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7 charged with killing couple

Crime captured by surveillance system in home

Ashley Markham was comforted by Sheriff David Morgan after he announced a seventh arrest in the shooting death of her mother. Ashley Markham was comforted by Sheriff David Morgan after he announced a seventh arrest in the shooting death of her mother. (Katie King/Via Associated Press)
By Melissa Nelson and Bill Kaczor
Associated Press / July 15, 2009
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PENSACOLA, Fla. - An ex-convict who taught self-defense to children. A day laborer who served prison time for killing a man in a fight. An Air Force staff sergeant attached to an elite special operations unit.

Somehow, authorities say, they ended up part of a loosely connected group of seven men charged in the shooting deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings, a wealthy Florida Panhandle couple known for adopting children with special needs.

The suspects, some dressed as ninjas, stole a safe and other items during the break-in Thursday at the sprawling Billings home west of Pensacola.

Some of the masked men entered through the front door, while others slipped in through an unlocked utility door in the back. They were in and out in under 10 minutes. The crime was captured by an extensive video surveillance system the Billings used to keep tabs on their many children.

“It was a very well-planned and well-executed operation,’’ said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.

The last three of the seven suspects were arrested yesterday, though Morgan said there still might be more arrests. State Attorney Bill Eddins said robbery was the main motive for the crime.

The suspects ranged in age from 16 to 56, and several were day laborers who knew each other through a pressure washing business and an auto detailer they worked for. One, Donnie Ray Stallworth, was with the Air Force Special Operations Command with an aircraft maintenance squadron at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach. It wasn’t clear how he knew the others.

Morgan called suspect Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35, a “pivotal person’’ in organizing the crime, but stopped short of identifying him as the mastermind. He was charged Sunday with murder.

Gonzalez, a former National Guard member and martial arts expert, taught self-defense classes for women and children.

But records show Gonzalez, who was arrested Sunday in the Billings case, served time in Florida State Prison on burglary and forgery charges in the mid-1990s.

His father, Leonard Gonzalez Sr., was also arrested. The 56-year-old was charged Sunday night with evidence tampering after authorities said he tried to cover up some damage on a red van seen on surveillance video pulling away from the house. Officials said the damage was unrelated to the crime.

The elder Gonzalez owned a pressure washing business and may have visited the Billings property once before. Another man arrested and charged with murder Sunday, day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, sometimes worked for him and also may have visited the property, Morgan said.

Coldiron served two years in a Tennessee prison in the early 1990s after killing a man during a fight. He also served nearly two years in prison in Florida on an aggravated assault charge.