Saturday morning Hardy returned a call from James Hartsfield, who had seen on Saturday’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 had pictures that he used to advertise the van on Craigslist.com. He emailed them to Hardy. The investigators believed the vans were the same.
Hardy and Baggett visited the Hartsfield residence a little after noon. Hartsfield, age 61, said his 1982 Dodge B250 van was wrecked in 1990’s and the front had been replaced with a 1989 front, which gave the van an unusual appearance. He had bought the van in either 1987 or 1988 in Lakewood, Colorado.
“It is red color, uh, faded, and it had a lot of rust on it, a little bit of primer paint,” Hartsfield told 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 front seats were brown cloth. The steering wheel cover had been replaced a couple days before Hartsfield sold the van. The blue cover was the cheapest one he could find at Advance Auto.
“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, which had been added by the prior owners, didn’t open completely.
Hartsfield recognized 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 was Terri Poff. The vehicle had been sold on June 1.
He described Poff as “about 50 or so…I want to say 5’3” or so and she was 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 was Poff’s sister showed up with the keys to pick up the van. She told Hartsfield that Poff hadn’t picked up it because she couldn’t drive a stick shift. The woman also said 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 said 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.
Hardy and Baggett drove to Terri Poff’s residence, which is only about 10 minutes away from the Hartsfields. Poff said she had purchased the Dodge van for her son, Patrick Gonzalez, whose full name was Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr.
“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 hadn’t seen it in her son’s driveway and that her daughter-in-law is afraid to drive it.
The investigators then drove to the home of Patrick Gonzalez about ten miles further east. Gonzalez wasn’t there. Tabitha, his wife, met them at the door. 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.
Hardy and Baggett share what they’ve discovered with their superiors. Investigator Tama Barber was asked to look for any recent addresses and associates of Leonard Gonzalez, Jr. She located Leonard Gonzalez, Sr. in the Master Name Index (MNI) database and finds a 318 Palm Court, Pensacola address. The utilities bills of 318 Palm Court, Pensacola, came back in the name of Leonard Gonzalez, Sr.
Tyree and Barber drove to the address in an unmarked car. It was a trailer in neighborhood that might have been nice 30 years ago. The mixture of homes and mobile homes sat on large, fenced lots. Every fence had a “Beware of dog” sign, including Leonard Gonzalez’s. His abode was one of the shabbiest of the mobile homes; blue and rusted in a style that might have been from the sixties or early seventies.
As they approached the residence, Barber noticed a newer model red Explorer parked on the road in front of the residence. As they drove past, Barber saw Leonard Gonzalez, Sr., who she recognizes from an earlier visit to the property on another case. The little, weather-beaten man was in the yard walking toward the red Explorer and waved in their direction. She spied an older model red van peeking out from behind a shed at the rear of the residence.
Tyree notified Sgt. Buddy Nesmith and was told to stand by. Nesmith and other deputies converge on the Palm Court residence. Nesmith knocked on the door of the trailer just as Carol Brant drove up in a little blue car.
Brant said she lived in the trailer with her husband, Leonard Gonzalez, Sr., and that they both owned the property. She gave Nesmith permission to walk back to the shed and look at the van.
When he did, Nesmith smelled fresh paint. The rear door of the Dodge van has an area where paint is scraped off and pieces of paint are on the ground. Nesmith found a receipt from a Dollar General Store for paint. Baggett had told him that the van purchased by Poff had a stick shift and blue steering wheel cover. Nesmith spied the blue steering wheel and was confident that he had found that van.
Nesmith also got permission from Brant to search the trailer. He noticed a boot box sitting by the front door. The surveillance video from the Billings residence had shown some of the suspects wearing boots. Brant said that the Leonard’s son, Pat, had left the box there.
Brant was to call Leonard and Patrick. Patrick told the investigator that his father was with him and they have a scheduled meeting at the ECSO that afternoon.
Investigators canvass the Palm Court neighborhood. Frank Gonzalez was the brother of Leonard. Frank said 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 hadn’t spoken to his brother since the funeral.
Life among the Gonzalez’s was 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 and Frank 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 had ordered Frank, who was in pre-trial release, to not have contact with this brother. Frank said that he had seen the red van and asked his brother about it.
