Daddy Deadliest

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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.

From under his bushy eyebrows, Rocha had warily watched Blackthorne the first time they were introduced on a golf course. Blackthorne had said he wanted "action," and Rocha figured him for one of his own, a hustler. Then Blackthorne took a few practice swings.

"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.

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Maro Robbins