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Man who led 'ninjas' into Florida home guilty of first-degree murder

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Guilty verdict in Billings murder case
  • NEW: A jury finds Leonard Gonzalez Jr. guilty of two counts of first-degree murder
  • NEW: A stoic Gonzalez nodded to the victim's family as he was led from the courtroom
  • Gonzalez was accused of leading a group dressed as ninjas to rob a Florida couple
  • Gonzalez had said he's innocent, telling the judge, "The evidence speaks for itself"

Pensacola, Florida (CNN) -- The man who prosecutors said captained a team of masked men dressed as ninjas as they ambushed a Florida home has been found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder.

A Escambia County jury determined Thursday evening that Leonard Gonzalez Jr. followed through on his plan and fatally shot Byrd and Melanie Billings in the couple's master bedroom, as one of their nine special-needs children looked on. He was also found guilty of armed home-invasion robbery.

During the trial, Gonzalez frequently conversed with his attorneys, shook his head and even smirked. He told Judge Nickolas Geeker that he didn't need to call any witnesses or testify on his own behalf, because "the evidence speaks for itself."

And after the jury came out to ask a question during their four hours of deliberations, he said, "I've already been tried and convicted by the media."

But Gonzalez was stoic just before the verdict came in. Meanwhile, members of the Billings family cried in the courtroom, with Byrd's and Melanie's daughter Ashley Markham hugging prosecutors. Gonzalez nodded to the Billings family -- as he'd done earlier Thursday -- after he was fingerprinted and led away.

The jury of 11 women and one man deliberated for four hours before reaching the verdict. In that time, they requested to see a 14-minute surveillance video, culled from 16 cameras around the Billings house that were set up around the house to watch the nine special-needs children that the couple had adopted and were in the house of the time of the murder.

One video showed a masked man -- who Frederick Thornton, a member of the group, identified as Gonzalez -- shooting Byrd Billings once in each leg. Another video showed a scene from a girl's bedroom as a red van packed with people arrives outside the house. The girl gets up from bed as the masked men enter the house, then hides under the covers pretending to sleep after hearing the commotion nearby. The van was owned by Gonzalez.

Video: Gonzalez: I'll take heat to save family

A camera was not in the master bedroom. But Thornton said that Gonzalez led the Billings' couple into the room. And expert witnesseses showed how Gonzalez shot Byrd Billings once in the head and twice more as he lay face down on the floor, and then shot Melanie Billings through the head and chest.

During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney John Molchan painted an involved picture depicting Gonzalez as the ringleader who hatched the plan, formed the team, outfitted six other men with guns and clothes, then led them as they barged into the Billings' large home in Beulah, Florida.

He said Gonzalez was motivated by "simple greed" -- pointing to testimony from the defendant's wife that the family's business, a karate school, had gone under and they had dwindling means to take care of their six children. Leonard Gonzalez knew Billings, who gave $5,000 to a self-defense charity he started, and he knew he had money, Molchan said.

Gonzalez provided the all-black clothing, boots and guns and briefed the attackers prior to the invasion, according to Molchan. He said that Gonzalez also did "all the talking [and] all the muscling" when the group entered the residence.

"The puzzle pieces all come together, and they prove an ugly story," said Molchan. "There is no doubt that Leonard Patrick Gonzalez is the man who had his finger ... on the trigger."

John Jay Gontarek, one of Gonzalez's attorneys, criticized the state's case as overly reliant on circumstantial evidence and two men, Rakeem Florence and Thornton, who confessed their involvement and named Gonzalez as the leader of the band of masked men and the shooter.

Florence said there was no mention anyone would be killed until he overheard Gonzalez say he was "going to kill somebody" minutes before they went to the house.

Prosecutors called the testimony of the two -- who were age 16 and 19, respectively, when the crime took place -- measured and reliable, and supported by the other evidence in the case. But both Florence and Thornton, who have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for their roles, admitted first lying to family and law enforcement before changing their stories.

"They're hanging their hat on the testimony of those admitted liars," Gontarek said of the prosecution.

DNA tests on the 9 mm pistol and bullet casings that killed the Billings' couple did not conclusively point to Gonzalez, Gontarek pointed out. He said, too, that there was minimal effort to clean the alleged murder weapon.

"We don't have to prove who the killer was," Gontarek said. "No matter how tragic this murder is, if you have one reasonable doubt, then you have a duty to return a verdict of not guilty."

Florence and Thornton testified that Gonzalez said they were after $13 million of money laundered from "the Mexican mafia." A small safe that was stolen and later found in the back yard of one of Gonzalez's friends contained prescription medication, family documents and some jewelry. Two sources familiar with the investigation told CNN that a second safe at the home contained at least $100,000.

In final comments, Molchan reminded the jury of Gonzalez's own words after he first spoke to police, when he reportedly said, "I'm in deep, I'll take the heat."

"The defense attorney labeled [Leonard] Gonzalez as being somewhat goofy," said Molchan. "Folks, he's not goofy. He's a murderer -- a plain, cold-blooded murderer."

The penalty phase in Gonzalez's trial starts Friday morning, Judge Geeker said.

In Session's Jean Casarez and Nancy Leung contributed to this report.