Florida slayings put spotlight on sheriff

By Bill Kaczor
Associated Press

PENSACOLA, Fla. — The public face of the investigation into a wealthy Florida couple's slayings presciently told a newspaper while campaigning for sheriff a year ago that this county of 300,000 "isn't Mayberry anymore."

The husband and wife's killings on Thursday proved Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan's words true, and the investigation has given him more chances to demonstrate his knack for delivering ready-to-publish sound bites.

Morgan told a news conference on Sunday he was anxious to share more details about the case because "it's going to be a humdinger." The next day, he compared the killings of the couple known for adopting children with special needs to the 1959 slayings chronicled by Truman Capote in the book "In Cold Blood."

On Tuesday, after the last three of seven suspects were arrested, he stood in front of the cameras and hugged a sobbing daughter of one of the victims, saying he'd kept a promise made to her the night of the slayings.

"It is my honor today to tell you, Ashley ... we have found them and they are in custody," Morgan told Ashley Markham, one of four adult children from Byrd and Melanie Billings' previous marriages.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said he will ask a grand jury to indict all those arrested on first-degree murder charges in the Billings' shooting deaths. They were killed at a spacious home near Pensacola that they shared with nine children.

Eddins said robbery was the main motive for the crime. A safe was taken, though authorities won't say what was in it. Morgan said there might be more arrests.

Morgan told the CBS "Early Show" on Wednesday that the attackers had trained well in advance.

Morgan said investigators had "verified yesterday that this team, this group of people, had been in training at least 30 days, a month, prior to the execution of it at the Billings' compound."

Morgan also said investigators believe they know who shot the couple but said he could not release that information.

The case has thrust this military town into the spotlight, and its new sheriff hasn't shied away from the glare. He's given reporters ample time to ask questions at daily news conferences, and he appeared two days in a row on morning shows for ABC, CBS and NBC.

The blunt-talking Morgan, who was elected in November, spent 23 years with the Air Force security police before retiring as a major in 1994 at nearby Eglin Air Force Base. He then started a private investigation agency with his wife, Susan, a retired Air Force colonel.

"Oddly enough, I worked the defense side for the last 15 years," Morgan said Tuesday. "In the first part of my military career, of course, I worked the prosecutorial side. So I've got a blend of both."

The square-jawed Morgan has an athletic build and neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair. His crisp, forest green uniform has four gold stars on each side of the collar, adding to his commanding presence.

Morgan, 56, stressed his military experience during the election campaign last year, first unseating an incumbent sheriff in the Republican primary and then a retired sheriff's lieutenant in the general election.

The native of Poplar Bluff, Mo., enlisted after high school. While in the service, he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Southeast Missouri State University and a master's in business administration and management from Webster University near St. Louis.

Morgan said he learned to operate and manage large organizations while in the Air Force.

"I had some unique assignments in my military career where I had budgets far in excess of what I manage at the Escambia County Sheriff's Office and larger numbers of people," Morgan said.

The sheriff's office has 1,057 employee. Morgan said he managed as many as 7,000, including civil service and contract workers, while in the Air Force.

Morgan campaigned as an outsider who was "not tainted by local politics" and could make hard decisions to streamline the department without being swayed by friendships.

As he told the Pensacola News Journal last August, referring to a 1960s TV show about a small-town sheriff, "This isn't Mayberry anymore."

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