I’m not one who becomes too enflamed by stories that pop up online. My temperament is pretty even keel as these things go, and working for a media company has made me even less reactionary to news stories (though I think it may have given me some mild PTSD, but that’s for another time).
So this morning, when I came across this story about a triple homicide in Escambia County, Florida, I was surprised to find my hackles raised.
The headline practically screams, “’Wiccan Ritual Killing’ Leaves Family of Three Dead in Pensacola: Police”. In the event that the story is taken down by NBC News, here is a link to a screengrab. The headline is itself a cynical play by NBC to get more clicks on an otherwise tragic story. The reporting that occurred was wholly absent. Erin Calabrese was the reporter, and I’m sure it’s just something that she rewrote from other’s reporting. The job of a reporter is to use their supposedly carefully honed new judgment to decide when and where to include necessary details. Sometimes when you get a direct quote from someone, a little red flag will get raised that says, hey dude, check this out before you print it, they may be wrong.
Such was the case with this story. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Sargent Andrew Hobbes said, “It appears that this might be connected to some type of Wiccan ritual killing and possibly tied to the blue moon.” Later in the article:
When asked how the evidence suggests these are ritualistic or Wiccan killings Sgt. Hobbes said, “The injuries to the victims, the positions of the bodies and also the person of interest right now is also a practitioner.”
So, aside from the fact that the reporting was sloppy and simply aped what they heard, I’ll allow that they at least bothered to ask a challenging question. What starts to come to light though is that the state of the sheriff’s office in Escambia County is pretty abysmal. Wiccans and Pagans are part of the community that they’re required to serve and protect, but by spreading rumor and ignorance, they’ve ensured that the alleged perpetrator will come to trial with bias. The second point of concern is that the person of interest may have been accused solely on the basis of his religion. If the ignorance of the police has lead them to believe that this is a “Wiccan ritual”, then their inherent biases could also have clouded what judgment they do have.
The loss of life in this instance is a tragedy, as any loss of life is, but amplifying the tragedy by laying blame at the feet of Wicca, witchcraft, or paganism is a miscarriage of justice that reverberates within and without the boundaries of Escambia County. Ignorance of minority religions is not justification for blame. The faith of Wicca and the practice of witchcraft are blameless, just as the faith of Christianity or Islam are blameless when similar things occur within those communities.
Be sure to check out Gwendolyn Reece’s statements on Facebook, she’s crafted a message that she sent to the Escambia County Sheriff’s office, it’s worth the read and she’s a much more eloquent writer than I am about this.
If you’re not on Facebook, I’ve copied her statement here, with her permission.
I have recently read a disturbing report in which Andrew Hobbes, a spokesperson for your office, is quoted as saying “It appears that this might be connected to some type of Wiccan ritual killing and possibly tied to the blue moon,” in relation to a triple homicide. When asked how victims being shot, having their throats cut, and hit with a claw hammer has anything to do with Wicca, your spokesperson replied, “The injuries to the victims, the positions of the bodies and also the person of interest right now is also a practitioner.”
I am not only a practitioner myself, I am also a scholar, and I am horrified at your department’s extraordinary ignorance about what Wicca is and prejudice against this protected religious minority that I am left with an utter lack of confidence that the civil rights of whoever this practitioner is will be upheld. In fact, I wonder if the reason this practitioner is of interest is because of their religious affiliation.
Human sacrifice, and ritual killings have no part in Wicca at all and there is a substantial, very substantial at this point, record of credible research about what Wicca and Contemporary Paganism is and what constitutes the religious practices of these traditions. It doesn’t even take much effort to find these resources. Your department’s willingness to jump to these conclusions without having done even a modicum of research, not even what I would expect a first year college student to perform, and then to go public and say things that feed ignorance and fear and encourage the public to view a minority in a hostile light is appalling.
As part of my own academic research I conducted a large-scale national survey of Pagans (N=3318). Among my findings are that 39.4% of Pagans are afraid of false accusations being made against them. A full 41.4% believe that their Pagan identity would result in prejudice against them if they were to be accused of a crime. Additionally 34.1% believe that it is likely or very likely that their sacred rites will be disrupted by law enforcement. Your public statements certainly make these fears more credible.
Additionally, 22.6% of my sample report that they have experienced being threatened or intimidated in public as a result of their Pagan identity. Going public with a statement like this puts a segment of your population, the population you are sworn to protect and to serve, at greater risk.
Or course there may be murderers within the Wiccan population, there are murderers within every population. However, your framing of this crime that assumes the crime itself is somehow “Wiccan” is ludicrous and would seem, a priori, to lead to a conclusion about a particular practitioner…a conclusion that is based on ignorance and prejudice about what Wicca is.
I, and I am sure the rest of the Pagan/Wiccan community in the United States, would like to know:
1. What are you going to do to ensure that the prejudice that has clearly been shown by your department does not taint your investigation and does not lead to a wrongful accusation and an unfair trial?
2. Now that you have fanned the fires of intolerance in your community, what are you going to do to provide for the safety and well-being of the Wiccans and Pagans in your county?
I will be interested to hear your answers.