Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Escambia County, Florida has had more than its fair share of criminals that can make your skin crawl. In the 1980s, the “Black Widow” Judy Buenoano made national news for killing her husband, son and boyfriend with arsenic. In 2009, local couple Byrd and Melanie Billings were brutally murdered by “ninja” invaders at home while their children slept. Infamous serial killer Ted Bundy even made an appearance here; he was arrested after being pulled over while driving through.
“We jokingly say that Escambia County is this twilight zone vortex,” Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says in an episode of Killer Cases that airs Thursday, December 10 at 10/9c on A&E.
That episode focuses on the creepiest Escambia County case yet: a triple murder in Pensacola that brought whispers of black magic to the Florida panhandle.
Wayward Family’s Bodies Discovered
The bodies of 77-year-old Voncile Smith and her two adult sons (Richard Smith, 47; and John Smith, 49) were found dead in their modest rural Pensacola home on July 31, 2015. All three were struck multiple times with a claw hammer and had their throats slit. Richard Smith had also been shot in the head.
The family was reclusive. Instead of socializing, Voncile Smith would spend her days buying products from infomercials, and the murder scene was littered with unopened home shopping boxes.
“These were people who stayed to themselves,” Alvin Myers, the prosecutor who worked the case, told Killer Cases.
Neighbors were shocked and investigators stymied about what may have brought on such a shocking, gruesome, enigmatic triple killing. There were no signs of forced entry, and nothing was taken from the home.
A Witchcraft Angle?
About a week after the deaths, Sheriff Morgan told reporters that investigators had homed in on a “person of interest” who had an affinity for Wicca (or witchcraft). Morgan said he believed that witchcraft may have been a motivating factor in the crime, noting the “positioning of the bodies”—they were each in separate rooms, buried under large piles of clothing—and the fact that the killings had been committed only a few days prior to a blue moon, which is the second full moon of a calendar month.
Experts in modern Pagan religion, and its subset, Wicca, denounced the assertion, quick to point out that ritual murder has no place in the nature-based religion.
But while the sheriff’s conclusions about a witchcraft connection may have been hasty and tenuous in the eyes of Wiccan practitioners, the department had unambiguous success in homing in on their suspect. Donald Hartung Sr., 58 at the time—and Voncile Smith’s third son—lived three miles from the murder scene and was the last known person to have seen his family members alive. Soon after his first interrogation, investigators were confident they had their killer.
Hartung, a Wiccan, denied involvement in the murders.
“I’d never harm my family,” Hartung told investigators during a taped police interrogation that airs on Killer Cases. “I mean: Why would I do something like that?”
According to prosecutor Bridgette Jensen, his response felt suspicious. After having just learned that his entire family had been murdered, Hartung neither cried nor seemed surprised.
A key witness in the case came forward while Hartung was awaiting trial. Marlin Purifoy, an inmate who spoke with Hartung in jail, told prosecutors that Hartung had confessed to details of his crime.
But the crime hadn’t been about religion, Purifoy testified. It had been about cold hard cash. Hartung had been cut out of his mother’s will, and the only way he would end up with any inheritance was if his siblings died as well.
“He wanted the money,” Purifoy said, adding that Hartung had planned the crime for more than three years, and had tortured his mother to gain access to a combination safe.
Hartung’s DNA was all over the murder scene. This wasn’t, in itself, incriminating, since he regularly visited the house and cooked dinner for his family members. But some of the DNA evidence was damning: For example, the DNA suggested that he’d smoked several cigarettes whose butts had been left atop a pile of bloody rags that had been used to clean up the murder scene.
Conviction and Sentencing
The jury that heard Hartung’s case was convinced of his culpability, even though investigators never found the murder weapon and produced no witnesses to the crime. They found him guilty on all three counts of premeditated first-degree murder on January 29, 2020.
At his sentencing hearing, Hartung demanded a mistrial, blaming his legal counsel for ineffectively defending his case.
“I loved my jury,” Hartung told the court. “But…they were duped.”
The judge was unmoved by the motion.
Although the crime carried a maximum penalty of death, the jury spared Hartung his life. After deliberating for only an hour, the panel gave him three consecutive life sentences.
Hartung is currently serving his sentence at the Graceville Correctional Facility in Jackson County, Florida.