By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Within a week, in fact, investigators would identify the murderer--a former high-school football standout from La Pryor, Texas--and link him to his cousin, who led them to a bookie, who happened to be a golfing buddy of Allen Blackthorne. Eventually, FBI agents, Texas Rangers, and other investigators would invade the Blackthorne mansion, seizing legal documents and family snapshots, even photographing a cache of sex toys. Network news shows would come with cameras, and a New York publishing firm would contract true-crime author Ann Rule to chronicle the case of high-priced stalking and domestic revenge.
But weeks multiplied into months and proof continued to lag behind suspicion. The year ended; so did 1998, followed by 1999. Meanwhile, as investigators labored to prove what many already believed, Blackthorne devoted himself to his golf game and granted interviews to reporters.
Over and over, he denied the seemingly obvious implications. The killer, like his accomplices, had never met Sheila. But they knew, or knew of, Blackthorne from the golf courses where they worked and played. And his name was on their lips when they spoke to investigators and testified at the trial that eventually turned Blackthorne's life into a museum of cruel misdeeds. Even the prosecutor was linked to Blackthorne by their long-extinct loves for the same woman. Everything, it seemed, pointed to the businessman--despite his unshakable alibi.
Maureen claimed she domesticated her husband, training him to come home for dinner and to remember anniversaries. Indeed, Blackthorne, after an early round of golf, returned home that day with roses and a jewelry box. At dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House, the couple's first night out since the birth of their second son, Jacob, almost two months earlier, they bumped into friends who confirmed a rumor Maureen had heard earlier that day: Sheila had been slain.
At home the Blackthornes tuned to the news and braced themselves.
"I will never forget it," Maureen would later recall. "In our living room, sitting on the couch, I looked at Allen and said, 'Time to get a lawyer.'
"...Everything was just, 'Boom!'"
In the following days, Allen and Maureen Blackthorne watched newscasts at noon, 5 p.m., and 6 p.m., flipping among networks. They had televisions going simultaneously in the family room and the kids' playroom. In time, Blackthorne would seem cool in the spotlight, with a travel mug in one hand and a smile for the cameras. He had been in trouble and recovered, even triumphed.
Allen Blackthorne was born in Eugene, Oregon, to a young single mother, who, as he claimed and relatives did not dispute, had a vicious temper--once clubbing her boy with a 2-by-4 when he left a tricycle in the car. He said she broke his cheekbone and ribs, knocked out teeth, and once doused him with gasoline and tried to set him aflame before he ran away.
His life was rarely serene, in fact. In 1983, Blackthorne had been charged by Oregon authorities with leaving the scene of a fatal accident after his car had collided with a motorcyclist. A jury deadlocked, and the state dropped the charges. He pleaded no contest to assaulting Sheila in 1987. Two years later, he was sentenced to two years of probation for an aggravated theft charge related to bad checks amounting to $27,000. During his 1988 divorce from Sheila, a court-appointed psychologist heard Blackthorne tell his life story and concluded in a report to the judge:
"The word 'challenging' appears to personify this individual, who may view his life in terms of overcoming obstacles and challenges, even if he has to create them artificially."
But by 1997, almost a decade later, Blackthorne's life seemed sedate. Having made his fortune by co-founding a company that marketed electric stimulators for sore muscles, he held a large share of the Washington-based firm but withdrew from its management to be near Maureen, their son Brandon, and later, Jacob.
Any challenges seemed confined to golf courses at San Antonio's Oak Hills Country Club, where Blackthorne regularly played in a group that included a doctor and retired general. They would pepper their games with wagers for relatively small sums--hundreds of dollars. But caddie Willie Martinez said Blackthorne was sometimes rash--once demanding double-or-nothing after 18 holes had cost him $10,000. He lost about "85 percent" of the time, but always came back for more. He played about four days a week.
In fact, he was on a golf course called the Bandit the same day that Sheila was murdered by a former high-school football player who, at first glance, could be connected neither to his victim nor the alleged puppet-master, Blackthorne.
Joey, as friends called the 21-year-old, believed his was a brutal but merciful and ultimately profitable mission: Make Sheila Bellush pay for abusing her children and, in turn, he would be paid. Beating her would earn him $4,000. But if she were to die and Blackthorne regained custody of his daughters, Del Toro would get a $10,000 bonus--a tantalizing amount for the former Uvalde, Texas, high-school running back with a taste for pricey drugs, and, as of late, no job.