- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An ex-convict who taught self-defense to children. A day laborer who served prison time for killing a man in a fight. An Air Force staff sergeant attached to an elite special operations unit.

Somehow, authorities say, they ended up part of a loosely connected group of seven men charged in the shooting deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings, a wealthy Florida Panhandle couple known for adopting children with special needs.

The suspects, some dressed as ninjas, stole a safe and other items during the break-in Thursday at the sprawling Billings home west of Pensacola. Nine of the couple’s 13 adopted children were home at the time. Three saw the intruders but were not hurt. Authorities would not say what was in the safe or what else was taken.

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Some of the masked men entered through the front door, while others slipped in through an unlocked utility door in the back. They were in and out in under 10 minutes. The crime was captured by an extensive video surveillance system the Billings used to keep tabs on their many children.

“It was a very well-planned and well-executed operation,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.

The last three of the seven suspects were arrested Tuesday, though Sheriff Morgan said there still might be more arrests. State Attorney Bill Eddins said robbery was the main motive for the crime.

Adult daughter Ashley Markham, one of four Billings children from previous marriages, sobbed Tuesday as she hugged Sheriff Morgan. “It is my honor today to tell you, Ashley, and your family we have found them and they are in custody,” he said.

The suspects ranged in age from 16 to 56, and several were day laborers who knew each other through a pressure-washing business and an auto detailer they worked for. One, Donnie Ray Stallworth, was with the Air Force Special Operations Command with an aircraft maintenance squadron at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach. It wasn’t clear how he knew the others.

Sheriff Morgan called suspect Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35, a “pivotal person” in organizing the crime, but stopped short of identifying him as the mastermind. He was charged Sunday with murder.

In court Tuesday, he read a statement proclaiming his innocence. “The sheriff intentionally thrust me into the public’s eye without any charges being filed and also intentionally placed me in a suicide ward to make me look even guiltier,” he said.

His father, Leonard Gonzalez Sr., 56, was charged Sunday night with evidence tampering after, authorities said, he tried to cover up some damage on a red van seen on surveillance video pulling away from the house. Officials said the damage was unrelated to the crime. Tips from the public led police to the van Saturday.

The elder Gonzalez owned a pressure-washing business and may have visited the Billings property once previously. Another man arrested and charged with murder Sunday, day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, sometimes worked for him and also may have visited the property, Sheriff Morgan said.

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