“Yeah, it’s just an old fixer-upper,” Leonard told 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 Gonzalez.
Other neighbors have noticed the red van and strange visitors at the Gonzalez residence. David Barnes had seen the red van parked at the Gonzalez property for the past two weeks. He told the investigator 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.
Another neighbor, Kathryn Colbert had called the ECSO earlier because she believed the van that she had seen in the Pensacola News Journal 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.”
Another neighbor, Laura McLellan, had seen for the past two weeks someone hanging out at Leonard’s residence whom she had never seen before. She couldn’t remember what vehicle he had been driving or what he looked like.
Heather Booth remembered seeing the red van parked in the middle of the yard, next to Brant’s blue Honda before she went to work on Thursday night. The van wasn’t there Friday morning when she came home.
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 said 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 told 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 admitted, “We’re gossips, you hear everything.”
Investigator Barber left Palm Court for to the gas station in Elberta, Alabama that the Baldwin County deputy had reported on Friday that a red van had recently been abandoned in its parking lot.
On a desolate crossroads well away from town, Big Country Food Store sat in overgrown weedgrass. A family owned operation, like any Alabama rest stop it carried boiled peanuts, simmering in crock pots, both regular and Cajun spiced. The proprietors were proud of their vast array of jerky; not just your usual beef, turkey and gator but even kangaroo and emu.
On the wall at the back of the store, over the water fountain was their wall of glory. They gave gift certificates for the buck with the most points caught in a season. The wall was plastered with photos of 12-year-old boys holding up the glassy eyed heads of deer, and even some of black bears and cougars.
Big Country’s was more than a gas station. It was part of a community that really wasn’t a community. Outside, red signs stuck in the red earth advertised such novelties at 12-dollar calling cards and breakfast taquitos.
Barber interviewed Brad Thornton, the storeowner. He remembered 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 broken-down van. Barber showed him a photo of the van at Palm Court and Thornton identified it as the same one.
On her return to Pensacola, Barber visited the Dollar General Store that was on the sales receipt found at Leonard Gonzalez’s residence. The store’s surveillance video shows Leonard Gonzalez buying two cans of spray paint.
While the other investigators were searching for the Dodge van, Tom Watts and Bobby Guy contact Henry Cabell “Cab” Tice at Bobby English Auto Sales in Pace.
Tice was deeply tanned with a fondness for Hawaiian and Tommy Bahama shirts. Though balding and his beard had a touch of gray, he was lean and fit. Tice didn’t look 61 years old.
He told Watts and Guy that Bud Billings was his partner in the used car business, but the relationship had ended year and a half ago. Tim Higley had called him about 9:15 p.m. on Thursday, July 9 saying that Blue Markham had called about the murders.
“Of course, I was devastated because it was horrible, anything like that happens, especially to Melanie, you know,” Tice said.
That night Tice said he had finished detailing a car when Santa Rosa County deputies came up and handcuffed him. While he was being detained, the deputy told Tice that she didn’t know what was going on.
“I said well I know what’s going on because I got called twenty minutes ago and heard that, uh, Bud and his wife had been murdered. So obviously somebody thinks I had something to do with it and that’s why you guys are here,” he said. “After about thirty minutes, they took off the handcuffs and then left. Told me that they were sorry they detained me or whatever.”
Tice walked through what he did on Thursday night.
“I was here until six o’clock…. maybe six fifteen,” Tice said. “My routine is between five and six to go to Milton Chrysler Dodge to see how many vehicles had been traded in. So I had a late customer and about six fifteen I got down there and waited and waited to talk with the used car manager. And finally they had traded a Durango and drove it and ended up buying it. I left there about ten after seven, maybe seven fifteen. Got back to the lot and got on the Internet.”
The other part of his nightly routine, he claimed, was to call his ex-wife at eight o’clock. “We talked for thirty minutes and then my partner Bobby is terrible on emails so he asked me to email some emails to a girl in Columbia which I did.”
He relaxed for about thirty minutes then began detailing the red Durango. When the deputies found him, he was emptying some trash and was urinating in the bushes. He said when the deputy flashed the light on him, “I thought it was the mafia. It’s really what I thought. And I look and he’s got a AK47.”
