If you talk to those who knew Byrd Billings over the years, two portraits of him emerge. One was of a wealthy, bighearted man who, along with his wife, Melanie, adopted 13 children, most of them with special needs. The couple took in kids with Down syndrome, autism, and fetal alcohol syndrome, and raised them lovingly in a nine-bedroom mansion in Beulah, Fla., near the Alabama border. They lavished them with clothes and toys and annual trips to Disney World. When one of the older girls had her senior prom, they outfitted her in a white Cinderella-style dress and rented a stretch limo. The Billingses "had the capacity to love lots of children who others were unable to care for," says Suzy Watson, who taught two of the youngsters.
Yet the other Byrd Billings was erratic and bullying. Some of his actions involving the children were bizarre. In 2004, for instance, one of the kids with Down syndrome was accidentally burned in the bathtub by scalding water. The boy later died during treatment from an air bubble that entered an artery. After an incident like that, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) typically investigates (though the agency wouldn't confirm that it did so in this case). Billings concocted a strange scheme involving DCF, in an attempt to keep the agency at bay, says lawyer Robert Beasley, who has represented Billings on other matters in the past. Billings tried to trademark seven of the adopted kids' names. Then, each time DCF referred to one of them in correspondence, he claimed a trademark violation and demanded $10 million—in silver coins, for some reason—from the agency and from specific employees. Eventually, a DCF attorney told him to send all communications to the legal department, and Billings stopped.
In his business dealings, Billings could be similarly combative. "Some days, you didn't want to deal with him," says Tim Higley, a former employee. "One time, he threw a baseball bat at a guy doing some remodeling work," because he considered it subpar. It's unclear how Billings was wealthy enough to afford his sprawling mansion. He once owned a strip club, the Back Seat Lounge, but the more significant moneymakers were apparently an array of ventures tied to used cars. Billings handled all aspects of the trade: sales, financing, and repossession. His interest rates and fees were notoriously steep, says Higley. In fact, his financing company was cited and fined twice by the state for imposing excessive charges on buyers, says Crystal Spencer, a former lawyer for the Billings family. As part of his work, Billings also associated with decidedly unsavory characters at times, according to three people who did business with him and declined to be named out of fear for their personal safety.
All of this is now the focus of intense scrutiny, given that Billings and his wife were murdered last month. Within days, authorities arrested eight suspects and retrieved a safe stolen from the couple's house. None has entered a plea yet, though arraignments are scheduled to begin on Thursday. The crime was elaborately conceived, but certain basic elements, like the motive and the connection between the victims and the suspects, remain shrouded in mystery. At first, officials insisted that the motive was robbery. But last Friday, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said at a press conference that it was "a possibility" that the slayings were a contract hit.
As authorities continue their investigation, the case is only getting more convoluted. It features a collection of dubious characters, Byzantine relationships, and elaborate swindles that are fantastical even by Florida's baroque standards. "There is nothing about this case that is a straight line," Morgan told NEWSWEEK. "It's a running con game."
The invasion of the Billings home was a methodically planned operation, spearheaded by a man named Leonard Gonzalez Jr., according to court documents. Gonzalez and his gang rehearsed the caper for more than a month, says Sheriff Morgan. They met regularly at Gonzalez's father's home, where they practiced breaking into a house and subduing victims. (The father, who was one of those arrested, is "presumed innocent," says his lawyer.) Surveillance cameras at two local Wal-Marts recorded members of the crew buying supplies, including black watch caps, black cargo pants, and zip-ties (which could be used as handcuffs). In the buildup to the crime, says Morgan, the group surreptitiously staged a dry run at the Billings house.
On the evening of July 9, the gang deployed, arriving at the Billings home in two vehicles. Three armed men wearing balaclavas broke through the front door, while a pair of others entered simultaneously through a rear door, authorities say. Two of the alleged participants, Wayne Coldiron and Frederick Thornton, later told law enforcement, according to arrest reports, that Gonzalez killed the Billingses with a 9mm pistol (their bodies were later found in their bedroom). Nine of the kids were home at the time, and a few of them witnessed the break-in. Authorities say the men quickly retrieved a safe, loaded it into one of the waiting vehicles, and everyone sped off. The whole operation lasted less than 10 minutes.
But the gang apparently botched the job in a few crucial respects. According to one source with knowledge of the investigation, who requested anonymity because it's ongoing, the assailants were after a different safe—one that had more than $100,000 in it—but were unable to crack it. The one they took, perhaps as a consolation, ended up containing only children's medication, documents, and heirloom jewelry. In addition, the attackers failed to disable the Billingses' surveillance system, a slew of cameras that the couple had installed throughout the house, as well as outside, to watch over the kids. As a result, cops captured images of the two getaway vehicles, including a red van, and with the help of tips found the van hidden behind a shed on Gonzales's father's property. Authorities hauled the father in, and, in short order, seven other people.
The chief catch so far, say authorities, is Gonzalez. A self-styled goodfella who grew up in the Florida panhandle and served in the National Guard, "he used to wear this black wool jacket, looking like a Mafia guy. That's what he always wanted to be," according to a former friend, Barry McCleary. In a deposition in an unrelated matter last year, Gonzalez, who served time for robbery, battery, and petty theft, claimed that his past exploits granted him keen, and highly marketable, insights. "I'm an expert in criminal countermeasures and defensive tactics," he said, according to James Jenkins, the attorney who deposed him in the earlier case. Most likely embellishing, Gonzalez added, "I do situational-control workshops for government agencies, for private individuals, for corporations." Sheriff Morgan sums up Gonzalez this way: he is "an inveterate liar" and "a psychopath."
