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7 people in custody in slaying of Fla. couple

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By MELISSA NELSON and BILL KACZOR, Associated Press Writer Melissa Nelson And Bill Kaczor, Associated Press Writer

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Seven people were in custody Tuesday in the slayings of a wealthy Florida Panhandle couple known for adopting developmentally disabled children.

Melanie and Byrd Billings were shot to death Thursday in their home near Pensacola during what authorities said was a precisely executed break-in.

Prosecutor Bill Eddins said the main motive was robbery and revealed for the first time that a safe was among items taken from the sprawling nine-bedroom home west of Pensacola.


He would not say how much was in it or what else was taken. Nine of the couple's 17 children were home at the time and three saw the intruders but were not hurt.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan hugged the couple's sobbing adult daughter Ashley Markham at a press conference to announce three people had been arrested in addition to the four already in custody.

"It is my honor today to tell you, Ashley, and your family, we have found them and they are in custody," Morgan said.

He said investigators were still looking for at least one more person in the case and at least one of the suspects in custody may have done work at the Billings home. He has previously said the suspects had no direct connection to the victims.

Several of the suspects were day laborers who knew each other through either a pressure washing business or a car detailing group, Morgan said.

The arrests started Sunday with 56-year-old Leonard Gonzalez Sr., who was originally charged with evidence tampering but will be charged with murder, authorities said. He is accused of driving a red van seen on surveillance video pulling away from the Billings home and then trying to paint over it.

His son, 35-year-old Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., was also arrested Sunday along with day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41. Both were due in court Tuesday to face murder charges.

Another day laborer, Gary Lamont Sumner, 31, was arrested on a murder charge in a nearby county Monday after he was pulled over in a traffic stop. Morgan said investigators have placed Sumner at the scene, though he would not provide details.

Three more people were arrested Tuesday — a juvenile whom police did not identify; Frederick Lee Thorton Jr., 19; and Donnie Ray Stallworth, 28, who was arrested in Alabama but lives in Florida.

The break-in was captured by an extensive video surveillance system the Billings used to keep tabs on their children.

Surveillance video showed three armed, masked men arriving in the red van, entering through the front of the house and then returning to the vehicle. Others dressed in what the sheriff called "ninja garb" went in through an unlocked utility door in the back. They were in and out in under 10 minutes.

"I think you'll find this particularly chilling and here's why: We have a team that enters at the rear of the home and another that enters at the front of the home," Morgan said. "It leads me to believe this was a very well-planned and methodical operation."

Morgan said, however, that there was no indication anyone had unlocked the door for the intruders, adding that people in the community felt comfortable leaving their doors unlocked.

The couple owned several local businesses, including a finance company and a used-car dealership. They lived in Beulah, a rural area west of Pensacola, near the Alabama state line, in a house set deep in the woods. They had 17 children in all — 13 of them adopted.

Tips from the public led police to the van on Saturday.

___

Associated Press writer Tamara Lush in Miami contributed to this report.

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