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NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 8/10/2009 6:42:39 PM ET 2009-08-10T22:42:39
transcript

Relief, finally, along the Gulf Coast, in the Florida panhandle. The promise of sunset brought a respite from the withering humidity, the oppressive sun. It was July 9th, a rural hamlet called Beulah, just past 7 p.m. A breeze kicked in. You could breathe again.  And then, a crime that stole that breath away.  These images were captured by the sophisticated security system mounted outside, and inside, a nine bedroom house.  A home invasion, in progress.

A double murder, about to occur. The victims: a husband and wife. But not any suburban couple.  This was no typical family.

Melanie and Bud Billings were the locally celebrated parents of seventeen children, thirteen of them adopted, many with a variety of disabilities and special needs. Nine of the children, ages four through eleven, were home when the masked intruders, wearing ninja-like garb, arrived in the fading daylight in a van and burst into the Billings residence.

The question: Which grew by the hour, fed and watered on the Internet: Why these people?  Why the Billings? Was it a robbery?  Or was it something else, too? Something hinted at darkly.

It may seem strange even to say it, but what happened as darkness fell on July the 9th is really only a small part of the story.  Before that, for example, what went on behind these woods and down that private road was a beautiful thing.  All these children, whose future in this cruel world had seemed very dark, even hopeless, now had fulltime devoted parents, and a happy tribe of siblings, and a big fine house in which to live, with its toys, pool, a pond, a backyard barbeque and security systems to keep them safe.  Hopeless to happily-ever-after is how this was supposed to go.  And it would have, had it been a fairy tale.

That it was not a fairy tale we all now know. But to understand the gravity of the story it will help to meet this remarkable young woman:

Ashley Markham: Those children were her life.  And she did not want them separated, no matter what it took.  She did not want them to be without their home.

Her name is Ashley Markham. She is talking about her mother and father, Melanie and Bud Billings.

Ashley Markham: You know, I think we're able to honor her wishes and my father's wishes.  And that's what we'll do.

Ashley is 26. She and her husband, Blue, are determined to keep the Billings children together.  And she's also determined to keep her mother's memory alive, gain strength and inspiration from her life, and tell Melanie Billings’ story in depth, for the first time:

Keith Morrison: You're the one who knew her best.

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Ashley Markham: I did.  She was a young mother.

Keith Morrison: When she had you...

Ashley Markham: When she had me. And she had my sister, only two years later.  So she had both of us at a very young age.

Melanie Billings was just 17 when she had Ashley, and just 19 when her second daughter, Nikki, was born.

Ashley Markham: When my sister, she got sick when she was two months old.  She got spinal meningitis.  And so that brought a whole new world of issues for my mom.

Nikki suffered disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy, epilepsy. And Melanie's first marriage ended. 

Ashley Markham: I can remember Nikki being very sick as a child, and in and out of the hospital.  You know, it was always just us three. You know, my mom never faltered in any way taking care of me or Nikki.  She worked two jobs and provided us, you know, with the things that she could.

Keith Morrison: What'd she do?

Ashley Markham:  She waitressed. She worked in car dealerships as the title clerk.

Later, car dealerships would become a family business.  But as a single mom, Melanie struggled to take care of Ashley and Nikki, who was unable to speak.   Melanie's sister, Julie Tittle:

JulieTittle: She was amazing with Nikki. She moved heaven and earth for her.  She was her voice.

Around 1990, when she was 25, Melanie met a man who was a big success in the used car business around Pensacola. Bud Billings was 23 years Melanie's senior. But it didn't seem to matter:

Julie Tittle: When I met him, he was wonderful.  He was very giving and loving and he was amazing to my sister.  His world was my sister.

In fact, there was a special bond between the two:

Ashley Markham: There's a story that my Dad fell in love with my sister Nikki before he fell in love with my mom.  So I think their similar interest in Nikki and being there for her really drew their bond closer."   

Melanie and Bud married in 1993. And when the families blended, dealing with issues involving disabilities and adoption became part of the fabric of their lives. Bud Billings had already adopted two children with no disabilities.  His first adopted child, from a previous marriage died, two years after Bud and Melanie married. 

Ashley Markham: That was the first adoption.  And then Justin was adopted 20 years ago.

Keith Morrison: Did you ever know this was something that would happen, that they would keep adopting kids?

