The Wiccan community is outraged by police characterizations that a triple homicide in Florida is suspected to be a “Wiccan ritual killing," calling it a "haunting" comparison to the now infamous West Memphis Three case.
The victims in the Pensacola case last week — Voncile Smith, 77, and her two sons, Richard, 49, and John, 47 — were discovered dead in the home they shared, and police publicly linked the incident to the "blue" moon" and "Wiccan" rituals.
In a phone interview with NBC News, Escambia County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Andrew Hobbes called the murders, "Wiccan ritual killings."
"The injuries to the victims, the positions of the bodies and also the person of interest right now is also a practitioner," were contributing factors to the Sheriff Office's determinations, Hobbes said.
In 1993, three teenagers made national headlines — and spawned documentaries — when police arrested them for the murders of three young boys from West Memphis, Arkansas. Killings that at the time were called Satanic in nature by authorities.
One of the teens received the death penalty, while the other both received life sentences for the murders
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But all three were later released when new DNA evidence surfaced.
Peg Aloi, who writes The Witching Hour blog and worked on the West Memphis Three case as a journalist, said she wasn’t surprised by police jumping to conclusions in the latest incident in Florida.
“The comparison to the West Memphis Three case is particularly sort of haunting in this instance because (suspect) Damien Echols was practicing Wicca — he was not super serious about it," she said. "He was interested in (occultist) Aleister Crowley, and he had a 'Book of Shadows,' and he wore black, you know, and all these things kind of worked together to turn this crime into a ritualistic crime, which it was not.”
Seamus Mckeon, who's practiced Wicca for 14 years and is a high priest, added that most rituals in the faith need nothing more than a lock or strand of hair.
“The idea that you would slit someone’s throat and let it all bleed out is just insane,” he said.
As for the assertion police made that placement of the bodies indicated some type of Wiccan ritual, Mckeon strongly disagrees.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” he explained. “There’s no positioning of bodies that would indicate Wicca. I don’t even know how three bodies would have been able to make a five-pointed-star.”
Historically, Mckeon said, “government agencies have a tendency to lump the occult and crime together.”
Some in the online Wiccan and pagan community voiced their anger at the officials’ characterization of the killings, taking issue with the timing of the homicide — a few days before the symbolic blue moon.
“My question is, what ‘ritual’ done a few days before a blue moon would they be attempting and why?” a user posted in a forum on PaganSpace.net.
Another user on self-described pagan forum The Cauldron, disapproved of the broad strokes with which local authorities painted the entire community.
“I think if [the sheriff] is going to say that the crime is a Wiccan ritual, he should be made to point out exactly which ritual it was, and where it says in any authoritative work on Wicca that such rituals are permitted,” the posting read.
Becky Bratu is a staff writer at NBC News covering national, international and breaking news for NBCNews.com. She joined NBCNews full-time in November 2011, and previously worked within the company as a Web producer for "Nightly News with Brian Williams" and "Rock Center with Brian Williams." She began working at Rockefeller Center as an intern in June 2011.
Bratu previously worked for newspapers and television stations in Romania and Germany, and did a stint as a blogger and Web producer for a tech and social media start-up in Virginia.
She comes from Arad, Romania, and attended Columbia University in New York and Washington and Lee University in Virginia.