On July 9, 2009, Bud and Melanie Billings were murdered in a home invasion. The crime attracted international attention as the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office arrested the suspects over an intense seven-day period.
Using the court documents, I’ll recount those hectic seven days:
Thursday, July 9
On a hot humid night, April Spencer had helped Melanie Billings bathe two of her daughters, Katie and Emma. The small black lady lived in a trailer on the property and was a part-time nanny for the Billings. When she left a little after 5 p.m., Bud Billings was watching TV and Melanie was preparing dinner in the kitchen.
Around 7:15 p.m. Adrianna Billings, age 11, pounded on Spencer’s door, yelling, “Come, Mom and Dad are dead.” Leaving the young girl at her home with her daughter, Spencer ran to Billings’ residence to find someone had kicked in the laundry room door. Since that door was rarely locked, she thought whoever kicked it in wasn’t familiar with the house. Spencer smelled gun powder as she entered the house and saw drops of blood on the floor.
Ten-year-old Jacob “Jake” Billings stood in the living room pointing to his parents’ bedroom. Jake has Down’s syndrome and couldn’t speak and communicated only through sign language.
Spencer walked into the master bedroom and found Bud lying in front of the dresser, face down in pool of blood. He wore blue jean shorts and was shirtless. Melanie laid, face up, in a hallway that led out of the master bedroom. Both had been shot multiple times. Spencer grabbed Jake, ran to her trailer and called 9-1-1.
Spencer (shouting with panic in her voice): “The mom and dad, I live next door and the daughter came over and said the mother and father been shot and they’re dead……..”
Dispatcher: “She, she said they been shot?”
Dispatcher: “Hold on.”
Spencer: “I gotta go get the kids, there’s kids in the house.”
Dispatcher: Where’s she at?
Spencer: “They’re in the bedroom, ma’am, they’re dead…..Please come.”
Dispatcher: “Ma’am, I’m trying to get someone there. You said the mother and father both had been shot?”
Dispatcher: “Okay, I’m going to get someone there. I’m trying to get some information…..What was your name?”
Spencer: “This was……”
Dispatcher: “I’m sorry?–(to a patrol car) They’re supposed to be signal seven, both of them she was saying.–Ma’am, what’s your last name? Ma’am, Ma’am, I’ll get somebody on the way, okay, they’re already on the way I’m just trying to get some information. What’s your first name?”
Spencer: “I gotta go find the kids, the kids are ……”
Dispatcher: “How old are the kids?……”
Spencer: “Ages from four years……”
Dispatcher: “How many kids are supposed to be in the house?”
Spencer: “Please help! Ma’am, I gotta go be with these children, but I don’t know…”
Dispatcher: “Ma’am, I don’t want you to be in any danger, okay?”
Spencer: “Ma’am, Ma’am I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Please come.”
Dispatcher: “Ma’am, Ma’am, I need you to take a deep breath for me, okay. You there? Hello?–(To her fellow Dispatcher) “She hung up on me. She said she’s gonna go in and find the kids.”
Dispatcher: “Ma’am, you there?”
Dispatcher: “I thought you hung up. I didn’t know…… Okay, I’ve got several officers on the way to you.”
Dispatcher: “I need to know how many kids are supposed to be in the house?”
Spencer: “It’s nine children.”
Dispatcher: “It’s how many children? Ma’am, your phone’s cutting out. Ma’am?”
While Spencer was calling 9-1-1, Melanie Billings’ daughter, Ashley Billings Markham, was doing the same thing. She had called her parents’ home shortly after the intruders had left. Adrianna answered the phone, but Ashley couldn’t understand what the young girl was trying to say so she told her to run and get Spencer. Markham called her stepbrother, Justin Billings, asked him to go find out what was wrong. When she reached 9-1-1, Ashley found out that deputies were already in route.
The Escambia County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the Mobile Highway residence at 7:26 p.m.–sixteen minutes after the red van had pulled off. As they drove up the long driveway and past the wooded area that obscured any view of the brown brick house from the heavily traveled highway, the deputies saw tire tracks that led from the driveway to an area just in front of the house. Spinout marks heading from the house were noticeable as tire tracks that looped back toward the driveway.
Seven children, ages 4 to 9, were still in their rooms. The deputies led or carried them to Spencer’s trailer. After the children were removed and the house was secured, deputies and crime scene technicians combed the house and grounds.
