That morning Sheriff Morgan created a new stir about the involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency in the investigation. It begins innocently during a live interview with Meredith Vieira of the “Today Show.”
He told Vieria that robbery was the motive for the murders and home invasion, but other possible motives were developing as the case progressed, motives “outside the purview of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. “
“We held a joint meeting yesterday with many of the federal agencies in Pensacola and we have turned that information over to them,” Morgan said. “Our part in this investigation will effectively come to a close with the end of the murders investigation.”
That’s all it took. For the next few days the media speculated about drugs and money laundering and why the FBI and DEA would be interested in this case. Reporters worked hard to find out what was in the safe that was stolen from the home.
CNN national correspondent Ed Lavandera reported on CNN’s “America Morning,” “What remains baffling in this case is that authorities are saying that a robbery is perhaps just one of the motives. But piecing together why this family was targeted is still a mystery.”
CNN played a clip of Sheriff Morgan saying, “A motive is robbery. But there are other motives we believe that will develop.”
“There are many people who just don’t believe that this was a random crime,” Lavandera reported. “So the appearance of it, a daytime intrusion like this and a camera in a house that’s heavily fortified with a security system and cameras, you know, there is reason to believe that they were targeted.”
As the media dug into the lives of Bud and Melanie Billings searching for motives for their murders, attorney Crystal Spencer helped the family draft another press release, a very personal message from Ashley that focused on the loving side of her deceased parents:
“We would like to start by thanking everyone for their support, especially the good people of Escambia County and the surrounding community. We would also like to thank the investigative agencies involved in this matter.
“The family cannot begin to find the words to adequately express the pain and disbelief of these last few days. To know there are people among us capable of this type of violence and with this magnitude of hate and evil in their lives is sickening.
“Our Mom and Dad only had love in their lives. Since the day they met, 19 years ago, they knew they were soul mates. They chose a life that many people did not understand.
“Together they decided to adopt a child, which turned into the adopting of many children. They had a calling to adopt, and to provide love to children that most did not see as normal. To my Mom and Dad their children are perfect. In their eyes their children had no disabilities and presented no challenges. They saw them as angels that God provided to them and Mom and Dad knew they would love them eternally. Mom and Dad had the ability to provide their children with lives full of fun, joy, patience and love. Though they have 17 children, love was never scarce, never withheld. They loved and cherished each child as much as a person is possibly capable.
“My mother always told me some people grow up wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. She wanted to be a mommy. She had patience that is simply indescribable. If you would have had the chance to meet her, you would know the radiance of her spirit. She never met a stranger. Her life long dream was loving her babies and being a voice for them.
“Our father is the smartest person I have ever known. He taught through example. He had a passion for life and was absolutely crazy about my Mom. There was not a day that went by that he failed to tell her how much he loved her. Our Mom and Dad spent most of their time together. They shared the daily duties of getting the children ready for school, getting the children off the bus in the afternoon, always preparing and eating dinner as a family.
“Instilling values and traditions in their children was very important to them. Those who have met any of the Billings children now how well behaved and well mannered they are. Our parents taught us to love despite differences in people.
“Christmas has always been the favorite holiday in the Billings home. Our mom never left anything out. Every year, on Christmas Eve, there was one present opened by each child, and then Christmas morning started about 4:30 a.m.
“My mother and father touched many, many lives around the country and we plan to carry on their legacy. We, the children, have experienced a loss that is unimaginable. As a family we will pull together and take each day, one day at a time drawing strength from each other. Our most important concern right now is fulfilling the wishes of my parents. In the event anything ever happened, their wishes were to keep the children together and show the children the love they would have shown them. The family is completely capable of following through with these wishes.
“We are coping as a family and request that everyone continue to pray for our strength. We ask that everyone please keep our privacy in mind while we grieve. Again, thank you for all the support. We hope that all people use our parents as an example.
“We know that our parents are watching over us now and are reunited with their three angels. Mom and Dad will give us the strength to make it through the hard times, and with their love we hope to make the world a better place, just as they did during their short time on earth.”
