— The adult daughter of a murdered Florida couple who had adopted 12 special-needs children fought back tears as she tried in vain to make sense of the tragedy that played out in the Florida Panhandle town of Beulah.
“We’re still in shock. We just want everyone to know that they were great people, and this is not something that should have happened to people who were so giving,” Melanie Billings’ biological daughter Ashley Markham told TODAY’s Ann Curry Monday.
Melanie and Byrd Billings were shot “with military precision” in their nine-bedroom home Thursday night while eight of their children ages 8 to 14 slept in their rooms. Surveillance tapes from the home showed three armed men entering the building.
Aided by tips from the public, three men had been arrested by Sunday night. Two were charged with murder. The third is the father of one of the alleged killers who, police say, drove a 16-passenger red van used as a getaway vehicle.
‘Like a movie script’
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan told reporters that the motive was robbery; the Billings owned a number of area businesses and were known to be wealthy. But, the sheriff added, there are additional issues that, when revealed, will read “like a movie script.”
“It’s gonna be a humdinger,” the sheriff said at a late Sunday press conference.
The Billings each had two children of their own when they married 18 years ago. Although they never planned to have a huge family, they ended up adopting 12 more children with Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities.
Markham told Curry that the eight children still at home are staying with relatives.
“The children are doing well. They’re with family, lots of friends. We have lots of support right now. They’re doing as well as can be expected,” Markham said.
‘So much love’
Her voice breaking with emotion, Markham said she has no idea why anyone would have killed such a giving couple who were so well-loved in the community.
“They were wonderful people, they are wonderful people,” Markham said. “They had so much love in their hearts. Their children were special to them. Their children were perfect to them. They had more love than anybody could ever imagine giving one person, much less 17.”
The suspects were due in court Monday, a day after they were arrested by authorities probing the shootings. Day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, turned himself in to Escambia County authorities. Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., 35, was arrested in neighboring Santa Rosa County, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said.
Earlier Sunday, authorities charged Gonzalez's father, Leonard P. Gonzalez Sr., with evidence tampering. Police said the 56-year-old tried to paint over and hide damage on a red van that was spotted on surveillance video leaving the scene of the crime.
Morgan told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the crime happened quickly.
“We were very surprised by the rapidity of this operation. It was carried out with military precision, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
More arrests are expected, and more charges could be added for those already in custody.
Web of relationships
The elder Gonzalez told investigators that he was the getaway driver and waited in the van while the others broke into the Billings’ house and burglarized it, according to warrants released late Sunday. He also told police several other men were involved.
The Billings were killed in their spacious, nine-bedroom home in a rural area west of Pensacola near the Alabama state line. The house had an extensive surveillance system that authorities said captured the break-in. Tips from the public led police to the van Saturday.
Morgan said the investigation involves a complex web of relationships between suspects, though he declined to elaborate on them. He said it did not appear that the suspects knew the victims. The younger Gonzalez and Coldiron are friends, the warrants said.
“We are very anxious to share this story,” Morgan said Sunday.
The house was carefully designed to accommodate the children, according to a 2005 story in the Pensacola News Journal. A camera was in every room, and the driveway was long to keep the kids from running into the street. A large swimming pool behind the house was gated.
The couple told the newspaper they wanted to share their wealth with children in need, but didn’t imagine their family would grow so large.
“It just happened,” Melanie told the newspaper. “I just wanted to give them a better life.”
Coldiron was expected to appear in court Monday. No time was immediately available for the appearance. Because the younger Gonzalez was arrested in a neighboring county, he will have to appear there first.
They were charged with open murder because the investigation is ongoing and more charges may be added, Morgan said.
Bond for the elder Gonzalez was set at $250,000.