Watts and Guy asked him about his relationship with Bud. The last time he spoke with Billings was eighteen months ago at the Worldco offices. Ashley Markham had deposited checks Tice had given Bud, but had told him to hold. The checks were returned for insufficient funds.
According to Tice, Bud said that he was going after him on those checks. Tice told him, “Okay, well, you can come after me but my understanding is that you cannot take a hold check and these checks were written two months before so do whatever you gotta do.”
That was their last conversation.
Tice told the investigators that he didn’t know James Hartsfield. They showed him photos of the red van used in the crime. He didn’t recognize the van.
They asked him about one of his former salesmen, Silvano Gonzalez. Tice still had contact with him. He said Silvano Gonzalez did various jobs with Bud, including collections on the contracts with Hispanic customers. Also Tice believed that he did some yard work for Billings.
Tice said that he had been to the Billings residence probably three times.
When asked about Billings, “There’s just a lot of people that didn’t like him. He’s a shark and lots and lots of people have lost lots and lots of money doing business with him.”
Tice told Watts and Guy that Patrick Gonzalez was a karate instructor who had taught him defensive tactics about 12 or 14 years ago. Patrick had once worked for him as a salesman at one of his former dealerships, Hondaland, in an area in Pensacola known as Car City.
“We had seen each other maybe every two or three months. About six months ago he asked me to help him get a contract with the Coast Guard, training guys that actually board vehicles, close quarter defensive tactics.”
Watts and Tice ended the interview and asked Tice to come to the ECSO for further questioning. There the investigators asked Tice more about Silvanos Gonzalez. According to Tice, the man had answered a “Help Wanted” ad in American Classifieds for a Spanish car salesman. He hired him about February or March 2008.
“He was wonderful, very dedicated, the best salesman that we had and stayed with me until we closed the dealership.”
Gonzalez had loaned Tice $20,000. He told Tice the interest would be $1,500. Tice committed to repaying him in five or six months. Hispanic American Auto Sales closed six weeks later. Tice still owed Gonzalez the twenty grand. And the salesman started to panic, according to Tice.
“He had previously told me he had cousins in Atlanta, but he had inferred that they were in the Mexican Restaurant business. Well, he tells me ‘they’re members of the Mexican mafia’…and, so he tells me ‘he used to work for them, these people don’t play. They gonna kill. They won’t kill you, they’ll kill your family and we got to get them this money’ …and he told Bud this same thing.”
Later Bud said to Tice, “I didn’t know that you had gotten so desperate that you would borrow money from the Mexican Mafia.”
Silvanos began pressuring Tice’s ex-wife, Deborah Tice, telling her that her family was in danger if Tice didn’t pay back the loan. She called Tice. “I can’t believe you put us in this kind of jeopardy. Silvanos says they’ll kill us. You need to pay this money. You need to get it back to him as soon as you can.”
Tice had $8,000 come in from sales and gave that to Gonzalez. He made later payments of $2000 a month, then $1,500 and for the last three or four months his payments were $500 each. He still owed $1,500.
Tice believed that Silvanos was in trouble for laundering money and claimed that the Department of Homeland Security had taped their conversations. “We went over it and how he did it. And, you know, he doesn’t take it to Atlanta. He sends it to Mexico. He’s got an account that he sends it to and then they pick it up there. So he’s in real trouble with the money laundering for the mafia, so in that regard he’s connected with the mafia.”
The investigators asked about Patrick Gonzalez. Tice said that he was robbed at gunpoint and beaten up in Mexico about twelve years ago. Patrick worked for him at Hondaland as salesman. “While he was working for me he was teaching classes, he would go make money on the weekends cage fighting.”
Gonzalez trained twice a week for about two years until Gonzalez went to Costa Rica. They didn’t have contact for three or four years, until Gonzalez opened a martial arts studio in Pace. Tice said that Bud loaned Patrick money to open the studio. Tice started training again with Gonzalez.
Gonzalez also was teaching self-defense to kids and women. He used Tice’s computer and printer to print invitations. On the day of the killings, Patrick came by the Pace car lot to show Tice an award that Patrick and Tabitha Gonzalez had been given by a local Sertoma Club for their self-defense work with children. The plaque was the “Service to Mankind” award.
