WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On July 9, 2009, 7 men dressed in "ninja garb" broke into the home of Byrd and Melanie Billings, ages 66 and 43 respectively, and shot them dead. They stole a safe and other items.
The couple had a total of 16 children, including 13 of them who were adopted. Melanie Billings owned a use car lot and Byrd Billings had a financial services company and was once a strip club owner. 9 of their children were home during the attacks.
THE FAMILY AND THE MURDERS
Byrd Billings was a 66-year-old entrepreneur. He had dabbled in used cars, boats, and the "adult" industry before finding a niche in financial services. Melanie, 43, loved country music, spent a lot of time on her MySpace page, and fed the homeless. (2)
They had either 16 or 17 children, it is hard to tell. It appears that Melanie had 2 children from a previous marriage, Byrd had 2 children from 1 of his 2 previous marriages, and they adopted 13. However, some reports say only 3 of their children were biologically one of theirs. But they definitely adopted 13 kids. (2)
And primarily, they adopted children with disabilities including autism, Down Syndrome, and other developmental disabilities. But despite what seems like a couple with a charitable heart, they had been mixed up in some shady business. Byrd, a former strip club owner, was sentenced to probation for an "adoption scam" and in his used car and boat sales, had come across some "shady characters". (2)
And despite various businesses, when he divorced his second wife in 1993, his net worth was just $1,400. However, 4 months after the marriage with his second wife dissolved, he married Melanie. (2)
At the time of their death, their home was worth $700,000 and they employed many people to care for their nearly 2 baseball teams worth of children. But the AP reported that it is not known how they got from having a few thousand dollars to their name to living in a mansion, caring for 16-17 kids. (2)
Byrd's background also includes a... troubling case. In 1990, he and his second wife, Cindy Reeve, received 2 years probation for doctoring birth records to TRY TO OBTAIN A NEWBORN FOR $2,100. Excuse me, what? They pleaded "nolo contendere", which meant they wouldn't admit guilt but would agree to a punishment. For trying to PURCHASE A BABY. Cindy said everything had gotten blown out of proportion, but did say Byrd was known for dealing with shady people. (2)
This was conflicted by a previous employee of Byrd's, Arety Kapatanis, who said he was a man of integrity, handled business with the utmost professionalism and avoided shady dealings even in an industry (a topless bar) that typically had some. Melanie Billings' brother also praised the couple's kindness, exemplified by their raising of so many children with special needs. (2)
Their integrity is questionable, which has lead people to question the motive of the crimes, but more on that later. (3)
On July 9, 2009, 2 men burst into the bedroom of Byrd and Melanie Billings and murdered them execution style as their 13-year-old son watched in horror. Byrd Billings was shot 6 times, and Melanie was found just outside of the master bedroom shot 5 times. (3)
The intruders, 8 different people, dressed like "ninjas" stole a safe and a few other items from the home. The safe only held some jewelry, children's medications, and some family documents. The police claimed the crime was done with "military precision". (3)
Seven men were charged with first degree murder, home invasion, and robbery. An 8th person was charged with being an accessory after the fact. 5 men entered the home for the murder and robbery, 2 drove getaway cars, and one helped dispose of stolen property after the fact. (1)
Given the family's conflicting integrity, some believe that the murders were a contract kill as opposed to a random robbery and murder. The alleged ringleader was Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., who told police that his involvement was "very deep". (3)
Gonzalez was convicted of 2 death penalties for his murder charges and a life sentence for the home invasion. Donnie Stallworth and Wayne Coldiron both received 2 consecutive life sentences for 2 counts of first-degree murder. Fredrick Thorton reached a plea agreement for testifying against co-defendents, as well as Rakeen Florence. They were sentenced to 40 and 45 years, respectively, for the murders, and 22 and 24 year sentences for the robbery. Both may only serve 22-24 years, with 18-21 years of probation. (1)
Gary Sumner was the back of the house getaway driver who reached a plea agreement for a 20 year sentence for both the murder and the invasion. Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr. was the front of the house getaway driver who also reached a plea agreement, resulting in 17.5 year sentences for the murders and home invasion. (1)
