Ashley Markham is spreading peanut butter on one of 12 sandwiches when she spies a 10-year-old boy swiping a cookie from the pantry. "Put it back, Ricky," she says without missing a beat. The smell of a dirty diaper in the Beulah, Fla., home makes her crinkle her nose, so she scoops up the youngest of the nine children, steps over two of the six family dogs and ducks into the nursery. "I have to change Emma," she calls out to her husband, Blue, 28, who tries to wrangle the other kids while setting the dinner table.
It's another typically frenzied day for a family that is anything but ordinary. Ashley, 28, is the daughter of Melanie Billings, who was murdered along with her husband, Byrd, in a bizarre commando-style home invasion in July 2009. The Billings, victims of a botched robbery, had been the adoptive parents to all nine special-needs children, some of whom have autism and Down syndrome. Their deaths could have left the children without a caregiver-but Ashley and Blue quickly stepped in. "The minute I knew they would need someone to look after them, I was like, 'I'll do it,'" says Ashley. "These are my brothers and sisters."
So the young couple gave up their relatively carefree lifestyle, moved into the Billings' nine-bedroom home and took over the job of juggling a million chores. Between doctor visits, four loads of laundry a day and countless trips to supermarkets, the high school sweethearts-who wed just two years before the tragedy-find time to attend every hearing in the trials of the people accused of murdering the Billings. On Oct. 28, Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 36, the gang's ringleader, was convicted of first-degree murder and now faces the death penalty; two other men have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and five more suspects are awaiting trial. "We are there to push for justice," says Blue.
The rest of the time they're just trying to stay above water. Every morning they wake up at 5:30 a.m., make breakfast for the children, who range in age from 5 to 12, then take them to a school for mentally and physically handicapped students before going to work (they help run the family-owned car dealership and finance company). "The days are long and rough," says Ashley, who has a babysitter three hours a day. "But I've gotten really good at doing 10 things at once, and Blue's the same way."
Sometimes the hardest job is talking to the children about what happened to their parents. Police say seven armed men dressed as ninjas broke into the home in search of a safe they wrongly believed held millions in cash. When they found Byrd Billings, 66, a prominent used-car dealer, and Melanie, 43, in their bedroom, one of the men fatally shot them several times-while some of the children watched helplessly and others were asleep. "The kids ask me details and want to know why they're gone," says Ashley. "I tell them as much as I think they can handle." The oldest, Adrianna, 12, "asked me, 'Are they ever coming back?'" says Ashley. "I had to say no. That broke my heart."
That the children have special needs makes things even more challenging, though "we're not a house of wheelchairs" says Ashley. Some of the children do things on their own, but others need help. One child has to eat through a tube; two others have behavioral disorders that lead to "kicking and screaming," says Ashley. Her parents left behind some savings, but Ashley says it's not enough-the cost of food and medication alone is nearly $5,000 a month (a trust has been set up for donations at www.seastarsaquatics.org/billings.html). Still, Ashley and Blue are too busy to worry; there are chores to do and, in darker moments, their own grief to handle. "I'll be driving to work and just burst into tears," Ashley says softly. "But then I have to step back and realize I have a job to do, which is raising these kids."