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Slaying of Florida couple with 17 children called "the worst of man"

PENSACOLA — The invaders had practice.

Over the course of a month, the sheriff here said, the seven suspects had fired weapons and trained and plotted the specifics of their night-time assault on a home in Beulah, a few miles west of this panhandle town, on a stretch of Mobile Highway lined by churches and gas stations and hay fields.

That's why they were in and out in four minutes, wearing "ninja garb" and assaulting the home with "military precision," the sheriff said, leaving dead Byrd and Melanie Billings, the caring parents of 17 children, 13 of them adopted, most of them with special needs.

The intruders left with a safe and several other items, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said, and robbery appears to have been the motive. The Billings were well-off, involved in pawnshops and auto sales companies. They lived in a nine-bedroom home with a swimming pool, surrounded by trees and a stockade fence. Surveillance cameras monitored the property and each of the bedrooms and captured the crime that has brought national media attention to this town.

Now police tape blocks the entrance to the property. Along the fence is an impromptu memorial to the couple. Grocery store flowers and votive candles and a note: "Thank you Bud and Mel for your kindness and love. When we were hitting the bottom of our life you helped raise up our family."

Morgan said one of the suspects, Leonard Gonzalez Sr., owned a power-washing company and had done work at the spacious Billings residence. He would not say whether Gonzalez knew the victims kept valuables inside.

"We, as a society," he said, one of the Billings' adult daughters by his side, her hands covering her mouth, "have witnessed the worst of man."

Morgan painted the crew as a small militia, with ties to criminal operations out of state and outside the country. Two of the men, he said, have military training: Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. in the National Guard, and Donald Ray Stallworth in a special operations unit with the Air Force.

The group's mastermind, whom Morgan wouldn't name but hinted was Gonzalez Jr., had recruited the others for the invasion: day laborers, mechanics, auto detailers.

The sheriff has arrested six men and a juvenile, while one person with intimate knowledge of the crime is still at large, he said.

The other named suspects are Fredrick Lee Thornton, Wayne Coldiron and Gary Lamont Sumner.

The web of crime expands beyond Escambia County. The sheriff said the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are involved in the investigation.

"It involves other businesses, other states, other countries," he said. "The individuals involved with these crimes are involved in other areas." He declined to elaborate.

He said some of the training took place at the elder Gonzalez's mobile home on Palm Court.

All that seems strange to the people who know Gonzalez, a disabled man who worked menial jobs as an electrician and auto mechanic.

"I never heard anything," said the woman who lives across the street.

"That's hard to imagine," said the girlfriend of Gonzalez's estranged brother, who lives a few houses away.

"I find that hard to believe," said Dave Barnes, 82, who lives two houses down. "He has a lot of cookouts, but no training that I've seen."

Barnes was home Saturday when Gonzalez Sr. stopped by with his son, a few hours before they were arrested. They came bearing jalapenos they picked from their garden. They both seemed comfortable and friendly.

Barnes said he thought about calling the police when he saw a red van parked behind Gonzalez Sr.'s trailer that was similar to the photo of the getaway van he saw in the local newspaper, but someone beat him to it.

"I just can't believe that Leonard would do something like that," Barnes said. "He's real outgoing, sociable."

Gonzalez Jr. is a trained martial artist who founded a nonprofit called Project FIGHTBACK to teach self-defense to women and children. He was recently awarded the Service to Mankind Award from the Pensacola Seville Sertoma Club for his work with children.

In online postings on MySpace, the father of six seems preoccupied with a daughter he lost in a custody battle. The girl, who lives in Sarasota, is the subject of numerous postings in which the father blasts her mother and family for shielding him from seeing her. Sheriff Morgan said the dispute has nothing to do with the killings, even though Gonzalez made two interesting changes to his MySpace page seven hours before the crime: he changed his status to "making a move for humanity," and his mood to "adventurous."

Several others arrested worked at Fifth Dimension, an auto detailing shop in Fort Walton Beach.

Morgan said the accused have been talking to police, but "there are still some loops that need to be closed." He said he doesn't yet know whether the invaders intended to kill the Billings upon entry, or whether the robbery spun into violence. The nine children who were home are in a safe place, being nurtured by family and victims' advocates.

He said several of the accused have admitted to the crime. Asked whether they had expressed remorse, he said: "Everyone expresses remorse when they're caught."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Slaying of Florida couple with 17 children called "the worst of man" 07/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 9:46am]
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