For the Billings job, Gonzalez enlisted a friend named Pamela Long Wiggins, authorities say. It's unclear how the two met, but he rented a house from her, and their kids attended the same school. A 47-year-old businesswoman who grew up in Albany, Ga., Wiggins, like Gonzalez, cultivated an outlaw mystique, according to her soon-to-be ex-husband, James Malden. She used to brag about "people from the underworld" that she knew from her days running a pawn shop in Georgia, he says. "She is a shady person, and very smart." In 1993, she was the prime suspect in an arson case involving a property that she owned, but she was never charged, says James Carswell, the fire chief in Albany. Though media reports have described her as "wealthy," that's not exactly true. She has loads of assets—about 10 properties in the panhandle and a 47-foot yacht (The Classy Lady)—but "they're mortgaged to the hilt," says Ed Seitz, Malden's lawyer. (Charlie Wiggins, no relation to Pamela, who has represented her in the past, had no comment; Pamela has no attorney of record yet in the Billings case.) At least five of her properties are now facing foreclosure, according to county records Seitz showed NEWSWEEK.
As for the remainder of the crew, they appear to be ancillary figures whom authorities believe Gonzalez recruited as muscle. Of the eight people arrested so far, seven, including Gonzalez, allegedly participated in the home invasion and now face murder charges. The eighth, Wiggins, has been charged as an accessory after the fact, since the safe and some guns were discovered at her house. As authorities build cases against these eight, they've declined to answer some key questions. For instance: how exactly is Gonzalez connected to the victims? All that's known from arrest reports and the sheriff's public statements is that Gonzalez once worked for one of Billings's companies; that at one point he obtained financial backing from Billings for a martial-arts studio he wanted to open; and that his father, who owned a pressure-washing business, did some work on the Billings property. But how would Gonzalez have known that the victims had a safe full of cash in their home? And if the killings were indeed a contract hit, for which Gonzalez was paid as much as $50,000, according to the source privy to the investigation, who ordered it?
Here's where things get exceedingly murky. One person police interviewed the night of the murders was a man named Henry Tice, who also works in the used-car trade. He and Billings have had joint interests in a number of ventures. For instance, state records filed in 2007 show that Billings's financing company provided funding to Hispanic-American Auto Sales, a Tice-run business. Tice is also "good friends" with Gonzalez, who has worked for him in the past, according to a former Tice associate who requested anonymity out of fear. Both men were martial-arts fans and used to work out together, the associate says.
Tice's relationship with Billings, however, became poisonous, according to three people who knew them both and requested anonymity for similar reasons. Two of them explained that Billings had invested in a "floor-planning" deal with Tice, which involves fronting money for bulk vehicle purchases, usually in exchange for the titles and gradual repayment, plus interest. But Tice, they say, pocketed the cash and made off with the cars, fleecing Billings to the tune of at least $100,000. As a result, according to the two acquaintances, Billings went to the Escambia County sheriff's office, which began investigating (the detective believed to be handling the case did not return calls for comment).
(Update added Aug. 7, 2009: On Thursday night, Aug. 6, the Escambia County sheriff's office arrested Tice on a grand theft charge, accusing him of writing bad checks to Billings's financing company. According to the arrest report, Billings told authorities on May 22, 2008, that Tice had written 12 checks totaling more than $17,000 to his financing company. Billings showed documentation that all of them had bounced, the report says. Adding to the intrigue, Ted Roy, a sheriff's office spokesman, told NEWSWEEK that "Tice mentioned that he was in debt to the Mexican mafia last night when he was being questioned." Though the charges against Tice do not include allegations that he was involved in the Billings murders, the sheriff said on Thursday night that Tice was "a person of interest" in the case and would be questioned about the slayings. Tice has been released on bail.)
Another individual made similar allegations against Tice to police in Foley, Ala., home to another of his businesses. There, Det. Larry Dearing confirmed to NEWSWEEK that Tice is under investigation for allegedly smuggling 23 vehicles worth $61,000 to buyers in Mexico (though he has not been charged). The two acquaintances say Escambia County sheriff's detectives recently informed Billings that they were making progress in their investigation. Perhaps Tice was "worried about [Billings] testifying" against him, speculates one. What's certain, says the other, is that Tice "hates [Byrd] Billings with a passion."
Authorities haven't publicly addressed the possibility of a Tice connection. But the individual familiar with the investigation says that "all business associates of Billings's are persons of interest." Some of these associates have fled the area, the individual says, including one who's believed to have left the country. In the aftermath of the killings, the sheriff's office has apparently redoubled its efforts to investigate Billings's allegations against Tice. According to a source with direct knowledge of the matter, the detective in charge of the inquiry into their business dealings recently asked Ashley Billings—Melanie's biological daughter, 26—to cooperate in the case, which she agreed to do, hoping to buttress her father's claims. (Beasley, the Billings's family lawyer, did not confirm that.) So far, authorities have not arrested Tice. One of the acquaintances says that someone in the sheriff's office told him that local law enforcement wasn't moving against Tice because he was cooperating with a federal agency in one of its investigations (the sheriff's office declined to comment).
Amid all the speculation, a NEWSWEEK reporter met with Tice in his office on a used-car lot in Pace, Fla., last month. In a brief interview, Tice declined to address the allegations that he smuggled cars and stole from Billings, but claimed that the two were friends and that he had nothing to do with the murders. He concluded by citing officials' statements early on that, in Tice's paraphrasing, "This was nothing but a robbery." It may well have seemed as simple as that in the beginning. But as investigators soon discovered, this has become, in Sheriff Morgan's memorable description, one "humdinger" of a case.