July 27, 2009
It was a chance meeting in the lobby of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department on July 10, the day after the murder of Byrd and Melanie Billings, that Sheriff David Morgan won’t forgot.
He does not use the lobby of the building often; on that day he just happened to be there when Ashley Markham, the Billings’ daughter, was being led inside to talk to investigators.
NorthEscambia.com sat down with Sheriff David Morgan Friday afternoon at his office for an exclusive interview to learn more about what the days since the Billings murders have been like for him personally.
Humdinger. Twinkies. Beanie Babies and Bubblegum
The sheriff that was such a commanding presence with terms like “humdinger,” “beanie babies and bubblegum” on the national television networks, Larry King, Anderson Cooper, Good Morning America — the list just goes on and on — was at a loss for words meeting Ashely Markham in his department’s lobby.
“You just feel so helpless,” Morgan told NorthEscambia.com in an exclusive interview. “There’s really not a lot you can say that can ease the pain, the mourning…the grieving.”
“I did not really know what to say to her,” he said, “other than to say ‘is there anything I can do?’.”
“Find the people that did this,” Morgan said Ashely Markham replied.
Four days later, on July 14, Ashley Markham was at the sheriff’s department for a press conference. She knew that Morgan was about to announce some good news, but that’s all she knew.
The next time Morgan and Markham would see each other, they were on every major television network in the country and many others around the world. She stood by Morgan’s side with her husband Blue, unaware of what the sheriff was about to say.
At the press conference Morgan recounted that lobby meeting, as tears built in Markham’s eyes.
“We have found them, and they are in custody,” Morgan said at that press conference. The sheriff hugged and comforted her, then turned back to his press conference. She put her face into her hands and cried as he announced that seven people were in custody for the murder of her parents.
“That press conference was for them, not for anybody else,” Morgan told NorthEscambia.com.
The Phone Call
It was a short time after the initial deputies were called to the Billings’ home in Beulah. Morgan was at home with his wife Susan; they had just finished dinner. It would be the last ordinary dinner the first term sheriff and his wife would enjoy together for weeks.
The phone rang. Morgan was told about the murders, and about the large number of children in the home.
“My first reaction was to drive out there, because of all of the children,” he said. “It tugs at your heart. But we had a lot of capable, competent people from the sheriff’s department out there. The best thing I could do was ask them what they needed from me and let them do their jobs.”
The Longest Days
Since the murder, the sheriff said he’s been working many 17-18 hour days, but is quick to point out that many of his investigators have pulled longer hours. In fact, he said he’s left his office many times at 1:30 to 3 a.m., his investigators still at work from the day before. The overnights were often spent doing regular sheriff’s department business, like the folder called the “Sheriff’s Signature” folder full of papers that he had to sign daily. He was running on as little as two hours sleep when he would arrive back at the department’s administration building as early as 4 a.m. to do the morning shows like Good Morning America and the Today Show.
“I would walk the circuit of satellite trucks,” he said, “ABC first then all the way down the line to CNN and MSNBC. It was grueling.”
In the beginning, he thought the press conferences were being carried just locally, and he was doing them to update the local community on the case and reassure our area that they were safe — even though killers were on the loose.
“It was my job. It really wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “I’m ultimately responsible, and I felt as sheriff a horrendous need to reassure the community.”
He said working with all of the media, with perhaps the rare exception of a tabloid or two, was pleasurable — and effective.
Thanks to the media, the community’s eyes were on the lookout for that red van believed to have been used in the crimes.
“If I lived another 100 years, I would probably never see that again,” he said of the media’s cooperation during the Billings case. “We agreed on this one thing — capture these folks.”
Some of the media swirled with rumors that several federal agencies had become involved in the case for one reason or another.
Morgan said that he did turn to outside agencies to assist in the investigation, in the interest of time. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI provided assistance early. From crime lab to ballistics testings, it was all about fast turn around, he said. The FBI provided help with fingerprint analysis and video enhancement. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) provided lab testing.
The outside agency services were all things that the Escambia Sheriff’s Department can do in their modern facilities. But with the number of suspects and the large number of items to be processed from the crime scene, Morgan felt early that using those outside agencies would serve them well to get results as fast as possible. He was right.
“It was my job as sheriff to ensure that the process moved along,” he said.
Steal The Moments
The sheriff’s wife Susan attended at least two of the press conferences, rare moments where she was able to see her husband over the past weeks.
“We’ve just had to steal the moments that we can,” the sheriff said. “There’s been no schedule for sleep or meals. There’s been no quality time, no anytime for us.” They did steal time for dinner together one night — at midnight.
Morgan had hoped to get home early this past Friday afternoon so the couple could have dinner together. Our NorthEscambia.com exclusive interview was to be his only interview for the afternoon at 1:30 Friday, but it was bumped to 2:30 so he could meet with the State Attorney’s office on late breaking developments in the case. We noticed him steal a few glances from behind his desk at the clock on the wall by about 3:30.
But when he was done with our interview, it was not going to be time to go home. People Magazine had called and left a message with his secretary while we had waited to go in and see him. They were still waiting for a callback.
We learned at the end of our interview that another person of interest in the case was in the building, and the sheriff was to meet with his investigators as soon as our interview was done.
Dinner would have to wait.
Credit Where Credit Was Due
Morgan frequently credited his investigators, officers and support staff during our interview for their help in the Billings case. But there’s more.
“I prayed to God everyday that He would give us the ability to do our best because so many people depend on us everyday to stay the course and make the right decisions,” Morgan said. “I prayed that God would be good enough to give me the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job.”
