The strong national interest in last month’s murder of Byrd and Melanie Billings, the Florida parents of 17, killed in their home, execution-style, by ninja-like intruders, stems in large part from the unanswered question of what could have motivated a crime so cold-hearted. This weekend, some answers emerged and they all point further south, to an organized-crime group known, with fear, in the Florida Panhandle, as the “Mexican Mafia.”
According to Morgan, the suspects were afraid to provide further details about the Mexican Mafia. As one witness told investigators, “Those guys will kill you.”
Specifically, The Daily Beast has exclusively confirmed three links:
•All seven people arrested as part of the ninja team that entered the Billings house that night have mentioned to police a connection between the murders and Mexican organized crime, but have not revealed specifics for fear of reprisals from the group.
•Henry “Cab” Tice, whom The Daily Beast originally reported was the chief person of interest in determining whether the murder was a murder-for-hire, told interrogators Thursday night that he laundered money for the Mexican Mafia, had borrowed $50,000 from the group, and still owed them money. After three hours of questioning, Tice was then arrested for fraud in connection with his business dealings with Byrd Billings.
•Tice’s extensive business dealings with Billings include allegations of stolen cars that wound up in Mexico.
Cab Tice's used-car dealership, Hispanic-American Auto Sales, catered to these immigrants, and while the vast majority of new residents fit in seamlessly, there have been two major drug busts in the Pensacola area over the past two years with strong Mexican connections.
The arrest of Tice on Thursday proved 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 Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. “It was Tice that brought our focus back on the Mexican Mafia.”
Specifically, Morgan says, Tice told investigators that he borrowed $50,000 from the group when his business began to fail, and that he also was laundering money for them. “Tice admitted that he was selling cars across the border to be resold in Mexico and those deals were cash, under-the-table transactions.” The grand theft charge against Tice is for allegedly writing more than $17,000 in bad checks last year to Worldco Financial Services, a company owned by the Billings family.
Morgan says that Tice’s arrest is only related to Billings’ business dealings. It's the seven people charged with the burglary and killings that have directly connected that crime to the Mexican Mafia. When asked if any of those charged with murders of the Billings had mentioned the Mexican Mafia, Sheriff Morgan told The Daily Beast, “Every one of them did.”
According to Morgan, they all were afraid to provide further details about the Mexican Mafia. As one witness told investigators, “Those guys will kill you.”
The Daily Beast has learned far more about Tice’s businesses problems with Byrd Billings. As I’ve previously reported, Byrd "Bud" Billings was aware of the missing vehicles from Tice’s Hispanic-American Auto Sales lot and believed that Tice may have sold them in Mexico. It was Billings who helped Deborah Tice, who was locked in a bitter divorce battle with Cab, file a lawsuit in 2008 against her estranged husband. In the suit, she claimed that Tice had committed acts which were illegal and fraudulent to his creditors (i.e. Billings). Deborah Tice later dropped the suit and settled on the divorce.
The Daily Beast has since learned that as many as 24 cars were missing from Hispanic-American Auto Sales, with an estimated value of $150,000. Sources close to investigation also believe that Tice may have absconded with an additional 30 vehicles from another lot financed by Worldco, which would add $200,000 to what Tice owed Billings. Tice is also being investigated by police in Foley, Alabama, regarding moving 23 vehicles worth $61,000 from used-car lots to buyers in Mexico.
The used-car business in Pensacola is a closed society. As one sales manager told me, “what you think is stealing, we call it doing business.”
Although the authorities haven’t released all the details of the charge against Tice, The Daily Beast has learned from people close to the case that Tice allegedly sold more than 20 cars that had been financed by Worldco Financial Services, a company owned by the Billings, without informing Worldco of the sales or paying off the liens.
Tice is now free on $5,000 bond, and has apparently defended himself against allegations he might have paid for the murders in an interview scheduled to run tonight on Dateline NBC. "That anybody would say that I had anything to do with the murder of Bud or Melanie is a liar," Tice says, choking back tears, in a promotion for the interview that ran locally. "The world lost somebody wonderful in Melanie and Bud Billings did not deserve to be killed in his household."
Byrd and Melanie Billings were 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.
All seven home intruders are charged with the two murders and a grand jury is set to convene next week. An eighth suspect, Pamela Wiggins, has been charged with being an accessory after the fact and is out on $10,000 bond. Sheriff Morgan has repeatedly told the media that he expects more arrests.
Patrick Gonzalez, Jr. has been identified as the leader of the gang and has been named by at least one suspect as the lone shooter of the Billings couple. Gonzalez, who is in jail without bond along with other six intruders, once worked for Tice, but a close friend of both Tice and Byrd “Bud” Billings tells The Daily Beast their relationship was much more than that. “Cab was a father figure for Patrick,” the friend says. “If any one had any influence over him, it was Cab.”
Just before his arrest, Tice had left the area, as first reported by The Daily Beast. I have confirmed that he traveled to Colombia. In Florida, he lives in a trailer behind English Bobby Auto Sales, where he was a sales manager. Though investigators believe he owed Billings and the Mexican Mafia hundreds of thousands of dollars, he has no visible assets.
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.