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Fla. man convicted of leading group to rob, kill couple

PENSACOLA, Fla. - A karate instructor was convicted yesterday of leading a group of armed men dressed as ninjas to rob and kill a wealthy Florida couple while their nine special-needs children cowered or slept nearby.

The Pensacola jury deliberated about five hours before finding Patrick Gonzalez Jr. guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of home-invasion robbery. During the four-day trial, prosecutors argued he led the July 9, 2009, attack on Byrd and Melanie Billings.

The 25 family members in the courtroom hugged and some wiped away tears. Gonzalez did not react to the verdict and as deputies fingerprinted him before leading him away, he did not appear to acknowledge the family. Lawyers whisked the family out of a back door without speaking to reporters.

Gonzalez faces a sentence of death or life in prison. Jurors today will decide the sentence.

The robbers that night took a safe from the home that contained nothing of value, but a second safe that wasn't stolen had $164,000 in cash, court records show.

Prosecutor John Molchan told the jury of 11 women and one man in closing arguments that it was Gonzalez who conceived the plan to break into the home.

But defense attorney John Jay Gontarek told the jury the gun used to kill the couple was not lined to Gonzalez by DNA evidence. He said the complicated web of self-serving defendants involved in the home-invasion does not lead back to Gonzalez as the ringleader.

"The Billings deaths are tragic. It would be equally tragic if someone who really was innocent was sent to prison or even executed," he said.

Two men who were 19 and 16 during the 2009 home invasions testified against Gonzalez. Both face life in prison and have entered plea agreements in exchange for their testimony. The men said they entered the home with others but Gonzalez was the triggerman. - AP

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