tampabay.com

Turnpike victims new to Florida

Authorities released some details but have no leads yet on a suspect.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published October 14, 2006


GREENACRES — The young family that was brutally murdered along Florida’s Turnpike early Friday morning had just moved a few months ago from Texas to a quiet suburb in Palm Beach County.

They rented a white stucco home with pink trim and attracted little attention — until this week, when their bodies were discovered on a grassy shoulder of the turnpike.

The four were identified Saturday by authorities as 29-year-old Jose Luis Escobedo Jr., his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25, and their two sons, Luis Damian, 3, and Luis Julian, 4. Saturday was Jose’s birthday.

Detectives think that the family and their killer were in the family’s 1998 Jeep Cherokee, heading south on the turnpike sometime between 1:30 and 3 a.m. Friday. The killer shot the family on the side of the road in Port St. Lucie, about 30 miles north of their Palm Beach County home, then drove away. The victims appeared to be lying down or kneeling when they were shot.

No arrests had been made Saturday, and detectives were struggling to find a motive. A search warrant was issued for the family’s home.

The crime has received nationwide attention due in part to one grim detail: Yessica Escobedo was found in a fetal position with her arms around her sons, as if she was trying to shield them, detectives said. Both adults suffered multiple gunshot wounds, and it was believed that the family knew their attacker.

“There was no attempt to flee, there was no attempt to fight back,” said Ken Mascara, the sheriff of St. Lucie County.

The St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the crime, with some help from the Brownsville, Texas, Police Department. On Saturday, officials released more information about the family and corrected some earlier announcements. They had previously said that the children were a boy and a girl — they were both boys — and that the Jeep was a two-door. It is actually a four-door, black Jeep with a temporary license plate of M952180.

The Jeep was still missing Saturday, said Mascara. Investigators were watching 480 hours of surveillance tapes from toll booths along the turnpike hoping to find clues.

They also sifted through trash cans along the turnpike looking for any evidence. Bullets found at the scene Friday also were being analyzed to see if the same kind had been used in any other crimes.

The Sheriff’s Office also released several photos of the family, including pictures of the two boys smiling and laughing in front of a dinosaur exhibit.

Family members in Brownsville said the couple were high school sweethearts who married about three years ago and had no enemies when they set out in June for a new life in Florida.

“Everybody loves them,” said Lisa Salazar, a cousin of Yessica Escobedo’s. “They would do anything for anybody. There’s not enough words — they were just funny, caring, very lovely people.”

Sgt. Jim Manrrique   of the Brownsville Police Department said that family members gave few details about the Escobedos’ lives. Officials don’t know where the couple worked or why they moved to Florida, and the family isn’t saying.

“They don’t know anything,” said Manrrique. “Or they are not telling us anything.”

Neighbors in Greenacres knew even less. Ron Vendetti said he saw Jose Escobedo outside late at night on his cell phone, and Escobedo would often leave and return in the wee hours. Vendetti said that the house the family lived in was a rental that cost $1,600 per month.

Few, if any, neighbors on the tidy street saw the mother or the children.

Seven other law enforcement agencies around the country are involved in the investigation, Mascara said. A search warrant was executed at the family’s home in Palm Beach County. Investigators had received about 200 phone calls offering tips, the sheriff said.

Authorities have set up a tip hot line at (727) 462-3230 and 1-800-273-TIPS.

Times researcher John Martin and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727-893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com.