Kris, pictured closest to the camera, served as lead reporter in one of the most unusual murders in the nation during 2009. 

Kris, pictured closest to the camera, served as lead reporter in one of the most unusual murders in the nation during 2009. 

The deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings

It became one of the strangest murders of 2009. A Florida couple is gunned down in their home by a man and a rag-tag group of losers, weirdos and strangers dressed in what the county sheriff described as "ninja garb." The story unfolded.

The couple was known for their adoption of more than a dozen special-needs children. But the victims themselves had their own dark side. The father was involved in the dirty used car business. Did I mention the entire raid on the couple's sprawling home was captured by a sophisticated surveillance system and that the criminals got away with the wrong safe. 

During this time period, Kris would appear on numerous cable television news programs, and he became the lead reporter on a story that would continue well after his eventual departure from Pensacola. These stories are an example of how good sources can help anyone beat fly-by-night national journalists who walk in and think that they own the place. He led the story every step of the way. 

What follows is the tale of the Billings murders.


"We will pull together"

Published on July 13, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

Ashley Markham said that the nine children in the care of a Beulah couple murdered in their home Thursday night will remain together.

The adopted children of Byrd and Melanie Billings are with friends and family at an undisclosed location, Markham said at a news conference this morning in the lobby of a family attorney's office in downtown Pensacola.

"We plan to carry on their legacy," she said, reading from a three-page, prepared statement. "We children have experienced a loss that is unimaginable, but as a family, we will pull together. We'll take each day one at a time. Our most important concern right now is upholding the wishes of my parents. We are fully prepared to do that. The family is capable of following through with those wishes."

Markham took a handful of questions from the gathering contingency of media drawn to the sensational shooting in the small community northwest of Pensacola near the Alabama state line.

Questioned about the three men arrested Sunday night in connection with the murders, Markham said she has no knowledge of any connection between those men, her parents or any of the children in the household.

"The people who have been arrested, we have no knowledge of them," she said. "That's all I know."

Markham and family spokeswoman Crystal Collins Spencer, a local attorney, said they are both reluctant to give further details about the children's whereabouts, mindful that Escambia County Sheriff's investigators have said more arrests could follow.

"We just want to protect them from everything as much as possible," Spencer said. "You have to recognize while there have been no specific threats you want to err on the side of caution in particular circumstance. This was an extremely violent act upon this family. We can't begin to understand motive or theory, so all precautions are being taken."

Markham, who was accompanied by her husband, Blue, said her parents had 17 children, four biological, and that nine were present in the home the night of the shootings.

No funeral arrangements have been made.

Markham struggled to speak at times, her husband stood with his arm in the small of her back. She spoke fondly of her parents and their love for all of their children.

"Those who have met any of the Billings children know how well-behaved and well-mannered they are," she said. "Our parents taught us to love despite difference in people."


Gonzalez Jr. claims innocence

Published on July 14, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal 

Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. challenged the Escambia County Sheriff's Office's investigation into the Byrd and Melanie Billings slayings saying the confession that led to his arrest was made by a man with mental illness.

"With the exception of the statements that have been made, coerced, bullied or manipulated out of a mentally ill person, there is no hard evidence that links me to the scene of the crimes that occurred July 9," Gonzalez Jr. said.

Gonzalez Jr. made the apparent reference to his father, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr. who confessed to driving his son and a friend to the Billingses' rural Beulah home. The family patriarch is charged with tampering with evidence for trying to alter the van's appearance, according to arrest records.

Gonzalez Jr., 35, is was arrested Sunday and charged with an open count of murder.

Gonzalez Jr. spoke at length during his first court appearance - Tuesday's bond hearing - saying that he only wants a chance to clear his good name. He asked the judge to release him on his own recognizance citing his reputation of working with children through his self-defense and abduction awareness program.

"I respectfully ask the court that due to a lack of hard evidence, my family situation and as well as community activism, to release me on my own recognizance or greatly reduce my bond and allow me to prepare to defend myself against these heinous charges, which is my constitutional right," Gonzalez Jr. said.

With a criminal history that includes seven arrests and a stint in state prison, Escambia County Judge Thomas Johnson revoked Gonzalez Jr's. $1 million bond and order him held in jail without bond.

"I've read the arrest report and I find that there is sufficient evidence which gives me great concern for our community," the judge said.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan has said that Gonzalez Jr. was the "mastermind," or the leader of six other men arrested this week in connection with the fatal armed robbery and home invasion.