Ashley Markham: I knew that they wanted to adopt.  My mom, after she was 24, she couldn't have children.  She had a surgery that prevented her from ever being able to have children. So once they were married-- they couldn't have children of their own.  So it was always something that they had wanted.

Keith Morrison: Why a special needs child?  Because of Nikki?

Ashley Markham:  I think Nikki gave 'em the inspiration.  They knew that they could care for Nikki.  And I think they knew it was kinda their calling.

And thus their big house became the refuge and salvation of children whose lives had once been marked for pain and deprivation. And of course they could not know, enveloped here in the security of a loving family, that a red van was coming- that authorities say would take it all away.

On the night of July 9th, the Pensacola area was rocked. A home invasion-double murder at the home of a much-admired family. Now, of course, much of the city has been rooting around in the history of that family that Melanie and bud billings put together.  Searching for a clue - anything - to explain what happened to them.

There are certain well-established facts:  Bud Billings owned several area businesses, then he married Melanie, and the two of them devoted much of their attention to their new blended family, which included an adopted son and a daughter with special needs. Six kids - more than enough for most people.  But they wanted more.

Their daughter, Ashley:

Ashley Markham: They knew that they could take care of a child with special needs, and that a child with special needs would fulfill them. And this baby was born for them.

Keith Morrison: And how long before the next one came along?

Ashley Markham: It was within a year. And he was the first baby with Downs Syndrome.

His name was Bailey. And over the next few years, a new special needs child seemed to arrive with each turn of the calendar. Babies with fetal alcohol syndrome, babies from drug addicted mothers, children with autism.  Melanie's sister, Julie Tittle:

Keith Morrison: Did you get to meet them all, one by one, as they came along?

Julie Tittle: I did, yes. And she would always call us and say, "I'm getting a new baby.  I'm getting a new little one." I'm like, "Another?!" (laughter)

And before each placement, the Billings had to undergo rigorous home placement studies. Ashley Markham's spokeswoman attorney Crystal Spencer:

Crystal Spencer: They look at your criminal history your background, your financial stability, your ability to care for the child.  They look at your suitability psychologically, socially, medically.

In 2004, Pensacola was devastated by Hurricane Ivan. And then... It was just a few days later. Three-year-old Bailey sneaked into a bathtub. And because of a damaged water heater, he was scalded. They rushed him to a hospital where Bailey died - complications from a tube inserted in his artery.  Melanie Billings was devastated.  And the family dynamic changed:

AshleyMarkham:I planned on going into Special Ed teaching...

Keith Morrison: Imagine that!

Ashley Markham: Yeah. And I had kinda put career plans on hold and started helping my dad more at the business.  He wasn't able to be there as much.  He was there for the family.

By the end of 2005, the family was locally famous. It was Christmas Day, when The Pensacola News Journal ran its big spread on the billings. Melanie told the paper she and Bud savor every moment: "You never know when you won't have this time." Gheir houseful of special needs children was everything to them, they said.

Ashley Markham: They didn't see it as there's something wrong with those children. They saw it as, those were their perfect children and that it was everyday life to them.

Later, the Billings were featured on WEAR-TV's local news.

Bud Billings:  "We don't expect miracles.  And,  you know, so we're happy, ecstatic."

Friends found it hard to believe how calm and organized life was at the Billings.' or how hard Melanie and Bud had to work to make it that way:

Robbi Jones: Bud and Melanie were so strong. They worked from 4:00, 5:00 in the morning till 10:00, 11:00 at night.  You know, gettin' up with the kids, and going to the doctors’ appointments, and just everyday routine."

Robbi Jones not only knew the family well; she and her partner James Samuels were essentially adopted by the Billings, too. Robbi and James were strangers in town and down on their luck when they met Bud Billings --- bought a car from him.

Later, Robbi and James lost their home to foreclosure:

Robbi Jones: And we really didn't have time. And he said, you know what? I'm gonna bring you out to where I live at. He said,"Y'all are gonna live with me."

Bud fixed up a trailer on his property, Robbi and James moved in. Bud was like that, said his friends, would give a stranger the shirt off his own back.  But when it came to business?

Ashley Markham: Not that he had two sides, he just could be....

Keith Morrison: He could be a tough businessman.

Ashley Markham: He could be a very tough businessman. It was his business, and he wasn't going to let people get the best of him.   Business was business.

