Real murder trials aren’t like “Perry Mason,” where a witness collapses on the stand and admits guilt, or “Matlock,” when investigator Conrad McMasters finds a missing eyewitness at the last minute. They aren’t even like “Law & Order” that neatly closes the case in 60 minutes.
When news broke of the home invasion and murder of a wealthy couple with nine special needs children, Pensacola was inundated with reporters. Press conferences were held daily as new information was released. The networks would break into regular programming to broadcast the latest reports. For six weeks, the investigation captivated the nation.
The trial of Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. for the home invasion robbery and murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings was over in five days. Monday was jury selection. Tuesday through Thursday was the guilt phase of the trial. The penalty phase was deliberated on Friday.
The only national media at the M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building was truTV, which broadcasted the trial live on its “In Session” program. There was no melodrama or surprises, and the trial concluded as many had predicted. Gonzalez was found guilty, and the jury recommended the death penalty.
KEEP IT SIMPLE APPROACH
State Attorney Bill Eddins and Assistant State Attorney John Molchan took a case with a lot of moving parts and simplified it for the jury.
Patrick Gonzalez was a broke, desperate father of six who assembled a team of six other men to invade the Beulah home of Byrd Billings and Melanie Billings. Gonzalez thought Mr. Billings, who was in the used car business and had a finance company, had $13 million in a vault in the house, or so Gonzalez told his crew.
Frederick Thornton and Rakeem Florence testified to how the murders and robbery took place.
On July 9, the five men drove onto the property and broke into the Billings home through three doors. Stallworth kicked in the front door. Thornton and Florence kicked in the laundry room door and Gonzalez and Wayne Coldiron came through a third door and the master bedroom. The older Gonzalez stayed in an old red cargo van that Terry Poff, Patrick Gonzalez’s mother, had bought for her son. Gary Sumner was the lookout, driving up and down Nine Mile Road and communicating with Gonzalez via a walkie-talkie.
Patrick Gonzalez demanded money from Byrd Billings. When Billings told him there was no money, Gonzalez shot him in the legs twice. Coldiron ran from house to the cargo van when the shots were fired, according to his statement to investigators. The couple was taken into the master bedroom. Byrd Billings was shot in the cheek and then twice in the back of the head as he fell.
Gonzalez and Donnie Stallworth were in the bedroom. They spotted a small safe in the linen closet in a hallway off the bedroom. When Melanie Billings wasn’t able to give them the combination to the safe, Melanie Billings was shot in the face and then three more times while she was on the floor.
All shots fired were from a 9mm pistol. According to Florence and Thornton, the only person carrying such a gun was Patrick Gonzalez.
The men took the safe, only staying inside the property five minutes. The safe and guns were handed over to Pam Wiggins, the defendant’s boss and landlord. The safe would later be found hidden in her backyard. She would hide the murder weapon in a Buick owned by her husband. She and Hugh Wiggins would take some of the guns to a friend in Mississippi.
The red cargo van, the home invasion by the group of masked men, and the initial shots were all captured on the home surveillance system and led to the eventual arrest of all the suspects.
Eddins also blamed Gonzalez for his own capture. “The proof will show that the defendant in this case was not the smartest person in the world,” Eddins told the jury in his opening statement.
John Jay Gontarek and Randy Etheridge represented Gonzalez. Gontarek is a Fort Walton Beach attorney who defended Ronald Bell Jr. In 1999, Bell was found guilty of first-degree murder with a deadly weapon and armed kidnapping with a weapon. The case was controversial at the time because Bell and the two others involved in the crime were all teenagers. Bell got the death penalty, and the others cut plea agreements and testified against him.
In his opening remarks to the jury in the guilt phase of the trail, Gontarek reminded the jury that the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is on the prosecution. He said that there had been a “rush to judgment and arrest in this case, fortunately there has not been a rush to verdict.”
He said that Gonzalez only has a vague connection to the red van. It was “such a piece of junk that he gave it to his dad and didn’t know how he could use it.” All the other suspects in this crime have nicknames and aliases—Leonard, Sr.: “Frank”; Stallworth: “Stalls”; Gary Sumner: “G”; etc., but Gontarek pointed out, “Patrick went by Patrick.”
Patrick didn’t hide. He wasn’t arrested in Canada. According to Gontarek, he tried to assist his friend Chief Bill Chavers.
Gontarek said there was a lack of evidence. He suggested the jurors will be asking, “Why would Patrick do that? Why was he so open at WalMart?”
He said that there were inconsistent statements: “If he’s guilty, why would Patrick say this or that? Can you believe what he said?”
Gontarek said that some of the witnesses were self-serving. They made a deal and would cover themselves and say whatever it took to save themselves.
When Eddins and Gontarek gave their opening remarks, several attorneys watched in the courtroom. The trial was held in Courtoom 407, also known as the “Big Courtroom.” To handle any overflow, the proceedings were also broadcast into Courtroom 406.
