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Slain Fla. couple laid to rest

Florida Couple Slain
Guests arrive at Liberty church to attend the viewing service for Byrd and Melanie Billings on Thursday, in Pensacola, Fla. On Friday, hundreds of friends and family attended their funeral, where they were recalled as tireless advocates for disabled children.Phil Coale / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

He was a 66-year-old entrepreneur who dabbled in used cars, boats and the adult industry before finally hitting it big. She was a 43-year-old country music lover who fed the homeless and was devoted to her MySpace page.

Together, they adopted 13 children with autism, Down Syndrome and other developmental disabilities and lived in a sprawling home west of Pensacola. And together they were slain there in a well-choreographed invasion captured on surveillance video.

A fuller profile of Byrd and Melanie Billings began to emerge Friday as hundreds of friends and family attended their funeral and recalled them as loving and tireless advocates for disabled children, and for their own four kids.

But interviews and court records also portray Byrd Billings as a former strip club owner-turned used car dealer who was once sentenced to probation for an adoption scam. He frequently crossed paths with "shady characters," according to an ex-wife, but police have offered no evidence linking his past to the murders of Billings and his wife.

This enigmatic portrait is right in line with the case that has captured attention across the country. A week after the fatal burglary in which eight people were arrested — including a 16-year-old and a well-known businesswoman — there remain almost as many questions as answers.

Why would well-practiced thieves target a home with a security camera in every room? Who was Byrd Billings? And what does Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan mean when he says investigators expect motives to emerge beyond simple robbery?

No cash in safe
One key question was addressed Friday when, in a bizarre turn, the family attorney disclosed the contents of a safe the intruders made off with — details investigators had refused to release for days. Crystal Spencer, the attorney and spokeswoman, said it contained "important family documents," children's prescriptions and jewelry with "sentimental value," but did not offer any additional details.

"Hopefully this will put to rest the intense speculation and rumors that are swirling around the Billings family," she said.

That's hardly likely, as much of the couple's background remains shrouded in mystery — including how they made their fortune — and Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan's assertion that the killers' motives involved more than simple robbery remain unexplained.

Here's what is clear so far: Known around Pensacola as "Bud," Byrd Billings spent his early years in Mississippi and Tennessee. He owned a car dealership in Mississippi in the 1980s, and incorporated a boat company in 1976. The corporation was dissolved in the 1980s.

In divorce records from the dissolution of his second marriage, in 1993, Billings reported having a net worth of just $1,400, including total cash assets of $100 and a net monthly income of $1,190. Four months after the divorce, Melanie became his third wife.

At the time of their death, they were living in a $700,000 home — opulent by Pensacola standards — and associates say they employed several people to care for the children. But how they got there from such a humble beginning to their marriage is unclear.

Adoption scam?
Byrd's background also includes a strange criminal case. In 1990, he and his second wife, Cindy Reeve, pleaded nolo contendere — which means they did not admit guilt but agreed to a punishment — to charges they doctored birth records and tried to obtain a newborn for $2,100. They both received two years probation which was later amended to a year.

When reached by The Associated Press, Reeve said she wanted to be left alone and the adoption "got blowed out of proportion."

However, she said Byrd "always dealt with shady characters."

At the time of their divorce, the documents show, Billings worked as a consultant for Back Seat Inc., a holding company for a topless bar, which opened in 1990 and no longer exists. Arety Kapatanis, owner of the Pensacola strip club Arety's Angels, said Billings turned her life around after hiring her there as a waitress.

"Bud Billings was a man of integrity. He was generous," Kapatanis said. "He ran his business in the most professional manner. It could have been a shoe store or a bakery. I mean, this type of business tends to get a really bad rap. People expect shady dealings and they expect all kind of things like that. There was never any of that with Bud."

Billings later opened a used car lot, which according to state business records was registered to Melanie and her daughter, Ashley Markham. The business runs on a worn-out slab, surrounded by pawn shops and bail bond companies. Next-door is the Billings' Worldco Financial Services.

Ted Roy, the sheriff's office spokesman, says investigators do not believe Byrd Billings' current or former business dealings were related to the murders.

'Their lives centered around children'
Melanie, in her second marriage, seemed to thrive helping disabled children.

"Their lives centered around children, their family and each other," said her brother, Ed Brock. "They loved deeply and unconditionally. They embraced the complexity of raising children with special needs and they were their advocates. They gave these children a joyous childhood and a much needed voice."

On her MySpace page, Melanie Billings said she was a "total Internet and ebay JUNKIE" and that her favorite song was "I Cross My Heart," by country music star George Strait. She loved the TV shows CSI, Law & Order and The Sopranos.

She wrote of her love of her family: "My heros (sic) are my children ... They overcome incredible odds each and every second of each and everyday ... And of course ... my hubby ... he is my knight in shining armor."

The MySpace page also showed photos of some of the couple's 17 children (13 adopted together and four biological children from previous marriages); three of the children had died over the years.

A 2005 story in the Pensacola News Journal about the couple said that Melanie, in particular, was inspired to care for disabled children after her daughter Nikki was born in the mid-1980s with cerebral palsy and autism. The paper said that a few days after Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, a toddler named Bailey sneaked into the Billings' bathtub and was scalded by a malfunctioning water heater. He died in a Texas hospital when an air bubble accidentally entered a tube that went into his artery and stopped his heart, the paper said.

'They're very innocent'
Melanie Billings wrote on her MySpace about Bailey, calling him and "angel," and told the Pensacola paper why she enjoyed caring for disabled children.

"They're as close to perfect as perfect can get," she said. "There's such a goodness about them, something so genuine, you know, no ulterior motive. They're very innocent."

Billings' friend Patsy Brown said that Melanie "was very organized with the children to the point of ironing nine sets of clothes every night before she put them into bed and they got onto the bus in the morning."

On Friday, the day of the funeral, a light rain greeted mourners. Two matching gray hearses and four white limousines waited in front of west Pensacola's Liberty Church and about 400 cars filled the parking lot. Mourners drove in past dozens of media, kept in a dirt parking away from the church and instructed by church officials to remain off church property.

A funeral program featured numerous pictures of the couple and their 17 children.

"We'll be watching all of you from the heavens up above," the program read. "So take good care of each other and carry on our love."

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