And those businesses did very well indeed. When Bud ran them, they included a used car lot, at the time called Purshu Auto Sales, and a finance company called Worldco. But success at the family business didn't mean much eventually to Melanie. A year ago, she suffered another devastating loss.  Her second-born daughter, Nikki, who had cerebral palsy, died of a stroke.

Ashley Markham: Every day, the first thing she did in the morning was take care of Nikki.  The last thing she did at night was take care of Nikki. So when that stopped, she explained to me that she felt like she had lost herself.

She kept going, though.  She had to.  There were all those others who needed her. So she suffered silently, unaware that the uninvited visitors were even then assembling, preparing - on the way.

Around the Pensacola area in recent years, people heard about Melanie and Bud Billings and their big family.  Kathryn Colbert and her husband have lived in the same house here for nearly sixty years. She reads the paper every day, remembers seeing the piece in the Pensacola News Journal:

Kathryn Colbert: Which was very interesting. Because they were telling about the children that they adopt and take care of. And I thought that was wonderful.

So did others.  Yet the Billings didn't really want any special attention, didn't want outsiders intruding on their children's little world. In fact, in what seemed a strange twist, Bud Billings tried to copyright the very names of his special needs kids.  Ashley Markham's spokeswoman, Attorney Crystal Spencer:

Crystal Spencer: Bud believed that rightfully or wrongly, that by copyrighting their names, it would provide a level of privacy for the family. And Bud and Melanie wanted to protect these children. They wanted to be their voice.

Whatever privacy this family had, though, was about to be shattered. Strangely, just the day before the murders, someone entered the billings property without permission. In the afternoon, an eyewitness has told Dateline, there was an un-invited visitor at the Billings'. He was peering in a window. Bud saw him then from across the property; ran over and accosted him.  The witness said the visitor asked if Bud wanted the house pressure-washed.  Bud said no.  The man left.

Melanie and Bud Billings woke up the morning of Thursday, July 9th, at their big house in the woods. Later, Ashley was driving along a nearby highway, and for the fourth time that day called her mother.

Keith Morrison: You think back on that conversation.  Now you'll never forget it, right?

Ashley Markham: Never forget it.

Keith Morrison: How did you ring off?  What'd you say to each other?

Ashley Markham: We always told each other we loved each other when we got off the phone.  There wasn't a time that she didn't tell me she loved me.

Now it was evening, Thursday, July 9th, still light.  James Samuels was riding home from work, heading down this road to the Billings’ place and his own little trailer at the back of the property.  That's when the police cars went rushing by, hell-bent for someplace. James pulled out his cell phone, called Robbi at home in the trailer.

James Samuels: And told her, said, "Must've been a bad accident, because I see four police cars." 

James rushed to the house. When he arrived there was chaos. Police were carrying the Billings’ children out of their home. Robbi wanted to make sure they were okay.

Robbi Jones: As they were bringing the children out, I ran up and would grab a child and run back to the driveway and hand the child off.

Keith Morrison: And then run back and get another one?

Robbi Jones: Uh-huh.

Mercifully, the children were unharmed - at least, physically. Bud and Melanie, however, were dead. And Bud's video system recorded most of what happened, though the sheriff's department has only released these images so far. Wearing ninja costumes, three exited a van, entered the front door.   One stayed with the vehicle.  Two more came out of the woods, entering another door.  Still another stayed behind in an SUV, not seen on camera. Five intruders in total stormed into the Billings’ home.  

Melanie and Bud were in the living room, dragged into their bedroom, one of the men, according to authorities, shot them multiple times. Nine-millimeter shell casings littered the floor.

The attackers then stole a safe from the bedroom.  It was all pulled off with military precision.  The attackers were in the house less than five minutes; on the property less than 10. The children, who had just been put to bed, were awakened by the sounds of the gunshots.  One child ran to a neighbor's, who  called 911. And the security cameras caught the police arriving soon after that call was made. Within an hour, as the Escambia County Sheriff's Department tried to make sense of the senseless, the media descended.

Reporter Mike Rush of NBC affiliate WPMI-TV first thought this was a typical home invasion:

Mike Rush: So we get out there and-- and the wind just starts to change. This is a well-known, wealthy couple.  Known for adopting children. Number one.And then you find out that this thing was caught on tape.  How often is a murder caught on tape?  And how many people have such an extensive home security system in their house to begin with to where it could be caught on tape? 

It was night now.  Black, frightening night.  And the questions had just begun.

