Daddy Deadliest

Stevie grabbed the phone in her parents' bedroom because the one in the kitchen was bloody, just like the counter and the floor leading to the laundry room. The frantic 13-year-old dialed 911 but hung up after just one ring and went back into the kitchen. Maybe, she thought, it was just a joke.

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.