State Attorney Investigator Corey Aittama and Assistant State Attorney Bridgette Jenson met with attorney Crystal Spencer and Ashley and Blue Markham at the Billings residence to open the second safe, a large green gun-type safe in the second floor utility room. Also present were ESCO investigators.
Ashley told the investigators that the safe combination, 72-48-20, was written on the inside of the top left drawer of the chest in the master bedroom closet. Spencer opened the safe and all items were removed, photographed and inventoried by the ECSO. The contents included jewelry, a sealed computer hard drive and a lock box with $164,500 in cash in $100 bills–40 rolls in $5,000 increments, 5 in $2,000 increments and 45 loose $100 bills.
The press conference was set for 11 a.m. but was held up an hour while they wait on Spencer and the Markhams.
When Spencer arrived, she was pissed. She turned to Marcille in the hallway and snaps, “What is this?”
Spencer and the Billings family thought Morgan was milking the double homicide too much. Spencer, Ashley and her husband, Blue, accompanied Morgan, Attorney Bill Eddins and his top assistant state attorney, Greg Marcille into the press conference.
Sheriff Morgan started with recognizing the men and women at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office that worked around the clock to solve the Billings murders. Over the past five days that he had seen the worse in man with the killings of Bud and Melanie Billings and the best in man in how his department rallied to work on the investigation.
Morgan turned to Ashley and Blue Markham, who were standing with Spencer on his right. He reminded Ashley had asked him when they first meet to do whatever he could to find the people who committed the crime.
“It is my honor today to tell you, Ashley, and your family, we have found them and they are in custody,” said Morgan looking directly as the young girl. He hugged her as she began to cry.
Markhams were excused and Morgan went into press-conference mode. He reported the arrests of three more people in the Billings murder case–Fredrick Lee Thornton, Donald Ray Stallworth and an unnamed juvenile, age 16. All seven suspects were charged with open counts of murder, including Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Sr. The juvenile, who was later revealed as Rakeem Florence, was charged as an adult.
He said Sumner, Thornton, Stallworth and the juvenile were from Okaloosa County and worked together at 5th Dimension Auto Detailing. The sheriff identified them as friends of Patrick Gonzalez, who has been named the organizer of the crime.
Wayne Coldiron had worked some for a pressure washing business owned by the elder Gonzalez and that Coldiron may have been on the Billings property at one time to do some pressure washing, according to Morgan.
“We’ve got the primary individuals and suspects in custody today,” he said. He added that an eighth person was believed to have aided and abetted the crime and authorities know that person’s name and location. Investigators knew who the actual gunmen were, Morgan said, but he didn’t identify them.
The reporters were told the suspects trained for the crime on the Palm Court property of suspect Leonard Gonzalez, but he wouldn’t discuss other details about it. “There are a couple of individuals that have a prior military background in this group,” Morgan said. “It was a very well-executed operation.”
He declined to comment on the safe’s contents, if it had been recovered or what else might have been taken from the home.
“The big break was the video surveillance system that the Billings family had in the home and on that compound,” Morgan said, but he declined to say whether the murders were captured on the tape.
The sheriff took time to recognize his investigative team. “I want to give credit where credit is due. If you have point in your life when you have a moment that you can stand and serve with people of greatest, you are truly blessed. I can tell you that in the past five days, I have stood in the presence of greatest.”
Morgan had Captain Bruce Wood, Sgt. Buddy Nesmith, Sgt. Rusty Hoard, Lead Investigator Tom Watts, Investigator Zack Ward, Investigator Lee Tyree, Investigator Tama Barber, Investigator Bobby Guy, Investigator Terry Hardy, Victim Advocate Robbie Leverette, Analyst Breina Hammond, and Investigator Chris Baggett stand next to him at the podium.
State Attorney Bill Eddins said that he would seek first-degree murder indictments against the seven when their cases were presented to a grand jury. Some would be charged with premeditated murder, others with felony murder, meaning they would be accused of murder during the commission of a robbery.
