By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Blackthorne, meanwhile, grew bolder in his denials, appearing in May on the CBS news magazine 48 Hours. Nauseated by the public performance, investigators continued to examine Blackthorne.
His first wife told them that his beatings had caused her to have a miscarriage. His second wife recalled a threat laced with a sadistic and familiar theme. She told investigators, "Allen told me that he would hire somebody to physically hurt my children in front of me while I was tied up." It was nasty stuff, but hardly evidence of a murder committed more than a decade later. The case still rested on Danny Rocha's word. Yet Sarasota prosecutors knew him to be a liar, and San Antonio prosecutors had a legal problem. Texas courts would not let a crook such as Rocha testify against a crony unless prosecutors had sufficient proof that what he claimed was true. That proof had eluded investigators from two states for nearly two years.
Ten days before the second anniversary of Sheila's murder, Bexar County authorities met with the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio, knowing that federal courts had lower standards when it came to snitches. Just two months later, the first batch of federal indictments charged the millionaire with interstate domestic violence and murder-for-hire. FBI agents found Blackthorne at a golf course that afternoon. He was jailed without bond. The trial began six months later on Blackthorne's 45th birthday.
Some of his attorneys had been preparing for this day for more than two years. Because it feared being outgunned, the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio took the unprecedented step of hiring its own jury consultant.
Leading the quartet of state and federal prosecutors was a silver-haired veteran whose history with Blackthorne added soap opera to a case already saturated with drama. First Assistant U.S. Attorney John Murphy and Blackthorne years earlier and at different times had been in love with the same woman. Murphy married, had a daughter with, and divorced Kitty Hawkins; years later, she and Blackthorne had been engaged.
Defense lawyers never asked to have the prosecutor removed from the case, hoping instead to use the quasi-love triangle to cast Murphy as bitterly biased. But the judge said it seemed irrelevant, and the defense never publicly raised the issue. Instead, the only hint of the connection surfaced in court the first and only time Blackthorne called Murphy by his first name. Red rising in his neck and cheeks, John Murphy recoiled at the familiarity and snarled, "My name is Mister Murphy in here, Mister Blackthorne." Ironically, Kitty Hawkins, who expected until the last moment to be a witness, was one of the few people rooting for her ex-boyfriend.
"I think basically he's a good person," she later said.
The prosecution's first powerful witness was Stevie Bellush, then a striking but wispy 16-year-old with her mother's long blonde hair and beauty. Stevie hardly looked at Blackthorne. She talked about him for hours without referring to him as "dad" or "father." She described him as generous--at his house, the tooth fairy carried nothing smaller than $50 bills--as well as manipulative and cruel. She said he once beat her badly and told her that he wouldn't care if her mother were to die.
Her younger sister, Daryl, testified that Blackthorne had duped her into revealing Sheila's Florida address by promising to visit at Christmas. Prosecutors piled on despicable descriptions of Blackthorne, who they said essentially orphaned his girls by relinquishing his parental rights and then financing their mother's murder. They calculated that he gambled more on a day of golf than he put every month into their college trust funds. Even Blackthorne's former live-in maid testified, recalling how he had thrown her belongings on the lawn when she quit.
Still, the only direct evidence amounted to the words of admitted liar Danny Rocha, who testified in hopes that officials would move him from Florida to a federal prison cell near his family. No one knew if jurors would trust a man who told reporters that he had failed the polygraph because he simply told authorities what he thought they wanted to hear. Otherwise, prosecutors could offer only circumstantial evidence. Even the checks alleged to camouflage the payoff looked identical to checks Blackthorne had given Rocha a year earlier to cover gambling debts.
Defense lawyers surmised that Rocha murdered Blackthorne's ex-wife, a woman he had never met, to endear himself to, or to blackmail, the millionaire. Only the con man knew for sure, they said. But the claim seemed far-fetched, as Rocha noted during his miserable three days on the witness stand. "I cannot even imagine the hustle in that. Me? Murdering someone I don't know--for nothing?" he whined. "That doesn't make sense."
While the government constructed a case of high-priced domestic violence, the defense struck back by focusing on child abuse. Defense lawyers showed photographs of bubble-gum-pink welts on Daryl and Stevie left by belts that Sheila and her husband Jamie Bellush had used to spank the girls. The attorneys emphasized how Sheila had briefly been charged with assaulting Daryl. They argued that anything Blackthorne did--such as hiring a private detective to find his ex-wife in Florida--he did because he feared for his daughters.