Friday, August 7, 2009

More severe charges sought in slaying of Florida Panhandle couple


PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Prosecutors said Friday they want to upgrade charges to capital murder for two more of the eight suspects in the deaths of a Panhandle couple known for adopting many children with special needs, and investigators questioned another man about the slayings and said there could be more arrests.

Police questioned Gulf Shores, Ala., car dealer and businessman Henry Cabell Tice, 61, after he turned himself in at the Escambia County Sheriff's Office on Thursday night, spokesman Ted Roy said.

Tice was arrested on a warrant for writing $17,341 in bad checks to Worldco Financial Services Inc., an auto financing company owned by Byrd and Melanie Billings, who were killed last month.

Tice posted $5,000 bond and was released Friday. Tice told investigators he had just returned from a business trip to Colombia and was in debt to members of the Mexican Mafia, Roy said.

Tice has not returned phone messages left by The Associated Press at his home.

Investigators have said security cameras from the Billings' home showed the men dressed in "ninja garb" - all black clothing and masks - and that they entered the home, shot and killed the couple and left within four minutes. Nine of the couple's 17 children were home and in other parts of the sprawling estate during the home-invasion. The couple had four biological and 13 adopted children.

Sheriff David Morgan said Thursday that Tice told investigators he had "father and son relationship" with Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., the 35-year-old karate instructor investigators have described as the group's ringleader. Another of the eight suspects arrested in the killings has told investigators that it was Gonzalez who shot and killed the couple.

In court Friday, Frederick Lee Thornton, 19, and Gary Lamont Sumner, 30, made brief appearances as state Attorney Bill Eddins requested their arraignments be delayed one week so that he could take the case to a grand jury. Court proceedings for several other of the men arrested in the case were also delayed Thursday.

Eddins has said he will ask the grand jury to indict the group for capital murder, a move that could allow him to seek the death penalty. Seven men, including a 16-year-old who prosecutors have decided to charge as an adult, had faced second-degree murder charges. Eddins is now asking the grand jury to upgrade the charges.

Under Florida law, only a grand jury can indict a defendant for capital murder. If convicted, the penalty is either death or life in prison.

Also charged as an accomplice in the case is Pamela Long Wiggins, 47, an antique shop owner who had rented a home to Gonzalez. Investigators found a safe from the Billings' home in her backyard. Wiggins' attorney has pleaded not guilty on her behalf.

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