Daddy Deadliest

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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.

Jose Luis Del Toro hid between the laundry room and the garage while he watched the blonde woman and her quadruplets. He wanted to see her smack the kids--anything to show she was a lousy mother.

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.

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Maro Robbins