It was unusual for Eddins, a former prosecutor, to be assisting and give the opening remarks. Both he and Gontarek got high marks from the attorneys watching the trial. Few believed that Gontarek had much hope of getting a not guilty verdict. The consensus was the real battle would be during the penalty phase, when the jury would decide whether to recommend the death penalty.
WHAT THE JURY DIDN’T HEAR
Molchan handled the guilt phase. He methodically built his case. Ashley Markham, the oldest daughter of Melanie Billings, and April Spencer, a registered nurse who lived on the property and helped care for the nine special needs children who lived in the house, both described the night of the murders.
Gonzalez’s wife, Tabatha, and his mother, Terry Poff, testified about the red van and the family’s financial troubles. Both the wife and Markham confirmed that Patrick Gonzalez knew Byrd Billings, who had donated $5,000 to Gonzalez’s program to help teach self defense to children.
Gonzalez’s friends, Lonnie “Guns” Smith and Tony “Duck” Eisa, testified that he had tried to recruit them for the home invasion, but they had refused the offers. Smith said he had overheard from the balcony at Regency Towers on Pensacola Beach a conversation between Gonzalez, Gary Sumner and Hugh Wiggins about a “security job” and that on the day of the murders Gonzalez had called him several times.
What Smith, the son of an Escambia County corrections officer, didn’t mention was that he had been a reluctant witness and had been warned about not talking with investigators because of the possible connection of Henry “Cab” Tice to the crime. Tice is a former business partner of Byrd Billings who is believed to have owed the victim over a hundred thousand dollars for cars missing from his car lot.
Smith also had told investigators that Hugh Wiggins, who Gonzalez called “Brother One,” had told him that he was taking over a crime operation headed by “Mr. Mantis” and that Gonzalez had done “assignments” for “Mantis.” He also told them Patrick Gonzalez led a double life.
“He wants to be the clean-cut, ‘I’ve got money,’” Smith said when he was questioned last year, “but yet ‘I’m a thug, too, and I’ll get the job done, whatever it may be.’”
Eisa helped Molchan link Gonzalez to Gary Sumner by testifying to a visit the two made to Sumner’s Fort Walton Beach car detailing business, 5th Dimensions. Gonzalez had tried to recruit him, too. Gonzalez had told him about a robbery of a home with a walk-in safe that was “as big as my kitchen” and stored $130 million.
It was Eisa who told investigators that Gonzalez is extremely addicted to prescription medications; Pamela Long was a close friend of Gonzalez and continually loaned him money; and Gary Sumner was also known to traffic in steroids through his business. Eisa admitted to investigators that he was a former member of the Insane Popes. “Popes” is an acronym for Protect Our People Eliminate Spics. None of this was brought up in Eisa’s testimony during the trial.
Carol Brant, the ex-wife and current girlfriend of the father, Leonard Gonzalez Sr., testified to overhearing the father and son discuss the robbery of a man who “was messing with little girls, dealing drugs and cleaning money.”
Brant didn’t mention that she was too afraid to initially talk with investigators because she had been told the money in the house was Mexican mafia drug money and that Patrick had been told to do the robbery. She didn’t know who had told him to do it.
During the break after these testimonies, Justin Billings hugged both Spencer and his step-sister Ashley Markham. Billings is now in the army, married and a father. Both he and his other step-sister Kristyn Chauncey have been somewhat estranged from the Markhams since the murders. The Markhams didn’t attend the weddings of Justin or Kristyn.
Over the next two days, Molchan brought in a series of crime scene technicians, investigators, ballistics experts and Medical Examiner Andrea Minyard. Each told the jurors how their part of the investigation was done and what they discovered. They were able to recreate the shootings and introduce the physical evidence that supported the case against Gonzalez.
The star witnesses for the prosecution were Frederick Thornton and Rakeem Florence. Florence, who was 16 when the crime was committed, is the father of the baby of Thornton’s sister. Eddins had described Thornton, who was 19 on July 9, 2009, and Florence as two guys that “hung around” 5th Dimensions.
Thornton spent two hours on the stand testifying about how he and Florence had first attempted with Gonzalez, Sumner, Stallworth and Gonzalez Sr. to rob the Billings home on July 4, but had been frightened off when the motion sensors along the driveway had turned on the outdoor lights.
Thornton mentioned that Patrick Gonzalez was extremely upset about the lights coming on and had called “Brother One” shouting that someone didn’t cut off the alarm system. During the early days of the investigation, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan and the media focused on whether someone was supposed to cut off the surveillance cameras. Once the arrests were made, that part of the investigation faded away. Neither the prosecution nor the defense followed up on this statement by Thornton.
It was Thornton who told the jury that Gonzalez provided the masks, clothing and guns used in the crime. He said that it was Gonzalez that was the ringleader and had done all the shooting. However, neither Thornton nor Florence saw Gonzalez kill Byrd and Melanie Billings in the bedroom.