Three entry doors to the ranch-style house faced the front lawn and driveway. The door on the northeast corner was unlocked and opened to a study room. That door didn’t appear to be damaged. The main front door, located near the center of the front of the house, had been forced open, as was the third door on the southeast end; the one Spencer had entered earlier.
Two 9 mm Luger casings, two bullet holes and blood were found on the floor in the first floor hall on the first floor. A trail of blood led to the master bedroom where the deputies found the bodies of Bud and Melanie Billings. Their bodies were cool to the touch.
Just inside the master bedroom door, Bud Billings laid face down with a large pool of blood under his head. He had a bullet wound in his lower right leg. When Billings’ body was rolled over, a plastic zip tie wrapped loosely around his left wrist was discovered. Under Bud’s left leg was a framed photograph of Melanie’s invalid daughter Nicole, who had died the prior year. Five more shell casings were near his body. Broken Mardi Gras beads were on the floor near the door.
Skull fragments were on the floor in nearly a straight line about eight feet from Bud’s head. Blood splatter was on the wall right of the bedroom door, near Bud’s feet.
Melanie Billings laid face up in hallway that led from the master bedroom to the study room. On both sides of that hallway were large walk-in closets. A smaller closet was on the right side of the hall in the corner nearest the master bedroom.
Melanie laid directly in front of that closet door, wearing a blood-covered, white Elton John T-shirt and grey shorts. Her right Xhilaration sandal was off her foot and laid in the corner right of her body. Blood was on her chest and around her head. Skull fragments are a few feet above her head. One shell casing was on the floor between Melanie’s body and the open closet. Two more were found on the floor inside the closet. All the shell casings matched those found in the living room area.
At 8:02 p.m. Sgt. Rusty Hoard had received a text message about a death investigation at Mobile Highway location. The bodies of two adults, male and female, had been discovered inside the residence. They appeared to be homicide victims. The patrol deputies had finished clearing the house of the children, several of which with various disabilities.
Hoard called Investigators Tom Watts, Lee Tyree, Bobby Guy and Terry Hardy to respond.
Hoard and Tyree put on protective footwear and entered the house. Inside the master bedroom Tyree spied a television mounted in the wall that appeared to have a video feed of surveillance from inside and outside the home. A large safe and the DVR recorder for the home surveillance system were found upstairs in a small room. Neither the safe nor the DVR recorder appeared to have been disturbed.
Outside, Guy was introduced to Justin Billings, who claimed to know how to operate the home security system. Justin also told the investigator that there were two safes in the house, a large one upstairs and a smaller one in a small closet near the master bedroom. The investigators later discovered that the smaller safe and a briefcase, which was also in the closet, were missing.
With the help of Justin Billings, the investigators watched the video from the surveillance system and learned what created the tracks in the lawn. They saw an old red van drive up to the residence. Three masked suspects in black exited the van and entered the home. Two were armed with long guns, one of which appeared to be a shotgun. The third was armed with a pistol.
A few minutes after entering the house, the suspects jumped in the van carrying a small safe and sped off the property. The investigators had their first clue to the identity of the killers
Investigator Terry Hardy arrived on the crime scene at 9:05 p.m. After being updated by Sgt. Hoard, Hardy interviewed April Spencer in her trailer. Bud Billings had purchased several FEMA trailers that had been used about the agency after hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina to house people displaced by the storms. Melanie had called the trailers “Bud’s Slums.”
Hardy was in his fifties and looked more like an accountant than an investigator. Spencer told him about Adrianna Billings knocking on her trailer door and what she saw when she entered the Billings residence.
Spencer told Hardy she didn’t know of anyone who wanted t to hurt Bud and Melanie Billings, but Bud Billings had the safe upstairs in what she called “the camera room.” She knew that the Billings used the cameras to keep track of the children. The cameras were installed in the kids’ bedrooms and other rooms of the house as well as the outside on the front and rear of the residence.
“It’s in a big room off the boys’ room,” explained Spencer. “You have to walk through a bedroom to get to the camera room. They also have a monitor box in their bedroom where they can watch each kid’s room from their bed.”
When Hardy asked about the other adult Billings children, Spencer said that Kristyn Billings had moved out of the house about three weeks ago under “bad terms.” Kristyn was actually Bud’s granddaughter, the daughter of his natural son, Michael. Bud and Melanie had adopted Kristyn earlier in the year.
According to Spencer, Kristyn had moved in with her boyfriend, Joseph Chauncey, against her parents’ wishes. She had cut off almost all contact with her family and that there were still hard feelings about it.
After viewing the surveillance video with the other investigators, Hardy and Tyree contacted neighbor Cynthia Ice, who lived west of the residence on a side street.
