After a Florida sheriff said a recent triple slaying was a “ritualistic killing” involving a white male “with ties to witchcraft,” witches have reacted with outrage — and the sheriff has sought to recast his comments.

Voncile Smith, 77; John William Smith, 49; and Richard Thomas Smith, 47, were found dead near Pensacola, Fla., on July 31, three days after police said they were slain. In a news conference, authorities said the slayings “might be connected to some type of Wiccan ritual killing and possibly tied to the blue moon.” Though authorities did not offer many details about the tragedy that befell what they called a “reclusive” family, Richard Thomas Smith was shot in the head; all three victims were beaten with a claw hammer and had their throats slit.

“Initial research has led us to believe it was a ritualistic killing,” Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said, as the Pensacola News Journal reported. “The method of the murder — blunt force trauma, slit throats, positioning of bodies — and our person of interest has some ties to a faith or religion that is indicative of that.”

This didn’t go over well with witches — those who practice a loosely defined polytheistic, pagan religion based on the reverence of nature, including the moon.

“We believe it is important that our beliefs be clarified,” the Rev. E.J. OakLore of the Heart of Manannán Coven in Fernandina Beach, Fla., said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. A “coven” is an assembly of witches akin to, well, a parish. Some, but not all, witches practice Wicca, a version of the faith founded in England in the 20th century.

OakLore added: “The way [Sheriff Morgan] put info out there draws connection between Wicca and ritual killing. It could not be more harmful to our religious community.”

Academics agreed.

“If they had done even a modicum of research it would be clear this had nothing to do with paganism,” Gwendolyn Reece, a specialist in contemporary paganism at American University, told the Guardian. “It’s very irresponsible and highly prejudiced on the part of the sheriff.”

Though this might seem a marginal fracas involving the identity politics of a relatively small faith — there are just 400,000 Wiccans in the United States, a country of more than 300 million that is approximately 71 percent Christian — the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office saw it fit to release its own transcript of the controversial news conference in which Morgan appeared less anti-Wiccan.

“It’s witchcraft,” Morgan said, according to the transcript. “I’ll say that right now. There are different factions of that. While it doesn’t bother me to release it … you do not want to want to defame or demean any particular practices. One of the great things about our country you can believe in pretty anything you want to believe in.”

Morgan then got a bit personal.

“I have family members who are Pentecostal,” he said. “They don’t strychnine and handle poisonous snakes, but there are sects in the Pentecostal faith that do. You can’t say all Pentecostals do this or all Pentecostals don’t do that. At this juncture until such time as we garner more evidence and this case progresses, then we’ll be fully preparing at that time to release that information.”

The sheriff’s office, saying it was “awaiting the return of lab analysis on evidence obtained at the scene of the triple homicide and other executed search warrants,” is not releasing further information about the case. This left some questions unanswered about the killings’ alleged link to witchcraft and the recent blue moon.

A “blue moon” is the nickname for a second full moon within a calendar month. One occurred last Friday, July 31, three days after the Smiths were killed. So: How could the blue moon and the killings be linked?

It wasn’t clear. As the Associated Press reported: “The sheriff did not explain the discrepancy and his office did not return a telephone call seeking clarification.”

OakLore, meanwhile, spoke of Wicca as a religion of “peaceful people that believe in doing good in the world.” Wiccans, he said, celebrate solstices, equinoxes and full moons, which are “strongly associated with female divinity.” They also pray, he said, and follow what’s known as the Threefold Law that sounds a lot like karma.

“The Threefold Law … states that whatsoever you put out into the world is revisited to you three times, positive or negative,” OakLore said. “No Wiccan of conscience would want to put a murder — let alone a triple murder — out there for retribution.”

Killing a family by moonlight, despite what a sheriff might say, just isn’t something a true witch would do.

“Those are crazy things we get from Hollywood,” Phil Wyman, a pastor in Salem, Mass., said in a telephone interview.

Wyman, an evangelical Christian, is in a curious position — he runs a 40-person, Wiccan-friendly church in one of America’s great capitals of witchcraft. Though 20 people accused of practicing witchcraft were hung in Salem in the 1690s, the small Massachusetts city of about 40,000 remains a center for practicing witches, many of whom can make a dollar or two from tourists.

As an outsider connected to witchcraft, Wyman said that the faith’s false association with ritual killing and Satanism “makes it hard for the person practicing witchcraft to get a break.”

“[Witches] may be soccer moms who think of witchcraft as an earthy tradition harkening back to grandma who conjures a spell to make your cold better,” he said.

While the Escambia County sheriff hasn’t explained how exactly the recent triple slaying is connected to witchcraft, Wyman was skeptical of any real link.

“He could be right inasmuch as some guy who goes to an abortion clinic and shoots a doctor could be termed as a Christian,” Wyman said. “… Most Christians are going to say, ‘He may have called himself Christian, but he wasn’t practicing Christianity.'”