PENSACOLA — The men meet inside the dingy mobile home at 318 Palm Court on a hot Thursday evening, around the time the people of this city are getting off work or walking their dogs or bowing their heads before supper.
Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. pulls up in a red minivan and walks into the trailer carrying a duffel bag. His father is in the trailer and a friend. A few minutes later, four others file in.
The seven know each other from odd jobs and business dealings. Their combined criminal records could cover the walls of the trailer: arrests on charges of homicide, assault, battery, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, bail jumping, burglary, hit and run, cocaine sales, marijuana possession, theft, larceny, forgery, DUI, disturbing the peace.
On this Thursday night, according to arrest reports and interviews with Escambia County authorities, they are planning an invasion. They will pull masks over their faces, arm themselves and sprint into the home of a couple who had adopted 13 children, most of them with special needs.
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The 8,500-square-foot house sits on 6 woodsy acres a few miles west of Pensacola, down a long driveway lined by faux antique lampposts.
The place is a portrait of security.
The land is surrounded by a privacy fence adorned with signs that say PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING and BEWARE OF DOG. The property is under 24-hour surveillance. So are each of the nine bedrooms inside. The driveway has a sensor, and the house is fully wired with alarms.
Byrd and Melanie Billings wanted to keep their children safe.
Melanie was a 43-year-old mom and "Internet and ebay JUNKIE" devoted to her MySpace page. Byrd, 66, sold used cars, boats and worked as a consultant to Back Seat Inc., a holding company for a topless bar, the Associated Press reported. But what's unclear is how they made their money.
In divorce records from the dissolution of Byrd's second marriage, in 1993, he reported having a net worth of just $1,400, and cash assets of $100, according to the AP. At the time of their death, they were living in a $700,000 home and employed several people to care for their children.
The couple told the Pensacola News Journal in 2005 that their lives were devoted to the 13 adopted kids who had special needs — Down syndrome, autism, developmental problems — or who had been abandoned or neglected by their birth parents.
"They're as close to perfect as perfect can get," Melanie said at the time.
The paper listed the family's daily routine: Up by 5 a.m. Dressed. Cereal prepared assembly-line style. To school or play. Mac and cheese for dinner. Lights out by 7.
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As the men prepare, Wayne Coldiron has second thoughts, he later tells investigators. The man who had worked as a plumber and day laborer doesn't have much of a criminal record, but Gonzalez won't allow him to skip out now. They have been planning the attack for 30 days, investigators said.
"You're in too deep," Gonzalez tells Coldiron, according to an arrest report. "You've got to go with us."
The men climb into the red van and another vehicle. They're dressed in dark commando clothing and carrying two rifles and a handgun.
If they avoided the Interstate, they would have shot west out of town, down Mobile Highway, as the sun slides down before them. They would have driven 13 miles, past bus stops and American flags and a rusty Ford pickup for sale, past Quiet Street and Mint Julep Trail, past eight churches and the broken-ground future home of yet another, past a billboard that asks: WHERE ARE YOU GOING? Heaven or Hell.
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Camera 11: The view is from above the front door, facing east. The Billings' large, green, trimmed lawn is in view, as is the driveway that wraps in front of the house. About 7:30 p.m., a red van makes its way up the drive.
The van is barely on the screen when it jerks right, into the lawn, and stops in front of the house. Three men jump out. They look like pixilated shadows. They sprint toward the house, across a brick sidewalk, then disappear inside. The vehicle inches forward and to the left.
Four minutes later, a dark figure appears next to the vehicle. The van tears across the lawn.
Camera 5: Facing north, northeast. A grainy figure appears on the edge of the woods, then darts across the lawn. Then another. Then they're gone.
In and out in of the house in four minutes. Off the property in 10.
Deputies arrive and find Byrd and Melanie Billings dead and 9mm shell casings on the floor. The nine children at home are physically unharmed.
