By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Rocha envied Blackthorne's easy, but legal, income. He concocted some get-rich-quick schemes. Opening a cavernous sports bar seemed the simplest, and he wanted Blackthorne to finance it. In turn, Blackthorne, the man who already seemed to have it all, wanted something from his companion. The request came on July 27 when Blackthorne took Rocha on an extravagant, all-expenses-paid golfing trip to Oregon and Washington.
Rocha, 28, had never flown first class and he was impressed. The front of the plane seemed an open bar. Blackthorne appeared a thirsty flier. Before long, Blackthorne's voice started to rise as he talked about how he had recently lost custody of his daughters, Stevie and Daryl. He fumed that Sheila abused the girls. Then, thousands of feet in the air, he asked if Rocha knew someone who would kill.
At first, it sounded like beer talk. But the question returned in the following days. Rocha said he didn't know any killers. Instead he suggested beating Sheila. Blackthorne soon warmed to the idea.
"His idea of a beating was much different," Rocha recalled. "His idea was he wanted her crippled in a wheelchair, no tongue."
In exchange for organizing the assault, he asked Blackthorne to invest $400,000 in the bar. Blackthorne balked. Big money like that would leave a paper trail. But back in Texas, on a golfing trip to Bastrop's Colo Vista Country Club, Blackthorne paid the group's tab, $760.13, and gushed enthusiastically about the sports-bar concept. Although they would later haggle over how much to pay the hit man, with Blackthorne claiming he knew a biker who would do the job for $5,000 and Rocha countering with a $4,000 offer, it seemed they had a deal.
Rocha turned to Gonzales, who needed some cajoling before recruiting his cousin Del Toro. Not one of them had done anything like this before. It showed. First they couldn't find the home just north of San Antonio where the Bellushes then lived. When they finally found it, nobody was home. Sheila had moved to Florida.
Blackthorne upped the ante, offering a $50,000 bonus if, after the beating, he were to regain custody of his daughters. Rocha told the others the bonus was $10,000 and planned to pocket the rest. The trio--Rocha, Gonzales, and Del Toro--met November 4 at San Antonio's Pan American Golf Club, where Rocha was slated to address the members. After the speech, they gathered at a table where they felt they would not be overheard. Rocha gave Del Toro a snapshot of a smiling Sheila at her daughter's birthday party, a slip of paper bearing her Florida address, and $500 for expenses. He told him that Blackthorne had said he could probably park at a nearby strip mall and walk to Sheila's home. One more tip: Wear casual, inconspicuous clothes.
After they decided that shooting Sheila would be the surest way to earn the bonus, Del Toro had a question: Did anyone have a gun?
Del Toro paged Gonzales the next afternoon. He was near Houston and headed east. A day passed, then at 12:44 p.m. on November 7, Del Toro paged Gonzales again, this time from Greenville, Florida. "Sam, don't ask me any questions," Del Toro said. "It's done."
A day later, Gonzales delivered to Del Toro $3,500 in bills bundled with a rubber band. They had time for one all-night binge of beer and cocaine before Del Toro's girlfriend paged. The cops had found the car. Del Toro headed south on the 4:30 a.m. bus to the Mexican border.
Newscasts soon aired an artist's sketch of Del Toro. Alarmed, Blackthorne and Rocha met at the SilverHorn Golf Club in San Antonio. As it was too cold to play, they huddled on the putting green for a brief exchange.
"He asked what would happen if I got caught. Would I rat him out?" Rocha recalled. "I said, 'I guess we'll find out who our friends are.'"
In turn, prosecutors demanded proof of Blackthorne's involvement. All they had was Rocha's word, while Blackthorne had a high-powered defense lawyer. On-and-off-again negotiations resumed the third day of his trial, January 13, when Rocha again offered to cooperate. The next day jurors waited, unaware that Rocha was being hooked to a polygraph. Based on his statements, an examiner asked three questions. Did Blackthorne tell him to put two bullets in Sheila's head? Did he tell Rocha to kill her? Did Blackthorne specifically say he would pay a $50,000 incentive if Sheila were killed?
Rocha flunked. The trial resumed, and the jury, without learning of the lie-detector test, convicted him the next day.
A day after the verdict, Sarasota's chief prosecutor, Henry Lee, seemed frustrated. He had won a conviction but, in the process, possibly lost an essential witness against Blackthorne. Almost under his breath, he mused to San Antonio Express-News reporter John Tedesco in a courthouse elevator, "I'm not so sure Blackthorne ordered the murder."