As the debate over legalizing medical marijuana heats up, local history buffs may remember that an Ybor City crime played a role in the original criminalization laws.
It began with a scene straight out of a modern-day horror film.
On the afternoon of Oct. 17, 1933, neighbors of the Licata family on Fifth Avenue contacted the police when they realized no one had left the house all day. The Licatas were not on vacation. The husband owned two barbershops. Two of the boys went to school. Surely, something must be wrong, neighbors told the police.
When police entered the home, they found Michael Licata lying in a puddle of blood in his bed, killed with one swing of an ax. In the adjoining bedroom, they found the bodies of the family’s 22-year-old daughter, Prudence, and her 8-year-old brother, Jose. Both had been hacked to death. In the rear bedroom, they found 44-year-old Rosalie. On the bed beside her lay her 14-year-old son, Philip, alive but suffering from numerous ax wounds. He would die shortly after being taken to the hospital. And lying on the floor next to the bed was the murder weapon — a blood-stained ax.
The police then found 21-year-old Victor Licata cowering in the bathroom, dressed in a clean white shirt and well-pressed trousers. Underneath his clean clothes, though, his naked skin was stained with blood. Police immediately charged Victor with murder.
He was a small, soft-spoken man — 5-foot-8 and 127 pounds. But he was long known to be dangerous and mentally unstable, so much so that his father slept with a pistol under the mattress. The police had tried to commit Victor a year earlier, but his family refused, claiming they could take better care of him themselves.
They underestimated the demons that lived inside Victor. It wasn’t until the police interrogated Victor that anyone could truly understand how insane he’d become.
According to his police testimony, he was asleep on the night of Oct. 16, when his father came charging into the room, pulled him from bed and held him against the wall.
His mother then entered the room wielding a kitchen knife, and jeered and taunted him as his brothers and sister pointed and laughed at him. His mother then sawed off his arms with the knife and jabbed homemade wooden arms with iron claws as hands into his stumps.
When the attack ended and his family left the room, Victor sought revenge. He found an ax on the porch; but it wasn’t a normal ax. It was a rubbery “funny ax,” like something out of a slapstick cartoon. Victor said he took the funny ax and whacked his family members in their heads with it, knocking them unconscious but not killing them.
However, he admitted to the police that he found it odd when he was able to wring blood out of the ax.
What made this story even creepier was that Victor seemed to be 100 percent honest when he told it. Investigators believed that he had a nightmare, and when he woke up in a delirious state, he murdered his family — earning the nickname “The Dream Slayer.”
Licata was sentenced to a life sentence in a mental institution. He escaped in 1945 and remained free for five years. He was then incarcerated in Raiford State Prison, where he committed suicide just months later.
However, the legacy of Victor Licata has lived on well beyond his death.
In the 1930s, Henry Anslinger, then head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, set out to prove that marijuana caused normally rational people to turn into violent criminals. To do so, he started a mass media campaign, documenting cases of marijuana-induced violence for newspapers and magazines across the country, a series of articles that has become famously known as the “Gore File.”
The file was made up of 200 stories, including a young woman who claimed she murdered a bus driver in cold blood while high on marijuana, a child rapist who said marijuana made him do it and a young man who said he murdered his entire family with an ax because he was high.
This particular ax-murderer was Ybor City resident Victor Licata, and his tale was the backbone of Anslinger’s anti-marijuana crusade.
“An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida,” Anslinger wrote. “When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze. … He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles,’ a childish name for marijuana.”
Anslinger testified before Congress in 1937 that if marijuana wasn’t criminalized, more families could suffer the same fate as the Licatas. With a public swell of support behind him, he convinced Congress to pass the first federal anti-marijuana act, The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The act levied a token tax of approximately one dollar on all buyers, sellers, importers, growers, physicians, veterinarians and any other persons who dealt in marijuana commercially, prescribed it professionally or possessed it.
There was just one problem with Anslinger’s story: Marijuana had nothing to do with the murders. According to court testimony, Licata suffered from early dementia. At no time did the judge mention marijuana in his sentencing.
Researchers have since been able to prove that 198 of the 200 violent crimes documented in the “Gore File” were erroneously blamed on marijuana use. The remaining two couldn’t be proven false because no records of the crimes even existed.
Why would Anslinger lie? One of the most popular theories is that he did so to assist his good friends the DuPonts, whose paper and fiber industries were threatened by competing companies using hemp.
It may never be known why he lied, but there is no denying he did. And it had larger ramifications than a single tax. It set a precedent that marijuana was a danger to society, leading to future laws that made all marijuana use illegal.
And all these years later, the United States’ marijuana laws can be traced back to a horrifying, senseless crime that took place in Ybor City.
Paul Guzzo is a freelance journalist who specializes in Tampa history. He wrote the documentary on Tampa gangster Charlie Wall and the book “The Dark Side of Sunshine,” which chronicles some of the city’s most infamous people and events of the past century.