“It was ten minutes to five when I decided to go on the front porch and see if my husband had come home yet,” Ice said. “I stood out there a little bit and saw something red flicker through the bushes. I kind of looked through the bushes a little bit better and I saw a red van turn the corner real quick and park right to right our road here, where we all turnaround to get our mail at the mailboxes.
“The van just stopped. I saw the van wasn’t my husband. I waited a few more seconds and I turned around and come back into the house.” She noticed that the paint was faded on the van, but didn’t see anyone in or around the vehicle.
Investigator Guy questioned Ashley Markham, who she arrived on the scene. Ashley pointed to her brother Justin as a possible suspect. She believed Justin knew something about what happened and who was on the surveillance tape. When asked if she knew anyone who might want to hurt her family, Ashley said that a Cab Tice owed her father a lot of money and that her father was trying to get him prosecuted. There were “hard feelings” between the two.
Ashley told Guy that her father carried large sums of money in a briefcase because of his business, as much as $100,000. She didn’t know how much might have been in it that night because her father had pulled back from the business and was letting Ashley and her husband, Blue, run it. According to her, lately her father wouldn’t come into the office much… When he did, he would just go get on the computer.
She told them that there was a small safe in the master bedroom closet that had adoption papers, along with photos and some of the children’s medications. The black briefcase should have also been in that closet. The investigators knew both the briefcase and small safe were missing.
The local newspaper and television reporters arrived on the scene. Escambia County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Ted Roy handled them, following standard homicide protocol. He told the reporters, “That at around 7:30 p.m. Escambia deputies responded to 9717 Mobile Highway to a “shots fired” called. Upon arrival, two adults, male and female, were found shot dead inside the residence.”
Roy didn’t confirm the identity of the victims. Family members and neighbors later told the reporters that Bud and Melanie Billings had been killed. The public information officer said deputies found several children at the home ranging in age from four to 11 years old.
“The deputies had to wake some of the children,” he said. “They are all accounted for and safe.”
The public information officer told the reporters that deputies were searching for three men in a red van in connection with the homicide and the suspects forced their way into the home. Investigators were examining surveillance tapes from the home. Roy hinted the suspects’ vehicle may have been captured on tape.
Investigators Watts and Guy went to the Escambia County Sheriff’s office to interview Justin Billings. The 20-year-old Billings told them that he had been with a friend’s house, which the investigators confirmed.
Justin told them that he hadn’t lived in the house since he graduated from high school, but that he did live on the property in one of the FEMA trailers. He confirmed that there was a small safe in the master bedroom closet. The investigators asked him if he had called anyone while at the crime scene and told them the safe was gone. Justin said that he hadn’t, but a female friend and several other friends had called him to see if he was okay. He didn’t mention the safe to any of them.
It was late. Justin was tired, excited and nervous. He stood over six feet with a muscular wiry frame. Justin wanted to be the man of the family and help the investigators, but his fear and excitement kept him from settling down with the investigators. His mind was spinning as he tried to figure all this out.
Justin confirmed April Spencer’s story that Kristyn Billings had moved out of the house three weeks prior after a falling out with his stepmother. Kristyn moved in with her boyfriend Joey, with whom she worked at Fountain Engineering. He said he didn’t like Joey.
“He has a shady figure about himself. He doesn’t talk much about his past. He doesn’t like talking period. He’s got that bully look to him.”
Justin had helped the investigator replay the surveillance footage at the house. Guy asked him about the emblem on the back on one of the suspects caught on the video.
“It looks like to be the emblem of the Beulah gang,” Billings said. “It’s a ‘B’ with a snake on it.” He told investigators that he had a friend when he was a freshman at Tate High School that was part of the Beulah gang and wore such an emblem on his jacket. He had no clue why someone wearing gang colors would show up at his parents’ house.
Guy asked if his dad talked to him about any problems that he might have with anybody.
“My dad doesn’t talk to me about problems,” Justin said. “Me and him aren’t on, weren’t on good terms the last time me and him talked.”
Justin and his father had gotten into an argument the prior week over the son not taking care of his Nissan Frontier. The cables on the spark plugs popped off when the truck hit a pothole. Bud had called him an idiot for not fixing it himself.
“Over the years, we’ve had our bickering and all that issues,” said Justin. “We weren’t like mad, mad at each other. It’s just that we weren’t talking. It’s just that we didn’t want to sit down and talk…It’s just feuding, family feuding, I guess you could call it.”