Gonzalez said the Sheriff's Office lied about his weight on paperwork so that he would better fit the suspect description. He said that he was placed in an suicide ward at the Escambia County Jail without cause.

He also said the Sheriff's Office of thrust him into the public eye without considering all of the possibilities.

"I've cooperated with the investigators from the very beginning," he said. "From the very beginning the investigators and the sheriff have focus their sights entirely on me, pushing me into the media before evidence was even gathered."

As of Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office did not respond to any of the claims Gonzalez Jr. made during his 400-word monologue.

A grand jury will now consider what specific charges to bring against Gonzalez Jr. Circuit Judge Linda Nobles will arraign him Aug. 6.

Gonzalez Jr. was a self-defense instructor and owned Project FIGHT BACK. The father of six ran the program with his wife Tabatha. He noted during his appearance that a local organization recently recognized him for his work.

"I am also socially prominent with work I've down in Project FIGHT BACK," he said. "I've trained over 20,000 local children in abduction awareness and kidnap prevention and a few weeks ago won the Seville Sertoma Club's Service to Mankind Award."

The judge appointed a public defender to represent Gonzalez Jr. who said that he didn't have enough money yet to hire his own legal counsel. The Public Defender's Office is not allowed by law to represent separate parties in a case with several defendants.

Since Gonzalez Sr. was assigned an assistant public defender Monday, an attorney from the Office of Regional Conflict Counsel will likely represent his son.

Reporters asked State Attorney Bill Eddins what he thought of the statements Gonzalez Jr. made at Tuesday's hearing.

"I look forward to meeting Mr. Gonzalez in court," Eddins said.

The 14-seat courtroom were video teleconference hearings are held was cramped. Several members of the media drawn Pensacola for the sensational double-homicide story stood around the edges of the courtroom to clear seats for members of the Markham family.

Blue and Ashley Markham, Melanie Billings' biological daughter, sat in the front row and gazed at the widescreen television where the man accused of killing her parents stood. At times, she leaned her head on her husband's left shoulder.

Some 20 members of the Billings family and friends gathered outside the courtroom and stood in a circle around Markham who is now charged with caring for her parents nine adopted children.

Attorney Crystal Collins Spencer, acting as the Billings family spokeswoman, anticipates the family would host a press conference today. The details and the location of the event were not available at that time.

"We would like to thank...most particularly the community who have assisted law enforcement in solving this horrible crime that has inflicted on this family," she said.


Billings safe found in suspect's backyard

Published on July 17, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

Pamela Wiggins had the safe.

Her red minivan carried the evidence away after the slaying of Byrd and Melanie Billings inside the couple's sprawling rural Beulah home, according to arrest reports.

A view of her backyard in Gulf Breeze on Thursday revealed where authorities dug through piles of brick and earth earlier this week for what law enforcement officials called a "medium-sized" safe - the object of desire in the July 9 home invasion that has attracted national attention.

With the recovery of that pivotal piece of evidence and several guns, including a murder weapon, the major investigative phase of the case is at an end, State Attorney Bill Eddins said at a Thursday morning news conference.

"There are obviously some loose ends to tie up," he said.

Wiggins' husband, Hugh, told investigators that the safe was stolen during the robbery at the Billingses' home and that it was hidden in the backyard of one of his wife's homes, the report said.

Wiggins owns at least six houses in the Gulf Breeze area. Her address listed in phone directories and also in the Sheriff's Office's arrest report places her primary residence in the 1200 block of Ramblewood Drive. That is where investigators found the buried safe.

Out on bond

Wiggins posted $10,000 bond and was at that Gulf Breeze residence by Thursday afternoon.

Wiggins' bond was lower than the seven other defendants' because her alleged crime is less severe and because she cooperated with investigators, Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille said. Prosecutors have not ruled out filing additional charges against her.

Wiggins did not answer the door at her Gulf Breeze home when visited by reporters. Two Escambia County deputies who arrived in an unmarked car were seen entering her home shortly after 3 p.m. A sheriff's spokeswoman could not confirm why the deputies paid her the afternoon visit.

The Billingses were known throughout the Pensacola area for adopting special-needs children, nine of whom were in the couple's Beulah home when the killings occurred.

The weeklong investigation has netted eight arrests, including Wiggins, 47, and her friend, Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35, the man investigators called the "organizer" of the precise military-style raid on the couple's home.

