IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fuller portrait of slain Fla. couple emerges

When the attorney for a slain Florida couple's family disclosed the contents of a safe stolen from their home, she said she wanted to put to rest intense speculation and rumors.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the attorney for a slain Florida couple's family disclosed the contents of a safe stolen from their home, she said she wanted to put to rest intense speculation and rumors.

That's hardly likely. More than a week after Byrd and Melanie Billings were shot to death in their home west of Pensacola, their background is still shrouded in mystery.

He was a 66-year-old entrepreneur who dabbled in used cars, boats and the adult entertainment industry. 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.

They were mourned Friday by hundreds of friends and family in a funeral closed to the media.

A week after the fatal burglary in which eight people were arrested — including a teenager, an Air Force Sergeant and an antique mall owner — 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?

'Shady characters'
Interviews and court records 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 killings.

One key question was addressed Friday when family attorney Crystal Spencer disclosed the contents of the safe — documents, childrens' prescriptions and jewelry with "sentimental value."

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

Morgan, who has called the case a "humdinger," confirmed the contents of the safe found buried in a suspect's backyard with bricks piled on top. He said the documents inside included adoption papers and birth certificates but would not say if the killers expected to find other items.

Morgan said his department is still in the midst of a complex investigation that he likened to a chess match.

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 end of his second marriage, in 1993, Billings reported 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.

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 is unclear.

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.

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."

'Carry on our love'
At the time of their divorce, the documents show, Billings was a consultant for Back Seat Inc., a holding company for a topless bar, which opened in 1990 and no longer exists. He had owned the company at one time. Arety Kapatanis, owner of the Pensacola strip club Arety's Angels, said Billings hired her as a waitress.

"Bud Billings was a man of integrity. He was generous," Kapatanis said. "He ran his business in the most professional manner."

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

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."

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 had died over the years.

On Friday, a funeral program for the Billings 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."