By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Not so. Her mother was still there, right leg outstretched, the other coiled under her, like a dancer frozen mid-leap and laid prone. Her long tawny hair was draped wildly on the floor. Blood coated her jaw and neck and soaked her T-shirt.
Stevie reached this time for the kitchen phone and was startled to hear the nasal New York accent of Sarasota County sheriff's dispatcher Karen Nardi, who had followed departmental policy by calling back after the girl hung up.
"Hi, this is the 911 center," Nardi said. "What's the matter?"
"Mom, my mom!"
The girl seemed to gag on tears, so Nardi started pulling facts from the hysterical girl. First things first: address?
"Um," Stevie said, struggling to focus on the name and block number of the tidy palm-lined street where she lived in the suburbs of the Gulf Coast resort of Sarasota, Florida. Minutes earlier, at about 4:15 p.m., Stevie Bellush had come home from Sarasota Middle School and found, unattended in the hallway, the toddlers--her quadruplet half-brothers and half-sister. Little Joseph wore a streak of blood on his cheek and chest. Frankie had a blotch on his face too. One of the toddlers was asleep. Others were wailing, and Stevie's voice drowned in the din. Three times she had to say it before the dispatcher heard and understood: "My mom is dead."
"OK, calm down," Nardi said after determining it was not a suicide. "Do you know the person who did this?"
She did not. When officers arrived, they discovered that no one did; no one who could adequately tell them so, anyway. Only the toddlers had witnessed the murder of Sheila Bellush, and, among them, only one was just then learning to speak. None of the children could tell them who put the .45-caliber bullet and a kitchen knife into Sheila, then left her to die while the toddlers tracked their tiny toes through her pooling blood. After sheriff's deputies summoned home Stevie's stepfather, all 23-month-old Timmy could tell his dad, Jamie Bellush, was, "Mommie's got a boo-boo and a man did it."
Nothing was stolen from the two-bedroom house with a sunken pool in the back yard, nor was the victim raped, and as the setting sun cast bold colors on the November 7, 1997 sky, authorities said they had no official suspect. But while investigators would not yet publicly point fingers, by the next day, newspapers and newscasts in Texas and Florida started focusing on Stevie's dad, Allen Blackthorne of San Antonio.
At first glance, Blackthorne seemed an unlikely murderer. Tanned, handsome, and 6-foot-2, the 42-year-old was a self-made millionaire whose very name, Blackthorne, radiated larger-than-life flair. One example: It was said that after traveling in Asia, Blackthorne named himself after the hero of the TV mini-series Shogun, an English explorer-turned-Japanese samurai. His ex-wife, Sheila Bellush, claimed he changed his name to elude creditors.
It was perhaps the least of her allegations. Allen Blackthorne and Sheila Bellush's 5-year marriage had spawned almost 10 years of on-and-off court battles. The divorce file bulged with custody and child-support demands, along with accusations and counter-accusations of adultery and abuse. He called her a jealous cheat and "gold-digger." She alleged that he once sexually abused Stevie (a claim the girl later denied), employed male and female prostitutes--as well as bondage gear--in the bedroom, and once chased her around the house, repeatedly shocking her with an "electric cattle prod" as she wept. Legal battles continued even after both remarried--Sheila to Jamie Bellush, a burly pharmaceutical salesman and father of her quadruplets; Allen to Maureen Weingeist, a slender computer saleswoman and mother of his two sons.
In the summer of 1997, Blackthorne had seemed to surrender momentarily. He abandoned a bid for custody of Stevie's younger sister, Daryl, abruptly severing his parental rights to both daughters. More family hassles followed, hastening the Bellushes' move from San Antonio to Sarasota in September.
Almost immediately after Sheila was slain, Jamie Bellush suspected Blackthorne. Stevie would too in time. Even Sheila seemed to accuse Blackthorne: In a deposition taken 10 years earlier, during the divorce, Sheila told lawyers that Blackthorne had threatened to maim or kill her, adding what seemed in retrospect an eerie forecast: "He told me he was in a position to have somebody else do it."
