With the release Monday of 729 pages of interviews and reports concerning the investigation into the grisly double homicide of Byrd “Bud” and Melanie Billings, parents of 17, a mystery that’s been answered piece-by-piece suddenly comes into fuller view, with details nothing short of haunting. What emerges is a cast of characters reminiscent of those found in a William Faulkner short story—desperate, double-crossing, and living by a code that only they understand. This real-life tragedy on the Florida Panhandle has three acts, which I’ve been able to piece together through weeks of reporting and the aforementioned documents.
Ten-year-old Jake, who isn't able to speak, signed that two “bad men” wearing masks that covered their faces said, “You’re gonna die, one, two, three” and then he heard, “No way, no way.”
THE CRIME SCENE
In the early evening of Thursday, July 9, a red van pulled in to the front yard of the large home owned by Byrd “Bud” and Melanie Billings, according to the investigators’ reports. Friend and neighbor April Spencer said that she had left the residence about 90 minutes after helping Melanie bathe two of her daughters. Bud Billings was watching TV and Melanie was getting dinner ready in the kitchen as Spencer walked out the door.
Around 7:30 p.m., Adrianna Billings was pounding on the Spencer’s door, yelling, “Come, Mom and Dad are dead.” Leaving the young girl at her home, Spencer ran to Billings’ residence to find the laundry-room door, which is on the north side of the house, kicked in. Jake Billings, a 10-year-old with Down syndrome, was standing in the living room pointing to his parents’ bedroom. Jake can’t speak and communicates only through sign language, according to investigators.
Spencer walked into the master bedroom and found Bud lying in front of the dresser, face down in pool of blood. He was dressed in blue jean shorts with no shirt. Melanie was lying in a hallway that led out of the master bedroom toward a nearby study, face up. Both had been shot multiple times. Spencer grabbed Jake, ran to her house and called 911.
The forensic report revealed that Bud had been shot in the backs of his right and left legs. He had been shot twice in the back of the head with exit wounds in the forehead and above his left eye. He was also shot twice in the front of the face on the right and left sides. Melanie Billings was shot twice in the chest. Her white Elton John shirt was covered with blood. She was also shot three times in the face and head. Ballistics evidence showed that the Billings were shot with a 9mm.
Ali Stanley, a specialist in child-disability interviews, assisted the investigators in questioning some of the Billings’ children. According to Stanley’s statement, Jake told her that his dad, Bud, was in the room sleeping when he heard a knock on the door. Jake signed to Stanley that two “bad men” wearing masks that covered their faces said, “You’re gonna die, one, two, three” and then he heard, “No way, no way.”
Jake also told Stanley that his dad grabbed one of the suspects by the neck and “Mom got shot in the shirt.” He remembered a name being called out, but he could only sign “BJA.”
According to the police reports, when Wayne Coldiron was arrested and questioned about the robbery/murders, he said that on the day of the crime he was with Leonard Gonzalez, Sr. when Patrick Gonzalez drove up in a red minivan with four men—Donnie Ray Stallworth, Gary Lamont Sumner, Rakeem Florence and Frederick Lee Thornton Jr.—who were following in a tan or gold Explorer. All were dressed in black—garb that Sheriff David Morgan would describe later as ninja-like.
According to Coldiron, the red minivan was driven to a location across the Alabama-Florida border. Patrick Gonzalez and Coldiron were dropped off behind a church near the Billings’ home. Gonzalez Sr. drove a red Dodge van to the front of the house with three of the other males inside. Stallworth stayed in the Explorer driving up and down the road.
Patrick Gonzalez and Coldiron ran across the backyard. Gonzalez was armed with a 9mm, according to the reports. Gonzalez and Coldiron entered the Billings house through the laundry-room door. The three other men entered through the front door. Bud Billings was shot immediately in the legs by Gonzalez, Coldiron says, and then was dragged into the bedroom where Gonzalez killed both Melanie and Bud.
The robbers grabbed a midsize safe and a small briefcase, ran to the Dodge van parked in front of the house, and drove off the property. The van entrance and exit from the property, as well as Coldiron and Gonzalez’s running across the backyard, were captured by camera surveillance system.
The safe, briefcase, and weapons were switched to the red minivan, according to Coldiron. The Dodge van was taken to the home of Leonard Gonzalez and was later recovered when neighbors called the police about the vehicle fitting the description of the van in the videos. Gonzalez Sr. was arrested and his interviews led to the arrests of his son, Coldiron, and later the other alleged home invaders.
Those arrested linked Pamela Long Wiggins to the crime, according to investigators. After being granted limited immunity, her husband, Hugh Wiggins, told investigators that the safe had been hidden under bricks in the backyard of their residence in Gulf Breeze. He said that his wife had told him that a 9mm handgun had been hidden in the backseat of their 1971 Buick Gran Sport convertible, which had been taken to a repair shop and hidden under a tarp. Both the safe and the murder weapon were recovered in the places identified by Hugh Wiggins.
When asked about the other weapons used in the crime, Wiggins admitted that he dropped the guns off near Moss Point, Mississippi, with a friend, Ed Dinson. Special agents of the ATF found Dinson and recovered two Mossberg .12 gauge shotguns, a MAK 90 assault rifle, a Ruger mini-14, and a .223 cal AR variant rifle along with several magazines and ammunition for the various rifles, according to the reports.
