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Loose ends remain in Florida couple’s death

A woman charged in the slayings of a wealthy Florida Panhandle couple hid a safe stolen from their home in her backyard, according to an arrest report.
Florida Couple Slain
Guests arrive at Liberty church to attend the viewing service for Byrd and Melanie Billings on Thursday in Pensacola, Fla. The Billings were slain in an apparent robbery attempt.Phil Coale / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A woman charged in the slayings of a wealthy Florida Panhandle couple hid a safe stolen from their home in her backyard, according to an arrest report released Thursday.

Byrd and Melanie Billings, known for adopting 13 special needs children, were shot to death and a safe was taken from their nine-bedroom home west of Pensacola during a precisely executed break-in last week. Six men and a teenager are charged with murder, and the woman, Pamela Long Wiggins, is charged with being an accessory after the fact.

Authorities would not say where they had found the safe or what was in it, but an arrest report says her husband, Hugh Wiggins, told investigators that it had been behind her home in suburban Gulf Breeze.

Long Wiggins was released on $10,000 bond and has not returned numerous phone messages.

At least one of the other suspects told investigators that her red minivan had been left near the Billings home to help the suspects get away. Some suspects said the safe and guns were transferred to the minivan, which was later spotted at an antique store she owns in Gulf Breeze.

The report said information indicated Long Wiggins was in the van with the guns and knew they'd been used during the break-in.

Visitation service
Family and friends gathered Thursday night for a visitation for the Billingses at Liberty Church west of Pensacola. Four men in sunglasses blocked the entrance and told reporters not to talk to people going in and out. One said he was the pastor but would not give his name. A funeral was set for Friday.

Authorities also said Thursday that they had recovered several weapons, at least one of them likely used in the shootings.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said the case was mostly wrapped up.

"In our opinion, this was a home invasion robbery where the people stole a safe," he said. "It was as simple as that as to the motive."

But Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said at a news conference with Eddins that other motives may emerge and there are still people investigators want to talk to.

"We have some people of interest that we're continuing to look at and I can tell you that those are now numerous people," Morgan said.

Surveillance cameras at the Billings home captured footage of masked men — some dressed as ninjas — slipping into front and back doors, and one of the people investigators want to talk to may have been someone who failed to carry out an assignment to disable them.

Morgan said a major hole in the investigation is why the cameras weren't turned off, marring an otherwise perfect crime. The surveillance videos led investigators to a full-size red van — not the red minivan — used as an initial getaway car and eventually to the suspects, a loosely connected group of mostly day laborers who knew each other through a power washing business and an auto detailing operation.

This Thursday July 9, 2009 image made from a video surveillance camera and released by the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, shows an unidentified man dressed in what the county sheriff called "ninja garb" heading towards an unlocked utility door in the back of Byrd and Melanie Billings' home in Beulah, Fla. Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office

"It is a combination of friendships, casual business relationships that brought this group together," Morgan said.

Morgan has said Wiggins is a friend and landlord to 35-year-old Leonard Gonzalez Jr., described as a "pivotal person" in organizing the break-in. Gonzalez, who is charged with murder, proclaimed his innocence in court Tuesday. He and the other six, including a 16-year-old male, are being held without bond on two counts of murder each.

Morgan also confirmed that the Drug Enforcement Administration is assisting with the investigation of the suspects, but he said the agency is not investigating the Billings family.

He said Escambia County officials have also sought help from other federal agencies including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Nine of the couple's adopted children were home during the break-in. Three saw the intruders but were not hurt. The couple also had four children from previous marriages.

The adopted children are together and staying with family members.