Sheila Bellush had been a celebrity mom when the quads were born in 1995. The local media heralded the unusual and heartwarming birth and returned again for their first birthday, filming the cherubic foursome romping in their nursery. Beaming, blonde, and beautifully photogenic, Sheila, then 33, seemed a blissful picture of motherhood, San Antonio's feel-good story of 1995. After her slaying, Blackthorne fast became a celebrity suspect, the city's O.J. Simpson, complete with golf clubs and an alibi. Blackthorne had been in San Antonio, almost 1,000 miles from Sarasota, when an intruder killed his ex-wife. On the morning of the murder, Blackthorne idled away in his home--a salmon-colored stucco mansion with six bedrooms, columns outside the front door, and a lawn rumored to be clipped to putting-green length. Together with Maureen, his fourth wife, and their personal secretary, he watched the Jerry Springer Show, unaware that his life would almost overnight become more messy and public than any dysfunctional drama on the tell-all tabloid show.
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.
Del Toro had sped around the Gulf Coast in his grandmother's car, doing cocaine to fuel his drive to Sarasota, but his nerve to kill wilted quickly as he crouched in wait, wearing jungle camouflage purchased for the occasion. Sheila seemed a loving mother, not a monster. Questions came forward in his mind. What would happen if he were to back out? What could Blackthorne do to a disloyal errand boy if he was capable of having his children's mother murdered?
The silent debate ended when Sheila spied the 6-foot-tall figure lurking by the clothes dryer. "I was about to leave when she noticed that the door was open," Del Toro later recalled. "I had left the door open. She stood right in front of me."
The towel Del Toro had wrapped around the gun as a crude silencer jammed the pistol after the first shot. As a last resort, he fetched a wooden-handled knife from a kitchen drawer. Sheila sustained dozens of slashes on her forearms and hands as she fended off the blade, but eventually the tip bent against the spinal column after tearing through her jugular vein. Del Toro then fled through the garage door and raced to the highway, once getting lost and stopping to ask directions at a service station. In his rush, he had left a fingerprint on the dryer and one on the plastic cover of the gas-station map--not that authorities knew with whom to match them until a landscaper offered an unusual but invaluable tip: "Yes, Bob runs. Sixty-two girls."
Earlier that morning, Jacob Mast, a timid, gray-bearded gardener, had seen a white Mitsubishi cruising the Gulf Gate subdivision of palm trees, paved gutters, and groomed lawns. The driver, hat tugged low, did not return Mast's friendly wave. A while later, the Eclipse had returned and was parked near Mast. The driver, a military man, it seemed, emerged and walked in the direction from which he just had come. It struck Mast as odd. So as he pushed a lawn mower over four lots, Mast used a nonsensical expression to memorize the car's license numbers. "Yes, Bob runs. Sixty-two girls" stood for license number YBR62G.
Aided by another witness who recalled that the car had Texas plates, investigators soon found the 1995 sports car outside an Austin apartment complex on East Riverside Drive, where one of Del Toro's girlfriends lived. A search revealed road-trip trash: sunflower seeds, Sprite bottles, stationery from Sarasota's Hampton Inn, and a green bag containing the .45 pistol.
Since Del Toro was nowhere to be found, his girlfriend, a criminal-justice major, pointed investigators toward his second cousin Sammy Gonzales, a chubby high-school dropout who worked at a San Antonio driving range.
Gonzales' dad had invited him to church the morning of November 12, but the 27-year-old chose instead to make a confession that afternoon when he was confronted by investigators who had already been piecing together the mystery at the Texas Rangers office.
His admission during interrogations spread over three days. Gonzales barely knew Blackthorne--he once briefly carried the millionaire's golf clubs and then was stiffed for a tip--but, he said, he had helped the businessman arrange his ex-wife's murder.
Gonzales said he was recruited--badgered, as he described it--into aiding the murder-for-hire by a close friend, an accomplished amateur golfer and bookie who regularly golfed and gambled with Blackthorne. In fact, Daniel A. Rocha was on the links with Blackthorne the day Sheila was killed.
