- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

PENSACOLA, Fla. | A team of up to eight people masterminded a chilling and deadly break-in at the home of a Florida couple known for adopting children with developmental disabilities, a sheriff in the Florida Panhandle said Monday.

Melanie and Byrd Billings were fatally shot Thursday while nine of their children were home. One child left to alert a neighbor, who called 911. Several children saw the intruders but were not hurt, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said. The others were sleeping.

Sheriff Morgan said robbery was one of “numerous motives,” though he did not elaborate on what the others might have been.

Authorities already have arrested three people and say up to five more may have been involved. Two men described as persons of interest were being interviewed Monday, Sheriff Morgan said.

The break-in was captured by an extensive surveillance camera system that the Billingses used to keep tabs on their children.

Authorities already had released video of a red van seen dropping off three suspects at the front door of the sprawling nine-bedroom home west of Pensacola.

Sheriff Morgan on Monday showed more surveillance video that captured men in “ninja garb” entering the back of the home through a utility door that had been left unlocked.

“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,” Sheriff Morgan said. He said the mastermind of the break-in was among the three people in custody, but he would not be more specific.

Day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, turned himself in to Escambia County authorities, and Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., 35, was arrested in neighboring Santa Rosa County. Both were charged with murder and home invasion, according to their arrest warrants.

Authorities also jailed Mr. Gonzalez’s father, Leonard P. Gonzalez Sr., on a charge of evidence tampering. Police said the 56-year-old tried to paint over and hide damage on a red van that was spotted on surveillance video leaving the home after the shootings Thursday. Tips from the public led investigators to the van Saturday.

The elder Mr. Gonzalez appeared in an Escambia County courtroom via video conference Monday afternoon.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said the elder Mr. Gonzalez had been cooperative with investigators but asked that Judge Tom Johnson not lower his bond. Judge Johnson agreed and raised the bond to $500,000, saying $250,000 was not sufficient.

Mr. Gonzalez did not speak except to say that he is disabled when asked if he was employed. He will have a court-appointed attorney, but Judge Johnson did not say who it will be.

The Billingses had 16 children.

Ashley Markham, an adult daughter, said the adopted children are together with friends and family at an undisclosed location. She said she had no knowledge of any connection between the three men in custody and her parents or any of the children in the household.

Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.

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