Fla. suspects up to 8 involved in couple’s slaying

Cameras set up for child care saw chilling break-in

Byrd and Melanie Billings in 2005 with 12 children, 10 of them adopted. When slain last week, the couple had a brood of 16. Byrd and Melanie Billings in 2005 with 12 children, 10 of them adopted. When slain last week, the couple had a brood of 16. (Karena Cawthon/Pensacola News Journal/File)
By Melissa Nelson
Associated Press / July 14, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

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.

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 yesterday, 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 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. “I believe it was a matter of course in this community that they felt comfortable enough to leave the door unlocked,’’ he added. 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 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 had not expected 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 Saturday. Day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, turned himself in 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.