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Tragic tale is replete with comic relief

At the Blackthorne trial, grim testimony combines with an unconventional judge's penchant for humor.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2000

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- The first day of testimony was chilling. A barefoot mother of quadruplets was found lying on her side on the kitchen floor, her neck propped against a door. She had been shot in the face, her throat cut twice.

Family members cringed as a recording was played of the telephone call Sheila Bellush's hysterical teenage daughter made after discovering the body in the family's Sarasota home.

Now the second day of Allen Blackthorne's murder-for-hire trial was set to begin.

Two federal marshals in dark business suits opened a back door. The millionaire ex-husband was ushered to the defense table.

Next came U.S. District Judge Edward C. Prado, striding into the crowded, hushed courtroom and hopping up to his seat on the bench. He flicked a switch and music spilled from the fancy courtroom speakers. To the tune of Happy Together by The Turtles, a man's melodious voice filled the room:

Imagine me as God, I do

I was appointed by the President

Appointed forever

My decisions cannot be questioned by you

I'm always right.

The trial of United States of America vs. Allen Blackthorne was in session.

A grim tale of greed, lies and murder unfolded during the trial's first week. One moment, spectators chuckled at jokes and warped antics; the next, they cried or winced at testimony. Behind the tragic tale were some wacky moments, orchestrated by an unconventional judge.

* * *

"This has been a long time coming," said Mrs. Bellush's mother, Gene Smith, before the doors of the federal courthouse opened at 7:45 a.m. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

For her, the judge's humor eased the tension and evil in the courtroom. She hasn't been able to laugh at her grandchildren's birthday parties.

"Honey," she said, "I need something to break the monotony."

"I think it's obnoxious and disrespectful myself," said Jessica Young, a 23-year-old law school student.

* * *

Judge Prado's courtroom, hot and stuffy on the first day of trial, has three 29-inch televisions and an electronic roll-down movie screen. Eight flat-screen computer monitors that flash pictures and instant text of testimony are positioned in the jury box.

"Think it's hot enough in here?" said lead defense attorney Richard Lubin, dressed in an Adolfo suit and gray and white silk tie.

Reporters and San Antonio residents chatted to themselves. In the second row, a correspondent for People magazine introduced himself to true crime novelist Ann Rule. He offered lunch. Some teased.

"I'm just an old country boy," joked People correspondent Robert C. Stewart Jr. "All I know is what the big boys in the pool hall tell me."

Blackthorne entered, dressed in a light gray suit and wearing a gold wedding band. He sat among five defense attorneys in a blue leather-back chair, rubbing the corners of his bloodshot eyes. He popped Altoids.

"I don't think prison's agreeing with him," whispered courtroom artist Brigitte Woosley, colored pencils and markers stuffed in her linen shirt pockets.

* * *

"All rise," the bailiff called out.

The baby-faced Prado, appointed 16 years ago by then-President Ronald Reagan, faced the seated jury of 10 men and four women. He instructed them. Blackthorne did not have to explain anything. He is presumed innocent. And the prosecution and defense each had 45 minutes to make an opening statement.

A brief chat at the bench, and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Murphy stood at the lectern ready to begin.

But the silver-haired Prado had one more thing.

"The lawyers have requested that I reduce their time down to five minutes each," he announced.

People in court didn't know what to think. He laughed and waved them on.

The prosecution and defense introduced their players. Even Blackthorne and his wife, Maureen Blackthorne, got a ceremonial greeting.

Blackthorne stood when his attorney stretched out his arm. So did his wife.

"Good morning," Blackthorne said, bowing his head to the jury.

* * *

In strode Stevie Bellush, the 16-year-old daughter who found her dead mother Nov. 7, 1997. She has her father's olive complexion, arched eyebrows and chiseled face. She was here today to testify against her father, the man her mother said touched her in private places.

"Allen" is what she called him.

Stevie was a breath away from bringing up the alleged sexual abuse.

"May we approach the bench?" defense attorney Kirk Volker barked.

"No," Prado joked. The attorneys met at the bench. Testimony continued while Blackthorne sat stonefaced, gold pen in hand; a pad before him.

Stevie, living with her stepfather in New Jersey now, began to cry. The prosecutor carried over a box of white tissues.

One by one, photographs of her toddler siblings -- quadruplets Frankie, Joey, Timmy and Courtney -- appeared on the screen. They were snapped in an ambulance after their mother was found.

"That's Joseph," Stevie said. Blood stained his chin.

"That's Frankie," Stevie said. He had blood on his cheek.

* * *

Danny Rocha, the San Antonio gambler serving life in prison for helping arrange the attack on Mrs. Bellush, climbed into the witness box. He came to court with many strikes against him, including the fact that he offered different versions of the conspiracy.

"This is what I want to see," mumbled Mrs. Blackthorne, 39. "Here we go." She came to court each day with dark circles under her eyes and sat on the side with reporters, leaning over every now and then to whisper.

This is the woman, the mother of two young boys, accused of coming up with the code name for the operation: Blackcow.

She was scolded one day by a deputy U.S. marshal after she flashed a love note scribbled on legal pad paper to her beloved.

A deputy told Blackthorne to turn around and not talk back.

Rocha kept the seat warm nearly eight hours over two days, recounting the day in 1996 when he met Blackthorne on the golf course and won $8,000 gambling.

Rocha called him a "horrible" golfer. In a letter read aloud in court, he accused Blackthorne of being a cross-dresser.

Blackthorne did not flinch. He sat expressionless as Rocha swore that he asked in the summer of 1997 if Rocha knew anyone who would kill his ex-wife.

"He told me he was tired of her and wanted to do something," Rocha told the jury.

Blackthorne yawned.

Blackthorne and Mrs. Bellush broke up in 1988, but the next nine years involved court fights over money and custody. A 45-year-old successful businessman, Blackthorne was bent on regaining custody of their two daughters, Stevie and Daryl. She had remarried, had quadruplets and moved with her new family to Sarasota.

At first, Rocha didn't take Blackthorne's request seriously. Blackthorne brought it up when they gambled over golf, gin rummy and professional football, Rocha said.

"I enjoyed beating him out of his money, but I didn't enjoy his company," said Rocha, 30.

The jury listened.

With promises of $50,000 and a stake in a sports bar or pipe-dream golf course, Rocha gave in. The jury listened.

He said he told Blackthorne he would find someone for the deed when he returned from Disney World. Throughout his testimony, the prosecutor displayed golf receipts and canceled checks on an overhead projector.

"What?" Judge Prado asked. "No Disney World pictures."

Rocha laid out the chain. He asked his bookmaking bodyguard, Sammy Gonzales, to find the killer. The bodyguard asked a cousin to drive from Texas to Sarasota to do the job.

Defense lawyers grilled Rocha, accusing him of being the brains behind the plot to extort money from Blackthorne. They waved letters Rocha wrote from jail begging friends to say they saw Blackthorne hand off cash for the hit.

"Would it be possible for us to see it, judge?" asked a prosecutor of a letter. The judge quipped, "You got 10 bucks?"

* * *

At the end of the week, two of Blackthorne's business associates described the company that designs, manufactures, rents and sells electronic muscle stimulators.

Judge Prado peered at the witness.

"Would you have something you could put in a chair to stimulate someone falling asleep?"

The jurors roared.

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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