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07.26.09

Florida Killings' Ninja Connection?

The murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings, parents of 17, were made more bizarre by the ninja garb worn by the killers. Now Rick Outzen reports that these ninjas might have struck before.

Part of the large national interest in the murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings, the Florida Panhandle parents of 17 killed in their home as most of their children slept, stems from the bizarre dress of their executioners: as Japanese ninja warriors. Now, The Daily Beast has learned about a possible pattern. Over the past two years, there have been at least two ninja-related bank robberies around Pensacola, a region just south of the Alabama border where sushi restaurants are still considered exotic.

In both these robberies, which remain unsolved, the perpetrator bore a resemblance to the man who has been identified by Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan as the July 9 murder’s ringleader, Patrick Gonzalez, Jr., down to the head-to-toe black garb. Gonzalez, a martial artist with a criminal past, and seven others have been arrested in connection with the double homicide. All the home invaders were dressed in black “ninja garb,” and because the men were in the Billings’ residence less than four minutes, authorities have described the crime as done with “military precision.”

Either the Florida Panhandle is coping with a coincidental outbreak of ninja criminals, or these robberies gave clues to the violence to come.

Gonzalez and the six men allegedly involved in the home invasion have been charged with two counts of felony murder. An eighth suspect, Pamela Wiggins, has been charged with being an accessory after fact to felony murder. Wiggins allegedly used a red minivan to transport a safe taken from the Billings’ home and the weapons used in the crime to her home in nearby Gulf Breeze.

Gulf Breeze, a bedroom community located across Pensacola Bay from Escambia County, is also Gonzalez’s hometown and recent residence. Over the past few years, he has run, with his second wife, a nonprofit called Project Fight Back, which taught self-defense to women and children. Just a month ago, the Gonzalez couple was honored by a Pensacola civic organization for their charitable work with that club’s Service to Mankind award.

In his arrest report for the Billings murders, Gonzalez is described as a white male, age 35, standing 5-foot-6 and weighing 185 pounds. The Daily Beast researched unsolved crimes in the area and found two bank robberies inside the city limits of Gulf Breeze in which the robber not only fits Gonzalez’s description, but also wore clothing safely described as ninja-like.

In November 2007, the SunTrust Bank branch in Gulf Breeze was robbed by a white male, approximately 5-foot-8 tall, weighing around 160 pounds, dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt, black pants, black gloves, and a black mask. The man fled the bank on foot to parked car at a nearby elementary school. No one was ever arrested for the crime, but local police say they believe that it was done by local resident who was familiar with the area.

Last November, a robber hit the Pen Air/Members First Credit Union branch, also in Gulf Breeze, less than half a mile from the SunTrust branch. He was described as a white male wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans, black or brown shoes, black gloves, and carrying a gun. He looked to be in his late 20s to early 30s around 5-foot-8 and weighing about 180 pounds. His face was covered so that just his eyes were showing.

After robbing the credit union, the robber fled into the woods and was seen driving off in a large red SUV. A local reporter covering the robbery wrote at the time, “the robber apparently planned the heist meticulously and knew the lay of the land.” No arrest has been in this crime either.

The Gulf Breeze police would not comment whether Patrick Gonzalez, Jr. is a suspect in these robberies. Either the Florida Panhandle is coping with a coincidental outbreak of ninja criminals—maybe local enforcement should be checking out who has been renting Kill Bill DVDs—or these robberies gave clues to the violence to come.

Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.