The Billings murder case set off a firestorm of media attention.  And speculation. Why the Billings? Why would men dressed as ninja fighters invade the home of this family with so many special-needs children - and kill the parents?  In daylight, no less. Was it robbery?  Or was it something else? The area's chief law enforcement officer seemed to promise that the answers would be big. Really big.

Sheriff David Morgan: We are very anxious to share this story and the nation, if you will. It's going to be a humdinger, I'll tell you that.

At the center of the media fire storm, the sheriff of Escambia County, Florida, David Morgan:

Sheriff David Morgan: As most facts became known, the number of people involved in the murder, the special needs children, it caught fire internationally.  Because we've received phone calls from Germany and France, I mean, all over the world, about this case.

Behind the scenes, Sheriff Morgan and the department moved fast to catch the suspected killers.  And he did catch a few good breaks:

Sheriff David Morgan: We had a tremendous break with the fairly sophisticated video system that the family had in place.

The intruders' faces were covered. But their vehicle was a red, older model van.  Stuck out like a sore thumb:

Sheriff David Morgan: We determined quickly from call-ins who the van was sold to."

That's because several tipsters contacted authorities. They'd seen the pictures.  One of them, a very observant Kathryn Colbert, culdn't help but notice. Miss Kathryn, as she's known  - you met her earlier - has lived in her Pensacola neighborhood for nearly 60 years, and likes to keep an eye on things.  And she was certain she had seen that van before.

Kathryn Colbert: And I said, this looks exactly like the van that's been over in that yard for about a week.  And you know, I had, excuse my language, but I had a gut feeling, you know, that that was it.

And, excuse my language, her "gut feeling" was right-on. The sheriff said the van in the video was the same one parked at the home of Miss Kathryn's neighbor, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Sr.  Age 56. Had a pressure-washing business.  Could he have been the same man who visited the Billings house the day before the murder?  To Miss Kathryn, and others, he seemed a bit of a ne'er do-well.

Kathryn Colbert: I know that he had a real drinking problem.  Which was his business, you know.

Keith Morrison: Drink lots of beer?

Kathryn Colbert: And then sometimes he would get on, try to get on his bicycle and fall and stuff, you know.

Once Gonzalez, Sr. was picked up, it seemed to open the flood gates. His son, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr. was arrested.  Authorities said Jr. appeared to be the ringleader. And then five more suspects were picked up in quick succession, including an air force sergeant, and a sixteen-year-old. All are charged with two open counts of murder.  Of the group, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr., was the best known around town.  He ran a self-defense group called "Project Fight Back" - even won a coveted civilian service award.  Reporter Mike Rush of WPMI-TV:

Mike Rush: But he had a criminal record.  He had spoken about his criminal record.  And kind of touted the fact because he had thought that way at one point and turned himself around, that he was really the guy to be teaching that kind of thing."

But back up a minute. Miss Kathryn reported that the red van had been hanging around for a week or more. And sure enough, law enforcement officials said the suspects had been getting together and training for the crime for weeks.  This surveillance photo shows Gonzalez, Jr., with a child, and two other suspects, entering a Walmart where they bought materials allegedly used in the murders.

Mike Rush: And we're hearing  aside from doing training at different locations for this exercise, that they had been casing the place for a while.  A very disconcerting fact to the family when they found out this.

Two of the suspects, Leonard Gonzalez, Sr., and Wayne Coldiron, have entered not guilty pleas.  The other men, and the minor, are expected to enter pleas at upcoming arraignments.  On July 14th, five days after the murders, the sheriff told Ashley Markham it appeared they had caught all the suspects.

But the sheriff also said there could be more accomplices. And the very next day, he announced another person of interest. Pamela Long-Wiggins, a realtor and local businesswoman. She was located on a yacht at an Alabama dock within 30 minutes.  She was charged as an accessory after the fact, and is out on bail. She has entered a not guilty plea.

Turns out, according to the sheriff, that others arrested in the killings rendezvoused that night at a property Long-Wiggins owns in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and at her home.

Oh, and it turns out that authorities say the safe, stolen from the Billings' house, though it contained nothing of any significant value --- was found buried in Long-Wiggins’ backyard.

All of which forced some nagging questions, none of which seemed to have satisfactory answers.  Officially, at least the police were swaying this was a simple home invasion robbery.

