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Blackthorne's wife denies murder plot

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Maureen Blackthorne once doubted her husband, the man accused of plotting the murder of his ex-wife.

But just once.

In 1993, she met the ex-wife, Sheila Bellush, in a bar. She said Sheila told her that Allen Blackthorne had hit her and sexually assaulted their daughter.

The doubts disappeared, Maureen Blackthorne said, when she read a box of court documents that convinced her that Sheila Bellush was lying.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Blackthorne once again was batting ugly accusations about her husband. And this time, she also was a target.

She told a jury in federal court that she and her husband did not conspire in 1997 to kill Sheila Bellush.

"He didn't like her, but he wanted nothing to do with her," said Mrs. Blackthorne, 39, who smiled at her husband of six years as she walked to the witness chair.

She is not charged with any crime, even though Danny Rocha, convicted of conspiracy in the death of Bellush, has testified that Maureen Blackthorne was involved and came up with the code name of the murder plot: Blackcow.

Blackthorne, 45, is charged with conspiring across state lines to commit murder-for-hire and domestic violence. If convicted of one or both charges, the Texas millionaire faces up to life in prison.

After two weeks of testimony Tuesday, the prosecution and defense team of five attorneys finished presenting evidence. The jury will take today off while U.S. District Judge Edward C. Prado is out of town for a speech.

Closing arguments begin at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. Each side has an hour and a half for its summary, then the jury will begin deliberations.

Tuesday's highlight was Mrs. Blackthorne's testimony, a series of yes or no answers without much explanation. Like her husband, she sniffled and got teary when she talked about her children or the two daughters Blackthorne had with his ex-wife.

The defense also called several witnesses with criminal histories to speak on Blackthorne's behalf.

The stories made Mrs. Bellush's mother, Gene Smith, hold her forehead and close her eyes in disgust.

"I'm sick of it," she said. "Sick to my soul. Sheila's dead. She can't talk for herself."

Mrs. Blackthorne, called to testify by her husband's lead attorney, Richard Lubin, described the relationship her husband had with Mrs. Bellush as "non-existent." She said he had no hatred for Mrs. Bellush.

Blackthorne and his ex-wife divorced in 1988. But the next nine years brought off-and-on court fights over custody of two daughters, Stevie and Daryl. Blackthorne relinquished his parental rights in July 1997 -- four months before Mrs. Bellush's death -- during a hearing in which he asked to regain custody of Stevie and Daryl.

Investigators have said Blackthorne gave up rights to the girls because he feared allegations of sexual abuse were going to come up in court. One such charge against him was dropped when Stevie was a young girl.

Mrs. Bellush, 35, was found shot and stabbed in her Sarasota home six weeks after she moved there from San Antonio with Stevie and Daryl, her husband, Jamie Bellush, and their quadruplet toddlers.

"Were you and Allen planning some murder of Sheila?" Lubin asked.

"No sir," Mrs. Blackthorne said.

Lubin asked about Blackcow.

"No sir," Mrs. Blackthorne said.

She testified that the reason she and her husband contacted a private investigator about locating Mrs. Bellush in Florida was that they were worried Stevie and Daryl were being beaten by their mother and stepfather.

Prosecutors presented as evidence telephone calls from Blackthorne's house or cell phone to Florida, including Florida Power in St. Petersburg. They say Blackthorne made the calls because he was looking for Mrs. Bellush so he could have her killed.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Blackthorne said she was the one who made the calls, not Blackthorne, because he was playing golf.

But on cross-examination, prosecutor John Murphy sarcastically said if she and Blackthorne were so worried about the girls, why didn't they contact them and offer condolences or support after their mother was killed.

"You have done absolutely nothing to help those girls since their mother was murdered," Murphy said.

Mrs. Blackthorne said her husband's attorneys discouraged contact.

"It would look like we were trying to sway them," Mrs. Blackthorne said.

In addition to Mrs. Blackthorne, the defense called several convicts who talked with Rocha in jail. According to one witness, Rocha implied he would get out of his life sentence if he testified against Blackthorne.

Another witness, Patrick Connelly, who recently was charged with exploiting the elderly in St. Petersburg, said he met Rocha in the Sarasota County Jail. He said Rocha told him that Blackthorne did not send a hit man to Sarasota.

Connelly, a former drug abuser with arrests for robbery, said he contacted Lubin's office. Connelly said what happened to Mrs. Bellush was terrible.

"I thought it would be even worse -- a travesty of justice -- of an innocent man spending the rest of his life in jail," Connelly said.

- Times staff writer Bill Levesque contributed to this report.

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