Woman wanted for questioning in Fla. killings case

July 15, 2009 by  
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PENSACOLA, Florida (CNN) — Authorities have located a woman they want to question in connection with the slaying of a couple who adopted special-needs children, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said Wednesday.

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Pamela Laverne Long was found in Orange Beach, Alabama, Morgan said. The sheriff had said earlier that Long is a real estate agent who had rented property to Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., one of the suspects already arrested in the case.

She is returning to Escambia County, Florida, with her attorney, he said, but she is not in law enforcement custody.

“It is my understanding that she’s currently being cooperative,” he said. Authorities had no contact with her for 48 hours, he said, explaining she was “not in the public eye” and was not in contact with her friends and neighbors.

Authorities were concerned for her safety, he said.

The sheriff said a second “person of interest” was also being sought for questioning, but he did not elaborate.

Byrd and Melanie Billings were shot and killed July 9 in their Beulah, Florida, home near the Alabama state line. Law enforcement officials said a safe and other items were missing from the house and have cited robbery as a motive.

Seven males– one of them a 16-year-old — are already in custody and will face murder charges in the killings. Morgan said the seven suspects are the ones who actually entered the Billingses’ home.

Police said Tuesday they know the name and location of one more suspect involved in the crime. Morgan would not say Wednesday if Long was that person.

The sheriff’s news conference came shortly after the Drug Enforcement Administration confirmed it is assisting in the probe of the murders.

“Escambia County sheriff’s department did call for our assistance this week,” David Melenkevitz, spokesman for the DEA in Miami, Florida, said.

Morgan wouldn’t confirm the DEA’s involvement during the briefing to reporters.

The Billingses at one time had 13 adopted children, many with special needs. Three of those children had died over the years. The couple also each had two biological children of their own, but no biological children together.

Nine of the couple’s children were home at the time of the incident, Morgan said Tuesday, and police believe three of them saw the intruders. One managed to flee the home and seek help at a neighbor’s house, the sheriff said.

Authorities have said the break-in was well-rehearsed and that at least two of the suspects had military training. Morgan said the men were on the Billingses’ property for 10 minutes and were in and out of the house in four.

But the sheriff said Wednesday there was a “gaping hole” in what was otherwise a well-executed crime: “Why was the security system not disabled?”

“The execution was basically flawless,” and authorities believe the suspects “entered the compound with the belief that they were not under surveillance,” Morgan said.

“We’re now looking at anyone who may have had an involvement with the security system,” he said. “We believe that there is an additional person, and that was their task and they failed.”

7 people in custody for Pensacola murders

July 14, 2009 by  
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Masked suspects, some dressed as ninjas, stole a safe and other items during a deadly break-in at the sprawling Florida Panhandle home of a couple known for adopting children with special needs, authorities said Tuesday.

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Melanie and Byrd Billings were shot to death Thursday in their nine-bedroom home. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan hugged their sobbing adult daughter, Ashley Markham, at a press conference Tuesday to announce that three more people had been arrested, bringing the total to seven.

“It is my honor today to tell you, Ashley, and your family, we have found them and they are in custody,” Morgan said.

Investigators had said previously that there were many motives for the crime, but prosecutor Bill Eddins said Tuesday that robbery was the main one. He would not say what was in the safe or what else might have been taken from the house.

Nine of the couple’s 17 children were home at the time and three saw the intruders but were not hurt.

Morgan said investigators were still looking for at least one more person in the case and at least one of the suspects in custody may have done work at the Billings home. He has previously said the suspects had no direct connection to the victims.

Several of the suspects were day laborers who knew each other through either a pressure washing business or a car detailing group, Morgan said.

The arrests started Sunday with 56-year-old Leonard Gonzalez Sr., who was originally charged with evidence tampering but will be charged with murder, authorities said. He is accused of driving a red van seen on surveillance video pulling away from the Billings home and then trying to paint over it.

His son, 35-year-old Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., was also arrested Sunday along with day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41. Both were due in court Tuesday to face murder charges.

Another day laborer, Gary Lamont Sumner, 31, was arrested on a murder charge in a nearby county Monday after he was pulled over in a traffic stop. Morgan said investigators have placed Sumner at the scene, though he would not provide details.

Three more people were arrested Tuesday — a juvenile whom police did not identify; Frederick Lee Thorton Jr., 19; and Donnie Ray Stallworth, 28, who was arrested in Alabama but lives in Florida.

The break-in was captured by an extensive video surveillance system the Billings used to keep tabs on their children.

Surveillance video showed three armed, masked men arriving in the red van, entering through the front of the house and then returning to the vehicle. Others dressed in what the sheriff called “ninja garb” went in through an unlocked utility door in the back. They were in and out in under 10 minutes.

