Sunday, August 02, 2009

Murder Suspect Cyberstalks Family

By Anthony Cormier

Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. is charged in the Escambia County slayings. His daughter, ex-wife and former in-laws live in Sarasota.

Once or twice a year, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. would call the Herkel residence in Sarasota and demand to see his daughter.

Usually, Rebecca Herkel would try to placate her former son-in-law, who is now a suspect in the killing of a Pensacola couple last week, explaining that he lost his parental rights and needed to go through the legal system if he wanted visits with the girl.

But in April, Gonzalez took a new route: MySpace, and with it a new level of intensity that eventually amounted to cyberstalking.

Months before he was charged in the murderous home invasion near Pensacola that has shocked the nation -- a crime that led to the slaying of a couple that raised numerous foster children -- Gonzalez started a Web page devoted to the Herkels, who live in northern Sarasota and run Bill's Mobile Home Repair.

Gonzalez used MySpace, the social networking site, to make wild claims about the Herkels, post intimate photographs of the family and write fabricated claims from local public figures that suggested he had a right, and their support, to be in his daughter's life.

Authorities arrested Gonzalez, 35, on Sunday in connection with the slayings of Byrd and Melanie Billings in rural Northwest Florida, who were known for giving generously to schools and adopting children with special needs.

Seven people have been charged in all. Authorities say the group meticulously planned the break-in, wore ninja-style clothing and shot the couple during what appeared to be a robbery.

The murders left the Herkels shaken, wondering whether Gonzalez -- a karate instructor who raised his own family of six boys in Gulf Breeze -- was stalking them through MySpace and whether his violent online outbursts could have led to something worse.
"I don't think I'm qualified to get into his psyche," said Rebecca Herkel, whose daughter married Gonzalez eight years ago and was divorced two years later. "But I know that he is a truly diabolical man, an evil man."

Photos and fabricated testimonials were posted on his MySpace page, appearing to come from Sarasotans such as former Mayor Lou Ann Palmer, and business people including real estate broker Charles Knowles and banker Veronica Brady.

Gonzalez married Katie Herkel while she was away at college in Pensacola, but it was a rocky marriage that ended in 2002, according to court records. Herkel's mother says Gonzalez was supposed to have supervised visits with their daughter, Bella, but he failed to pay child support and did not take required parenting classes.

After his ex-wife won sole custody and moved back to Sarasota, Gonzalez would call the Herkels every few months and lash out at his former in-laws.

But the calls stopped recently, and it appeared that Gonzalez had turned to MySpace to gather information on the family and seek others to take up his custody battle. On the site, he posted the Herkels' home phone number. He wrote about his ex-wife's sister, posting her name, her work phone number and an e-mail address of a supervisor.

About his daughter, Gonzalez claimed: "She was taken from me, against my will several years ago, and I miss her very much. I have made many numerous attempts to be a part of my daughter's life, but they have kept her from me.... for NO GOOD REASON!!!"

Rebecca Herkel says the family called local law enforcement officials but were told that nothing could be done. The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office says that it has no record of meeting with the Herkels about Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez was also making up messages from local business leaders and politicians. He apparently copied their photographs from Web sites and claimed they were his online "friends."

One of his targets was Palmer, the former mayor. Gonzalez fabricated a message from Palmer saying that she would e-mail a lawyer's name and phone number for help. "Please feel free to call my private line once you have spoken with him to let me know how things are looking," the message claimed.

Palmer, reached Tuesday, said her relatives were shocked and scared that her photograph had appeared on the MySpace page. "I don't even use MySpace," she said.

In the last few weeks, the messages took on a more ominous tone.


July 6: "We are getting closer."

July 9: "Making a move for humanity."

Then, on Thursday, several men were captured on a home surveillance system breaking into the Billingses' home, according to authorities.

Officials in Escambia County claim it was a well-planned attack, that two teams entered the front and rear of the home and silently killed the couple. One of the other suspects is Gonzalez's father, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr., who drove the getaway van, authorities said.

"When I saw the newscast last night, I just knew that he was the mastermind," Rebecca Herkel said. "I said, 'Oh, it's him. He is diabolical enough to do that.'"

Herkel said she has not been contacted by law enforcement in relation to the Pensacola killings, and said she has no reason to believe there is any connection between Gonzalez Jr.'s stalking of her family and the Billings murders.


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