PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Police on Friday found what appeared to be a family of four gunned down overnight along an isolated stretch of highway: a woman clutching two children in a forlorn effort to protect them, with a man's body nearby.
Investigators believe the victims' vehicle had pulled to the side of Florida's Turnpike before someone else in the vehicle shot them and drove away sometime between 1:30 and 3 a.m., Sheriff Ken Mascara said.
The sheriff would not say whether investigators knew of a motive or had any suspects, but he said the crime was not believed to be a carjacking. Mascara said the suspects may be driving the family's vehicle, a dark-colored Jeep with a temporary license plate. He did not say what state the plate was from, but did say the victims were Florida residents. He would not say what city they were from.
A passer-by spotted the bodies around 8 a.m. in Port St. Lucie, about 100 miles north of Miami, and alerted the Florida Highway Patrol. The bodies were in a grassy area near St. James Golf Club, several miles from the nearest rest stop.
Janis Rich, a 67-year-old retired bookkeeper, said she and her husband were asleep in their golf club home, a quarter-mile from the scene, when they awoke to a loud "pop-pop-pop-pop" sound from the direction of the turnpike just before 2:30 a.m.
Rich said the couple saw no traffic or anything else in the darkness. "We were trying to hear anyone speaking, anyone crying, but it was total quiet," she said.
The names of the 29-year-old man and 25-year-old woman were withheld until relatives could be notified. The children were believed to be 4 to 6 years old.
The woman "had both the children clutched in a defensive mode, in an attempt to protect them. It gives the appearance that they were a family traveling," Mascara said.
The vehicle left tire tracks as it pulled away, Mascara said. A turnpike camera was in the area but wasn't recording at the time, he said.
The two adults' last names did not match, but authorities believed the victims were a family.
Investigators painted a white grid on the ground at the scene, and dug through the grass searching for bullets, bullet fragments and other evidence. Law enforcement placed small colored flags in the ground at the crime scene, marking places where bullets were believed to have entered the ground.
A blue tent was set up over the bodies and white material covered them until they were released to the medical examiner. Autopsies were scheduled to begin Friday, but no results were expected until Monday, according to the medical examiner's office.
Investigators were searching for clues throughout the southeast and southwest of Florida. They were also watching 480 hours of surveillance tapes from toll booths along the turnpike hoping to spot any clues to lead to the suspects.
They also sifted through trash cans along the turnpike to look for any evidence. The bullets were also being analyzed to see if the same kind had been used in any other crimes, Mascara said.
Authorities have set up a tip hot line at (772) 462-3230.