“It’s premature for me to speak to the death penalty at this time,” said Eddins. “The death penalty is such an ultimate penalty. We have a process in the office that is very deliberate that we go through that takes some weeks before we make a decision regarding the death penalty.”
Eddins wasn’t as open to other possible motives as Morgan has been. He said the primary motive was home invasion and robbery.
“They did take items that you would normally expect to be taken in a robbery.” However, Eddins didn’t say what was in the safe. He expected to take the cases before a grand jury within a few weeks. At that time, more information would be released as the court documents were filed.
“I am hopeful that the matter is concluded now.”
Again Morgan wasn’t ready to close the books on the Billings case. He hinted at there being a bigger scope to this case involving businesses outside the state and country. However, for his department, Morgan believed that they have solved the Billings murder case and that it will be up to the Feds to pursue other leads.
“It involves other businesses, other states, other countries. The individuals we have arrested for this crime are involved in other areas and other crimes.”
Asked whether the suspects had expressed remorse, Sheriff Morgan said, “Everyone expresses remorse when they’re caught.”
Patrick Gonzalez Jr. had his first court appearance on Tuesday afternoon. He made the most of the hearing that was done via teleconference. Patrick was at the jail with a court-appointed attorney standing beside him.
In a small, cramped courtroom in the M. C. Blanchard Judicial Center in downtown Pensacola sat Escambia County Judge Thomas Johnson, Blue and Ashley Markham, Crystal Spencer and several other family members. The media stood around the edges of the courtroom.
Gonzalez appeared on the widescreen television. Ashley saw the man accused of killing her parents.
“I think the entire case is based on hearsay and circumstantial evidence and the confession of a mentally-challenged person with a long history of making false statements,” said Patrick. “In those confessions, I am not guilty of the crimes for which I’m being charged.”
Gonzalez told Judge Johnson that the Sheriff’s Office lied about his weight on paperwork so that he would better fit the suspect description and had thrust him into the public eye without considering all of the possibilities.
“I’ve cooperated with the investigators from the very beginning,” he said. “From the very beginning the investigators and the Sheriff have focused their sights entirely on me, pushing me into the media before evidence was even gathered.
He brought up his self-defense classes. “I am also socially prominent with work I’ve down in Project FIGHT BACK. I’ve trained over 20,000 local children in abduction awareness and kidnap prevention and a few weeks ago won the Seville Sertoma Club’s Service to Mankind Award.”
He claimed that he had been placed in a suicide ward at the Escambia County Jail without cause.
“With the exception of the statements that have been made, coerced, bullied or manipulated out of a mentally ill person, there is no hard evidence that links me to the scene of the crimes that occurred July 9,” said Patrick. “I respectfully ask the court that due to a lack of hard evidence, my family situation and as well as community activism, to release me on my own recognizance or greatly reduce my bond and allow me to prepare to defend myself against these heinous charges, which is my constitutional right.”
Instead Judge Johnson, citing a criminal history that included seven arrests and a stint in state prison, ordered Gonzalez to be held in jail without bond.
“I’ve read the arrest report and I find that there is sufficient evidence which gives me great concern for our community,” Judge Johnson said.
The Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to Gonzalez’s claims. Eddins’ response was terse.
“I look forward to meeting Mr. Gonzalez in court.”
At 6 p.m. Sheriff Morgan appeared on “CNN Headline Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell.”
After teasing the viewers about segments on the death of pop star Michael Jackson and the latest episode of the Jon and Kate melodrama, Velez-Mitchell milked the Billings story intro as only CNN Headline News can, “Fast breaking developments and more arrests in the horrific double murder of a Florida couple dedicated to helping special needs children. A squad of criminals in ninja garb gunned down the couple in their own home. What was the motive for this monstrosity?”
Sheriff Morgan was shown telling Ashley that the ECSO has found the men responsible for her parents’ death, followed by a clip of Patrick Gonzalez during his court appearance saying that it wasn’t him.
A panel of “experts”—Curtis Sliwa, founder of the “Guardian Angels;” WABC Radio talk show host David Schwartz, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor; Brenda Wade, psychologist; Rob Williams, morning host of the Pensacola station, 1620 AM, who had yet to come any of the ECSO press conferences—appeared on a split screen that looked like the opening to the 1970’s sitcom “The Brady Bunch.”