“You could never believe anything Patrick said,” Tice said. “I mean, I could never believe what was true and he kept telling me that they were up for the Sertoma and if they got it that would open up a whole new thing.”
According to Tice, Billings had asked Tice to help him collect the money that Gonzalez owed him. Patrick had offered to let Bud buy part of the studio, but he wasn’t interested. It eventually closed. As far as Tice knows, Gonzalez never paid Billings back.
Tice is emphatic that the loan wasn’t a gift. “Billings wouldn’t give you a dime, unless he got 29 cents back. Bud has this soft (corrects himself), had this soft–he could be vicious in business, horrible, but he had this soft spot for kids.”
When Bud found out Patrick was working with kids, he really wanted to help anyway he could. Patrick and Tabatha went to Bud’s offices several times. He wasn’t sure if they ever went to the Billings residence, but wouldn’t be surprised if they did.
Tice described Gonzalez as a “wayward son” that he tried to help
“The story that had been told me about his life was that when he was young, he got in all kinds of trouble. He got sent to prison and he came back and his life has been, you know, good,” said Tice. “He’s tried to do good, he’s worked hard, worked jobs, and has tried to live down that part of his life…If I can be some kind of influence in his life, it’s like my ex-wife (asked) ago, you know, why do you do this and like I said it’s like a wayward child, you know, and I’m thinking if I can keep helping, keep him from going down this way and you know…”
Tice knew Patrick’s wife, Tabatha. “She’s just sweet and nice and kind and a great mother and very involved in all that children, services for children and you know, she’s wonderful.”
Tabatha and Patrick called Tice to wish him a “Happy Father’s Day.” Tice’s own children hadn’t talked to him since the divorce.
“We’re close like a father and a wayward son.”
Tice said Homeland Security had asked how Patrick made his money? He told them through all the seminars and private lessons. Car dealers had also donated to this charity.
Watts and Guy asked Tice about Jose Sanchez a used car dealer with lots on W Street in Pensacola and in Foley, Alabama. “I think he’s a money launderer for the Mexican Mafia. He goes to these car lots and pays cash for cars. He opens up a briefcase and buys $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 cars and pays cash for them.”
About two months ago, Sanchez went to the car auction and told Deborah Tice, who owns a car lot in Foley, that he was buying her out. She was going out of business and he was taking over her location.
Tice called Sanchez and said, “Let me tell you something. She’s my ex-wife, but that’s still my family. You all are doing this to destroy their business. I’m telling you do not go down this road with me.”
Tice talked more about his encounters with the Mexican Mafia. At the car action, Tice claims that Jorge tells him that if he ever saw him “he’d blow my fucking brains out.” Tice replied, “If you ever pull a gun on me, I’ll take it away from you and beat you to death with it.”
Somebody vandalized Sanchez’s car and they report it to the Foley Police that it was Tice. The lot surveillance showed a 30-year-old doing the vandalizing. According to Tice, Sanchez wouldn’t return his calls. He saw Tice’s son at the auction and said, “Tell your father I didn’t do anything and I never said that and I don’t need any problems in my life.”
Tice claimed to have also told Homeland Security about Sanchez and money laundering. His ex-wife told him about two Latino stores in Foley that were producing fake driver’s licenses. Hispanics can’t buy cars unless they have a valid driver’s license. She swas losing car sales to Sanchez because he was sending them to these stores.
Tice offered his theory on the murders
“Bud’s favorite statement was ‘You know what, over these years I have so much cash that I could not spend before I die.’” According to Tice, Billings carried $20,000 in his briefcase. “When this whole thing happened, those words rang in my ears, ‘I have more cash…,’ and I think he was robbed. I think that whoever, everybody knew Bud Billings has a lot of money and when he’s saying that.”
The security system at the house was also common knowledge. “Everybody thought, well, maybe that’s where he keeps his money. I don’t think anybody hated Bud Billings enough to kill him and nobody in Pensacola hated his wife. I mean people hate Bud Billings, but not enough to kill him.”
In his report on the interview, Bobby Guy wrote that Tice had told him about his calling Patrick between 7 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. on the night of the murders for help on opening his email. Tice said that Patrick was computer literate, but Patrick never answered his cell phone. Patrick did call back the next morning, but Tice had already taken care of it.
Tice also told Guy that it was no secret that he “hated Bud Billings.”
