Trial begins in Fla. couple ninja attack slayings

AP News
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Posted: Oct 25, 2010 9:22 PM
Trial begins in Fla. couple ninja attack slayings

Jurors will start hearing the case Tuesday against a karate instructor charged with leading a group of men dressed as ninjas to rob an kill a wealthy couple while the couple's nine special-needs children cowered or slept nearby.

Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 36, could get the death penalty if convicted of organizing the break-in at Byrd and Melanie Billings' home in a rural area near Pensacola on the night of July 9, 2009. A jury of 11 women and one man was selected and opening arguments were set to start Tuesday.

"I am happy they were able to pick a jury in one day and they didn't have to move the trial out of this area," said Andrea McDermott, a friend of Melanie Billings' for more than 30 years. McDermott sat in the front row a public-viewing room during the daylong jury selection.

Gonzalez wore arm and leg chains as he was brought into court. His defense attorneys asked that their desks be moved so that the roughly 200 potential jurors would not see the shackles. The wrist chains were later removed.

Two of Gonzalez's co-defendants are scheduled to testify against him, prosecutor Bill Eddins said. But he said none of the young children are expected to testify about what they saw in the home that night. They were not hurt.

Prosecutors say the couple was killed during a botched attempt to steal a cash-filled safe. Investigators have said Gonzalez required his alleged partners in crime to dress in the black ninja-like clothing for the attack.

Seven co-defendants have been charged with first-degree murder. Several could testify against Gonzalez and name him as the man who fatally shot Byrd Billings, who owned a company that financed used-car purchases.

Defense attorneys told potential jurors that Gonzalez was a married father of six and a longtime karate instructor who grew up learning martial arts at a karate studio in nearby Gulf Breeze owned by his stepfather and mother. Gonzalez and his wife taught self-defense to women and children and solicited donations from local businesses for their work.

Several potential jurors said they did not feel comfortable deciding if Gonzalez should live or die. One man told the court that he felt strongly the death penalty was a waste a taxpayers' money because of the lengthy appeal process.

Michelle Billings, the couple's daughter-in-law, said she was happy the 12 jurors and one alternate were seated in one day.

Ashley Markham, the couple's adult daughter, is expected to be among the first defense witnesses on Tuesday. She watched part of the jury selection on Monday but did not comment.

Gonzalez's attorneys have asked Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker to move the trial out of Pensacola, saying extensive local and national media coverage has tainted the jury pool. They point to national appearances by Markham on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and by Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan on CNN and other national television shows.

But Geeker ruled earlier this month that he must first try to seat a jury from the four counties he oversees before he considers relocating the two-week trial.

Gonzalez's attorney, John Jay Gontarek, said late Monday that his client was relaxed and positive about the trial.

Among the evidence expected to be presented is surveillance video taken from the sprawling home the night of the killings. The shadowy, time-lapse video shows armed intruders dressed in black barging into the couple's living room. Melanie Billings is seen protectively grabbing what appears to be a child.

The Billingses were fatally shot in their bedroom, where there were no video cameras. A safe that was taken from the family's home contained nothing of value, but a second safe that wasn't stolen had $164,000 in cash, court records show.

According to autopsy reports, Melanie Billings, 43, was shot twice in her chest, and in the face and head. Byrd Billings, 66, was shot multiple times in the head and legs.

The crime scene photos show dozens of bullet holes throughout the living room and bedroom and a trail of blood along the living room floor.

In his initial interview with investigators, Gonzalez suggested a group of car dealers with a grudge against Byrd Billings wanted him "whacked."

Gonzalez also told investigators that he and one of Byrd Billings' grown sons, Justin, had worked together as "enforcers" to get payments from people who had gotten behind.

The nine adopted children in the home, all between the ages of 4 and 11 at the time of break-in, have varying special needs ranging from Down syndrome to fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.

The silent surveillance video footage from the children's bedrooms shows two of the children remaining still during the break-in. A third is in her bedroom alone when the attackers arrive, and their van can be seen through her window. The girl walks to the window and appears to watch the men enter. The girl then gets back in the bed and pulls the covers around her. She gets up a second time before returning to bed and putting her head on the pillow as the tape ends.

Previously released records of interviews by sheriff's investigators show that one child told investigators that he heard a knock on the door and that "two bad men" said, "You're going to die, one, two, three" and then, "no way, no way."

The records show that child was sleeping in his parents' bed when they were killed.

The Billingses' adult daughter told Winfrey that she and her husband are raising the children in the home where their parents died.