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Slain Fla. Family: First He Took Their Money, Then He Took Their Lives

(Pensacola News Journal )
The Billings family.

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) A Panhandle couple known for adopting 12 special needs children and killed in a home invasion by masked men dressed as ninjas had helped one of the suspects open a martial arts studio, according to court records released Monday.

In an affidavit for a warrant to search the home of Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., investigators wrote that Gonzalez told them he knew Byrd and Melanie Billings because he had received financial support from the two.

Monday's affidavit was the first indication that the couple had financial ties with any of the men.

The information is the latest twist in the strange murder case of the couple who raised 16 children, many with severe disabilities.

Byrd, 66, and Melanie 43, were shot to death July 9 in their sprawling west Pensacola home. Nine of their children were at home when the couple were killed, and one of the children went to a neighbor who called for help.

(AP/Escambia Sheriff's Department)
An image made from a video surveillance camera at the Byrd and Melanie Billings' home shows a man dressed in "ninja garb."

The house had an extensive surveillance system that authorities said captured the men entering, shooting the Billingses and leaving within four minutes.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan has said investigators are still trying to figure out who, if anyone, was supposed to disable the camera system. Morgan has also said investigators plan to interview three additional "persons of interest" this week and one may have been responsible for disabling the system.

So far, investigators have arrested eight people including Gonzalez and his father, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr. Authorities haven't revealed how the suspects are linked, but investigators say two of the men may have done pressure washing and maintenance work at least once at the family's home.

The couple was shot to death and a safe was taken from their nine-bedroom home west of Pensacola during a precisely executed break-in earlier this month. Six men and a teenager are charged with murder, and a woman is charged with being an accessory after the fact.

(AP/Pensacola News Journal)
This photo of a television screen shows Leonard Gonzalez Sr., left and attorney Katie Beroset wait in the Escambia County jail in Pensacola, Fla.

Also Monday, Air Force Sgt. Donnie Ray Stallworth, who is among the eight charged in the Billings' deaths, had a probable cause hearing in Escambia County, Ala.

The airman, who is stationed near Pensacola at Hurlburt Field, the Air Force's special operations command, turned himself in to authorities in Brewton, Ala., and is fighting extradition to Florida. Court officials said Monday that he will remain in Alabama pending an extradition hearing, which hasn't been scheduled.

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  • Ryan Smith

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