The grisly, execution-style double murder that has rocked the Florida Panhandle may have been a contract hit. Two sources with direct knowledge tell The Daily Beast that one of the suspects in custody has informed authorities that Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., the suspected leader of the alleged hit squad, was paid to kill Byrd and Melanie Billings—wealthy parents of 17 children, many adopted with special needs.
The contract price was between $20,000 and $50,000, sources said, along with whatever Gonzalez and his alleged accomplices could remove from the Billings residence.
The couple was shot to death by masked intruders inside their secluded home in rural Beulah, Florida, on July 9. Nine of their children were in the house at the time of the murders, and three saw the men in the home and may be witnesses to the shootings. Eight people have been arrested in connection with the murders, including Gonzalez.
The suspect said that the contract price was between $20,000 and $50,000, according to the sources—who requested anonymity, fearing possible reprisals—along with whatever Gonzalez and his alleged accomplices could remove from the Billings residence.
Representatives from Escambia County Sheriff’s Office refused to confirm or deny the allegations.
The motive for the alleged hit on the Billingses appears to be connected to Byrd Billings’ financing of used car lots in the area, the sources said.
The suspect added that Gonzalez and his alleged team—which included his father, a day laborer who has served time for killing a man; an Air Force staff sergeant; two auto detailers; and a teenager—had been planning the hit for several months, the sources said. Much of that planning was allegedly conducted at the home of Pamela Wiggins, a wealthy Florida real estate investor and family friend of Gonzalez’s.
It was in the backyard of Wiggins’ home where a safe stolen from the Billings home was recovered, according to Escambia County Sheriff’s Office reports. Wiggins also allegedly owns the red van that was used to transport both the safe and the weapons used in the double homicide. She has been charged with accessory after the fact to felony murder and was released after posting a $10,000 bond.
An earlier attempt to invade the Billings home—which may have been only a “dry run”—was made after dark, according to the suspect. However, Gonzalez and his accomplices were allegedly frightened off by the outdoor lighting, which was attached to motion sensors. The outdoor lights clicked on when the team’s vehicle rolled onto the property, and the would-be home invaders drove off. Wiggins was allegedly parked on the street down from the Billings residence to observe this attempt.
The failed after-dark attempt would explain why Gonzalez and his crew invaded the Billings residence at 7 p.m., before sunset.
On July 9, the intruders were on the property for less than 10 minutes and were in the home for only four minutes, according to investigators.
But the team made one major blunder: They failed to disable the home-surveillance system that had been set up to monitor all the children in the house, and which ended up catching the men and their vehicles entering and leaving the property. Local law enforcement is still searching for the person whom they believe had agreed to disable the camera system remotely.
State Attorney Bill Eddins has said that he believes the arrest of Wiggins and the recovery of the safe and weapons conclude the investigation of the Billings murders, and he is preparing to bring the cases before a grand jury.
Locals say there is much more to the story. Stay tuned.
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.