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Fla. Couple Killed: What Horrors Did Children Witness?

(Pensacola News Journal )
Photo: Byrd and Melanie Billings with their Children

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) Startling new developments have come out in the case of a murdered Fla. couple who had adopted a dozen children, many with developmental problems.

Police say several of the men who entered the couple's home July 9 were dressed as ninjas. And that while some of the nine children who were home slept through the double murder and possible robbery, others were awake. At least one left the home to get help. It's not clear what the children were forced to witness.

Meanwhile investigators were hoping for more arrests Tuesday saying the total involved in the plot may reach eight.

Authorities made three arrests over the weekend and a fourth Monday evening. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said he hoped to make one or two arrests Tuesday.

Morgan said day laborer Gary Lamont Sumner was arrested on a murder charge in a nearby county Monday after he was pulled over in a traffic stop. The sheriff said investigators have placed Sumner at the scene of the killings of Byrd and Melanie Billings, though he wouldn't provide details.

The couple took care to make their nine-bedroom house a safe place for their growing brood of children, wiring it with surveillance cameras in every room.

It was those cameras that captured images of the masked men who shot the wealthy couple Thursday in a break-in executed with chilling precision.

Morgan said 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. In that case, chronicled by Truman Capote in the book "In Cold Blood," the killers mistakenly believed the prosperous family kept a safe full of cash at home.

When asked if the Billings kept much money at their home, Morgan replied, "That has not been verified."

The video from last 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, adding that people in the community felt comfortable leaving their doors unlocked. He also said he knew of no connection between the men under arrest and the Billings family.

The couple 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 state line, in a house set deep in the woods. They had 16 children in all — 12 of them adopted.

Tips from the public led police to the van on Saturday. Day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, turned himself in on Sunday, and Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., 35, was arrested the same day in a neighboring county. They were charged with murder and home invasion. The two were expected to have their first court appearances Tuesday.

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.

Ashley Markham, an adult daughter of the victims, said she plans to carry on with her parents' legacy. The husband and wife were 68 and 43, respectively.

"My mother always told me some people grow up wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. She wanted to be a mommy," Markham said in a statement. "Her lifelong dream was loving her babies and being a voice for them."

July 13, 2009 - Parents to 16 Slain for Nothing
July 10, 2009 - Parents of Sixteen Slain

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