By MELISSA NELSON
Associated Press Writer
Prosecutors will ask a grand jury to indict seven men for first-degree murder in the home-invasion slayings of a wealthy Panhandle Couple, a move that could allow them to seek the death penalty, a state attorney said Thursday.
Judge Linda Nobles delayed court proceedings that had been scheduled Thursday for four of the people charged so far in the deaths of Byrd, 66 and Melanie Billings, 43. The couple were shot to death last month during a break-in at their home west of Pensacola. They were known for adopting 13 children with autism, downs syndrome and other special needs.
State Attorney Bill Eddins said he will present his case to a grand jury, which will convene on Tuesday, and asked the group to appear in court in one week to face new charges depending on the grand jury's decision.
Eddins and Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan have said the investigation into the July 9 home-invasion is continuing and that more arrests are possible.
Eddins said it is too early to say whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty against any of those arrested thus far.
"A decision to seek the death penalty has to be done a very deliberate and methodical way," he said.
Byrd and Melanie Billings' daughter, son-in-law, and other relatives filled the first row of the courtroom Thursday morning. They left the building through a back door without talking to the media.
Among those scheduled to appear for arraignment was karate instructor Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35, who investigators have identified as the ringleader of the group. According to court documents, another suspect has told investigators that Gonzalez was the person who shot and killed the couple.
In addition to the seven male suspects, Pamela Long Wiggins, 47, is charged as an accessory.
Wiggins, an antique shop owner, had rented a home to Gonzalez. Investigators found a safe from the Billings' home in her backyard. Wiggins' attorney entered a not guilty plea on her behalf on Wednesday, but Eddins said the charge against her will likely change.
Gonzalez's father, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, 56, appeared in court with his attorney, Tony Henderson. Henderson entered a not guilty plea for Gonzalez to the four charges he currently faces: two counts of second degree murder and two counts of home invasion with a firearm. Henderson said the elder Gonzalez will return to court in a week to respond to the new charges that will likely be brought after the grand jury meets.
Investigators discovered a red van identified from security cameras at the Billings' home in the elder Gonzalez's yard after the murders.
A fourth suspect, Wayne Thomas Coldiron, 41, also appeared in the courtroom. Coldiron, who faces the same charges as Gonzalez, appeared without his attorney. He looked around the room and smiled at the dozens of onlookers. He complained to the judge about a problem with the water in his jail cell before agreeing to have his arraignment postponed and being led away by deputies.
Investigators have said the men were dressed in "ninja garb," in all black clothing and masks, and that they entered the Billings' 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.