PENSACOLA, Fla. – Investigators are looking at business ties among other leads for a motive in the murder of a wealthy Florida couple known for adopting children with developmental disabilities, authorities said Monday.
But there may be multiple motives and more arrests are possible after three men were jailed Sunday, two of them on murder charges in the shooting deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings at their sprawling home near Pensacola, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said.
The Billings had 16 children, 12 of them adopted. The children who were there during the killings were aged 8 to 14.
"It began as what we thought was a home invasion. At this point because of the complexity and the ties this family had through the business community, we're moving many other directions. Could be money, could be a whole host of things," Morgan said on the NBC "Today" show.
Morgan also cited the family's business ties in an interview on the CBS "Early Show" but declined to be more specific and said investigators are working on "multiple motives."
Three men have been arrested in connection with the slaying and were expected to have court appearances as early as Monday. Court officials Monday morning could not immediately confirm dates or times.
Day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, turned himself in to Escambia County authorities and Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., 35, was arrested in neighboring Santa Rosa County. Both were charged with open murder and with home invasion, according to their arrest warrants.
The charge of open murder does not require prosecutors to choose between first- and second-degree murder at arraignment or trial, but instead leaves it to a jury to decide the appropriate degree of the charge.
Authorities also jailed Gonzalez's father, Leonard P. Gonzalez Sr., on a charge of 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 Billings home after the shootings Thursday.
Eight of the couple's children were asleep in the house when the shootings took place.
Ashley Markham, an adult daughter of the Billings, said the adopted children are together with friends and family at an undisclosed location. The Pensacola News Journal reported that Markham told reporters Monday that she planned to carry on with her parents' legacy.
Asked about the three men arrested, Markham said she had no knowledge of any connection between those men, her parents or any of the children in the household.
"The people who have been arrested, we have no knowledge of them," she said. "That
s all I know."
The Billings were well-respected in the area for providing a home for children with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental problems, and "especially Melanie has been referred to as an angel," the sheriff told CBS.
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 surveillance video shows three armed, masked suspects arrive in the van, enter the house and then return to the vehicle, the warrants said.
The Billings' nine-bedroom home in a rural area west of Pensacola near the Alabama state line ad 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.
The couple married 18 years ago and each had two children from previous marriages. They eventually started adopting children with developmental disabilities and other problems.
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."