Murder details unfold

Published 10:54 am Wednesday, July 22, 2009

By By Kerry Whipple Bean
Court testimony from a sheriff’s investigator Monday put Brewton native Donnie Ray Stallworth Jr. — masked and with a gun — at the scene of a well-rehearsed home invasion that left Byrd and Melanie Billings dead.
But new details emerged in the case Tuesday that pointed to alleged mastermind Leonard Patrick Gonzales Jr. as the lone shooter in the case.
The Billingses, known in their small community of Beulah, Fla., for having adopted 13 children with special needs, were gunned down in their bedroom July 9 during what authorities have said was a robbery.
During a probable cause hearing Tuesday for Stallworth, who turned himself in to local authorities and has declined to waive extradition to Florida, investigator Terry Hardy said suspect Wayne Coldiron identified Stallworth from a photo lineup as one of the other participants in the crime.
Stallworth, 28, entered the Billings home with a gun, according to another suspect in the case of the murdered Pensacola couple, a Florida sheriff’s investigator Terry Hardy testified.
Authorities have not said who they believe pulled the trigger in the case, but a search warrant released Tuesday states that suspect Frederick Thornton said Gonzales Jr. was the only shooter.
According to the warrant, Thornton identified Gonzales only as “Pat.” The warrant sates Thornton said “Pat” was the “organizer of the robbery and the only shooter in the case.
In addition to Stallworth and Gonzales Jr., five other suspects have been charged with murder, and an eighth has been charged with accessory after the fact. Florida authorities said Monday they expect more arrests in the case and are still hoping to talk to more persons of interest.
After the testimony in Tuesday’s hearing, Circuit Judge Bert Rice ruled there was enough evidence to hold Stallworth on the charge. Rice has no authority, however, to extradite Stallworth to Florida. Florida officials must contact Gov. Bob Riley to seek his transfer to Escambia County, Fla. That move must take place within the next 24 days, Rice said.
Rice also revoked bond, which had been set at $1 million.
Through most of the hearing, Stallworth sat slumped in his chair or with his head down. More than 20 family members and other supporters were in the courtroom, including Stallworth’s parents.
Stallworth’s mother said, “I love my son. I support him,” to television reporters as she left the courtroom.
Stallworth is a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant assigned to the Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squad at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton, Fla. He is a 1999 graduate of T.R. Miller High School.
The hearing marked the first time any evidence in the case was laid out in court testimony.
Coldiron, who told Hardy he was also in the house at the time of the murders but was did not see the shootings, also said that Stallworth took a small safe from the house and put it in one of the getaway vehicles, a red van. Authorities have said the safe did not contain anything of significant value.
Coldiron told Hardy he had met Stallworth at a practice for the crime.
Hardy said that, according to Coldiron, defendant Leonard Patrick Gonzales Jr. drove the red van to the scene.
Gonzales — whose father is also a suspect — has denied his involvement in court.
Coldiron told Hardy that a rehearsal for the crime had taken place at Leonard Patrick Gonzales Sr.’s residence.
Stallworth attended the practice session, Hardy said.
During the crime itself, Coldiron said he and Stallworth entered the house through different doors, Hardy testified. They were together only for part of the time they were in the house, Hardy said.
Hardy said Coldiron did not say who shot Byrd or Melanie Billings.
Coldiron did not say Stallworth shot the Billingses.
When asked by defense attorney David White whether there was any physical evidence linking Stallworth to the crime, Hardy said he was not aware of any fingerprints or DNA evidence.
Video surveillance cameras at the house captured images of black-clad figures going into the house from two different entrances, but Hardy said the men were masked.
Hardy did not testify what type of gun Stallworth carried into the house. The couple was shot multiple times and 9 mm shell casings were found at the scene, according to documents in the case. Authorities have said suspects also carried long guns into the house.
A search warrant released Monday showed that investigators were looking for a 9 mm pistol and two long guns, one a shotgun, in the red van that was recovered after the murders.
White pointed out that the only evidence against Stallworth was the statement of Coldiron, who has a criminal record.
Coldiron, a plumber who lives in the same neighborhood as Gonzales Sr., has been in prison at least twice, once for “cutting someone,” Hardy testified.
White said Coldiron has the potential to get a harsher sentence because of his record.
Initially, District Attorney Steve Billy argued that no probable cause hearing was necessary in the case because an arrest warrant showed the probable cause. But Rice and White said the hearing was required by statutes.
At the end of the hearing, Rice said Stallworth will be held in the Escambia County jail until the court receives a rendition warrant from Riley’s office — an order complying with a Florida request for extradition.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox