Billings case: Saturday, July 11

Saturday, July 11

On Friday, Deputy Greg Smith of Baldwin County, Alabama contacted the ECSO. Investigator Hardy followed up on the call.

Smith discovered on Sunday, July 5 at 3:58 a.m., a red 1982 Dodge 15-passenger van abandoned at the Big Country Convenience Store located at the intersection of County Roads 87 and 32. It matched the BOLO (Be On Look Out) issued by the ECSO on the van used in the murders. Deputy Smith said the van had no tag, but he had the VIN registration: 2B7HB23E7CK113611.

The van is owned by John and Meredith Hartsfield, 1259 Lamb Drive, Gulf Breeze, Florida.

On Saturday, July 11, Hardy calls Hartsfield, who says that he had seen on Satruday’s front page of the Pensacola News Journal the surveillance photo of a van that looked like one that he had sold early last month. Hartsfield still has pictures that he had used to advertise the van on and he emails them to Hardy.

The investigators believed the vans were the same.

Hardy and fellow investigator Chris Baggett visit the Hartsfield residence at 12:43 p.m. Hartsfield, age 61, says the van is a 1982 Dodge van, B250. It was wrecked in 1990’s and the front had been replaced with 1989 front, which gave the van an unusual appearance.

“It is red color, uh, faded, and it had a lot of rust on it, a little bit of primer paint,” Hartsfield tells Hardy and Baggett, “It had a lot of rust and holes I patched.”

The rust spots over the driver and front passenger seats had been patched with black roofing tar. The rear chrome bumper is dented. There is piece of mesh over the front grill to keep bugs out of the radiator.

“The vehicle itself is not built as passenger van. The people that owned it before me had converted it to that.” The rear windows on the sides don’t open completely. They had been added by the previous owners.

Hartsfield recognizes the van in the PNJ from the grey primer by the rear wheel and because the rear side window “doesn’t go all the way back.” Also the 1989 front grill caught his attention. He talked to his son and wife and then called the ECSO.

Hartsfield had listed the van on Craigslist for $300 and sold it in one day. The buyer is Terri Poff. The vehicle had been sold on June 1.

He describes Poff as “about 50 or so…I want to say 5’3” or so and she is heavy. She isn’t, you know, morbidly obese, she is heavy. Maybe she weighed 160 pounds so, and she had blonde hair about shoulder length. And it is not natural blonde.”

The next day, a woman, who said she is the sister of Poff, shows up with the keys to pick up the van. She tells Hartsfield that Poff hadn’t picked up it because she couldn’t drive a stick shift. The woman also says that Poff had bought the van for her son who had either just had his car repossessed or is about to have to have it repossessed.

She says that the son had six kids and needed room for them.

“We laughed and talked about, yeah, that van had plenty of room inside it for six kids.”
Hartsfield assured her that they could drive the van to the beach and back without any problems, but probably couldn’t take long drive. He did find it odd that Poff didn’t want to test drive the van before she bought it.

Hartsfield tells them that the van had two bench seats behind the driver and front passenger seats and a carpet that he had put in about 20 years ago.

“Uh, the back part of it is, is red. The front part of is kind of a bluish color. It’s very dirty.”

The front seats are brown cloth. The steering wheel cover had been replaced a couple days before Hartsfield sold the van. It is the cheapest one he could find at Advance Auto. It is blue.

The van had “Dive City, Lakewood” sticker above the rear bumper. He had bought the van in either 1987 or 1988 in Lakewood, Colorado.

Hardy and Baggett drive to Terri Poff’s residence, 1468 College Parkway, which is only about 10 minutes away from the Hartsfields.

Poff tells them that she had purchased the Dodge van for her son, Patrick Gonzalez.

“My son took the van to a mechanic, which has been at the mechanic’s ever since he picked it up and to my knowledge, he hasn’t driven the van, except to drive it to the mechanic.”

She says that hadn’t seen it in her son’s driveway and that her daughter-in-law is afraid to drive it.

Hardy and Baggett drive to the home of Patrick Gonzalez, 1079 Sterling Point Place in Gulf Breeze, about ten miles east. Gonzalez isn’t there. Tabitha, his wife, meets them at the door. She tells them that she hadn’t seen the van since her husband had taken to a friend’s house to have it repaired, but she didn’t know where the friend lived.


Investigator Barber is asked to look for any recent addresses and associates of Leonard Gonzalez, Jr. She locates Leonard Gonzalez, Sr. in the Master Name Index (MNI) database and finds a 318 Palm Court address. Investigator Lee Tyree discovers the utilities bills of 318 Palm Court, Pensacola, had come back in the name of Leonard Gonzalez, Sr.

Tyree and Investigator Barber drive to the address in an unmarked car.

As they approach the residence, Barber notices a newer model red Explorer parked on the road in front of the residence. As they drive past, Barber sees Leonard Gonzalez, Sr., who recognizes from an earlier visit to the property on another case. The little, weather-beaten man is in the yard walking toward the red Explorer and waving in our direction. She also observes an older model red van parked behind a shed at the rear of the residence.

Tyree notifies Sgt. Nesmith and is told to stand by. Nesmith and other deputies converged on the Palm Court residence. Nesmith knocks on the door of the trailer as Carol Brant drives up in a little blue car.

Brant says that she lives in the trailer with her husband, Leonard Gonzalez, Sr. and that they both owned the property. She gives Nesmith permission to walk back to the shed and look at the van.

