PENSACOLA, Fla. – A karate instructor was set to go on trial Monday on charges that he led a group of men dressed as ninjas in a break-in at the home of a wealthy couple and shot the couple to death as their nine special-needs children cowered or slept nearby.
Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 36, could get the death penalty if convicted of organizing the robbery of Byrd and Melanie Billings' home in a rural area near Pensacola on the night of July 9, 2009. Prosecutors say the couple was killed during a botched attempt to steal a cash-filled safe. Their adopted children were not physically harmed in the attack.
Seven co-defendants have been charged with first-degree murder. Several could testify against Gonzalez and name him as the man who fatally shot Byrd Billings, who owned a company that financed used-car purchases, and his wife.
Gonzalez's attorneys have asked Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker to move the trial out of Pensacola. They say extensive local and national media coverage has tainted the jury pool. They point to national appearances by the slain couple's adult daughter on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and by Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan on CNN and other national television shows.
But Geeker ruled earlier this month that he must first try to seat a jury from his Panhandle circuit of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Oklaoosa and Walton counties before considering relocating the trial.
Among the evidence expected to be submitted at the two-week trial 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 fatally shot 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.
According to autopsy reports, Melanie Billings, 43, was shot twice in her chest, and in the face and head. Byrd Billings, 66, was shot multiple times in the head and legs.
The crime scene photos document dozens of bullet holes throughout the living room and bedroom and a trail of blood along the living room floor.
In his initial interview with investigators, Gonzalez suggested a group of car dealers with a grudge against Byrd Billings wanted him "whacked."
Gonzalez also told investigators that he and one of Byrd Billings' grown sons, Justin, had worked together as "enforcers" to get payments from people who had gotten behind. His attorney, John Jay Gontarek, did not return calls seeking comment.
The nine children in the home, all between the ages of 4 and 11 at the time of break-in, have varying special needs ranging from Down syndrome to fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.
The silent surveillance video footage from the children's bedrooms shows two of children remaining still during the break-in. A third child is in her bedroom alone when the attackers arrive, and their van can be seen through her window. The girl walks to the window and appears to watch the men enter. The girl then gets back in the bed and pulls the covers around her. She gets up a second time before returning to bed and putting her head on the pillow as the tape ends.
Previously released records of interviews by sheriff's investigators show that one child told investigators that he heard a knock on the door and that "two bad men" said, "You're going to die, one, two, three" and then, "no way, no way."
The records show that child was sleeping in his parents' bed when they were killed.
The Billingses' adult daughter told Winfrey that she and her husband are raising the children in the home where their parents died.