Leonard Gonzalez, Patrick Gonzalez, Donnie Ray Stallworth, Gary Lamont Sumner, Rakeem Florence and Frederick Lee Thornton Jr. have all been charged with first-degree murder. Pamela Wiggins has been charged with a first-degree felony of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. All eight are in custody in the county jail.
THE POSSIBLE MOTIVES
From the beginning, Sheriff David Morgan has said that robbery was a primary motive, but has hinted other reasons for the execution-style killings of Bud and Melanie Billings. My reporting for The Daily Beast has suggested a murder-for-hire. The released reports and transcripts provide a plethora of possible motives for investigators to examine.
When Patrick Gonzalez was arrested, Chief Deputy Bill Chavers interviewed him in the Santa Rosa County Jail before he was transported to Escambia County. Chavers knew Gonzalez as Pat Poff—the last name of his stepfather—and had taken karate classes with him in the 1980s.
During the course of the interview, Gonzalez denied any involvement in the Billings’ murders. However, he did tell Chavers that he was involved in something “very deep” and that he and his family were in danger. He said that he had been used in the past by several Pensacola car dealers to “whack folks.”
According to Chavers’ report, then Gonzalez mentioned that the car dealers didn’t like Billings and had met a couple of times to discuss the problem that they were having with Bud Billings. He said that a man named Cab Tice came to him and indicated that the group wanted Billings “whacked,” but he refused the job.
Henry “Cab” Tice, a used-car dealer who, according to sources, owed Billings more that $150,000, is the man that The Daily Beast originally reported as a primary person of interest in determining whether the murder was a murder-for-hire. When he was questioned by investigators, Tice said he had borrowed $20,000 from the Mexican mafia. Sheriff Morgan has said that Tice was also involved with money laundering with the group. On July 30, Tice was arrested for writing over $17,000 in bad checks to Worldco Financial Services, a business owned by Bud Billings.
The Daily Beast has previously reported that Tice’s business problems with Bud Billings were much greater than a few worthless checks. Billings financed the inventory of Tice’s now-defunct Hispanic-American Auto Sales lot. According to sources close to the family, Billings discovered that as many as two dozen cars were missing and believed that Tice may have sold them in Mexico.
Since his arrest, Tice has gone on national and local television programs declaring his innocence. In an interview for Dateline NBC, Tice said, choking back tears, “Anybody that would say that I had anything to do with the murder of Bud or Melanie is a liar.” When confronted about Gonzalez’s statements to Chief Chavers, Tice told the local ABC affiliate, WEAR TV 3, that Patrick Gonzalez’s remarks are the actions of a desperate man.
Maybe so, but Sheriff David Morgan, Gonzalez’s wife Tabatha and others have described the strong bond between Tice and Gonzalez as a father-son relationship. Several of our sources have told us of bad blood between Tice and Billings. Tice has said on camera that he knew he would be the obvious person that law enforcement would investigate if anything happened to Bud Billings. Therefore, he would never harm his creditor and former friend.
According to the reports, Tice told investigators that it was no secret that he “hated Bud Billings” and that he had called Patrick Gonzalez between 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., about the same time as the murders, to help with an email problem. Gonzalez didn’t answer, but he did call Tice back the next day. Tice said he told the suspected killer that he already had taken care of the email problem, according to his statement.
Gonzalez isn’t the only person to mention Tice and his possible involvement with the murders. The released reports reveal that the Billings’ son-in-law, James Markham, told investigators that Tice owed Billings more than $100,000. The eldest son, Justin Billings, told them that Cab Tice had “double-crossed my dad with car business or something.”
Another witness, Lonnie Smith, told investigators about how Patrick Gonzalez had tried to recruit him three weeks earlier for the home invasion. According to the transcript of his interview, Smith, a longtime friend of Gonzalez's, said that Patrick had called him 13 times the day of the murders and claimed there was a couple of million dollars in the safe to be robbed. Smith didn’t take the talk seriously because of Gonzalez’s reputation as a liar and a braggart.
Although authorities believe Gonzalez Jr. was the ring leader of the home invasion, Smith does not believe that he is the mastermind behind the crime, according to his statement. He told interrogators that he believed Gonzalez got his information on the Billings home from someone else. “He put the job together, but the job didn’t just come out of thin air,” Smith said.
The transcript of the interview with Lonnie Smith shows a man that was clearly afraid to talk with the authorities. “What you’re telling me, I don’t need to worry about people in the car business,” Smith told investigators. “I done heard shit about Cab Tice shooting somebody, and you know, hey, I think I gonna end up getting put in the trick basket before this is over with…”
Smith went on to say that he had been warned by a friend the night before he was questioned. “I was told specifically that Cab’s got connections last night, and that’s why I wasn’t gonna come today.”
The possibility of a Mexican mafia connection is what The Daily Beast reported over a week ago. After Tice’s arrest for grand theft, Sheriff Morgan told The Daily Beast that the arrest of Tice could prove to be the turning point in terms of firming up a relationship between the Mexican mafia and the Billings murders.
“At first we discounted any connection between Mexican organized crime and this case, but that was until we interviewed Tice,” said Sheriff Morgan. “It was Tice that brought our focus back on the Mexican mafia.”
Tice has not been charged with any crimes connected to the murder and is out on $5,000 bail for his grand theft arrest. Sheriff Morgan still thinks more arrests are possible. The released reports discuss others who either knew about the robbery or may have even helped plan it. Investigators and the media have plenty of leads to follow during the coming weeks and months.
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.