In the Old Testament, Job was a God-fearing man that suffers great trial after great trial that leave him without his belongings, his children or his health. Despite the great trials, he remains patient and faithful to God and is finally rewarded by the Lord. Solomon was the wise king of Israel that had to decide to which of two mothers a child belonged. So he ordered a sword to cut the child in half, knowing that the real mother would be willing to give her child up rather than see it die.
“The credit (for the work in the case) needs to be spread around, and it needs to go to Him.”
photos courtesy WEAR TV 3, click to enlarge.
Throughout the years since these horrific murders in Pensacola, thousands of documents, articles, interviews and depositions have been released to the public, but none of them encompass the truth revealed by the facts of the case. Surprisingly, all the exculpatory evidence as to the identity of the 5 men that bombarded the Billings’ compound on that July night, has never been covered in the media.
Sheriff David Morgan, contrary to all guidelines of criminal investigations, dumped boat loads of information about the case into the public domain before the investigation had evaluated such data or even vetted it for truth. This immediately spun into storm of chaos and confusion within the Sheriff’s office, within the investigation and naturally within the media. The most astonishing thing is that there is a statement of an investigator, who is currently in Internal Affairs, that a narrative of what happened to the Billings’ that fateful night was released to the national media with a complete background on 8 people. This was prior to the actual information received by the investigators working on the case or had been established as leads. The narrative released to the press was from the Sheriff’s office and included booking photos and driver’s license photos of people. How could the Sheriff’s office work up a narrative and press package with pictures when the actual investigators had not heard the names of the people being sold to the public as the killers?
Another fun fact is that the beat up red van in the video was found at a weigh station in Alabama, which is consistent with the escape route that deputies theorized. Until someone comes forward to say that van may have been his van. James Hartsfield is concerned his old van sold to Terri Poff was the van in the video. So as deputies follow up that lead and track the van in question to Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr’s home on Palm Court. But “surprise”, there sits another van. One van at the weigh station and now one in the yard of Gonzalez Sr. They are similar vans but there are distinct differences in mirrors and doors. What happens next? Gonzalez Sr’s van is taken into custody because he is acting weird. The weigh station van disappears. Baldwin County deputies who reported the abandoned vehicle say it was never impounded by them. It was assumed Escambia County would take care of it, but in the meantime, the van disappears from the weigh station. “Poof”. No more second van.
Now all this is known to everyone surrounding the investigation within 72 hours of the murder. Yet no one reported any of these things. Rick Outzen, his own words in telephonic interview was on the scene at the Billings’ house, has not reported any of this to the public. He even recalls Ashley Markham screaming in the driveway of the Billings home that night that “He did this” pointing to her brother, Justin Billings, who later tested positive for gunshot residue on his hands and no emotion while talking to deputies moments after the horrific murder of his parents. How does a second van and complete backstory of a crime get past the fact checkers at the Sheriff’s Office? Well, that brings up another point. According to a sworn deposition by Chris Baggett, a deputy involved in the investigation, there was no true head of the investigation. There are at least 6 investigators who are not briefing each other on their own knowledge of the crime while they are each working different angles. There is no logging of who interviewed who and when. There were many interviews with Bill Eddins (State Attorney) and ECSO officials with suspects that were improper because an attorney was requested and that request was ignored as well as numerous interviews that are never recorded. When asked if anyone was in charge of making sure all the statements of the people being interviewed was recorded, there is an answer of “No” by more than one deputy. People were walking in and out of interviews. Chris Baggett had info on the van but he did not have time to brief Lee Tyree who was talking to the suspects. So he didn’t have Tyree’s knowledge from the interview and Tyree didn’t have his knowledge of the van.
With all this chaos, a story suddenly emerges to the national news of what happened. How is that possible when there was so much disorganization? There are pictures of people who aren’t even known to the investigators on television with a story outlining their roles. What kind of Sheriff’s department is running this town?
So many missteps that it would make OJ Simpson’s case look more credible than this. No reporting of facts. Leaking stories that cannot be corroborated. Not even knowing which deputy, official or random citizen had been allowed to talk to the suspects. No honoring of the invocation of counsel. No REPORTING OF THE MADNESS THAT WAS THE SHERIFF’S OFFICE. Yet David Morgan looks nice in his press conference, but the paperwork that was on his desk did not support a word he spoke within the first 5 days of the case. Anybody with a conscience on the fringe of this could see this was a dog and pony show. Yet no one had the guts to say anything against the Sheriff. Deputies were understandably wary of ratting out their boss but what about the media? What about Mr. Outzen? He had all these facts. He even told Damien Cave of the New York Times on August 19th, 2009, he was committed to finding out what happened in this case. The article titled, “Blogger Stirs a City by Suggesting That a Florida Couple’s Murder Was a Contract Killing”, touts Outzen integrity in journalism and his family legacy of fighting against political wrongs done in the civil rights era. Yet he chose to not address a single discrepancy mentioned above to people of Escambia County.
Why is that?
The reason I felt the need to do this blog is simply that people have been hearing me call “foul” and “shenanigans” for 3 years. I have put up supporting document links to support my findings, but yet very seldom were those links clicked on.
The perception is that I have not put in hours of time looking at the data or that I have gone into this looking to prove Pat Gonzalez’s innocence. Neither could be more false. I have thousands of documents that pour over and testimonies, interviews, forensic reports. The truth is the state’s theory of the crime does not hold water. Also, my relationship with Pat Poff prior to this murder was not a good one. I was not a fan of his and I knew exactly who he was when I watched him get railroaded in a 3 day trial. My purpose at the beginning was to get him a fair trial because his trial was a sham from the very first minute.
This blog is going to dissect the case from beginning to end to put what should have happened up against what did happen to show the disparity. This is the mission of this blog.