The Pensacola Adoptive Couple's Murder: A Hit?

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Phil Coale / AP

Pall bearers at the Byrd and Melanie Billings funeral carry one of the two caskets to the grave site in Pensacola, Florida.

By most accounts, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. — the failed karate instructor who allegedly murdered a wealthy Pensacola, Fla., couple last month in front of their young adopted children — is a blowhard. "He's always got a big game," one friend told police, "he's always got some bullsh-t to talk about." Said another, "He's always blowing smoke up everybody's tail about, you know, 'I got this going on, we're gonna make some money,' da-da-da." As a result, "it would be easy to dismiss Gonzalez as a lying con man, which he is for the most part," notes David Morgan, sheriff of Escambia County in Florida's northwestern panhandle, who says he has heard some tall tales from Gonzalez since he was arrested. "But sadly there are instances in his life when his boasting had elements of truth."

Like the $150,000 Gonzalez, 35, claimed he was paid last year by a wealthy but bitter divorcee who lives near Pensacola. He said she hired him as a gumshoe to trail her ex-husband around the country and dig up anything illegal in his life that she could use to get him arrested. Gonzalez never uncovered anything incriminating; but the story, says Morgan, actually checks out.

Which makes the sheriff more inclined to believe that Gonzalez — who is charged with shooting Byrd "Bud" Billings and his wife Melanie in their spacious home as he and six others allegedly robbed it the night of July 9 — was hired to commit the murder by resentful local business rivals. In police documents released this week, Gonzalez says one used-car dealer, Henry "Cab" Tice, told him that he and other dealers wanted the 66-year-old Billings "whacked" and asked him to do the job. (Gonzalez claims he refused — although he boasted to police, without offering details, that he's taken part in other murders for hire.) Morgan tells TIME he expects to make more arrests soon in a homicide case that's become shocking and sordid enough to recall Truman Capote's In Cold Blood — and one that has orphaned the Billings' 17 children, 13 of them adopted and most with disabilities like Down Syndrome. "We'd all prefer it if this were a group of losers visiting a random act of violence on this family," Morgan says, "but with each passing day and each new witness, we're finding that's probably not the case."

Tice denies involvement in any conspiracy, insisting to a Pensacola television station this week that he "never wanted any harm to come to Bud or Melanie." Still, Morgan says Tice and "three or four other people" remain "persons of interest" in the investigation. Tice, 63, a former business partner of Billings, has acknowledged that he "hated Billings" and that they had a rancorous falling out over thousands of dollars Tice owed Billings' loan company, Worldco. (Tice, in fact, has been charged with grand theft after Billings turned him in last year for allegedly writing Worldco $17,000 in bounced checks. Tice denies the charge and claims he had an agreement with Billings to hold the checks until he could cover them.)

The new case documents do suggest the Billings murders were a "hit." Billings, for example, was shot six times with a 9-mm handgun — once in the back of each leg, twice in the face and twice in the back of the head, the kind of deliberate execution-style pattern often meant to send a message. One of the Billings' adopted special needs children, an autistic boy who was in the couple's bedroom where they were killed, told investigators via sign language that "bad men" burst in and told Billings, who briefly struggled with them, "You're gonna die." Melanie, 44, was shot twice in the chest and three times in the face.

Six other males — including Gonzalez's father, an Air Force sergeant and a 16-year-old — have also been charged with capital murder as well as home invasion and, like Gonzalez, have pleaded not guilty. (The teen has been charged as an adult but will not face the death penalty.) An eighth defendant, a woman charged as an accessory to the murder for allegedly providing a van used in the crime, has also pleaded not guilty. But investigators say Gonzalez's accomplices have fingered him as the sole gunman — and add that while they'd been lured by his promise of millions of dollars he believed Billings kept in a safe at the home, most of them didn't know Gonzalez allegedly planned a murder. As it was, the group —many of them captured on home security video in black ninja-style clothes and masks — hauled away one of Billings' empty safes instead of the one that contained money (about $164,000) and jewelry.

Morgan says "the one common thread" now expressed by Gonzalez's co-defendants, as well as their friends and family members, is a fear of being whacked themselves by figures who they believe contracted Gonzalez to organize the break-in and shooting. Making the investigation more baroque is the $20,000 that Tice, hoping to save his struggling car business, recently borrowed from people he says turned out to be "Mexican mafia" and wanted their money back more quickly, and at higher interest, than he could handle. The shadow of organized crime retribution, real or imagined, is another oft-mentioned anxiety in police interviews. Gonzalez even told investigators that he's in "very deep" and fears for his and his family's safety because of it.

Tice, a former employer of Gonzalez and one of his karate students, telephoned Gonzalez the night of the murders (for computer help, he told police) and again the next morning. Morgan admits that's not enough at the moment to bring conspiracy charges against Tice or any of the other car dealers who Gonzalez told police "just did not like Billings at all" and who described the deceased as a loan shark. But the sheriff believes "the pieces are coming together." Billings, like his competitors, many of whom owed him money, inhabited a Florida panhandle business world that resembled a tawdry cable TV drama series. "Bud Billings was a very hard-nosed, unyielding businessman because he had to be," Morgan says. "He was in a high-risk business, loaning money to the kind of people who can't get it anywhere else."

Gonzalez was one person Billings didn't loan money to. Gonzalez's wife Tabitha told police that Billings once donated $5,000 to their nonprofit program to teach people self-defense, but he refused them a loan to save their martial arts studio, which later went under. According to Tabitha, she and Gonzalez have six children.

Still, Morgan says he doesn't buy into the idea "that Bud Billings brought this on himself." He points to the fact that Bud and Melanie "opened their home and fortunes" to their adopted brood as proof of their charitable side. But even that admirable domestic picture has come under scrutiny in the murder's wake: Billings, who was arrested in 1989 for adoption fraud, tried earlier this decade to copyright his adopted children's names in a bizarre scheme to extract money from Florida's Department of Children & Family Services. He had also recently thrown two of his teen-aged children out of the house because he didn't like the people they were dating.

Morgan insists that if his department ultimately "can't prove a conspiracy, we'll drop it immediately. But as long as there are believable threads there, I have to pursue them. You can't have that kind of collective element operating in your community if it's true." Many Pensacola residents — including journalist Rick Outzen, who first broke the murder-for-hire story on his blog last month — now agree with him. Meanwhile, another friend whom Gonzalez tried unsuccessfully to recruit for the July 9 robbery told police the alleged killer "always acts like he's a thug, you know, a mafia wannabe." But unfortunately, there may be a tragic element of truth to this Wannabe's big game.

With reporting by Duwayne Escobedo /Pensacola