Subscribe to Breaking News emails

You have successfully subscribed to the Breaking News email.

Subscribe today to be the first to to know about breaking news and special reports.

Arrest Made in Fla. Killings Once Described as 'Ritual'

by Phil Helsel /
Image: Donald Hartung Sr.
Donald Hartung Sr., 58, was arrested Tuesday and will be charged with three counts of first-degree premeditated murder, officials said.Escambia County Sheriff's Office

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

Authorities in Florida on Tuesday arrested a man in three murders in Florida initially described as a possible "ritual killing."

Donald Hartung Sr., 58, was arrested on three counts of first-degree premeditated murder for the deaths of three relatives whose bodies were found in their Pensacola home on July 31, the Escambia County Sheriff's Office said.

Image: Donald Hartung Sr.
Donald Hartung Sr., 58, was arrested Tuesday and will be charged with three counts of first-degree premeditated murder, officials said.Escambia County Sheriff's Office

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office had said Voncile Smith, 77, Richard Smith, 49, and John Smith, 47, had been beaten and had their throats slit, and the bodies were found in a possible pattern.

But investigators later said the bodies were found in separate rooms, and there doesn’t appear to have been a pattern, NBC affiliate WFLA reported.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan has said the crime may be related to Hartung's religion, which he called "witchcraft." On Tuesday, he said that was one of three possible theories.

"There were some statements that he had made, and there was some evidence found at his home that clearly indicated that tie in," Morgan told reporters.

Hartung was described as a Wiccan. He is the son of Voncile Smith and is the half-brother of Richard and John Smith, the sheriff’s office said in a statement. Some Wiccans bristled at police descriptions of the killings as potentially being linked to the religion or the blue moon.

Investigators also considered Richard Smith's employment with the Department of Homeland Security and financial reasons as possible motives in the case, Morgan said.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said prosecutors will seek the death penalty. Hartung is being held without bail.

Morgan said the arrest took so long because it took time to process DNA evidence, which was complicated by the fact the alleged killer and victims were related.

"We’re relieved an arrest has been made,” the Smith family told the station Tuesday. “We are looking forward to prosecution."

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
MORE FROM news