The seven men accused in the raid are in Escambia County Jail with no bond on two open counts of murder each. The cases will head to a grand jury in the coming weeks.

Eddins also confirmed Thursday afternoon that the recovered safe was "medium-sized, but small enough for one person to carry." Eddins declined to reveal its contents.

Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille said he could not comment about reports that there was more than one safe in the home.

While Eddins refused to say what kinds of weapons were recovered, police reports show that at least three guns were carried into the home. Several spent 9 mm casings were recovered.

Wiggins' minivan

Investigators still are searching for two "persons of interest" with possible connections to the case, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said. One of those people is someone investigators believe was tasked with disabling the couple's extensive room-to-room surveillance system from a remote location, but didn't, Morgan said.

Wiggins - a Gulf Breeze property manager - is charged as an accessory after the fact. The charge carries a possible 30-year state prison sentence upon conviction. She was taken in for questioning Wednesday afternoon after she was found at an Orange Beach, Ala., marina on her yacht named "Classy Lady." She was arrested as the evening waned.

Her role in the elaborate home invasion was unclear until new details emerged Thursday through arrest reports.

Before the planned invasion of the Billings compound, a red minivan was left near the Beulah crime scene to aid in the planned escape, investigators said.

That minivan belonged to Wiggins, according to a police report.

Defendants cooperating with investigators said the guns used during the robbery and killings were transferred to Wiggins' minivan, which was later seen at a her antique shop in the 4300 block of Gulf Breeze Parkway, according to an arrest report.

Wiggins was a passenger in the minivan while the guns and the Billingses' safe were inside the vehicle. She "had knowledge these weapons were used by the suspects during the commission of the home invasion (and) double homicide," the arrest report said.

A neighbor reported that a red vehicle sped away from co-defendant Leonard Gonzalez Sr.'s Palm Court home in Escambia County with several people inside. Another larger 15-passenger van seen in surveillance footage from the Billingses' home was found behind Gonzalez Sr.'s trailer.

Both vans were recovered.

Marina Management President Leo Cyr said Wiggins kept her yacht docked at Palafox Pier in downtown Pensacola until about January of this year. The lease on the slip was in Pamela Wiggins' name, he said. He never met the Wigginses personally.

"They kept it here for a while and then she got into us for about $3,000," he said. "We came here one day and the boat was gone."


Rumor on top of innuendo

Published on Aug. 8, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

The Escambia County Sheriff's Office on Friday continued to refer to a business associate of Byrd and Melanie Billings as a "person of interest" in their murders. But after hours of questioning on three occasions, he has not been charged in the case.

Henry Cabell "Cab" Tice, 61, was charged Thursday night with grand theft for allegedly writing more than $17,000 in bad checks last year to Worldco Financial Services, a company owned by the Billings family.

He was released from Escambia County Jail on Friday morning after posting $5,000 bond.

Tice could not be located by News Journal reporters on Friday. He most recently has lived at a used-car dealership in Pace, but the owner said he asked him to leave when his name surfaced in the Billings case.

NBC15online.com reported that Tice said in an interview with "Dateline" that he was not involved.

"That anybody would say that I had anything to do with the murder of Bud or Melanie is a liar," Tice said. "The world lost somebody wonderful in Melanie and Bud Billings did not deserve to be killed in his household."

Sheriff David Morgan took the unusual step Thursday night of announcing that investigators were questioning Tice in the murders.

Previously, Tice's name had surfaced in several news articles about the case, with the reporters saying "law enforcement sources" believed he was involved in the case.

Tice came to the Sheriff's Office voluntarily Thursday and underwent more than three hours of questioning without obtaining a lawyer. He had been questioned at least twice before, including shortly after the murders.

Morgan has said repeatedly that he has not ruled out the possibility that the couple's murders were the result of a contract hit. He has not fully revealed the reasons for his strong suspicions about Tice's involvement.

However, Morgan said Thursday that Tice has revealed that he had what he considered a "father-son relationship" with Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 35, the alleged ringleader of a gang of eight people charged in the July 9 slayings at the Beulah couple's home.

Tice-Billings connection

On Friday, an attorney for the Billings family cast doubt on Tice's possible involvement in the murder case.

"He thought the world of Melanie. She was a saintly person. He really had a true affection for her," attorney Robert Beasley said. "It would be difficult to believe that Cab would be involved with her getting hurt."

