TAMPA — For some reason, Victor Licata snapped, attacking his family with an axe in one of the bloodiest mass murders in Tampa history.
The state attorney blamed dementia and schizophrenia in the wild-eyed Licata for the slaying of his parents, his older sister and his two little brothers on Oct. 16, 1933, at their home in Ybor City. Licata, 21, was sent to an asylum for life.
But his mental condition didn’t stop the federal government from seizing on the slaughter in launching its notorious “reefer madness” campaign to criminalize the use of marijuana. Initially, police had said Licata was high on the drug.
“An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida,” Henry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, told the press in 1937.
Yet another theory in the attack soon emerged — that the unstable Licata was framed and that his family died in a mob hit.
It’s a version of events kept alive 95 years later on websites that promote marijuana legalization and showcase the excesses of the reefer madness campaign.
The man who now lives in the Licata house thinks there may be some truth to it.
Kurt Schleicher said he didn’t know anything about the murders when he bought the property at 1707 E. Fifth Ave. in March 2018. Now, as he renovates the 1,800-square-foot, four-bedroom, wood-floor house, he’s seeing and learning things that make him think bootleg liquor — often the purview of organized crime — was made and distributed there.
Old timers in Ybor City have told Schleicher that Licata’s father Michael was a bootlegger and that they always suspected he kept a still in the basement. Schleicher says it would have been in the attic.
Michael Licata was a barber with two downtown Tampa barbershops, but probably couldn’t afford a house so large just two blocks off Ybor City’s main Seventh Avenue business district, said Schleicher, president of the Ybor Merchants Association and a partner with S3 Media in Ybor City.
“It also has a fireplace, a big living room, a big front porch. This house in 1933 was above a barber’s pay grade,” he said.
Behind the attic's insulation, Schleicher said, he has discovered empty moonshine bottles. In the rafters are remnants of a pulley system that might have been used to lower crates of bottles, he said.
The murders, he theorizes, might have been the work of other bootleggers intent on taking out the competition.
It’s a theory, acknowledges Scott Deitche, a local Mafia historian, and one bolstered by the power that organized crime wielded across Tampa during the era.
But Deitche doesn’t buy it.
“During that time, most mob killings were done with a shotgun,” he said. “It would be unusual for feuding gangsters to kill a rival with an axe.”
One notable exception was the 1955 murder of Tampa gangster Charlie Wall, found with his throat slit and beaten by a baseball bat.
Joe Howden, who owned the Licata house for about 10 years until 2004 and used to host history tours of Ybor City, also rejects the mob hit theory, saying Michael Licata was above such associations.
“The father was the most respected barber in Tampa. He would not have a still in his beautiful dream home.”
If anyone operated a still there, Howden said, it might have been during the years after the murders when no one would live in the house. It stood unoccupied until the early 1950s.
According to news archives, police entered the Licata home the afternoon of October 17, 1933, after neighbors noticed the family hadn’t come out all day.
Inside, they found the bodies of Licata’s 47-year-old father in the front bedroom, 22-year-old sister Providence and 8-year-old brother Jose Licata in the adjoining bedroom, and 44-year-old mother Rosalie in the rear bedroom. Phillip Licata, 14, clutched in his mother's arms, was alive but later died at a hospital.
Police found Victor Licata cowering in the bathroom, his skin stained with blood but wearing clean clothes. The small-framed Licata, 5-foot-8 and 127 pounds, said he didn’t kill anyone but did protect himself.
The story he told police was nonsense: While he slept, 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 axe" — 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.
Initially, police blamed his lunacy on moonshine and marijuana.
But medical reports revealed a history of dementia in the family, and a year earlier, police had tried to have Licata committed. His parents refused.
Among the websites pushing the Mafia execution theory in the Licata case is refermadness.org, whose features also include a price guide to memorabilia from the refer madness campaign.
Defenders of Licata point to what they see as another rush to judgment in Hillsborough County with the conviction of Charles Manuel for the 1926 murder of his girlfriend. Manuel told investigators he didn't recall killing the woman in a moonshine haze, but reasoned that he must have if witnesses said he did. Investigators later admitted he was probably innocent.
It was four years after State Attorney J. Rex Farrior declined to indict Licata — someone "definitely established as insane,” he said — that the federal government began exploiting the murders.
The case was cited in a successful campaign to tax the sale and use of marijuana — the first time the government moved to regulate the drug. The tax eventually led to the criminalization of marijuana.
Schleicher lived next door to the old Licata home for two years before buying it, but it wasn’t until months later that he learned the gruesome history — and only after he asked passersby why they were taking photos of the property.
It helped him understand the bottles and pulleys he was finding, Schleicher said, as maybe the odd, V-shaped chunks missing from a bedroom windowsill.
It turned out to be the room where 22-year-old Providence and 8-year-old Jose were hacked to death. The bed would have been against the window
Said Schleicher, "I thought it was just rotten wood. So had it fixed.”
Contact Paul Guzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @PGuzzoTimes.