PENSACOLA — The public face of the investigation into a wealthy Florida couple's slayings presciently told a newspaper while campaigning for sheriff a year ago that this county of 300,000 "isn't Mayberry anymore."
The husband and wife's killings on Thursday proved Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan's words true, and the investigation has given him more chances to demonstrate his knack for delivering ready-to-publish sound bites.
Morgan told a news conference on Sunday he was anxious to share more details about the case because "it's going to be a humdinger." The next day, he compared the killings of the couple known for adopting children with special needs to the 1959 slayings of a wealthy Kansas farm family chronicled by Truman Capote in the book In Cold Blood.
On Tuesday, after three suspects were arrested, he stood in front of the cameras and hugged a sobbing daughter of one of the victims, saying he'd kept a promise made to her the night of the slayings.
"It is my honor today to tell you, Ashley … we have found them and they are in custody," Morgan told Ashley Markham, one of four adult children from Byrd and Melanie Billings' previous marriages.
The case has thrust this military town into the spotlight, and its new sheriff hasn't shied away from the glare. He's given reporters ample time to ask questions at daily news conferences, and he appeared two days in a row on morning shows for ABC, CBS and NBC.
The blunt-talking Morgan, who was elected in November, spent 23 years with the Air Force security police before retiring as a major in 1994 at nearby Eglin Air Force Base. He then started a private investigation agency with his wife, Susan, a retired Air Force colonel.
"Oddly enough, I worked the defense side for the last 15 years," Morgan said Tuesday. "In the first part of my military career, of course, I worked the prosecutorial side. So I've got a blend of both."
Morgan, 56, stressed his military experience during the election campaign last year, first unseating an incumbent sheriff in the Republican primary and then a retired sheriff's lieutenant in the general election.
Morgan said he learned to operate and manage large organizations while in the Air Force.
"I had some unique assignments in my military career where I had budgets far in excess of what I manage at the Escambia County Sheriff's Office and larger numbers of people," Morgan said.
The sheriff's office has 1,057 employee. Morgan said he managed as many as 7,000, including civil service and contract workers, while in the Air Force.