In his cross examination, Gontarek pointed out that Thornton and Florence had “conspired to tell a lie.” The pair had first lied to investigators telling them that they had been in a van that had gone to the house to buy some “weed.” The two never got out of the van, but heard shots being fired. It wasn’t until they were presented with evidence that Thornton and Florence changed their stories.
Gontarek said, “Gary Sumner invited you to join, not Patrick Gonzalez.” He said that Thornton and Florence did nothing to help Byrd and Melanie Billings. They helped get rid of the vehicles, burned the clothing used in the crime and waited for their cuts.
“You were up to your eyeballs in this crime,” Gontarek told Thornton. “You practiced lying to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, your mother and your auntie. Then you cut a sweet deal.”
Both have plea agreements, which Molchan pointed out still could lead to life in prison and have no guarantees of lesser sentences.
What didn’t get mentioned in either of the Fort Walton Beach teenagers’ testimonies was one of the reports by the state attorney’s investigators that stated Sumner and Stallworth may have possibly been involved in a series of home invasion robberies in the Fort Walton Beach area dating back several years.
The targets were “narcotic violators who were believed to be holding large amounts of cash.” Witnesses described the robbers as “two, or more, black male subjects wearing dark clothing with ski masks.”
Another important witness for the state was retired Chief Deputy Bill Chavers, who questioned Patrick Gonzalez in the Santa Rosa County Jail on July 12. Chavers described the man he knew as “Pat Poff” as a “little nervous and excited.” He said that Gonzalez told him that his father had the van and anyone had access to its keys.
Gonzalez was concerned that law enforcement might try to connect him to the murders and that he had seen his father trying to clean out the van the day after the crime. The defendant rambled, according to Chavers. He said that he had been told by Cab Tice that a group was not happy with Mr. Billings and wanted him killed, but that Gonzalez had refused. Gonzalez said this was “very deep” and wouldn’t put it past them to set him up.
When Cab Tice was interviewed by investigators, he denied any such meeting ever took place. He admitted a close friendship with Gonzalez and talked about how Patrick and Tabatha Gonzalez had called him on Father’s Day. Tice has not been arrested on any charges connected with the murders.
Gontarek asked Chavers why he didn’t have his interview with Gonzalez taped. Chavers replied that the jail did not have recording equipment. The attorney chastised Chavers for not going to WalMart or the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office to get a recorder.
The State rested its case at 10:34 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 28. The defense chose to call no witnesses and rested its case when the jury came back from its break.
NUTTY OR COLD-BLOODED?
Assistant State Attorney John Molchan handled the close. He said that the State had “proven to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt that Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. handled the gun and had his finger on the trigger that fired the shots that killed Mr. and Mrs. Billings.”
Barry McCleary, who works for the Public Defender’s office, sat in the courtroom for most the trial. He is in a unique position because when he was in private practice, McCleary had both Byrd Billings and Patrick Gonzalez as his clients.
During the break after Molchan’s close, McCleary was clearly bothered. “Three years ago, Patrick and I were having beers together,” he said. “Molchan had a very strong, solid approach. Where do you go from here?”
Defense attorney Jay Gontarek did his best to get the jurors to see a reasonable doubt. “It is a tragedy what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Billings,” Gontarek said in his closing statement, “but to send an innocent man to jail, or his execution, is a worse tragedy.”
He said that this case was like a puzzle. “You can look at all the blue pieces and say they must be the sky–only to find it’s not the sky, but a lake…a mirror reflection.”
Gontarek pointed out no DNA was on the 9mm pistol that killed the Billingses. The person on the video holding the gun to Bud Billings’ head was right-handed. Patrick is left-handed.
Gontarek asserted that Hugh Wiggins and Gary Sumner were the masterminds, not Gonzalez. Wiggins and Sumner were at the condo discussing the robbery; Hugh Wiggins took the guns to his friend in Mississippi; and the Buick where the murder weapon was hidden was owned by Wiggins. The safe was found in the backyard of Hugh and Pam Wiggins.
“There is a reasonable doubt about Patrick Gonzalez being the mastermind.”
The attorney described his client as “kind of nutty,” “a little goofy, who got into some crazy circumstances.”
He closed with, “If you have one reasonable doubt, you have a duty to return a not guilty. Regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant your decision may be, there are too many gaps in the evidence, too many puzzle pieces missing.”
Molchan had the last statement. “The defendant is not goofy,” he said. “He’s a murderer, a plain, cold-blooded murderer.”
After four hours of deliberation, the jury found Patrick Gonzalez guilty. The next day, by 10-2 votes, the same jurors recommended the death penalty for the murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings.
In a brief press conference after the sentence recommendation, Ashley Markham read a short statement in which she thanked the community, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office. She said, “Although our wounds will heal, there will always be a scar.”
It is a scar that Pensacola won’t soon forget.