But if that were the case, why were so many people involved, for so little money? And all those vulnerable children in the house?  Why all the training, the preparation, the apparent accomplices?  How did all these people even come together?

Was there a second undisclosed safe in the house with lots of money in it, or was this something else altogether? Was this possibly a hit?

The sheriff could knock down the spiraling speculations. He could, but he doesn't.  Not quite.

Keith Morrison: What can you tell me-- about your suspects?

Sheriff: Gosh, a hodgepodge-- mix of people.  Day laborers, business owners-- martial artists-- realtors, (laugh) I mean, pick one.  It's almost like, you know, butcher, baker, and candlestick maker-- in this group of folks.  And part of the interest, I believe, in the story is that, how did this desperate group of people coalesce into committing this crime?

Keith Morrison: Sure, must've been something behind it, then?

Sheriff: Yes, sir.  You bet, you bet. They agreed to-- be involved together in the home invasion robbery, how about that?

Keith Morrison: Because they believed there was something of great value in that house, which they could take?

Sheriff: That's-- that's one theory out there.

Keith Morrison: Or because the home invasion robbery was intended to cover up the rubbing out of somebody's enemy?

Sheriff: That's a theory that's out there.

Keith Morrison: Can't you put any of it to rest, to bed?

Sheriff: Not at this time, sir.

Keith Morrison: There's-- if you-- forgive my using a rather common expression, but is this, in-- in a sense, covering your butt?  Just in case one of these wild theories turns out to be true--

Sheriff: No-- oh no, sir.  Not in the least.  I would tell-- the public and the media-- to stand by.  You will not be disappointed.

On July 17th, eight days after the murder, they buried Bud and Melanie Billings. The funeral was held in there, beyond the crowd of the mourners and the still shocked and the ever curious. A private service for family, which laid the Billings to rest, but not the ever-growing list of questions. The first, from their daughter, Ashley Markham:

AshleyMarkham: I ask every day, "Why our family?"  I don't think I'll ever be able to explain it. And I may never know the answer."

What investigators do allege is that a disparate group of seven men took part in the attack.  According to the sheriff, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr., fired the killing shots. The group allegedly took a safe, which contained nothing of great value, the sheriff say was found buried in the backyard of Pamela Long-Wiggins.

She's just one more of the odd cast of characters.  Owns a building that houses an antique mall.  Was a realtor. An investor. And, oh yes. A suspected bigamist.  She's married to a man named Wiggins. But also, it turns out to this man: James Malden, still Pamela's legal husband.  Malden went to the authorities with proof, including the marriage certificate. She was arrested on bigamy charges.

Keith Morrison: So, you are current husband number one.

James Malden: Yes, sir.

Keith Morrison: And there is a current husband number two. She may have more.

James Malden: I-- could be.  If she's got-- done this, and risked this bein' found out, there's no tellin' what she's done.  Somebody better start doin' some checkin' on that lady.

Oh, somebody is checking, all right.  That would be the sheriff.  But mostly about crimes much bigger than bigamy.

Mike Rush: The main question-- everybody is asking in the community is why?  Why would they target this family in such a concerted effort? Why train 30 days in advance?  Why do all this just to steal a safe that authorities say had nothing in it?  No one-- nobody buys that in the community.

It's a charming place, in its way, Pensacola.  With its filigreed ironwork, its unique pedigree, oldest European settlement in the continental United States. There's a sweetness about the place and its unaffected and friendly people. And then this evil thing. Not a word you throw about lightly, evil. That's what it was, out slithered this slippery, twisted puzzle.  A many-headed hydra, is what the sheriff called it.

Sheriff David Morgan: You cut the head off, its spouts two.  And that's what occurred throughout this case.

And throughout this case, area residents said, the heads of the hydra seemed to sprout not just from the unholy alliance of alleged killers. But, perhaps at least, from the activities of victim Bud Billings. One of the first places investigators looked was the Billings' background, and business associations.  Who might want them dead? 

Mike Rush: Everybody's talking about it.  Everybody has a theory.

At a Pensacola gentleman's club whose owner used to work for Bud, there's a sign that pays tribute to the Billings. It turns out two decades ago, Bud was also part owner of a strip club, though the club and his connections to the business are long gone..

MikeRush: Now, none of that in and of itself is illegal. But what the community is saying is that this has to be a concerted effort.  And everyone is figuring that it's got to have something to do with Mr. Billings' business interests.

