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An Ybor City ax murderer led to marijuana regulation. Now there’s a movie in the works.

Known as the Dream Slayer, Victor Licata killed his family in 1933 and the murders led to the criminalization of marijuana.

TAMPA — He is known as “the Dream Slayer.”

In 1933, Victor Licata murdered his parents and three siblings with an ax in their Ybor City home.

It was initially — and incorrectly — thought that he did so because he was in a marijuana-induced delirium. This earned him the Dream Slayer moniker and later enabled the federal government to use the crime as a reason to criminalize the drug.

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The murders also allegedly served as an inspiration for the movie Reefer Madness in 1936.

Nearly a century later, the crime remains one of Tampa’s most infamous.

Now, the Licata story might become its own feature film.

Carrollwood native turned Hollywood transplant Devin Muller was to roll cameras this month in Tampa on an independent film about Licata.

Production of the movie, titled Madness, was suspended to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Still, when safe to do so, the 32-year-old writer, producer and director of the film hopes to yell action on a Tampa set.

“I tell people that the Licata murder was the spark that lit the fire for cannabis prohibition,” Muller said. “It’s a part of Tampa history that needs to be told.”

Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich agrees.

Reefer Madness is a ubiquitous pop cultural reference,” Martinolich said of the anti-marijuana film that depicts the drug as one that turns innocents into maniacs.

"But the true story behind it is infinitely more interesting and uniquely Ybor in its origins, a connection that’s gone largely unreported, and one I’m interested in seeing brought to life on screen.”

A poster for the movie 'Madness' to be made about Ybor City ax murderer Victor Licata.
A poster for the movie 'Madness' to be made about Ybor City ax murderer Victor Licata. [ Courtesy of Devin Muller ]

Michael Licata owned two downtown barbershops and two of his children were still in school in 1933. Neighbors called the police on October 17 when no one left the Licata house at 1707 E. Fifth Ave. that day.

Law enforcement found the five victims hacked to death.

Victor Licata was hiding in the bathroom. He was dressed in a clean white shirt and well-pressed trousers, but his skin was stained in blood.

He denied killing anyone.

Licata told police that while he slept on the evening of October 16, his parents pulled him from bed, held him against the wall, sawed off his arms with a knife and jabbed wooden arms with iron claws into his stumps — all while his siblings laughed. Licata said he grabbed a “funny ax” — rubbery, like it was from a cartoon — and knocked each of his family members unconscious with it then wrung blood from it as though it was a wet towel.

“It was a dream of course,” read the Tampa Times the next day, “the kind of nightmare that lifts its ugly head out of a deadly combination of raw moonshine and dope … Officers viewing the scene of the tragedy declared anew their war on the marijuana traffic.”

Newspapers nicknamed Victor Licata "The Dream Slayer" after he murdered his family of five with an ax.
Newspapers nicknamed Victor Licata "The Dream Slayer" after he murdered his family of five with an ax. [ Times (1933) ]

The salacious story of a marijuana murder made national headlines, but marijuana was not the culprit.

Licata, 21, was a not a large man — 5’8 and 127 pounds — but was already known to be dangerous and mentally unstable. His father slept with a pistol between his mattresses. Police tried to commit Licata a year earlier, but his family refused, saying they could best help him.

The state attorney announced he would not indict Licata with murder because it would be a waste of money to try someone who was “definitely established” as having a mental illness.

Instead, Licata was sentenced to a life at a mental institution in Chattahoochee.

It was initially believed that Victor Licata murdered his family because he was high on marijuana. But it was later determined he did so because he had dementia.
It was initially believed that Victor Licata murdered his family because he was high on marijuana. But it was later determined he did so because he had dementia. [ Times (1933) ]

Still, the marijuana narrative endured.

Reefer Madness was released in 1936 as a fictional movie that claimed to provide real warnings about the deadly consequences of smoking marijuana.

“A trio of drug dealers lead innocent teenagers to become addicted to 'reefer’ cigarettes by holding wild parties with jazz music,” reads the plot summary on IMDB.com.

In one scene similar to the Licata story, a paranoid man high on marijuana bludgeons a man to death with a bat.

Meanwhile, Henry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, used the Licata murders in an anti-marijuana campaign.

He compiled 200 alleged stories of marijuana-induced violence into what is now known as the “Gore File.”

The crimes ranged from a young woman who claimed she murdered a bus driver in cold blood while high to a child rapist who said marijuana made him do it.

In 1933, Victor Licata murdered his family with an ax in their home at 1707 E 5th Avenue in Ybor City.
In 1933, Victor Licata murdered his family with an ax in their home at 1707 E 5th Avenue in Ybor City. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Special to the Times ]

But Licata was the linchpin of Anslinger’s efforts.

“When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse,” Anslinger told the press in 1937. "The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles,’ a childish name for marijuana.”

Anslinger convinced Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which levied taxes on those who dealt marijuana commercially or prescribed it professionally.

It was the first time the government regulated the drug and set a precedent that marijuana was a danger to society, later leading to its full criminalization.

Still, it is rumored Anslinger did not have public safety in mind, filmmaker Muller said. Some say he was influenced by the DuPont family, whose paper business was threatened by the hemp industry.

“Once the murder occurs, we will we zoom out and look at what happened on a national scale,” Muller said.

Devin Muller hopes to make a movie about the Ybor City ax murderer Victor Licata. He was to start production this month but it was suspended to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Devin Muller hopes to make a movie about the Ybor City ax murderer Victor Licata. He was to start production this month but it was suspended to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. [ Courtesy of Devin Muller ]

Licata was not done making national headlines.

On October 15, 1945, Licata escaped the institution along with four patients.

Other patients stated that Licata had been talking about his desire to murder every member of his family.

He disappeared for five years.

Then, in August 1950, he visited cousin Philip Licata’s New Orleans restaurant and said he was in Louisiana for work. The cousin fixed Licata dinner, bought him beers and asked that he return another day.

When Licata did, the cousin grabbed and held him until police arrived.

Licata was sent to Florida State Prison in Raiford where, months later, he died by suicide.

“It is one of the craziest stories," said filmmaker Muller, who will make his directorial debut with the Licata movie. "You can’t make this stuff up.”

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