The couple were shot multiple times in their bedroom. Nine special-needs children whom they adopted were elsewhere in their home.

Tice and Billings were both involved in the used-car business.

Worldco was the finance arm of Byrd Billings' dealership. The Billingses' daughter, Ashley Markham, took over day-to-day operations of the business several years ago, with her father remaining as a consultant.

In May 2008, Byrd Billings contacted the Escambia County Sheriff's Office to complain that Tice and his Hispanic-American Auto Sales wrote $17,342.51 in bad checks to Worldco.

The case never was pursued. But after Tice's name surfaced in the Billings murder case, investigators looked into the 14-month-old complaint against him.

Tice's debts to Byrd Billings and his businesses were deeper than bad checks, Beasley said. Billings financed several vehicles for Tice's dealership that were never paid for and vanished.

"They have disappeared and were either sold without title or sold with a new title, either out of state or out of country," Beasley said.

Beasley said Tice's former company, Hispanic-American Auto Sales, is defunct because of severe financial problems.

He said Tice wouldn't have the resources to hire someone to kill the Billingses.

Mexican mafia

In recent weeks, Tice lived in the back office of a Pace car dealership owned by a friend. Morgan said he told investigators that he had debts to "the Mexican mafia."

"Cab didn't have any money," Beasley said.

Tice's ex-wife, Deborah, said Friday she doesn't believe her ex-husband would ever be involved in a murder.

"If he is guilty, somebody's going to have to give a better motive than it's because he owed Bud money," Deborah Tice said Friday. "That wouldn't have solved anything. Henry knew Ashley was there to continue going after him."

Deborah Tice said she was interviewed by Escambia County investigators for four hours. She said her ex-husband cheated on her and muscled her out of a business they shared, forcing her into a drawn-out lawsuit and divorce.

Tice said she is puzzled about his name surfacing in the Billings homicides.

"I don't understand why this great emphasis has been put on him," she said. "It doesn't make any sense that he would take the chance of being involved in this knowing that the first person they would go to would be him."

Byrd Billings was also drawn into the Tice divorce proceedings.

In a subpoena dated Nov. 19, 2007, an attorney for Deborah Tice requested that Byrd Billings turn over all documents and agreements between Worldco, Henry Tice and Hispanic-American Auto Sales.

"There was a whole bunch of back and forth, and Worldco got sucked into it," Beasley said. "Bud said he didn't really care who took his cars, he just wanted the money. His involvement in their divorce is in his own interest."

Gonzalez Jr. link

For the last year, with Hispanic-American Auto Sales dissolved, Tice has lived in the office of Bobby English Auto Sales on U.S. 90 in Pace.

Owner Bobby English said Tice worked at the lot for about a year, doing odd jobs and helping prepare cars for sale.

"He worked here for about a year until about a week ago when all this stuff started coming out," English said. "He was a great employee. I never would have thought he would be mixed up in something like this."

English said that with the recent media attention, he was uncomfortable continuing to employ Tice at his dealership.

"He was living here at one point. He was homeless. He was staying in motels and such," English said. "It was better that he left. This is all terrible for my business."

Gonzalez Jr. worked briefly at a car dealership Tice owned. Years after the dealership closed, Tice's ex-wife said, he reconnected with Gonzalez Jr. when he started taking martial arts lessons from him.

Gonzalez Jr. taught self-defense to children but also had aspirations of teaching high-end, executive clients self-defense. Henry Tice took lessons from his former salesman, and the two reconnected.

Deborah Tice said she never quite understood the relationship that the sheriff characterized as akin to a "father-son" connection.

She called Gonzalez Jr. "a real boaster and a sort of obnoxious sort of person."

"What my ex-husband would tell me was that Patrick would come to him for advice and say 'I have never had a father figure,' " she said.


Mafia theory falls flat in Billings murder case

Published on Oct. 22, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

A used-car salesman punched a hole in a theory that the Mexican mafia is somehow tied to the murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings.

Silvano Gonzalez sold cars at Hispanic American Auto, a Mobile Highway car dealership owned by Byrd Billings' former business associate Henry "Cab" Tice.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan named Tice as a "person of interest" in the murders of the Billingses, which occurred in front of some of their nine adopted, special-needs children. To date, however, Tice faces only an unrelated charge that he passed a bad check to Byrd Billings in a business deal.

