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Sheriff: Parents, kids killed for drugs, money or both

Story Highlights

• Killings of family of four on Florida's Turnpike premeditated, sheriff says
• Four people in custody on drug charges
• Brother of victim allegedly involved in drug trafficking, sheriff says
• Bodies of the family, including boys aged 3 and 4, found earlier this month
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FORT PIERCE, Florida (CNN) -- Investigators believe the killings of a family of four along Florida's Turnpike this month were premeditated and carried out for "drugs, money or both," St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said Friday.

Four people -- a woman and three men -- are in custody on federal drug charges unrelated to the deaths, Mascara said, and they and the missing brother of one of the victims "all do know each other."

"We do not feel it was a revenge killing," Mascara said at a Friday morning news conference. "We think it was related to either the theft of drugs and money or both." (Watch police explain their theory as to what motivated killings -- 1:57)

The four have been identified as "persons of interest" in connection with the October shooting deaths along Florida's Turnpike, the sheriff said.

An official with the St. Lucie County sheriff's office said after the news conference, "We feel comfortable the shooter or shooters is one of these people."

But he added, "We are not ready to charge the shooter or shooters yet."

The drug suspects have been identified as Lianna Lopez, 18, of Greenacres, Florida, and West Palm Beach residents Daniel Troya, 23, Danny Varela, 26, and Ricardo Sanchez, 23.

They appeared in court for the first time Friday on the drug charges. They're being detained at the Palm Beach County Jail.

On October 13, a motorist found the bodies of four family members on the turnpike north of Port St. Lucie. The victims were identified as Jose Luis Escobedo Jr., 28; his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25; and the couple's sons, Luis Damian Escobedo, 3, and Luis Julian Escobedo, 4. All four had been shot to death, autopsies showed.

Authorities said the four were kneeling or lying down when shot.

Mascara has said the family had recently moved from Brownsville, Texas, to West Palm Beach, about an hour south of where the bodies were found. A vehicle believed to belong to the family was found a few days after the slayings, which occurred in St. Lucie County.

Mascara said authorities are searching for the husband's younger brother, Jose Manuel Escobedo, who did not show up for a federal work camp in Louisiana after being sentenced on a drug conspiracy charge. He had been involved in a "significant heroin and cocaine distribution organization," the sheriff said.

About 24 hours after the slayings, said Mascara, the Drug Enforcement Administration became involved in the probe. As the result of the DEA investigation, a Palm Beach County residence was searched Wednesday morning.

"I cannot reveal the nature of the evidence recovered in that search," Mascara said. "However, I can tell you that investigators are reviewing any possible connection of that evidence to the Escobedo murders."

He added, "Despite the crime's initial appearance as a possible random act of violence on a family traveling on the Florida turnpike, our investigation quickly led us to believe this was a deliberate act of premeditated murder on the family for drugs, money or both."

Thursday night, the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office issued a nationwide bulletin for a 1999 red Dodge conversion van. It was found and is being processed, Mascara said.

However, the registered owner of that van, who was initially called a "person of interest" in the case, has been interviewed and cleared, police said later Friday.

Michael Naujalis, 24, met with detectives Friday and explained to them that he had sold the van to Varela in August. Varela never completed the transfer of title and ownership out of Naujalis' name, according to a sheriff's statement, and Naujalis' tag was still affixed to the van.

"Detectives are satisfied that Naujalis was not involved in the Escobedo family homicides and is no longer considered a person of interest," the statement said.

CNN's Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.

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