At dusk on a hot humid night five years ago, a beat-up red van drove onto the front yard of the large two-story, ranch-style house owned by Bud and Melanie Billings on a secluded tract of land in Beulah. When the van pulled away ten minutes later, the couple was dead and nine special needs children, ages 4-11, were left alone in the house.
In the days and months that followed, Pensacola was hurled onto the national stage as the veneer of this sleepy Navy town with aspirations to return to its former glory days was pulled back revealing a seedy side that few locals wanted to admit existed.
When I look back at my reporting on the story for The Daily Beast, I see how much I have grown as a writer and how much this town helped me with tips and encouragement. There was so much I didn’t understand about law enforcement and crime reporting back then.
The Billings case was also the first time that I had been attacked for my reporting. Nancy Grace and the national media went after me that I was only reporting hearsay. However, when the State Attorney’s Office released the transcripts of its interviews with those arrested and witnesses, my reporting was vindicated.
The media landscape has changed considerably since July 2009. The News Journal had Thyrie Bland, Kris Wernowsky, Travis Griggs and Sean Dugas covering the story. WEAR TV had Dan Thomas and Greg Neumann. Only William Reynolds of NorthEscambia.com and I are still around.
Sheriff David Morgan has become the most popular elected officials in Escambia County, maybe in all of Northwest Florida, because of how he handled the murder investigation. He used the media—both regular and social—to apprehend all the suspects in less than a week. He personified coolness under pressure and won the respect of nation.
Patrick Gonzalez sits on Death Row in Stark, Florida. He insists that he was framed, that all the evidence against him is circumstantial and that those who helped to convict him were only protecting their own hides. He has lost all of his appeals, but there are those who are trying to help him prove his innocence.
Pensacola has moved on. The following year, the BP Oil Disaster hit our shores bringing President Obama and the national media back to town.
Still some of us remember the murders, the hectic days of covering the investigation and the story leads that never quite panned out.