Two days after the July 9 double murder, the man accused of shooting the couple, Leonard Gonzalez Jr., told Escambia County sheriff's investigators that the murders were part of something bigger.

He said Tice wanted to hire him to "whack" Byrd Billings, a used-car salesman, on behalf of several disgruntled dealers in the Pensacola area.

Gonzalez Jr., 35, one of seven people charged with first-degree murder in the Billings deaths, said he declined.

Tice, who claimed "a father-son relationship" with Gonzalez Jr., told investigators he had business dealings with what he called the "Mexican mafia" through Silvano Gonzalez. Silvano Gonzalez and Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. are not related.

Silvano Gonzalez gave Tice a $20,000 loan and told him he'd gotten the money from the Mexican mafia. But Silvano Gonzalez told an investigator that he made up the mafia story, thinking that Tice would not pay back the loan otherwise.

The money came from Silvano Gonzalez's personal bank account at a Regions Bank and he had the paperwork to prove it, according to an Aug. 19 statement he made to Investigator Bobby Guy.

"You can check my account at the bank," he said. "I get my money and I give it for him, but it's no Mexican mafia. It's mine. I protect my money."

Morgan has said that Tice, with this so-called mafia debt, is somehow tied to the Billings murders. Morgan could not be reached Wednesday to comment on whether Silvano Gonzalez's statement puts the Mexican mafia theory to rest.

Mafia theory

The State Attorney's Office has released reams of investigative paperwork and hours of audio and video recordings about the slaying of the Billingses.

The material shows that Gonzalez Jr. himself is the source of many of the claims of mafia involvement in the Billingses' deaths.

Even before he tried to pin a conspiracy on Tice, Gonzalez Jr. claimed that Byrd Billings himself had direct mafia ties.

Gonzalez Jr. said during a July 11 interview with Guy that it was rumored that Billings had business acquaintances with Mexican people in Alabama and laundered money for Mexican gangsters.

Gonzalez Jr. told co-defendant Frederick Thornton Jr., 19, of Fort Walton Beach that his life and his family members' lives were in danger if he spoke to the police.

Gonzalez Jr.'s 56-year-old father - co-defendant Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr. - said that his son told him that Byrd Billings had been laundering money for years.

"He had no way to get rid of it," Gonzalez Sr. said in a July 13 interview. "He was stockpiling it - $17 million or more - in that safe room. And I still believe it's there."

Investigators said a safe in a second-floor utility closet contained $164,000 in cash. Family members have said the money was used in the finance arm of Byrd Billings' used car business.

The group who entered the couple's sprawling Beulah home on the night of the killings took a second safe from the home, but it contained only family papers, children's medication and little else of monetary value.

MS-13 claim

Gonzalez Jr. also told his longtime friend Hugh Wiggins that Byrd Billings laundered mafia money.

"You're going to get in an area that's out of your depth ... outside your jurisdiction," Wiggins said in a July 15 interview with Guy and investigator Lee Tyree.

Wiggins is the husband of Pamela Long Wiggins, 47, of Gulf Breeze. She is charged as an accessory to first-degree murder. Authorities said she provided a van and buried the safe taken from the Billingses' home.

In an unrecorded July 12 statement taken after his arrest, Gonzalez Jr. spoke with Escambia County Chief Deputy Bill Chavers at Santa Rosa County Jail.

Gonzalez Jr. told Chavers that what he was involved in was "very deep" and that he and his family were in danger. He even told investigators to look into the powerful and violent organized Hispanic crime syndicate known as MS-13 for connections to the killings.

"Maybe I need to talk to the feds about this," Gonzalez Jr. said, according to Chavers' report.


Jury recommends death for Gonzalez Jr. 

Published on Oct. 3, 2010 in the Pensacola News Journal

A jury on Friday recommended the death penalty for Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., the man who conceived and carried out the July 9, 2009, home invasion robbery that ended in the deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings.

Circuit Judge Nick Geeker set a Dec. 9 hearing for prosecutors to make their final arguments for the death penalty and defense attorneys to argue for life in prison, the only two options after a first-degree murder conviction. After that hearing, Geeker will set a date to pronounce the sentence for the Gulf Breeze man.

A hush fell over the courtroom as the court clerk read the jury's 10-2 recommendation that Gonzalez, 36, a former karate instructor and father of six, be executed.

