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By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2000
When police hinted at his involvement, when TV crews surrounded his home, even when he was finally charged with plotting to kill his ex-wife, Blackthorne insisted he had nothing to do with it.
On the witness stand in his trial last week, he choked back tears while denying any role in the killing of Sheila Bellush.
But on Thursday, jurors in a San Antonio courtroom said the Texas millionaire conspired and arranged the murder.
As the judge read the verdict, Blackthorne stared straight ahead, never flinching.
"It's okay," his lead attorney, Richard Lubin, whispered to him after the verdict was read in U.S. District Court.
Blackthorne, wearing khaki slacks, tie and blazer, hugged his attorneys and shook their hands before he was whisked away by U.S. marshals. His wife, Maureen, was left sobbing in Lubin's arms as marshals cleared the courtroom of nearly 100 spectators.
"Thank you, Lord!" declared Mrs. Bellush's mother, 64-year-old Gene Smith. She then broke into song, belting out the Lord's Prayer outside the courthouse.
The verdict came after 33 hours of deliberations and followed, by a few hours, an announcement in Florida by hitman Jose Luis Del Toro Jr., who confessed he murdered Mrs. Bellush, the Sarasota mother of six, including quadruplets.
"I do deserve to die," Del Toro, 24, told Mrs. Bellush's widower, Jamie Bellush.
Bellush, 37, who had been in San Antonio for Blackthorne's trial but left for Del Toro's plea hearing Thursday, was elated over Blackthorne's conviction.
"It's weird because it's almost like I've lived so long with this injustice, but now I can't believe it's really here," Bellush said. "He's an evil, evil man, and you know, he is going where he belongs: to prison for the rest of his life."
The developments Thursday brought an end to the 2 1/2-year-old case, marked by a 20-month international tug-of-war to extradite Del Toro to the United States from Mexico, where he fled after stabbing and shooting Mrs. Bellush in her Sarasota home on Nov. 7, 1997.
"There are a lot of people whose hearts have been broken by this terrible crime," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Murphy. "We hope this brings some sense of peace to Sheila's relatives."
Blackthorne, 45, a San Antonio millionaire who developed a medical device that stimulates muscles, will appeal.
"We feel that a terrible injustice occurred in this case," Lubin said. "We think that we have good grounds for the appeal."
Mrs. Blackthorne, 39, stood beside Lubin but didn't comment.
The appeal will be filed after Blackthorne is sentenced on Nov. 2.
In the end, jurors believed the testimony of Blackthorne accomplice and bookmaker Daniel Alex Rocha, 30, who testified that Blackthorne asked him to find someone to kill his ex-wife.
At times, Rocha's credibility as a witness appeared to be in doubt. He testified that he lied to authorities about his role, as well as Blackthorne's, while police investigated the murder. Rocha also wrote to friends from jail, asking them to make up evidence against Blackthorne.
The case was also built with other circumstantial evidence.
Texas Rangers and federal agents subpoenaed Blackthorne's home, business and mobile phone records. They got his financial statements. They interrogated his golfing partners. They talked to his daughters and to Mrs. Bellush's close friends and relatives.
"I'm so shocked," said defense attorney Kirk Volker. "It's not over yet."
Prosecutors contended the murder of Mrs. Bellush stemmed from her acrimonious marriage to Blackthorne that ended in 1988. For the nine years after their divorce, Blackthorne and his ex-wife fought in and out of court for custody of their daughters, Daryl and Stevie. Mrs. Bellush had custody.
In the summer of 1997, prosecutors said Blackthorne snapped when she threatened to use an old claim that he sexually abused one of their daughters to terminate his visitation rights.
But before Mrs. Bellush played the card, Blackthorne relinquished all rights he had to the girls. Angry, he began to plot, prosecutors said.
Blackthorne asked Rocha, his golfing and gambling buddy, if he knew someone who would kill his ex-wife. Rocha asked a San Antonio golf course bag boy, Samuel Gonzales, to find someone for the job. Gonzales, 29, asked his cousin, Del Toro.
Rocha was offered a partnership in a golf course development, maybe even a $400,000 loan for a sports bar. The hitman would be paid $4,000.
Del Toro, a former football star from a small town 90 miles southwest of San Antonio, drove to Florida and shot and stabbed Mrs. Bellush at her home. She was killed six weeks after moving to Sarasota from San Antonio with the daughters she had with Blackthorne; her new husband, Bellush; and the quadruplets. Mrs. Bellush was 35.
Blackthorne's father, Guy Van Houte, said in a telephone interview Thursday that Blackthorne deserved what he got.
"He's gotten away with a lot in his lifetime, so it's good sometimes that justice is served," said Van Houte, 64, who lives in Citrus County and contends his son cheated him of money he deserved from a joint business venture.
After news of a verdict emerged close to noon Thursday, court spectators, reporters and families packed into the third-floor courtroom. In a front row, Mrs. Bellush's mother bowed her head and prayed. A back door opened at 12:10 p.m., and Blackthorne was led to his seat. He smiled at his wife, shook Lubin's hand and slipped a hard red candy in his mouth.
As the jurors sat down, Lubin patted Blackthorne on the back a few times. Mrs. Blackthorne managed a faint smile at Lubin, but her cheeks quivered.
U.S. District Judge Edward Prado read the verdict: "We, the jury, find the defendant, Allen Blackthorne, guilty as charged in count one."
Blackthorne stared straight ahead.
The judge repeated the same verdict on the second count. Then he thanked the jurors and excused them.
As they left the rear of the courthouse, the jurors, some smiling as they walked, did not respond to questions shouted by reporters. U.S. marshals escorted the jurors to a gated parking lot.
"I think they've made a big mistake, and the only thing we can do is appeal," said Betty Sue Perry, who had accompanied Mrs. Blackthorne for support during the trial. "I know he's innocent. I know Allen."
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