July 27, 2009 12:00 PM

They had dedicated their lives to being angels of mercy, adopting 12 kids over the years, many with special needs, and raising them with loving care at their sprawling home near Pensacola, Fla. “I just wanted to give them a better life,” Melanie once told the Pensacola News Journal. But on the night of July 9, Melanie and Byrd Billings became the victims of the worst kind of brutality, when masked intruders entered their home and shot them to death. At the time of the murders, 9 of the couple’s 16 children—Melanie, 43, and Byrd, 66, each had two grown kids of their own from previous marriages—were in the house but were unharmed.

Police quickly arrested seven suspects in the case, identified through an extensive surveillance system that the Billingses had rigged up around their nine-bedroom residence to ensure their kids’ safety. Sheriff David Morgan said the intruders were bent on robbery. But he also hinted at further twists, saying authorities were looking for additional accomplices and that other motives were likely to emerge. As he put it, the case was a “humdinger” that could have been lifted from a Hollywood script.

One thing that was clear was that the Billingses—who had been married 18 years and owned a variety of local businesses, including a finance company—had been remarkably generous with their wealth and affections. Several of the children they adopted suffered from autism or Down syndrome. As for the future of the children, Melanie’s birth daughter Ashley Markham, 26, said in a statement that the family would remain together and that the grown children would continue her parents’ work. “Our mom and dad only had love in their lives,” she said. “They had a calling to adopt and to provide love to children that most did not see as normal…. Mom and Dad will give us the strength to make it through the hard times.”

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