Members of the Billings family gripped hands and looks of relief washed over their faces as the decision was announced.

Gonzalez only nodded.

The jury comprised 11 women and one man, who served as foreman. Four jurors wiped their eyes with tissues as the decision was read.

Gonzalez was the ringleader of a group of seven who rode to the Billingses' home just before dusk to rob Byrd Billings of a $13 million fortune that didn't exist. He shot the couple to death in their bedroom in the presence of one of their nine adopted special-needs children, according to testimony during the trial that started Monday.

Ashley Markham, the daughter of the Billingses and now the caretaker of the nine children, made a brief statement after the hearing. She did not answer questions.

"Although our wounds will heal, there will always be a scar," she said. "We have all lived this nightmare together, but we have all witnessed the United States justice system work the way it was installed."

State Attorney Bill Eddins, who prosecuted the case alongside Assistant State Attorney John Molchan, said he was pleased with the outcome, but they were limited in what they could say as four of the seven defendants in the home invasion have yet to go to trial.

"I hope to put him to death," Eddins said.

When Geeker thanked the jurors for their service, he also decried the rise in violence locally.

He mentioned that they would learn once they left the courtroom of another violent event in Pensacola on Friday. While the jury was deliberating, a man burst into a former girlfriend's home; three Escambia County sheriff's deputies who responded, the girlfriend and the suspect all were shot.

"I join with Judge Geeker, saying we live in a society and a world where violence - bad, terrible violence is ever increasing," Eddins said. "This is just one example of that. It's sad to me to see that. I see no end."

John Jay Gontarek and Randy Etheridge were Gonzalez's defense attorneys.

"We're disappointed," Etheridge said as he left the courtroom.

Persuading the jury

Friday's hearing was the "penalty phase" of the capital murder trial.

Prosecutors are allowed to present evidence of "aggravating factors," laid out in Florida law, to persuade the jury to offer a death penalty recommendation.

Eddins offered several factors:

· The shootings meet the threshold of "heinous, atrocious or cruel," as the law on aggravating factors is worded.

· The murders were committed during another felony - armed home invasion.

· They were committed for financial gain.

· Gonzalez was convicted in 1992 of another felony - a convenience store robbery in which he attacked the clerk. He committed one capital crime after another by killing Byrd Billings, then making the conscious decision to kill Melanie Billings.

Eddins characterized Gonzalez as a man with a decent upbringing who had every chance to live a well-adjusted life but terrorized the Billings family because he was broke and his karate business was failing.

"He had a good, loving mother that provided him with love, support and positive direction," Eddins said. "He had a loving wife that put up with his addiction to painkillers and his inability to make a living.

"This man knew beyond every shadow of a doubt how to respect people. He taught children to have respect for others and to have integrity."

'Dead to society'

In arguing for a life sentence, Etheridge told the jury that his client actually would have a death sentence no matter what the jury decided.

"The only question is whether he will die when God decides it's time or by a combination of poisons injected into his arm," Etheridge said. "He's basically dead to society."

Gonzalez appeared agitated as Etheridge said that "my client would have the rest of his life to think about what he did today." He swiveled his chair to the right and told Gontarek, "I didn't do it."

After the prosecution offered its evidence in favor of the death penalty, Geeker gave the jury a short break.

During that break, Gonzalez protested that the media would be in the courtroom while his mother, Terry Poff, and his wife, Tabatha, testified in his defense.

"I've been convicted in the media," he said.

Geeker told Gonzalez that courts in Florida are open to the media and noted that his wife and mother testified earlier in the week.

Tabatha Gonzalez, whose birthday was Friday, testified that Gonzalez was a good father.

"He loved his babies," she said.

As he left the courtroom as the jury began its final deliberations, Gonzalez clasped his hands together, pointed his fingers at a television videographer and a News Journal photographer.

"I can't wait to say goodbye to you and goodbye to you," he said, pointing to each woman individually.

BREAKOUT BOX

What's next?

Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. is scheduled for a sentencing hearing before Circuit Judge Nick Geeker on Dec. 9.

The prosecution will have its last opportunity to make arguments for the death penalty, and the defense will make arguments for life in prison.

Geeker will take the arguments under consideration and set a date to render his final decision.

Gonzalez Jr.'s conviction leaves five cases pending in Escambia County in the Byrd and Melanie Billings slayings.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said the next two to go on trial will be Donnie Stallworth, 29, and Wayne Coldiron, 42. He said one trial will take place in January and one in March, but he doesn't yet know which will be first.

