Billings Child Told Police Dad Fought Murderers

Police release new details in execution-style murder of Florida couple.

July 10, 2009, 3:28 PM

Aug. 18, 2009 — -- It was a terrifying surprise: Two men burst into the bedroom of Byrd and Melanie Billings and brutally murdered the Florida couple, execution-style, as one of their beloved disabled children watched in horror.

According to 700 pages of court documents and witness interviews released on the Billings case, the child in the room that day -- one of the couple's 13 special needs children -- used sign language to tell police he heard a knock on the door before the two men entered.

The child told police he heard one of the men say, "You're gonna die -- one, two, three." The boy said his father then grabbed one of the suspects and that his mother got shot in the shirt.

When it was over, Byrd Billings was found inside the master bedroom, shot six times, including twice in the back of the head, in what police believe may have been a contract hit. His wife, found in the hallway outside her bedroom, had been shot five times, including three times in her head.

The alleged ringleader of the operation, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., told police that his involvement was "very deep," according to the newly released documents and that he wanted to "talk to the Feds about this."

Investigators told earlier this month that at least one source told police that the couple were the targets of a contract killing. They were murdered July 9.

"Early on in this investigation we had an uncorroborated statement from this individual that it could have been a contract killing," said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. "We have pursued and continue to pursue [this possibility]."

Morgan declined to clarify the individual's relationship to the case, other than to say that the statement was made to police "during the course of the investigation." He would not say if corroborating evidence to support the statement had been found. The Billings were well known for having adopted and cared for 13 special needs children.

While police continue to investigate the possibility of a contract killing, the sheriff's office is working with the state attorney to build a case against the eight individuals already charged in connection with the crime, seven of whom are charged with the Billings' murder.

"Everybody is concerned that nothing be done to jeopardize the existing case," Morgan said.

Police have repeatedly said that robbery was the prime motive for the deadly crime that was executed with "military precision." A single safe was taken from the home during the robbery and was later revealed to hold only some jewelry, children's medication and family documents.

"The one motive that we know, and is prosecutable... is that it was a home invasion, a robbery and a murder occurred. Those things are very definitive. When you get in the realm of, 'Was there an additional motive?' therein lies the conundrum," Morgan said.

Nine of the Billings' children were in the home when their parents were killed.

Billings' Wealth Built by Many Businesses

Byrd Billings was a 66-year-old entrepreneur who dabbled in used cars and boats before finally hitting it big. Melanie Billings was a 43-year-old country music lover who fed the homeless and was devoted to her MySpace page.

Together, they adopted 13 children with autism, Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities and lived in a sprawling home west of Pensacola.

Interviews and court records obtained by The Associated Press also portray Byrd Billings as a former strip club owner turned used car dealer who was once sentenced to probation for an adoption scam. He frequently crossed paths with "shady characters," according to an ex-wife, but police have offered no evidence linking his past to the murder.

Known around Pensacola as "Bud," Billings spent his early years in Mississippi and Tennessee. He incorporated a boat company in 1976, which was dissolved in the 1980s, and owned a car dealership in Mississippi in the 1980s.

In divorce records from the dissolution of his second marriage, in 1993, Billings reported having a net worth of just $1,400, including total cash assets of $100 and a net monthly income of $1,190. Four months after the divorce, Melanie became his third wife.

At the time of their death, they were living in a $700,000 home -- opulent by Pensacola standards -- and associates say they employed several people to care for the children. But how they got there from such a humble beginning to their marriage is unclear, the AP reported.

Billings' background also includes a strange criminal case. In 1990, he and his second wife, Cindy Reeve, pleaded nolo contendere -- which means they did not admit guilt but agreed to a punishment -- to charges they doctored birth records and tried to obtain a newborn for $2,100. They both received two years' probation, which was later amended to a year.

When reached by the AP, Reeve said she wanted to be left alone and the adoption "got blowed out of proportion." However, she said Billings "always dealt with shady characters."

At the time of their divorce, documents show, Billings worked as a consultant for Back Seat Inc., a holding company for a topless bar, which opened in 1990 and no longer exists. Arety Kapatanis, owner of the Pensacola strip club Arety's Angels, said Billings turned her life around after hiring her there as a waitress.

"Bud Billings was a man of integrity. He was generous," Kapatanis said. "He ran his business in the most professional manner. It could have been a shoe store or a bakery. I mean, this type of business tends to get a really bad rap. People expect shady dealings, and they expect all kind of things like that. There was never any of that with Bud."

Billings later opened a used car lot, which, according to state business records, was registered to Melanie and her daughter, Ashley Markham. The business runs on a worn-out slab, surrounded by pawn shops and bail bond companies.

During the funeral service, Ed Brock, Melanie Billings' brother, praised the couple's selflessness and kindness, exemplified by their adoption of 13 children with mental and physical disabilities.

"Their lives centered around children, their family and each other," said Brock. "They loved deeply and unconditionally. They embraced the complexity of raising children with special needs, and they were their advocates. They gave these children a joyous childhood and a much needed voice."

Though seven men and one woman have been arrested and charged in connection to the murders, investigators are searching for "one more individual" who they believe was supposed to disable the Billings' sophisticated security system.

Mystery Woman, Realtor Pamela Wiggins, Complicates Case

Pamela Wiggins, a wealthy Florida realtor, is the woman once held in connection to the case on charges of accessory after the fact for allegedly helping to hide the safe that was stolen as well as the transporting of guns used in the robbery. She was released in July on bond.

Wiggins' husband, Hugh Wiggins, first said that the stolen safe was hidden in the backyard of one of her homes, according to police reports.

Wiggins also owns the red van that was used to transport both the safe and the weapons used during the deadly crime, the report said. She was riding in the van while the guns were being transported following the robbery and "had knowledge" they had been used in the murders, one cooperating suspect said in the police report.

Last month, Morgan would not confirm or deny if Wiggins knew the suspects planned to use her van or home before the operation or had any involvement in hiding the safe.

Wiggins was a person of interest in the case after police found she was "associated" with one of the suspects up to the day of the murders. After police questioned her, Wiggins was charged with accessory after the fact of a felony murder and was released after she posted $10,000 bail. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, state attorney Bill Eddins said.

Morgan, in referring to Wiggins' release on $10,000 bail, said she is "absolutely" not a threat to society.

Wiggins was originally arrested in connection to the case when she was aboard her yacht, the Classy Lady, in Alabama. She also owns a dozen properties in three states and a Rolls Royce.

Weapons Recovered, Feds Involved

Last month, police recovered several weapons including the probable "murder weapon or weapons." It was not immediately clear from where investigators recovered the weapons. Police have enlisted the help of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to test the weapons for prints, DNA, blood splatters and ballistics, Morgan said.

Morgan confirmed reports that the Drug Enforcement Agency was helping in the investigation, but he refused to spell out their role other than to say the DEA was investigating the suspects.

"Look at it from a broad perspective," DEA spokesman David Melenkevitz told For the sheriff's office to call in the DEA, "There has to be some drug connection somewhere."

Melenkevitz would not elaborate on the DEA's investigation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.