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Witness: Suspect ordered murder
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- For most of Wednesday, Danny Rocha sat in the witness box and admitted that he lied. He acknowledged that he made up stories to get out of trouble. He even tried to get others to lie for him.
"I thought, "Well, I'll just get a friend of mine and create a story and get evidence to go along with my testimony,' " Rocha testified Wednesday.
But after two days of grueling cross-examination, Rocha was unmoved on one point:
He did not cook up the scheme to hurt or kill Sheila Bellush on his own. Mrs. Bellush's ex-husband, Allen Blackthorne, wanted her dead, he testified.
"I'm telling you," Rocha told the jury Wednesday. "Allen wanted her murdered."
Federal prosecutors want to convict Blackthorne of interstate murder-for-hire and domestic violence, but so far the only link to Blackthorne is Rocha. Both charges carry up to life in prison without parole.
The prosecution is expected to call as a witness Richard Speights Jr., a golfing buddy who Rocha said he told about the conspiracy.
Rocha also said he planned to open a sports bar with Speights with whatever payoff Rocha got from helping Blackthorne with his ex-wife.
Investigators say Blackthorne, a millionaire and gambler who golfed five days a week, wanted revenge on Mrs. Bellush after losing a nine-year court battle to win custody of Stevie and Daryl, their children.
Mrs. Bellush, mother of six, including quadruplets, was found dead inside her Sarasota home on Nov. 7, 1997. She had been shot in the face, and her throat had been cut twice.
Rocha was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence. Middleman Sammy Gonzales cooperated with Sarasota prosecutors and got 19 years. Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. , accused of being the hit man, goes on trial in Sarasota in July.
Blackthorne's lead attorney, Richard Lubin, spent hours Wednesday rehashing Rocha's inconsistent statements, ordering Rocha to look at the jury when he answered questions and to read aloud letters he wrote in jail, asking friends to make up stories about seeing Blackthorne hand off cash payments for the hit.
Rocha, growing frustrated at times, launched into explanations for his behavior.
"I felt that I was doing everything I could to hustle him on the golf course," Rocha said. "But actually Allen was hustling me. He wanted Sheila dead, and he needed someone to do it. I jumped in head-first, and I actually became the one hustled."
Rocha said he tried not to think about what he did.
"When I think about what happened to Sheila Bellush, I feel like I'm getting and I've gotten everything I deserved," said Rocha, whose wife and three young sons moved from San Antonio to California after his arrest.
Lubin offered a defense for evidence the prosecution might present against Blackthorne.
The $9,000 in checks and $3,000 cash Blackthorne gave Rocha two months before Mrs. Bellush was killed were payoffs for gambling debts. The telephone calls Blackthorne made to Rocha's house in the fall of 1997 were to place $20,000 or $30,000 bets on professional football.
Rocha dug in, saying he would not act out of the blue.
"I can't imagine murdering somebody I didn't know for nothing," Rocha said.
Lubin asked him whether he would do it for money.
"I don't like to think of myself as that," Rocha said, "but that's the truth."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.