Local native tied to Florida crime|Stallworth charged with murder
Published 8:08 pm Wednesday, July 15, 2009
By By Kerry Whipple Bean
Talk around the Escambia County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon focused on one subject: shock at the news that a Brewton native and T.R. Miller graduate has been arrested in connection with a high-profile double murder near Pensacola, Fla.
Donnie Ray Stallworth Jr., 28, of Hurlburt Field in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., waived extradition to Escambia County, Fla., during an afternoon hearing and was being held on $1 million bond in the county jail.
He will be transported to Pensacola within the next 30 days, Circuit Judge Bert Rice said.
Stallworth has been charged with murder in connection with the deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings, a couple well-known in their Beulah, Fla., hometown for their large adopted family.
Authorities in Florida have said the couple was gunned down in their bedroom at around 7 Thursday night, while many of their children — most of whom have special needs — were at home. None of the children was harmed.
Police have said one of the motives in the case appears to be robbery.
Stallworth is a 1999 graduate of T.R. Miller High School and has served in the U.S. Air Force for about 10 years.
Friends of the family who gathered at the courthouse to support the Stallworths said they were shocked by the turn of events.
Escambia County Chief Deputy Mike Lambert said Stallworth’s supervisors at Hurlburt Field said he was “a good man.”
T.R. Miller Principal Donnie Rotch remembered Stallworth from his days at the school and said he was shocked by the charges.
Stallworth is one of seven people now in custody in the Billings case.
The case has garnered national attention and the Escambia County, Fla., sheriff has compared the case to the infamous Clutter murders in Kansas, the basis for Truman Capote’s fact-based novel “In Cold Blood,” about a home invasion and murder.
Other suspects arrested in the case, according to The Associated Press, include:
An eighth person was being sought in connection with the crime, authorities said.
Gonzales Jr. — a former National Guard member — is believed to be the mastermind behind the crime, Escambia County (Fla.) Sheriff David Morgan said, according to AP.
The Pensacola News Journal reported on its Web site Tuesday that the younger Gonzales said his father, Leonard Patrick Gonzales Sr., is mentally ill and has a history of giving false confessions. The son asked to be released without bail but was denied.
Morgan said Stallworth, Thornton, Sumner and the teenaged suspect knew each other from an auto detailing group, AP reported.
Stallworth is a staff sergeant and maintenance mechanic with the 1st Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron based at Hurlburt Field.
Surveillance tapes taken from the Billings home showed five people dressed in black and wearing masks entering the home from both a front and a back entrance.
Authorities have said items were taken from the home that would be consistent with a robbery.