US Police
Hartung has been charged with three counts of first-degree premeditated murderGetty Images

A 58-year-old man who killed his mother and two adult stepbrothers by slashing their throats and beating them up with a claw hammer, apparently as part of a ritual inspired by witchcraft, was arrested on Tuesday (27 October). Donald Wayne Hartung's arrest comes three months after bodies of the victims were discovered in their Pensacola home in the US state of Florida.

According to local police, Hartung was involved in a "ritualistic killing" of his relatives in anticipation of a rare blue moon sighting, which took place on the day the three bodies were discovered. The position of the bodies and the injuries left behind by a claw hammer have led investigators to believe that the killings were connected to some sort of religion, Sheriff David Morgan said.

"It's witchcraft, I'll say that right now," Morgan was quoted as saying by Daily News. He further said: "You know, there are different factions of that. While it doesn't bother me to release that particular thing, we most assuredly do not want to defame or demean any particular practice, if you will." The police said that the family was "very reclusive" and there was no evidence of any break-in at the murder scene.

Hartung's mother Voncile Smith was 77, and stepbrothers John William Smith, 47, and Richard Thomas Smith, 49, were each found with blows to their heads and their throats slit. The eldest son Richard Smith, who worked in a high-level role at the US Department of Homeland Security, had an additional gunshot wound to his head.

Hartung has been charged with three counts of first-degree premeditated murder. Meanwhile, State Attorney Bill Eddins said that his office will seek the death penalty for the gruesome triple murders.