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Witness describes death plot
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 2000
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- After eight hours on the witness stand Tuesday, Danny Rocha was weary, shifting in his seat and leaning forward on his elbows. He had been called a liar, gambler, hustler, tax evader, money launderer and killer.
Federal prosecutors wanted the jurors to believe him when he testified that Allen Blackthorne sought to have his ex-wife, Sheila Bellush, killed. Rocha might have disappointed the U.S. government Tuesday.
"He actually never ordered the murder," Rocha said during cross-examination at the end of the second day of testimony of Blackthorne's federal murder-for-hire trial. He did say, however, that Blackthorne wanted to hurt his 35-year-old ex-wife, and asked often if Rocha knew someone who would kill her.
Rocha said Blackthorne had asked him on an airplane, over card games and on the golf course if he knew someone who would kill his ex-wife. In return for his help, Rocha said, Blackthorne offered him a 25 percent partnership in a golf course development. Rocha didn't trust Blackthorne. Instead, he wanted Blackthorne to loan him $400,000 to open a sports bar, he testified.
Defense attorney Richard Lubin ended the day chipping away at Rocha's credibility, asking him at one point why he met with his personal attorney before cross-examination and during a break.
"He told me I was getting upset, that I needed a deep breath," Rocha told the court.
Rocha's testimony provided a window into his world and Blackthorne's. Rocha made a living placing bets and gambling thousands of dollars with Blackthorne and 20 other golfers who played in their circle. Rocha admired Blackthorne's lifestyle, which evolved after he had invented a muscle stimulator that made him a millionaire. Rocha wanted Blackthorne to invest in Rocha's own brainchild to make a rearview mirror for car bumpers to prevent accidents.
"I wanted to be more like Allen was," Rocha said.
They both shared a ferocious gambling habit, betting on golf, sports and even staying up all night gambling over gin rummy, Rocha said.
"Allen and I would pretty much bet on anything that moved," Rocha said.
Blackthorne first asked Rocha to help him with his ex-wife over drinks on a first-class flight to Oregon to play golf, Rocha testified.
"He started to get emotional," Rocha said. "He started to explain about his ex-wife Sheila Bellush, that she was abusing his children both physically and sexually."
Just a week before the trip, Blackthorne had given up all parental rights to his two daughters with Mrs. Bellush: Stevie and Daryl. That came after nine years of court battles over custody, child support and accusations of abuse back and forth between the parents.
At the golf resort in Oregon, Blackthorne again asked Rocha whether he knew anyone who would kill his ex-wife, Rocha said. The men talked about just having her hurt. Rocha said he was thinking along the lines of "maybe a couple of blows."
"He wanted her crippled, in a wheelchair with no tongue," Rocha said Tuesday.
After the trip, back home in San Antonio, where Rocha and Blackthorne lived, the scheme grew detailed, with Rocha asking his friend and bodyguard Sammy Gonzales to find someone to carry out the attack. Gonzales asked his cousin Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. to kill Mrs. Bellush, Rocha said.
Rocha and Blackthorne argued over who should pay Gonzales and Del Toro for their role in the scheme. Blackthorne said the money should come out of Rocha's pocket, since Rocha was going to get a stake in the golf course or a loan for his bar.
Eventually, Blackthorne gave Rocha a picture of his ex-wife, an address in Sarasota and $4,000 to pay the middlemen, Rocha testified. Blackthorne also told Rocha he would offer the middlemen $50,000 if he got his girls back.
"He told me to tell them, the guys that were going to do it, to use their imagination," Rocha said. He said he told Blackthorne Mrs. Bellush could die. Rocha testified that Blackthorne replied, "So be it."
"He said to dump her in the ocean or bury her in the woods," Rocha said.
When Rocha met with Gonzales and Del Toro days before the murder, he told them the easiest way to get the extra money for the attack would be to shoot Mrs. Bellush.
On Nov. 7, police say, Del Toro drove from Texas to Sarasota, shot Mrs. Bellush in the face and slit her neck twice. That day, Blackthorne and Rocha played golf together. Three days later, with the media camped out in front of his house, Blackthorne stole away to meet Rocha at Denny's, Rocha said. He said Blackthorne gave him $10,000 cash meant for Del Toro, which Rocha ended up using to pay his own attorney's fees. After they left Denny's, Blackthorne and Rocha went to a country club and played gin rummy.
Rocha said Blackthorne told him if anyone got in trouble, he would hire lawyers for everyone.
Gonzales, who will testify at Blackthorne's trial, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and is serving a 19-year sentence. Del Toro's trial on a first-degree murder charge is in July in Sarasota. Rocha is serving a life sentence for murder in Bellush's death.
Lubin, Blackthorne's lead attorney, grilled Rocha on his agreement with the prosecution to testify against Blackthorne. Rocha has been told he might be able to serve out his sentence in California, where his wife and three sons moved after he was convicted. Lubin also raised questions about whether Rocha will get a reduced sentence for his cooperation.
"You are hoping to save your neck, correct?" asked Lubin.
"I would love one day to get out of prison," Rocha said.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.