Witnesses describe court struggles and threats that preceded the killing of Sheila Bellush.
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- During Sheila Bellush's wedding rehearsal dinner her ex-husband served her with a lawsuit demanding more visits with their two daughters.
Allen Blackthorne, who had lost custody five years before, waited outside her home as the court papers were delivered. He high-fived the court worker when he walked out.
That was one of several incidents described in federal court Thursday to illustrate a disintegrating marriage, hotly contested divorce and nine years of seesaw court battles over custody and money.
Blackthorne's business partners as well as attorneys who once represented Mrs. Bellush recounted threats Blackthorne leveled, including telling Mrs. Bellush he would have her "taken care of" if she ever left him or hurt his business.
Their testimony came on the fourth day of testimony against Blackthorne and highlight the prosecution's case: The 45-year-old San Antonio millionaire wanted to regain custody of their daughters and sought revenge.
Blackthorne is charged with interstate murder-for-hire and domestic violence. Prosecutors say he offered golfing buddy and bookie Danny Rocha a stake in a golf course development and money to open a sports bar if he found someone to kill Mrs. Bellush, 35.
Defense attorneys say Rocha was the brains behind the attack because he wanted to extort Blackthorne.
Mrs. Bellush, mother of six including toddler quadruplets with her new husband, was stabbed and shot inside her Sarasota home on Nov. 7, 1997. Rocha, who testified Tuesday and Wednesday, is serving life in prison for his role in the conspiracy.
Prosecutors, who named 90 people on their witness list, moved swiftly Thursday, laying out the divorce by calling Mrs. Bellush's lawyers and Blackthorne's RS Medical associates. They testified about threats Blackthorne made to kill Mrs. Bellush and his physical and alleged sexual abuse.
Richard Lubin, Blackthorne's lead attorney, tried to minimize whatever impact the statements had on the jury, objecting time and again, but witnesses were permitted to read aloud from depositions Mrs. Bellush gave during the divorce.
"Allen called me into the house when I was feeding the children breakfast and threatened to kill me," Mrs. Bellush said, according to testimony read aloud in court Thursday.
When their divorce was final in 1988, custody of Stevie and Daryl was awarded to Mrs. Bellush. The Bexar County Court in San Antonio granted Blackthorne limited visitation and ordered him to pay his ex-wife $75,000 for pain and anguish.
"That was not the end of it however," federal prosecutor John Murphy said.
What followed was nine years of legal maneuvering that ended in the summer of 1997 after Blackthorne voluntarily gave up his parental rights, according to Thursday's testimony.
Starting in 1989, Blackthorne went to court and got monthly child support payments reduced from $1,250 to $350.
There was an eight-day trial to decide whether Blackthorne should get custody. He didn't. The court ordered Blackthorne to increase monthly support payment from the $350 to $1,100. He asked for a new trial. He lost.
During cross-examination Thursday, Blackthorne's attorneys pointed out that Mrs. Bellush moved a few doors down from Blackthorne after the divorce.
Prosecutors also called executives and shareholders of RS Medical, the privately owned company Blackthorne founded. Last year, its sales of electronic muscle stimulators were $26-million.
Jim Chamberlin, vice president of operations, said Blackthorne called him twice, in the summers of 1996 and 1997. Blackthorne got Chamberlin to stop forwarding the monthly child support payments that were being garnished from his paychecks.
Another RS Medical associate, Mike McGraw, said he heard Blackthorne make a threat about his ex-wife after the divorce. McGraw said Blackthorne first made him promise not to tell anyone.
"I heard him say that he had the contacts to have Sheila taken to Mexico," McGraw said, "and she wouldn't return."