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Murder of Escambia couple may involve up to eight people, sheriff says

Byrd and Melanie Billings, who were shot to death Thursday, with some of their adopted and biological children in their Beulah home in 2005. Melanie holds a photo of their late child, Bailey.

Associated Press (2005)

Byrd and Melanie Billings, who were shot to death Thursday, with some of their adopted and biological children in their Beulah home in 2005. Melanie holds a photo of their late child, Bailey.

PENSACOLA — Byrd and Melanie Billings had a growing brood of adopted children with autism, Down's 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.

Those cameras 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 deepened Monday when Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said that as many as eight people 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 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 less than 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 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 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 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." Byrd Billings was 68.

Tips from the public led police to the van 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.

Murder of Escambia couple may involve up to eight people, sheriff says 07/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 7:17am]

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