Around 3 p.m. Leonard Gonzalez and his son Patrick arrived at the sheriff’s office. Sgt. Rusty Hoard met them in the rear parking lot. The CNN van is still parked next to the Administration building. Hoard escorted the pair to the Criminal Investigation Division.
Patrick Gonzalez was small and wiry with very short blonde hair and an arrogant turn to his lip. He claimed to be 5’9” but his smallness is remarkable. It’s how people describe him before that mention any other feature. He told the investigators that he was with his wife and family on the night of July 9. His mother bought him the red Dodge van so he could haul equipment associated with his self-defense business. The van had mechanical problems and, to his knowledge, it hadn’t been driven lately. His father had been working on it.
When confronted that the van had possibly been used in a crime recently, Patrick said that anyone would have access to the van.
When asked inquire about his possible involvement in the double homicide, Patrick didn’t want to answer any more questions without a lawyer present.
Investigator Barber observed the interview. She wrote in her report that Gonzalez said that a similar crime occurred in a bar in Lillian or Foley at the same time or just after the Billings’ homicides. Barber checked with the Foley Police Department they had no knowledge of such incidents.
John Markham, the older brother of Blue Markham, released for the Billings family a statement to ABC News:
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic events that have occurred. Our first obligation is the children. They are surrounded by many family and friends. The children have not been separated nor will they be. Bud and Melanie’s world revolved around the children. Our second obligation is finding the people responsible for this.”
At 5 p.m. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan held another press conference. His agency had found the red van and was interviewing two “persons of interest” in the murders of Bud and Melanie Billings.
There were a few more reporters at this press conference. The Mobile, Alabama television stations have sent over their camera crews. WEAR only sent a camera man. Its reporters were on Pensacola Beach covering and/or enjoying the Blue Angels airshow. CNN’s David Mattingly was there. ABC and NBC had some free lancers in the room.
“About 10 a.m. this morning, we started receiving phone calls from citizens. “ Morgan opened. “At this point I would to thank members of the media. Because of your cooperation in this case and the placement of the vehicle description, we were inundated with calls. One of those calls led to the discovery of the van, its registered owner and where it is today. We are currently working the warrants to take the van into custody and we are also processing the van with our crime scene personnel.”
Morgan said his agency had identified the registered owner of van and its location at Palm Court. “Interviews with neighbors, friends and family have led us to two persons of interest–as you know, we are looking for a total of three. We are currently interviewing two persons of interest that are tied to the van in question. I want to emphasize that they are persons of interest and we have, at this time, not affected any arrests.”
Sheriff Morgan said the two persons being questioned matched images seen on surveillance video from the home. Investigators were still looking for a third person seen on the tapes. He didn’t identify the owner of the van, but said that a relative of the owner was one of the persons of interest.
Morgan told the reporters that he believed seasoned criminals committed the crime. “It was a very short time span. In and out,” Morgan said. “It suggests experience to me.”
There was no clear motive for the killings. “We are still working off the premise of a home invasion.”
The reporters became frustrated over the number of questions left unanswered, such as what, if anything, was stolen from the houses and the kinds of weapons used?
“We’re talking with the State Attorney’s Office to see if there is any additional information that we can release,” Morgan said. “We will provide as much information as possible, but please bear with us for the questions we cannot answer.”
Morgan did talk about the long hours his investigators have worked, which have almost nonstop since the shooting.
“Our investigators slogged through the first 36 to 40 hours and hit a numerous number of walls, and then here, within the last 10 hours, the dam has broken. And so, we’ve got some very, very good leads that we’re currently pursuing.”
Two hours later, Sheriff Morgan’s press conference was the lead story on CNN Newsroom. David Mattingly described the discovery of the Dodge van as “just very by-the-book police work.”
On air, Morgan described the two persons being questioned by his investigators, Leonard and Patrick Gonzalez, without revealing their names. “At this time, the sheriff’s office and our investigators are comfortable with the leads that we have developed to identify two people that are persons of interest that we can tie to enough significant events and instances in this case that would lead a reasonable person to believe that they have an association with these murders.”
Soon after Mattingly signed off, the father and son were seen by the media leaving the sheriff’s office. A wrecker delivered the red van to the garage at the ECSO.