FORT PIERCE, Fla. – A family of four found shot to death along an isolated stretch of highway had moved to Florida from Texas four months ago, authorities said Saturday.
The family, including two boys ages 3 and 4, was found Friday, fatally shot along Florida's Turnpike in Port St. Lucie, about 100 miles north of Miami. Investigators believe their vehicle, a 1998 four-door Jeep Cherokee, 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.
No one has been arrested, but authorities were searching for clues Saturday into the deaths, Sheriff Ken Mascara said. A search warrant was issued for the family's home in Greenacres in Palm Beach County, where the family had moved in June from the Brownsville, Texas, area. Authorities also were looking for the family's black Jeep Cherokee, which had a Florida temporary license plate, Mascara said.
The mother, identified as Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25, was found clutching her two sons in an apparent effort to protect them. The body of the father, Jose Luis Escobedo, who was to turn 29 on Saturday, was found nearby. The victims appeared to be lying down or kneeling when they were shot, Mascara said.
A motive for the shootings was not yet known. Authorities said the victims and the shooter may have known each other, and investigators were not approaching the crime as a carjacking.
Mascara showed pictures of the family, including a photo of the two young boys in what appeared to be a bedroom, at a news conference Saturday.
Family members in Brownsville, Texas, said the couple were high school sweethearts who married about three years ago and had no enemies when they set out for Florida to find a new life.
"Everybody loves them. They would do anything for anybody. There's not enough words — they were just funny, caring, very lovely people," said Lisa Salazar, a cousin of Yessica Escobedo.
Salazar said the family had been planning to return to Texas for Christmas.
On the well-manicured Greenacres street where the couple lived, just outside West Palm Beach, neighbors said they knew little about the Escobedos.
Their white stucco single-story house looked Saturday as though the family was still settling in to their new home — the living room was devoid of furniture, except for a bean bag chair on the white tile floor. A handwritten note taped to the doorbell read, "Knock!! Door bell doesn't work."
Patrick Center, 25, who lives next door, said the Jeep authorities were searching for was often parked with several old cars in the Escobedos' driveway. Neighbors rarely saw the family, though the husband once came over to introduce himself as "Joe," Center said.
"Really nice guy," Center said.
Ron Vendetti, 83, who lives across the street, said he often saw the husband talking on the phone in the yard late at night.
"He waved to me once, that's about all," Vendetti said.
Sheriff Mascara said Friday the mother and father suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Formal autopsy results were not expected until Monday, according to the medical examiner's office. Family members in Texas were notified of the deaths.
The scene of the shootings in a grassy area along the highway had no activity Saturday, a day after a passer-by spotted the bodies and alerted the Florida Highway Patrol, kicking off a search for evidence.
The vehicle left marks in the grass as it pulled away. A turnpike camera was in the area but wasn't recording at the time.
Investigators were 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. Bullets found at the scene Friday also were being analyzed to see if the same kind had been used in any other crimes.
Seven other law enforcement agencies around the country were involved in the investigation, Mascara said. Investigators had received about 200 phone calls offering tips, the sheriff said.
Authorities have set up a tip hot line at (772) 462-3230 and 1-800-273-TIPS.