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On Saturday morning, 82-year-old Dave Barnes is walking to meet his friends at Whattaburger when he notices a red van parked behind his neighbor's shed. When you've lived in the same house since 1956, you tend to notice such things.
Barnes had known Leonard Gonzalez Sr. as a little slow, but nice enough. He always says hi when Barnes walks by — heck, he'd even stop mowing his lawn and come over for a quick chat.
Barnes doesn't think much about the van.
Another neighbor does. According to the Pensacola News Journal, 78-year-old Kathryn Colbert, who lives across the street, recognizes the van from a photo she saw in the paper. She calls Crime Stoppers, but the line is busy, so she calls the Sheriff's Office.
Around noon, Barnes hears a knock on his door. It is Leonard Gonzalez Sr. and Leonard Gonzalez Jr. He had never met the son before so he introduces himself. Barnes lives two doors down from the Gonzalez mobile home.
The two men step inside and give the old man some jalapenos they had picked from their garden. The three talk for a few minutes, nothing exceptional, and then the two say goodbye.
Thirty minutes later, sheriff's deputies descend on the dingy mobile home at 318 Palm Court.
Across town, next door to the Billings' house, Brother Bill Tinker, 46, has the crime on his mind as he changes the sign in front of the Mobile Highway Baptist Church.
GOD IS OUR REFUGE AND STRENGTH
A VERY PRESENT HELP IN TROUBLE
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People stuff grocery store flowers into the grooves of the Billings privacy fence and plant votive candles along the driveway.
Television trucks line up in front of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office and production crews erect sun shelters and set up cameras on the curb. Sheriff David Morgan is happy to talk. This is the new sheriff's first time in the national spotlight.
He tells the reporters the crime was a "humdinger," a complex case with tentacles that stretched across state lines, perhaps even out of the country. The number of suspects grew to seven, then eight, and they wore "ninja garb," he said, and assaulted the house with "military precision."
Locals struggle to understand how such an elaborate, brutal crime could unfold in a small Southern city on the gulf.
"Pensacola is the place where thousands live but millions want to," says Mayor Mike Wiggins, up on the seventh floor of City Hall. "When this type of tragedy is put forward, you don't want your city attached to something like that."
The mayor says the city's crime stats are low and that Pensacola is finally recovering from Hurricane Ivan nearly five years ago, trying to lure tourists to its white sand beaches, trying to build new parks.
A few hours later, a television station reports that sales of surveillance systems have spiked as citizens try to buy safety.
"Why?" rails T. Bubba on 1620 AM, the local news radio station. "It didn't help the Billings, did it? Folks, if you want to protect your life, get yourself a big gun and learn how to shoot it, and if somebody breaks in, shoot 'em in the head."
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One suspect is arrested. Then two. Then four.
Sheriff Morgan invites one of the Billings' adult children to the news conference and hugs her in front of the cameras.
On Wednesday, the headline in the local paper reads, "WE HAVE FOUND THEM"
Leonard Gonzalez Sr., 56.
Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35.
Wayne Coldiron, 41.
Donald Stallworth, 28.
Gary Sumner, 31.
Frederick Thornton Jr., 19.
Rakeem Florence, 16.
At the Mobile Highway Baptist Church, Brother Tinker is preparing for the Wednesday service. He says crime out here is up. His neighbor on one side has been burglarized. The neighbor on the other has been cased. Not long ago he interrupted thieves trying to steal the church's mower. He blames the economy. And something deeper.
"In this world, bad things happen," he says. "Evil men will do evil deeds. I just trust that, in the end, God's plan will play out."
In the coming days, the local news media will report another arrest, this time a woman, a local real estate agent who lost property to foreclosure. They will report that she helped hide the Billings' family safe in a hole in her back yard. They'll report that the stolen safe contained only children's prescription medicine, passports, birth certificates, papers and jewelry of sentimental value.
Like everyone else, the preacher will try to make sense of it all and fail.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.