“I think you’ll find this particularly chilling and here’s why: We have a team that enters at the rear of the home and another that enters at the front of the home,” Morgan said. “It leads me to believe this was a very well-planned and methodical operation.”

Morgan said, however, that there was no indication anyone had unlocked the door for the intruders, adding that people in the community felt comfortable leaving their doors unlocked.

The couple owned several local businesses, including a finance company and a used-car dealership. They lived in Beulah, a rural area west of Pensacola, near the Alabama state line, in a house set deep in the woods. They had 17 children in all — 13 of them adopted.

Tips from the public led police to the van on Saturday.

Sheriff: 8 people involved in murder of Pensacola couple

July 13, 2009 by  
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PENSACOLA, Fla. – Byrd and Melanie Billings had a growing brood of adopted children with autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities, and took care to make their nine-bedroom house a safe place for them, wiring it with surveillance cameras in every room.
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It was those cameras that captured images of the masked men who shot the wealthy couple to death in a break-in executed with chilling precision.

Authorities made three arrests over the weekend, but the mystery around town only deepened Monday, when Sheriff David Morgan said that as many as eight people in all may have been involved and that the crime appeared to have “numerous motives,” though robbery was the only one he would mention.

“Mr. Billings was well-to-do. He was an entrepreneur and he opened his home to the community. You are asking me to speculate on a motive. That could have been one reason,” Morgan said, likening the killings to the 1959 slayings of a Kansas farm family that were chronicled by Truman Capote in the book “In Cold Blood.”

The video from last Thursday showed three armed, masked men arriving in a red van, entering through the front of the house and then returning to the vehicle. Others dressed in what the sheriff called “ninja garb” went in through an unlocked utility door in the back. They were in and out in under 10 minutes.

The sheriff would not say what, if anything, was stolen.

Some of the nine children in the house at the time were sleeping, but several others saw the break-in, authorities said. One left the house and went to get a neighbor, who called 911.

“I think you’ll find this particularly chilling and here’s why: We have a team that enters at the rear of the home and another that enters at the front of the home,” Morgan said. “It leads me to believe this was a very well-planned and methodical operation.”

Morgan said, however, that there was no indication anyone had unlocked the door for the intruders, explaining, “I believe it was a matter of course in this community that they felt comfortable enough to leave the door unlocked.” He also said he knew of no connection between the men under arrest and the Billings family.

The Billingses owned several local businesses, including a finance company and a used-car dealership. They lived in Beulah, a rural area west of Pensacola, near the Alabama state line, in a house set deep in the woods. They had 16 children in all — 12 of them adopted.

In a 2005 story in the Pensacola News Journal, the couple said they wanted to share their wealth with children in need, but didn’t imagine their family would grow so large.

“It just happened,” said Melanie Billings, who was 43 when she died. “I just wanted to give them a better life.”

The surveillance system was installed to help the couple keep track of their children as they wandered through the large house and yard, said Susan Berry, principal of Escambia Westgate School in Pensacola, which some of the children attended.

Tips from the public led police to the van on Saturday. Day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, turned himself in on Sunday, and Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., 35, was arrested the same day in a neighboring county. They were charged with murder and home invasion.

Authorities also jailed Gonzalez’s father on a charge of evidence tampering. Police said the 56-year-old tried to paint over and hide damage on the van.

The elder Gonzalez told investigators that he was the getaway driver and waited in the van while the others broke into the house and burglarized it, according to court papers. Authorities said he also told them several other men were involved.

Byrd Billings, 68, was a man with big twinkly-eyed smile, Berry said. At one school function, his big hand enveloped hers, leaving a neatly folded check for the school in her palm. She wouldn’t say how much the check was for, but she couldn’t believe how big it was.

“They weren’t only generous with their children,” Berry said. “They were generous with everyone that touched their children’s lives.”

When Melanie Billings picked up her children from school, she would stretch out her arms, and “the kids would run to her, the ones that could,” Berry said. “They would go as fast they could with their arms in the air for Mom to take them.”

For one daughter’s prom, the couple created a Cinderella scene. The girl’s dress was white, her date wore a white tuxedo with a pink tie, and the couple emerged from a white limousine.

“The beam on Byrd and Mel’s faces, and on the parents of the young man, is something I’ll never forget,” Berry said. “It was picture-perfect.”

Ashley Markham, an adult daughter of the victims, said she plans to carry on with her parents’ legacy.

“My mother always told me some people grow up wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. She wanted to be a mommy,” Markham said in a statement. “Her lifelong dream was loving her babies and being a voice for them.”