2 kids among 4 found dead beside turnpike

The assailant was likely known to the victims, one of whom tried to shield the children.

Published October 14, 2006

PORT ST. LUCIE - During the last moments of her life, kneeling on a grassy shoulder adjacent to Florida's Turnpike, the 25-year-old woman tried to shield two children from the bullets.

But she couldn't save them, or herself.

Their bodies and a fourth belonging to a 29-year-old man were found in the grass by a motorist Friday morning on the southbound side of the turnpike. Each had been shot multiple times.

All four victims were Hispanic, and authorities believe they were a family. Investigators knew their identities but did not release them because relatives hadn't been located.

The children were believed to be from 4 to 6 years old.

Detectives believe that the attacker or attackers, who they believe drove off in the victims' Jeep, were known to their victims.

St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said the victims were driving a two-door, dark-colored or black Jeep Cherokee with temporary tags attached to the back window. It was unclear whether the temporary tags were issued in Florida or another state, he said.

The Jeep is missing. Detectives are searching through hours of videotape from all of the tollbooths on the Florida Turnpike, hoping to spot it.

Investigators also confiscated all of the garbage cans on the turnpike - from Wildwood to Homestead - in hopes of discovering evidence.

It is believed the four victims recently moved to Florida; detectives have visited the neighborhood where they now live, although Mascara wouldn't say where it is.

He said the four are not from the St. Lucie County area.

Detectives spent the day excavating the crime scene and unearthed shell casings, bullets and bullet fragments, Mascara said.

"Carjacking is not a theory," Mascara said.

He was reluctant to release more information about the victims. "We want to make sure there's been no harm to any other family members," he said.

Detectives are also following leads around the South, he said.

"This is definitely not a murder-suicide," said Mascara. "We believe the children were targeted, as well as the parents."

Officials estimate that the murders occurred between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.

Jim and Janis Rich live in a subdivision on a golf course nearby. The couples' windows were open, and they said they heard loud noises early Friday.

"We heard eight or nine shots," said Jim Rich, 77, a retired rural mail carrier from Iowa. "Pop-pop-pop. Then, pop-pop-pop. We got up and looked around, but we didn't see anything."

Rich said they weren't sure whether it was a gun or firecrackers, and they went back to sleep. Later Friday, they saw a TV news report and looked outside their back door to see TV satellite trucks lining the turnpike. "It's devastating, no doubt about it," Rich said.

The quadruple homicide took place about 100 miles north of Miami, near a Tropicana juice processing plant. A service plaza with several fast food restaurants is about 3 miles from the scene, where a blue tent was set up over the bodies.

On Friday, traffic on the highway backed up for 3 miles while sheriff's detectives painted a white grid on the ground of the scene and dug through the grass searching for bullets and other evidence.

Anyone with information is asked to call the St. Lucie County sheriff's detective bureau at 772-462-3230 or Treasure Coast CrimeStoppers at 1-800-273-8477.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.