When he does, Nesmith notices an odor of paint. The rear door of the Dodge van has an area where paint is scraped off and pieces of paint are on the ground. Baggett had called him and tells him that the van purchased by Poff had a stick shift and blue steering wheel cover. Nesmith spies the blue steering wheel and is confident that he has found that van.

Nesmith meets with Brant inside her trailer and asks for permission to search the shed and property. He is given permission to do that and to search the trailer.

While in the trailer, Nesmith notices a boot box sitting by the front door. He had been told by the other investigators that the surveillance video from the Billings residence had shown some of the suspects wearing boots.

Brant tells him that the Leonard’s son, Pat, had left the box there. Nesmith seizes the box and turned it into Evidence.

Hoard and the investigators became convinced the red van at 318 Palm Court is indeed the one used in the double homicide.

In his presence, he has Brant call Leonard and Patrick. He speaks briefly on the phone with Patrick, who stated his father is with him and they had a scheduled meeting at the ECSO that afternoon.

Sgt. Nesmith instructs Tyree to take a description of the van and the residence back to the ECSO to a complete a search warrant for the van. At the ECSO, Leonard Gonzalez, Sr. is interviewed. Tyree gets him to sign a Consent to Search Rights Form to allow the ECSO to search his trailer and shed. Tyree completed the Search Warrant Affidavit for the van which Circuit Court Judge Michael Jones reviewed and signed.

The van is seized under the search warrant. In the yard, Nesmith found a receipt from a Dollar General Store for paint and in fire pit he found a thank you card.

Tyree returns to Palm Court and joins the other investigators in canvassing the neighborhood. He makes contact with Frank Gonzalez who is standing in front of 307 Palm Court.

Gonzalez lives at 303 Palm Court and is the brother of Leonard. He tells Tyree that his brother, ex-wife and girlfriend all live in the same trailer.

Frank also says that his nephew Patrick had left the trailer about 20 to 30 minutes earlier with Leonard in a red Explorer. The two brothers had buried their mother the week before. She had died June 30. Frank hasn’t spoken to his brother since the funeral.

Life among the Gonzalez’s is rough. Before his mother died, Leonard had taken his sister, who had their mother’s power of attorney, to court and called the law on her several times.

“It’s an on-going thing. He had me arrested the other day, said I dragged him down the road. And he came in my car one night with a razor and tried to cut me and I put him out and took off…”

Judge David Ackerman ordered Frank, who is in pre-trial release, to not have contact with this brother.

Frank says that he had seen the red van and asked his brother about it.

“Yeah, it’s just an old fixer-upper,” Leonard tells him.

The van had been parked in the front of the property for about three days, but had been moved behind the shed yesterday or the day before, according to Frank.

Investigator Baggett interviews neighbor David Barnes, 310 Palm Court, at 3:10 p.m. Barnes says that he had seen the red van parked at the Gonzalez property for the past two weeks. He also tells Baggett that another red van had been parked at residence that morning and that Frank Gonzalez had told him that he thought it belonged to Leonard’s son.

Investigator Hardy interviews another neighbor, Kathryn Colbert of 403 Palm Court. It is 3:40 p.m. Colbert had called the ECSO because she believed the van that she had seen in the PNJ is the same one that she had seen across the street. She had seen three white males at the trailer earlier.

“Oh, I seen, now the youngest guy I had, I really don’t, hadn’t been seeing him that much, but, uh, there’s one that’s got long hair. He wears a pony tail. He’s one of the others. And the other one had darker hair. They were all white guys. That’s all I can, you know, I don’t know their names or anything about them, they’re in and out…especially the one with long hair. I see him and out over there a lot.”

Investigator Tama Barber leaves Palm Court and goes to a gas station in Elberta, Alabama in reference to a tip received by Sgt. Hoard that a red van had recently been left at that location.

She interviews Brad Thornton, owner of Big Country’s Food Store. He remembers a van being parked at the business when he came to work the morning of Monday, July 5. An older man came to the store during the day and asked if it was okay to leave the van because it was inoperable. Barber showed him a photo of the van at Palm Court and Thornton identifies it as the same one.

Barber returns to Palm Court where she speak with a neighbor, Laura McLellan, who tells her that for the past two weeks she had seen someone hanging out at Leonard’s residence whom she had never seen before. She couldn’t remember what vehicle that person had been driving or provide a description of the person.

Baggett speaks with Heather Booth, 309 Palm Court. She also remembers seeing the red van parked in the middle of the yard, next to their blue Honda before she went to work on Thursday night. She works seven to seven. It wasn’t there Friday morning when she came home. She didn’t know Leonard’s last name.

Later that afternoon around 7 p.m., Hardy and Baggett interview Sharon Ward, 313 Massachusetts Avenue, which is two block south of Palm Court. Ward, age 59, tells them that she had gotten a phone call from Elisa Wimberly on Thursday night.

“She started telling that two of her best friends got killed that is taking care of, that adopted bunch of children that is, had Down Syndrome and stuff, which I don’t know the people.”

Ward says that Frank Gonzalez and his girlfriend Sue had been over her house earlier. That they were talking about it because Frank and Leonard don’t get along. They tell her that a red van is parked at Leonard’s residence and that he had the van about three weeks.

She also adds, “I heard the name of Ted Ciano…the one that owns the car lots.” They say that Leonard’s son works for him.

Frank and Sue had seen the squad cars at the Palm Court property.

She admits, “We’re gossips, you hear everything.”