First Defendant's Trial In The Notorious Slaying Of A Pensacola Couple

By: Melissa Nelson, Assoc. Press
By: Melissa Nelson, Assoc. Press

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- The adult daughter of a slain Florida couple testified Tuesday about a frantic telephone call with a younger sibling who was unable to talk as their parents were being killed by armed intruders.

Ashley Markham said the young boy with an unspecified disability could only scream into the phone. She told him to hand the phone to another of the couple's nine adopted children with special needs, a young girl. Markham said she told the girl to run to the home of a nurse who lived on the property and call for help.

"I had a missed call from my mom, I called back and Jake answered the phone. He wasn't saying anything, he was just screaming. I was asking if he could just let me talk to mom and dad," Markham said.

Nurse Ashley Spencer sobbed as she took the stand and told jurors about how the young girl knocked on her door, begged her to come to the home where she found the bodies of Byrd and Melanie Billings.

Spencer entered through a side door and discovered a trail of blood and bullet holes that led to the couple's bedroom, where she found Byrd Billings face down in one pool of blood and Melanie Billings in another with gunshots through her face and chest.

A sheriff's deputy who was among the first to arrive at the sprawling rural home said officers went through each room and found the children, bringing them to the foot of the main staircase as they worked to secure the crime scene and make sure whoever shot the couple was no longer in the home.

Earlier Tuesday, a prosecutor told the jury the ringleader accused of killing the couple was desperate for cash and hatched the plan in hopes of stealing millions from a home safe.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said in opening statements that Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 36, mistakenly thought Byrd and Melanie Billings kept millions at their home. Gonzalez faces a possible death sentence if convicted of killing the couple.

Gonzalez, a karate instructor and father of six young children, watched witnesses on Tuesday and talked with his attorneys. He wore leg chains in court but security officers removed his handcuffs. He has been charged with assaulting another jail inmate with a pencil.

Investigators say Gonzalez orchestrated the home invasion and required his partners in crime to dress in black, ninja-like garb. Gonzalez's stepfather was a karate instructor and Gonzalez and his wife also ran a karate business. In testimony on Tuesday, witnesses said Byrd Billings donated $5,000 to a karate charity for children that Gonzalez and his wife ran.

The Billings were known for adopting children with special needs. Markham and her husband are now raising the children, who were between 4 and 11 when their parents were killed.

Gonzalez's defense attorney told jurors that Gonzalez was the victim of investigators' rush to arrest someone.

"This is going to be called a rush to judgment and arrest but thankfully not rush to judgment and a guilty verdict, that is why we are having a trial," attorney John Jay Gontarek said.

Among the evidence expected to be presented is surveillance video taken from the sprawling home the night of the killings. The shadowy, time-lapse video shows armed intruders dressed in black barging into the couple's living room. Melanie Billings is seen protectively grabbing what appears to be a child.

The Billingses were shot to death in their bedroom, where there were no video cameras. A safe that was taken from the family's home contained nothing of value, but a second safe that wasn't stolen had $164,000 in cash, court records show.


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