Stallworth and Coldiron are both accused of entering the Billingses' home armed with guns. They are the only other defendants to face the death penalty on charges of first-degree murder and home invasion.

The other two defendants to enter the home, Rakeem Florence, 18, and Frederick Thornton Jr., 20, entered pleas to second-degree murder and home invasion and testified against Gonzalez Jr. this week. They hope to receive reduced sentences in exchange, but Geeker still could sentence them to up to life in prison.

Trial dates for Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr., 57, and Gary Sumner, 32, who waited in vehicles outside the couple's Beulah home, have not be set. The each are charged with two counts of first-degree murder and home invasion, but the state is not seeking the death penalty in their cases. Each would receive life in prison if convicted.

Pamela Long Wiggins, 49, who helped transport guns and a safe taken from the Billingses' home to her home in Gulf Breeze, also will stand trial on a charge of accessory to murder.


Gonzalez Jr. gets death

Published Feb. 18, 2011 in the Pensacola News Journal

Leonard Gonzalez Jr. was many things.

He was a teenage karate champion, a child of a broken home, a used-car salesman, a drug addict, a father and a man recognized by the community for his public service.

Now he's a death row inmate, the 16th from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties now slated to die.

Circuit Judge Nick Geeker on Thursday handed down a pair of death sentences in the execution-style murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings on July 9, 2009, inside the couple's Beulah home.

"I didn't do it," the shackled Gonzalez said as Escambia County deputies led him from the courtroom.

Gonzalez, 37, who was a Gulf Breeze resident, was convicted in October. Geeker was required to give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation of the death penalty rather than the only other possible sentence of life in prison.

The judge said the factors he took into account in deciding on the death penalty were Gonzalez's criminal history, including a strong-armed robbery; and the heinous and atrocious nature of the killings in that they were execution-style and took place in front of some of the couple's nine adopted special-needs children.

The judge described the horror the Billingses suffered through in the minutes and seconds before their lives were taken.

"It's logical to assume they were both terrified for the safety of themselves and their minor children," Geeker said. "It would become apparent to them that their lives were in jeopardy."

'Clearly the ringleader'

Ashley Markham, the couple's adult daughter, sobbed as Geeker recounted some of the details of the murders.

Gonzalez, a former karate instructor, directed a gang of five men and one teenager to the couple's Mobile Highway home at dusk in search of a fortune that he believed Byrd Billings kept there.

Instead of a financial windfall, the men got away with a safe containing only paperwork and costume jewelry. A second safe, containing $164,000, remained undisturbed in a room on the second floor.

"(Gonzalez) was clearly the ringleader and the person who directed the other participants," Geeker said.

Co-defendants, who cooperated with the state and whose charges were reduced from first-degree to second-degree murder, testified that Gonzalez killed the couple inside the home's master bedroom. They said the participants in the home invasion thought they were stealing the safe but had no forewarning Gonzalez would shoot anyone.

Byrd Billings was shot twice in the leg, once in the cheek and twice in the head. His wife was shot above the eyebrow, in the nose and twice in the chest.

The judge offered no direct words to Gonzalez other than the evidence contained in his ruling. He noted the defendant has 30 days to file an appeal.

As in all death penalty cases, Gonzalez's case will be automatically appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Denying role in slayings

Gonzalez's claim of innocence was the only thing he said to the throng of family, friends, attorneys and curious citizens who gathered to learn his fate.

He winked at his aunt, Lisa Gray, who was seated two rows from the front of the gallery. Outside the courtroom, Gray presented the media cameras a sign written in black marker: "Hey! Mass media, try reporting on the truth."

This echoed Gonzalez's insistence during the trial and in letters written to reporters that he was not given a fair trial due to the extensive media coverage of the murders.

Gonzalez's wife, Tabatha, was not in attendance.

State Attorney Bill Eddins and Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille represented the state. Randy Etheridge and John Jay Gontarek represented Gonzalez.

"We feel like the sentence was a fair and just sentence for Leonard Gonzalez Jr.," Eddins said in a brief news conference after the hearing.

Ashley Markham read from a prepared statement.

"I believe we've all witnessed our legal system work the way it was intended to work," she said. "There are many long days on the horizon, but at the end of today, I believe we have a little more hope to face the days in the future."