Robbery has been ruled out as a motive in the gruesome deaths of a woman and her two adult sons in the Florida Panhandle, killings that authorities speculate may have been carried out as part of a ritual.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said they've identified a person of interest in the July 28 deaths of 77-year-old Voncile Smith, 49-year-old Richard Smith and 47-year-old John Smith. The family was so reclusive that longtime neighbors say they would not have recognized them if they saw them.
All three victims were struck multiple times with a claw hammer and had their throats slit, and Richard Smith also had a gunshot to his right ear, Morgan said. The initial investigation points toward some kind of "ritualistic killing" Morgan said Tuesday.
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"The method of the murder _ blunt force trauma ... positioning of the bodies _ and our person of interest has some ties to a faith or religion that is indicative of that," Morgan said at a press conference Tuesday. He added that that the time of death "coincides with what's referred to as a blue moon, which occurs every three years."
He emphasized the information is "still in the speculative stage."
The crime scene was "very complex" and took several days to work through, Morgan said. He added that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is assisting in the investigation. Investigators are awaiting lab results on evidence processed at the home.
The sheriff noted that both men were "very tall" and were "potentially very physically powerful." There were no signs of forced entry and investigators found a large amount of cash inside a safe at the home, which led them to rule out robbery as a motive.
He said the victims were known to be "very reclusive, very secretive."
The bodies were discovered Friday in their home in a rural neighborhood of ranch-style houses north of Pensacola Naval Air Station after a request for a welfare check. Investigators believe the Smiths were killed about 7 p.m. on July 28.
The blue moon, a rare second full moon in a single month, occurred on Friday, July 31, three days after the killings. The sheriff did not explain the discrepancy, and it was not addressed in a news release issued Wednesday morning.
There were no outward signs at the home Wednesday that belied the horror inside. A wreath adorned with flowers and fake birds hung on the front door and the family's two SUVs, with Alabama football stickers, remained in the driveway.
Neighbors said the Smiths kept to themselves.
"If they knocked on my door right now, I wouldn't recognize them," said neighbor Donald Dorin, who has lived two doors down from the family for nearly 40 years, but had no interaction with them.
Neighbor Meeks Willard said he is frightened and doesn't sleep at night because of the crime.
"This is causing me a lot of stress," said Willard, who also had never talked with the family.
Richard Smith was employed by the Department of Homeland Security and worked at Naval Air Station Pensacola, but officials with the Naval Criminal Investigative Services "have determined there are no issues involving ... national security elements," Morgan said.
Officials at the Naval base in Pensacola referred all questions to their colleagues in Washington. Officials in Washington have not responded to repeated calls and emails from The Associated Press.