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Whom to believe is key for Blackthorne jury

Jurors will weigh the credibility of the defendant and another man convicted in Sheila Bellush's murder.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- The decision in the murder-for-hire case against Allen Blackthorne basically boils down to whom to believe: Blackthorne or convicted accomplice Danny Rocha.

The 14 jurors have heard Rocha testify that Blackthorne hired him to find someone to kill his ex-wife, Sheila Bellush.

Blackthorne, facing a mandatory life sentence, took the stand and told the jury he did no such thing.

"Right now, it's right down the middle," said Lupe Valencia, a 54-year-old San Antonio teacher who has watched the trial from the start.

The jurors, after listening to two weeks of testimony, likely will get the federal case late today after the prosecution and defense have their last say in closing statements.

Late Wednesday, Judge Edward C. Prado and attorneys for both sides met without the jury and haggled over wording Prado will use today in his instructions to jurors.

Blackthorne, who made his fortune developing a medical device for sore muscles, was indicted earlier this year on a charge he conspired to commit murder-for-hire across state lines. He also is charged under the Violence Against Women Act -- causing someone to travel across state lines to hurt his ex-spouse.

Even if Blackthorne is acquitted on both federal charges, he has a companion murder charge awaiting him in Bexar County Court in San Antonio. Unlike in Texas state court, testimony from an accomplice is sufficient to convict someone in federal court. Other witnesses or independent evidence is not necessary.

The cornerstone of the federal prosecution's case is Rocha, a bookmaker who met Blackthorne on a golf course in 1996 and struck up a friendship through gambling and golf. "The jury has to be convinced that Rocha's telling the truth," said Anthony Nicholas, a criminal attorney in San Antonio.

U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg agreed. "In essence, if they believe Rocha, that's all we need to convict him."

But Rocha has credibility problems.

He changed versions of his statement to authorities several times and asked people to make up evidence against Blackthorne. His lies forced prosecutors in Florida to forgo a case against Blackthorne.

Prosecutors say that while details of his story changed, Rocha never waivered on Blackthorne being the initiator of the scheme.

"Rocha's credibility will be a significant issue for the jury," federal prosecutor Richard Durbin wrote in a recent court document.

A 30-year-old junior college dropout, Rocha testified that Blackthorne asked him several times if he knew anyone who would kill his ex-wife.

He told jurors in San Antonio that Blackthorne gave him a picture of Mrs. Bellush, her address in Sarasota and $4,000 to pay the middlemen. As the plot evolved, Blackthorne told Rocha he would pay another $50,000 if he got custody of Stevie and Daryl, the two daughters he had with his ex-wife.

Rocha said Blackthorne told him to tell the middlemen to "use their imagination" when it came to deciding how to hurt his ex-wife. Rocha said she could die.

"He said to dump her in the ocean or bury her in the woods," Rocha testified.

The links in the chain are this: Rocha approached his friend, Sammy Gonzales, 29, also of San Antonio. Gonzales, now serving a 19-year sentence for his role in the conspiracy, testified he asked his cousin, Jose Luis Del Toro Jr., 24, if he would kill her.

Del Toro, investigators say, drove from Texas to Florida and killed Mrs. Bellush on Nov. 7, 1997. Mrs. Bellush, 35, was inside her Sarasota home when she was shot in the face. Her throat was cut twice. She was killed six weeks after she moved from San Antonio with Stevie and Daryl, her husband, Jamie Bellush, and their quadruplet toddlers.

Richard Lubin, Blackthorne's lead attorney, has said all along that Rocha is the brains behind the plot, that he wanted to extort Blackthorne, 45.

"Danny Rocha is a liar," Lubin told a throng of reporters outside court.

When asked about Rocha's motive for dreaming up the plot on his own, Lubin said: "It's hard to read or understand the mind of a sociopath . . . I can't tell you exactly what his goal was."

Federal prosecutors Durbin and John Murphy say they have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Blackthorne had a "murderous hatred" for his ex-wife and that he is responsible for hear death.

Their case included witnesses who described threats Blackthorne made to kill or maim his ex-wife.

But when Blackthorne took the stand in his own defense Monday, he disputed all of the testimony. He said the only time he threatened his ex-wife was when one of the daughters fell out of a window.

Blackthorne said he told his ex-wife: "If anything happens to my kids, I will kill you."

By mid-1997, Mrs. Bellush, who by that time had remarried and had the quadruplets, was seeking to use a past sexual assault charge against Blackthorne to get the court to terminate Blackthorne's visitation and increase his child support.

Federal prosecutors say this led Blackthorne to plot the murder. But prosecutors were prohibited by the judge from going into detail before the jury. Of course, opinions among court spectators vary on what the Blackthorne verdict might be. At A.H. Burritos in downtown San Antonio, waitresses theorize after reading newspaper accounts.

"I find it hard to believe that Blackthorne did not know anything," said A.H. Burritos owner Rick Birdwell, 41. "But I think he'll get off."

But Gary De Los Santos, a Texas Ranger who investigated the murder and is part of the prosecution's team, said he has a wager with someone for a 12-pack of Bud Lite. How long will it take the jury?

"Two hours," De Los Santos said. "Guilty."

* * *

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

* * *

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