Keith Morrison: May have had enemies...

Mike Rush: You might make some enemies.

Enemies? Maybe. But Ashley says her father was an honest and fair man, nothing in his business dealings was illegal or unsavory.  In fact, in recent years, bud turned over his used car lots and financing company to Ashley and her husband.

Ashley Markham: The business dealings. Everything is legit. Those accusations just astonish me. If they were doing anything wrong, we'd kinda have a knowledge of it.  I believe everybody has a past.  I have a past. I'm sure, you have a past.

In fact, Bud Billings did retire from day to day operations, the better to care for his big family.  But investigative journalist Rick Outzen, publisher of the Pensacola Independent News, who's broken several exclusives in this case, says Bud kept a hand in auto sales.

Rick Outzen: He actually made his money at this point over the last few years financing used car lots. He would finance the inventory, all the cars they had on the lot.  Then he would handle all the owner financing on the lot.

Outzen has been reporting for weeks the murders were a contract hit, and stem from bad blood in Bud Billings' used car finance deals:

Rick Outzen: What we are seeing is that there's a relationship, that this hit is tied to people owing Billings money and either not wanting to pay it anymore, or unable to pay it anymore.

Could it be?  The prosecutor in the case, State Attorney Bill Eddins:

Bill Eddins: It's always been my position that this was primarily a home invasion robbery, and that that was a primary motive. However, as I indicated before, our office will review and examine and consider all other possibilities.

Ashley says her dad was simply a consultant to the businesses, which she now runs.  But maybe, hidden somewhere in that stew of Carlot financing numbers, Outzen and others believe lies a clue, a name, perhaps,  that may finally solve the puzzle behind the murder of these devoted parents. And within an hour of the murders, one name has continually come up.  That of Henry "Cab" Tice.

Keith Morrison: Does the name, Tice, mean anything to you?

Rick Outzen: It does.

Keith Morrison: Who is he?

Rick Outzen: Henry Cabel Tice or Cab Tice is a well known wholesaler and retailer of used cars in this market. He bought a dealership from Bud Billings. We know that Patrick Gonzalez, Jr., who's the alleged shooter of Bud and Melanie Billings, worked for Cab Tice right around '99, 2000.

Tice's connections to Gonzalez, Jr., and Bud Billings began the suspicions. And they grew. He was arrested Thursday night: grand theft.  Named a person of interest in the Billings murders.   Now, he's talking to us.

Since the murders of Bud and Melanie Billings, the questions haven't stopped: Why the Billings? Who might have wanted them dead? Consider the information now bubbling to the surface:

KeithMorrison: Sources close to the investigation have told Dateline that back on the night of the murders there was a second safe in the Billings house, which possibly contained large amounts of cash. And the robbers took the wrong safe.  So ...was it a simple botched robbery attempt that turned into murder?"} 

Sheriff David Morgan has always hinted there'd be more, much more, to this investigation.  And Thursday night, he announced still another person of interest in the billings murders.

Sheriff David Morgan: Tonight at the Escambia County Sheriff's office interviewed Mr. Henry Cab Tice in relation to the ongoing Bud and Melanie Billings and their murder.

Henry "Cab" Tice. He was a business associate of Bud Billings.  And a close friend, a father figure, to alleged shooter Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr. More than two weeks ago, we found Cab Tice at this used car dealership. He promised an interview. Then, he suddenly left town. In an e-mail he wrote, "My lawyer told me we would decide our course of action next week but he advised that i leave. I will get in touch with you when I return."

We hadn't heard back.  But we traced that e-mail to an internet connection in South America...in Colombia, to be specific. By then, he was quickly becoming famous. The Pensacola rumor circuit buzzed with whispers suggesting that Tice may have been somehow involved.

His name turned up in blogs, then on local TV, a national wire service mentioned him, even Newsweek Magazine. And then, this past Thursday, there he was –surprise! Tice, of his own accord, returned.

He was arrested, questioned for three hours. But, charged with grand theft, for allegedly writing $17,000 in bad checks to Worldco, the Billings' finance company. But then, released on $5,000 bail. But a bigger surprise.  He kept his promise to sit down with us for his first public comment about the murders.

Cab Tice: I'm innocent.  I haven't done anything.

He didn't have to do this, but volunteered to answer any and all questions.To fight back:

Keith Morrison: The name Cab Tice keeps coming up, that you're the guy who somehow is behind all of this.

