department on three counts of first-degree murder.
Evidence against Hartung was mostly circumstantial, though. But as the trial approached, investigators received a letter from a jailhouse informant.
Hartung had talked to the cellmate because he’d expressed interest in the Wiccan religion, investigators said. The informant claimed that Hartung told him he piled blankets and clothes on top of his family to make it harder to determine when they died.
The informant also volunteered shocking information about Voncile’s missing fingertip. “Donald told him he had to torture his mother to get the combination of the safe in the home,” said Infinger. “We never even found it during the crime scene investigation.”
Investigators concluded the murders weren’t part of a ritual but were motivated by money. Hartung had been written out of his mother's will and believed he would never get the money — nearly $900,000 — unless his family members died, prosecutors said, nbcmiami.com reported.
During Hartung’s trial, the cellmate testified to the gruesome way he killed his family: “beating them with a claw hammer, torturing his mother, slitting their throats, all while after making dinner for them,” said Barrows.
Hartung, 63, was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison in February 2020 without the chance of parole.
He is currently serving his sentence at the Graceville Correctional Facility in Jackson County, Florida.
For more on the case and others like it, watch “Family Massacre,” streaming now on Oxygen.com.