Authorities arrested Gonzales and Rocha days later, on November 17. Within a week, Mexican officials arrested the fugitive Del Toro in Monterrey. As the month came to a close, Texas Ranger Sergeant Gary De Los Santos noted in his first report on the case, "Blackthorne's arrest is anticipated in the near future."
The next report, and the many others that followed, simply stated, "this investigation continues," as they detailed the painstaking search for proof of the conspiracy in bank statements, phone bills, and false leads. Mexican lawyers, meanwhile, delayed Del Toro's extradition to Florida, and Blackthorne held to his golf regimen--which tormented Danny Rocha, locked in solitary confinement and facing life imprisonment.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing, because he was horrible," Rocha would later say. "I loved it. I made sure I made as many bets as I could."
The stakes started at $100 a hole, but Rocha raised them at every opportunity. Blackthorne scored a respectable 74, but he owed $12,000--$4,000 to each opponent--by the time he proposed double-or-nothing on the last hole. All declined except Rocha, who won. It was the beginning of a parasitic friendship.
The two became regular companions. Blackthorne would lose as much as $10,000 to Rocha--Blackthorne's wife recalled $30,000--in a day of golf, plus his football wagers with the bookie.
At first, Rocha felt prosperous booking bets. Married with three young sons, he used his new illicit income to buy a home and two sport utility vehicles. But the job lost luster before long. Gambling addicts would call in the middle of the night to place bets. Laundering profits in bogus real-estate ventures also proved a risky chore.
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."
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.
Blackthorne, in his last gamble, demanded to confront his accusers. Seated with legs casually crossed in the witness stand, he appeared humble. Words like "please" and "thanks" spilled from his lips, and he showed no hint of his legendary temper, even when cross-examined by prosecutor John Murphy, a ruddy man whose courtroom outbursts and sneers had earned him the nickname "Mad Dog."
He cried and contorted his face only when he talked about surrendering parental rights to his daughters. At the time, Blackthorne said, it seemed the best way to defuse his feud with Sheila. But once she was dead, the girls were orphans in the eyes of the state.
"I wouldn't want her killed. She was the mother of Stevie and Daryl. Who else did they have?" he told jurors. "Think about it."
Maureen Blackthorne was the last witness in the roughly four-week trial. She called Blackthorne a wonderful father and obedient spouse. After standing fast by her husband, her last words on the witness stand sounded appropriately, if unintentionally, like wedding vows. Asked if she cared for Allen's daughters, she answered in a tortured whisper, "I do."
The jury disappeared into the deliberating room, leaving a crowd of family members, reporters, and trial watchers loyally and anxiously perched outside the courtroom as hours dragged into days. On the third day of deliberations, a pigeon careened into a plate-glass window, barely missing Maureen. When it survived to fly away, her friend pronounced it a good omen.
After five days of deliberations and years of unfinished business, the case abruptly ended on July 7. That morning, days before his own trial was to start in Sarasota, Joey Del Toro pleaded guilty in exchange for nothing more than a chance to hug his family goodbye and a guarantee that the government would soon return his car to his grandmother. Del Toro told the court he deserved to die. He sang a hymn about forgiveness, a hymn of his own creation, in a soft but tuneless voice on the evening news. Hours later and more than 980 miles away, the San Antonio jury found Blackthorne guilty. The defendant sat calmly, turning to murmur "It's OK" to his wife weeping two rows back.
Sheila's mother, Gene Smith, left the court, matching Del Toro's hymn by bursting into the Lord's Prayer. Maureen remained in the courtroom, face buried and shoulders quaking in a defense lawyer's arms.
The case was preposterous, he insisted. Inconsistencies undermined government witnesses and the prosecution's basic premise. Why would a rich man like Blackthorne hire "Curly, Larry, and Moe" to commit murder? "What, I don't have the resources to go hire a professional?" he demanded. Why did nobody acknowledge what seemed to him simple truths?
Disgusted, Blackthorne said, "Maybe I'm a sociopath and I don't know it."