Cab Tice: I think it's guilt by association in that I knew Bud Billings well.  And I knew Pat Gonzales well.

In fact, Tice says the last person he'd want to see dead was Melanie Billings.

Cab Tice: The first time I ever met Melanie, I met Mother Theresa because she had the same spirit.  She had everything.  She was wonderful.  I loved her.

Bud and I were friends for years until our business relationship fell apart, and our friendship fell apart.

And the animosity between the two became well known.  In fact, investigators sought out Tice the very night of the murders, and Tice told them it must have been a robbery:

Cab Tice: Bud told all of his associates that he had more cash than he could ever spend in a lifetime.  It was well known in Pensacola--

Keith Morrison: He told you this?

Cab Tice: He told me.  He told every business associate he had.

Keith Morrison: Where'd he keep it?

Cab Tice: Well, we all assumed that when he built his 7,500 square foot house, he kept it there. And they went in to kill any witnesses that could testify against them or witness against them.

Tice says alleged triggerman Gonzalez, Jr., also knew Bud Billings might have cash around because Gonzalez asked Bud for a $7,000 loan:

Cab Tice: For his martial arts studio.

Keith Morrison: Now, Bud's daughter says no such loan occurred.

Cab Tice: The-- the reason that-- Ashley doesn't know because there was-- wasn't a check written.  it was a cash loan.  It was paid out of his briefcase, and so Ashley can't find it.

Keith Morrison: The briefcase full of money, which Patrick woulda known about, also.

Cab Tice: Yes, sir.

Keith Morrison: How much money did he carry around in cash?

Cab Tice: Bud normally carried $20,000 in cash in his briefcase.

Cash. Billings had lots of money, in fact. He financed Tice's used car lot. But it failed.  When Tice bounced checks to Bud, who complained to the sheriff.  And then Tice sent a letter to the feds.

Keith Morrison: You claim he was cheating the IRS?

Cab Tice: Yes sir. 

Ashley Markham says she's heard nothing about any I.R.S. investigation into her father's affairs.

Tice admits his troubles with billings left him in such bad straits that he ended up borrowing $20,000 - unwittingly, he says - from the Mexican mafia.  That's led to speculation that the mob was involved in Billings's murder.

Keith Morrison: Do you believe the Mexican Mafia was in on the killing?

Cab Tice: No, sir. The investigators asked me if I thought Bud Billings had dealings with the Mexican mafia. Bud Billings would never borrow money from the Mexican mafia.  

Then, there's Tice's relationship - a “father-son thing” he calls it -  with the alleged triggerman, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr. Tice admits Gonzales came to see him the very afternoon of the murders. He admits he phoned Gonzales right about the time the murders were going down.

Keith Morrison: And you phoned him 7:15 that evening.

Cab Tice: Yes, sir.                            

Keith Morrison: Do you see why that might seem suspicious?

Cab Tice: The reason I called Patrick was I'm computer illiterate.  Patrick has always helped me in computer things.         

In fact, says Tice, he now realizes that when Gonzales tried to borrow a van from him before the murders.

Keith Morrison: Was he setting you up?

Cab Tice: I think when he came to the lot he was trying to get a van from me to set me up.

A setup? Tice says the van would have tied him to the murder.  Was that the plan?  Who knows?

Cab Tice: I would never be a part of anything that would be so horrible as this.  I would never want Bud Billings killed, and I would never want Melanie killed, and I would never want those children to experience and see what they experienced and saw that night.  No sir, I am innocent of these charges. Do you not think that I know the first person, because Bud and I were estranged in business relationship-- the first person the police are gonna come is me, which they did, that night.  So, I have no motive.  I wish Bud Billings was alive today.  I wish Melanie was alive today. I wish my family was not goin' through what their goin' through right now.  (sniffle) I don't wanna do this anymore.  (sniffle)

Did Bud and Melanie die in a murder for hire? Or a straight home invasion robbery? Whatever the answer, Ashley Markham, at least, knows what she must be: to nine special needs children their one and only - for a lifetime - mother. Good thing, says Ashley, that her own mother is - somehow - still here.

Keith Morrison: You talk about your mother being calm and reassuring.

Ashley Markham: She's with me. I really feel like she's there and she's telling me, "You have to get your stuff done.  You've got to take care of these children.  You've got to be strong for them.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

Video: From big sister to caretaker

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