Trial Starts In Wealthy Couple Murder Case

Karate Instructor Charged With Leading Armed Men In Robbing, Killing

PENSACOLA, Fla. - Jury selection began Monday in the trial of a karate instructor charged with leading a group of armed men dressed as ninjas in robbing the home of a wealthy couple and killing the pair as their 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. Prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty in the case of three others arrested in the killings.

Gonzalez wore arm and leg chains as he was brought into the court Monday morning. His defense attorneys asked that their desks be moved so that the roughly 200 potential jurors would not see the chains. Sheriff's deputies later removed the his wrist chains. Gonzalez has also been charged with attacking another inmate in jail with a pencil.

Prosecutor Bill Eddins said he expects jury selection to take about two days.

Two of Gonzalez's co-defendants are scheduled to testify against him, Eddins said. But he said none of the young children who were in the home the night of the slayings is expected to testify about what they saw that night.

Prosecutors said the couple was killed during a botched attempt to steal a cash-filled safe. Their adopted children were not physically harmed in 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, and his wife.

Defense attorneys on Monday 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 owned by his stepfather and mother.

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.

Gonzalez's attorneys have asked Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker to move the trial out of Pensacola. They say extensive local and national media coverage has tainted the jury pool. They point to national appearances by the slain couple's adult daughter 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 his Panhandle circuit of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Oklaoosa and Walton counties before considering relocating the trial.

Among the evidence expected to be submitted at the two-week trial 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 document 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. His attorney, John Jay Gontarek, did not return calls seeking comment.

The nine 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 children remaining still during the break-in. A third child 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.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.