'Ninja' ringleader convicted in Florida killings

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - October 28, 2010

Jurors on Friday will decide the fate of Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 36, who also could serve life in prison. The same jury of 11 women and one man deliberated about five hours before finding him guilty Thursday of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of home-invasion robbery for leading the July 9, 2009, attack on Byrd and Melanie Billings.

Some 25 family members in the courtroom hugged and wiped away tears after the verdict was read. They included the Billings' daughter Ashley Markham, who, along with her husband, are raising the children, who were between 4 and 11 when their parents were killed.

Gonzalez did not react to the verdict and as deputies fingerprinted him before leading him away, he did not appear to acknowledge the family. Lawyers whisked the family out of the courthouse without speaking to reporters.

Gonzalez, 36, a father of six, faces a sentence of death or life in prison. Jurors on Friday will decide.

The men with Gonzalez that night testified that he told them that a safe in the home contained $13 million that Byrd Billings obtained by working for the Mexican mafia. The invaders did make off with a safe but it contained nothing of value. A second safe that they missed contained $164,000, court records show.

Prosecutor John Molchan during closing arguments said Gonzalez conceived the plan.

"Leonard Patrick Gonzalez is the man who had his hand on the gun and his finger on the trigger. He is the man who fired the shots that killed Mr. and Mrs. Billings," Molchan said.

But defense attorney John Jay Gontarek told the jury the gun used to kill the couple was not linked to Gonzalez by DNA evidence. He said the complicated web of self-serving defendants involved in the home-invasion does not lead back to Gonzalez as the ringleader.

"The Billings deaths are tragic. It would be equally tragic if someone who really was innocent was sent to prison or even executed," he said.

A co-conspirator who has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for his role in the botched robbery and killings testified that Gonzalez shot Byrd Billings in each leg, demanding to know where the money was kept and then turned the gun on his wife when she said she couldn't remember the safe combination.

Frederick Lee Thornton Jr., 20, said the men burst into the Billings' living room and found the couple and one of their children. Gonzalez shot Mrs. Billings in the bedroom, Thornton said.

"He said it was money from money laundering for the Mexican mafia from selling heroin. He talked about a vault in the bedroom," Thornton said.

Gonzalez supplied the group with ninja-like garb: black pants, shirts, boots, gloves, goggles and ski masks, Thornton said, and gave him a shotgun and his 16-year-old friend an AK 47.

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 have varying special needs ranging from Down syndrome to fetal alcohol syndrome and autism. Thornton Jr. and another man who was in on the robbery face life in prison and have entered plea agreements with prosecutors in exchange for their testimony.

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