One moment, they were sleeping peacefully in their Florida home. The next, they were innocent victims of a methodical murder plot.
On July 9, 2009, gunmen broke into Melanie and Byrd "Bud" Billings' home and killed them while they lay in bed. Bud was shot six times, and Melanie took five bullets to the chest, face and head.
Melanie and Bud weren't the only ones at home that night. Nine adopted children with special needs, members of the Billingses' large, loving family, were sleeping nearby.
Ashley Markham, their 27-year-old daughter who lives outside the home, remembers the day vividly. "I called the house about 7:30, and that's when Jacob answered," she says. "Jacob was very distraught."
Then, Jacob, Ashley's 10-year-old adopted brother with Down syndrome, handed the telephone to his autistic sister, Adrianna, who told Ashley their parents were laying on the floor.
Confused and scared, Ashley called 911 while she drove to her parents' house. "I remember pulling up outside the fence, and the yard was taped off," she says. "There were so many police officers, and nobody knew what was going on."
Further investigation led to a chilling discovery. The security cameras Melanie and Bud had installed to watch over their adopted children caught the moments before the murders on tape.
Before July 2009, Melanie and Bud were best known in Pensacola, Florida, as a generous, good-hearted couple who opened their home to children with severe disabilities. Now, their tragic deaths haunt the community and the children they left behind.
Ashley says she and her siblings are getting by day by day and hour by hour. "[The children are] very resilient," she says. "There are issues every day. Somebody has a different issue, different problem, and we just kind of deal with it how we can."
After her parents were found dead, Ashley and her husband of two years, Blue Markham, took over parenting duties for her nine adopted siblings, which fulfills a promise Ashley says she made to her mother years ago.
"She would talk about it to us. 'If something were to happen, make sure my babies are taken care of. Make sure they're all kept together,'" Ashley says. "I told her, 'Well, you never have to worry about that.'"
Ashley and Blue now live in her parents' home and sleep in the same room where they were gunned down.
"When we came back to the house, it was very difficult for either of us to sleep in here," she says. "We changed the comforters out and changed the mattress out, and I just developed a certain sense of peace, almost like her telling me: 'It's okay. You can do this.'"
In just a few months, Ashley and Blue have adapted to their new routines. Ashley wakes up before dawn to care for each child before heading to her full-time job. All nine children require specialized medical care. Emma, the baby of the family, has Down syndrome and must be fed through a feeding tube. Katie and Nicholas take seizure medication, while Ricky takes an anti-psychotic medicine, which helps with his behavioral problems.
When she gets overwhelmed, Ashley draws strength from her mother's memory. "I feel like she's right next to me, pushing me to go on," she says. "I feel like her strength is in me to keep me going, because I know I have to."
The ongoing murder investigation has led to eight arrests, but Ashley is still searching for answers. She says she asks herself every day why someone would want to kill her parents. "They were good people," she says. "They did wonderful things."
Sheriff David Morgan, the man leading the Billingses' murder investigation, says the killers' motive was money. "It was a robbery," he says. "We believe that they garnered some information through business contacts that they thought possibly that, sadly, the Billings family would be a good family to rob because Mr. Billings was a very successful businessman in town."
There is also speculation that the suspects in custody may have connections to the Mexican mafia. "We have not taken anything off the table," Sheriff Morgan says.
One thing Sheriff Morgan says he does know for sure is Melanie and Bud are not, nor will they ever be, the subject of an investigation involving their murders. "[Mr. Billings] had the misfortune, I repeat, the misfortune, of doing some business with some people that were very bad," Sheriff Morgan says.
To date, all eight suspects have pleaded not guilty, but Sheriff Morgan says they have an excellent case against these individuals. "We're also building information on some additional suspects," he says.