Things got kind of strange, however, when another person was brought into the mix: Pamela Wiggins. The stolen safe was found buried in the backyard of a home owned by a rich realtor, Wiggins. Her husband, Hugh, had found the safe. Pamela also owned the van that was used to transport the safe and weapons during the crime, and had knowledge of the events. (3)
She was ultimately sentenced to 28 years for her involvement in the murders, but died in prison on July 24, 2015. (1)
During the closing arguments in the trial, the Assistant State Attorney claimed Gonzalez was "motivated by simple greed" after his karate school had gone under, and he was trying to care for his 6 children. In fact, Byrd had donated $5,000 to the self-defense charity he had started, so he knew that the family had money. (4)
He proposed that Gonzalez provided all black clothing and guns to the rest of the group and planned the attack. The defense, however, argued that the only real evidence was the testimony from 2 other accomplices. They are "hanging their hat on the testimony of those admitted liars" he argued, as the 16 and 19 year old accomplices had changed their stories before. In trial, they said there was no plan to murder, only rob. (4)
Florence and Thorton testified in trial that Gonzalez told them they were after $13 million that had been laundered from the Mexican Mafia, though the safe only contained documents, medicine and jewelry. However, 2 sources claimed that there was a second safe in the home that contained some $100,000. (4)
Regardless of the potentially shady business dealings or concerns over purchasing babies, it appears that the children they had adopted were treated extremely well and loved their parents.
Ashley Markham, now 37, and her high school sweetheart, James "Blue" Markham, always dreamed of having a family, maybe 2 or 3 kids. But after the murder of her parents, she took over taking care of the young children. (Let me just say: The amount of children this family had is very confusing. Ashley was one of Melanie's kids who she had when she was 17 years old. She has a biological sister, and Byrd had 2 biological children. Then, there are 13 adopted kids. However, one article says that 3 of their children had died before the murders. And only 9 were home and only 9 will be mentioned as we move forward, so I am just going to not look further into this and let you know that 9 adoptive children are still there.)
Anyway, after the death of her parents, Ashley took over raising 9 of their adopted children. In 2014, she was raising Adrianna, 16; Jacob, 15; Matthew and Ricky, 14; Nick, Katie and Tori, 12; Ethan, 10; and Emma, 9. Ashley also had her own child, a 3-year-old named Jordan. "They're great kids," Ashley said.
Blue is adored by all of the kids, their big brother-in-law turned father figure. Ashley said everything got easier as they grew up and could begin doing things on their own, but it is hectic. They have help, a 21-year-old nanny who comes daily and friends who live in the guest house to help out.
She tries to help them focus on the positive memories of their parents, and to not live in fear even after such a traumatic event happened. And friends of Ashley are astonished at her strength, having lost her parents and quickly taking over the maternal role for 9 children with differing disabilities. The nanny speaks to she and Blue's patience with the kids.
Apparently, Ashley's biological sister, Nikki, had disabilities and died in 2008. The family began adopting children to share the love, but to give Nikki more siblings like her. Melanie and Byrd just wanted to give children a better life.
This story is really crazy because I could never really get a grasp on the tone of it. Did 2 people caught up in illegal activities, including the adoption of their fleet of children, get killed by a group of contract killers? Or did a loving set of parents who wanted what was best for disabled children get tragically murdered in a robbery gone wrong? It seems like it could be a little of both, but in the 11 years since the murders, no more has come out to make one believe someone paid for this family to die.
Ultimately, whether they had some flaws or not, it appears that they did provide a loving home for their children, and that they raised a pretty incredible woman who would grow up to raise 9 developmentally disabled adoptive siblings. Perhaps they were just good people, good parents, who had money that others wanted. How they came upon that money? That's a bit of a mystery.
I am glad the children who were there the night their parents were murdered are safe, and being raised in a loving environment by their older sister. I can't imagine taking on such a responsibility and I imagine she is a really incredible person.
This case is weird and doesn't make sense and involves parents with double digit children, ninjas and potential hit for hires. It really has everything, except a clear understanding of the motive. It is a strange case, and it occurred 11 years ago today.