The Licata Family Massacre

As of this writing, over 40% of the states in the U.S. have decriminalized marijuana in some way. Nearly 60% of U.S. states allow for legal medical marijuana, while 16% permit the recreational use of the substance.  Due to this, it can be difficult to imagine that there was once a time of legitimate marijuana hysteria. One clear example is the 1936 film Reefer Madness, which was created by a church group and intended to be a serious warning about the dangers related to the drug. To the dismay of its creators, however, the movie became a campy cult classic in the following decades. The plot of the film centers on a group of friends who find themselves trapped in an intense downward spiral due to their association with marijuana. Some of the vile deeds committed include murder, sexual assault, and suicide.

The Licata family massacre was the basis for this fictional lunacy.

Photo from newspaper article of Licata family massacre. 

Photo from newspaper article of Licata family massacre. 

1933, Tampa, Florida. It was a normal October afternoon in the Ybor City neighborhood until neighbors noticed that they had not seen a single member of the Licata family all day. This was unusual because Michael, the family’s patriarch, should have left for his barber shop earlier that day. The two younger Licata sons were still school-aged, so they should have left for class that morning. Concerned neighbors alerted the local police. Upon entering the silent house, the simple welfare check quickly devolved into an unexpected nightmare for those responding to the call. Spread throughout three different bedrooms were the mutilated bodies of Michael, his wife Rosalie (44), and their children Prudence (22) and Jose (8). Another son, Philip (14), was still breathing but gravely injured. He would be pronounced dead at the hospital later.

A blood spattered axe rested in plain view.

A search of the rest of the home revealed the eldest son, Victor (22), hiding in a bathroom. Oddly, he was unharmed and impeccably dressed in a fresh white shirt and clean pants. Upon closer inspection, the officers noticed that something was not right about the man. Beneath those nice clothes, Victor’s skin was stained crimson with blood.

Booking photo of Victor Licata.

Booking photo of Victor Licata.

Once questioned, he claimed that the night before the bodies were found, his parents attacked him while his siblings watched. After he was terribly wounded, they left him alone. While bent on revenge, he had discovered a cartoonish axe in the home. Victor said that this odd axe had a rubbery quality and merely incapacitated his family members rather than killing them.

Bloody Axe

There was a strong history of mental illness in the Licata family, including hospitalizations for extended family members, as well as a schizophrenia diagnosis for one of Victor’s brothers. Still, much was made of the fact that Victor enjoyed smoking marijuana on a regular basis. The press was instrumental in this idea being solidified in public opinion. The Tampa Bay Times made sure to underscore his usage when reporting on the ghastly murders, and the Tampa Morning Tribune ran an editorial that blatantly attributed the massacre to the drug’s maniacal hold over its users. Eventually, politicians used the tale to bolster their anti-drug campaigns.

Whether or not these claims had any veracity, by slaughtering his entire immediate family, Victor Licata became the poster boy for reefer madness. He was sentenced to life in a psychiatric hospital and died by suicide in 1950.


Adam Quirk, MCJ & MBA, is a true crime writer, private investigator, and criminal justice professional with over 15 years of investigations experience.
— www.adamquirk.net