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.”
“I was oblivious to all that,” he said of the worldwide television coverage of the press conferences he was doing in the days early after the murders. “We were just soldiering on.”
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.
Susan has, like any good wife, been his biggest critic. “You speak too fast, looked the wrong way, stop it with all the metaphors; she’s been very supportive.”
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.