“I am very honored to have with me tonight, Sheriff David Morgan. Sheriff, first of all, congratulations on a swift and fantastic job tracking down the monsters who allegedly did this,” Velez-Mitchell said. “How in God’s name did they commit double murder and find this safe in only about four minutes? There’s got to be something else at work, they had to know possibly where that safe was and where to find it, no?”
Morgan praised his Investigations unit for making the arrests within 96 hours of the murders and noted out that the suspects had trained together.
Velez-Mitchell mentioned the military backgrounds of Sumner and Stallworth and that the suspects stormed into the Billings house were dressed in black outfits and mask.
“And you have to say for what? For what did they think was going to be in that safe that was so important that all of them had to do this? It’s so excessive… it feels too personal to be simply robbery.”
Morgan said that crime was about robbery, but he hinted at more. “A motive was robbery, but, yes, there are other things I’m sure that will come to light and come into play as this case progresses.”
Then Velez-Mitchell shifted to her “expert” panel. Curtis Sliwa called the suspects “amateurs” for not taking out the surveillance cameras.
Attorney David Schwartz was asked about Patrick Gonzalez’s court appearance and starts talking about “degrees of culpability.”
From there the discussion got worse. Velez-Mitchell turned to the clinical psychologist, Brenda Wade, and asked, “Is this just sheer stupidity? It seems to me that this is a stupid factor gone tragic.”
“Jane, I don’t know if it’s stupidity or not,” said Wade, “but what I do know is that we are seeing some very bizarre crimes linked to people being willing to do truly horrific things for money.”
Wade, in a few short minutes, had psychoanalyzed Patrick and his fellow suspects. “The only conclusion I can reach is that we have a group of people here who are the outsiders outside society who probably grew-up in some way feeling outside, unloved, unwanted because their behavior is so terrifically anti-social behavior.”
Williams, the morning show host turned philosopher, injects “Money is the oldest motive around, Jane. It’s the oldest motive. They are out forever.”
Velez-Mitchell ended this circus. “Yes, you’re absolutely right. It makes me sick to my stomach. I’m just happy that the cops broke this case. Thank you everyone for the wonderful analysis.
While CNN Headline News’ experts were “analyzing” the suspects, Investigators Chris Baggett and Tom Watts interviewed Marquita Scruggs, a female friend of Donnie Stallworth, Jr. Earlier in the day, Baggett had been contacted by Air Force Office Special Investigator Agent Christian Gripp about possible information Scruggs might have on the Billings case.
Baggett and Watts interviewed Scruggs at Gripp’s office on Hurlburt Air Force Base. She said that she had received a text message from Stallworth sometime over the July 4th weekend about him committing a robbery.
Stallworth had asked her to leave the backdoor of her house open so that he could put a safe in it. He texted her on Friday, July 3 that he was going to do the robbery on Saturday night. She didn’t hear from him again until she spoke with him on the evening of Monday, July 6 at her office.
“He informed me that he did a robbery and him a few other guys had picked up over $300,000 and his cut would be $70,000.”
According to Scruggs, Stallworth had walked into a room with more money than he had ever seen. He just started grabbing money and placed it in a bag. He hadn’t gotten his cut yet, but he expected to get it that weekend and would take her shopping. Stallworth did say that he was scared and was unable to sleep.
She thought the robbery was in Pensacola because he had also told her that he had spent the weekend in Pensacola “chilling out with his boys.” She didn’t know the names of his boys, except he talks about the owner of the paint shop.
Stallworth had been talking about the robberies for about a month. He said that he wanted to put the safe in her house because “I’m the person that he could trust with money and know that it’s not gonna be taken from him.”
Stallworth told her that he would throw me a few hundred dollars.
“I’m a single parent. I always need money for anything.”
She thinks drugs are sold out of the shop based on conversations with Sgt. Stallworth, who had told her that he would be straight after doing these robberies and he would be able to help her out.