By JOUNICE L. NEALY
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2000
SARASOTA -- In his heart, Jose Luis Del Toro believes he is free. But the 24-year-old will spend the rest of his life in prison.
In a dramatic series of events, Del Toro appeared in court Thursday, admitted shooting and stabbing Sheila Bellush in 1997 for $4,000, than gave a 35-minute statement that sounded more like a sermon.
He sang, read poetry, professed his belief in God and apologized to Mrs. Bellush's family. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and armed burglary charges, saying he didn't want to put the family through another trial.
"I have received mercy maybe not from you or anybody in this courtroom, but from God almighty," he said.
Circuit Judge Paul Logan then gave Del Toro two consecutive life sentences, the maximum penalty for both charges.
A few hours later, a federal jury in Texas convicted Allen Blackthorne on charges that he was the mastermind behind the plot to kill Mrs. Bellush, 35. Blackthorne, 45, faces a mandatory life sentence. Before the verdict in Blackthorne's trial, Del Toro said Blackthorne would forever be imprisoned if he didn't give his life to God.
Four men have now been convicted or pleaded guilty in the murder of Mrs. Bellush, a mother of six, including quadruplets. Prosecutors said the chain went from Blackthorne to two middle men and then to Del Toro, who never had a personal relationship with Blackthorne.
Del Toro can ask state corrections officials if he can serve his sentence in Texas, where he has family.
But Sarasota County State Attorney Earl Moreland said the state would object because Del Toro committed the crime in Florida and he should serve his time here.
Moreland said they were surprised that Del Toro pleaded to the maximum penalties.
"We're very glad this is over," Moreland said.
During the hearing in Sarasota, Jamie Bellush held up glossy color pictures of his wife's body: a close-up of her face and a wide shot of her body. Her throat was slashed and she had been shot in the face.
"Cowards like you attack defenseless women who weigh 107 pounds," Bellush told Del Toro.
"I hope your family is proud," Bellush said, walking toward the table where Del Toro was sitting. "I hope you're proud." Ideally, Bellush said he would have liked to watch Del Toro take his last breath after receiving a lethal injection, Florida's method of execution.
"Jamie, you're right," Del Toro said during his statement. "I do deserve to die. Your hatred toward me is a just hatred."
Del Toro, whose family members filled three rows in the courtroom, said he was prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison because what he did was wrong.
Del Toro sang about the mercy that he says God has given him.
"Beautiful. That's how mercy saw me," sang Del Toro, who was dressed in a long-sleeved electric blue Tommy Hilfiger shirt and khakis. At the end of his speech, Del Toro said his only consolation was that Mrs. Bellush is in heaven.
"I hope one day you find it in your heart to forgive me," the former South Texas high school football star said.
Outside the courthouse, Kerry Bladorn, Mrs. Bellush's sister, was grateful for Del Toro's apology but said it was "a little too late." During her statement in the courtroom, Bladorn said she hoped one day that she could forgive Del Toro.
"I believe in the death penalty, Mr. Del Toro," Bladorn said. "But for some reason God chose to keep you on this earth."
Jamie Bellush, who flew to Florida from Texas on Wednesday night, said he was numb to Del Toro's apology. "I don't know how sorry he really is," said Bellush, standing in the driveway of a Largo home of a friend's parents.
Earlier in the day, Bellush told Judge Logan that Del Toro should be locked in a cage with other "dangerous animals."
"Mr. Del Toro, may God have mercy on your soul," said Bellush, who has told the quadruplets only that the "bad stranger is in jail." The quads have finished preschool and are in swimming lessons this summer, he said. At 4 1/2, they are too young to understand what happened, he said, and know that their mother is in heaven with Jesus.
Bellush, 38, said he is relieved that the oldest daughters -- of Sheila Bellush and Allen Blackthorne -- will have to testify no more.
Thursday brought Jamie Bellush some closure, but he still has Blackthorne's sentencing and a civil trial to get through.
Still, "it was good to see (Del Toro) taken away," Bellush said. He is trying to return to normalcy. Today, Bellush will fly home to New Jersey and go back to work on Monday. Now that all of the men involved in his wife's murder have been or will be punished, Bellush said he will look for a new hobby.
The long road to Thursday began in November 1997.
Prosecutors said that Del Toro drove to Florida in a car registered to his grandmother. He stopped at a Sports Authority to buy camouflage clothes and at a gas station to get directions to the Bellush's Sarasota home.
Del Toro broke into the house and waited for Mrs. Bellush to come home. He shot her in the face with a .45-caliber gun and then stabbed her twice.
Afterward, he called his cousin, Samuel Gonzales to tell him that the job was done and that he was on his way back to Texas to collect his $4,000.
Days later, Texas police arrested Gonzales and another man involved in the murder, Daniel Alex Rocha.
Gonzales, 29, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in June 1998. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Rocha was convicted of first-degree murder in January 1999. He is serving a life sentence for his role in the murder.
Prosecutors said that Blackthorne asked Rocha, his golfing buddy, to find a hit man to bludgeon Mrs. Bellush. Rocha, 30, testified he contacted his friend Gonzales, who hired his cousin, Del Toro.
About three weeks after Mrs. Bellush was killed, Del Toro was captured in Mexico, where he had fled to avoid prosecution. Del Toro told Mexican authorities he was in the Bellush home, had hit the woman and left her unconscious -- but not dead. According to court records, Del Toro claimed someone he knew only as "Jorge" killed Mrs. Bellush.
He spent 20 months in a Mexican prison while a tug-of-war between United States and Mexican officials ensued. U.S. officials agreed to waive the death penalty in exchange for his extradition.
Del Toro was brought to Florida about a year ago and was scheduled to go to trial Monday.
But Del Toro said, "The truth is now my companion, Jamie. That is why I plead guilty because I am guilty."
Afterward, Del Toro's sister -- Margarita Sierra -- gave a tearful apology from the family to the Bellushes about the actions of her brother, whom she calls Joey.
"I'm not proud of any of this. We are deeply hurt," she said. But "we all love Joey. We always will love Joey."
Information from Times files and wires was used in this report.