THE BELLUSH MURDER: Still unexplained are the 20-month delay in the extradition and the role of the victim's ex-husband.
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 1999
It was 1 a.m. when Jose Luis Del Toro, wearing a baggy T-shirt, slacks and a ball cap, stepped off a chartered jet owned by Mexico's attorney general. After 20 months of international tug of war, Del Toro was back on U.S. soil.
He was driven to a Miami jail, where he ate a breakfast of fried eggs and grits, and later had a turkey-bologna and cheese sandwich. He also was interviewed by two Sarasota County detectives, who described him as "uncooperative."
Shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday, a van pulled through a crush of television news trucks into the booking area of the Sarasota County Jail. Del Toro, wearing handcuffs and a bulletproof vest, climbed out.
Subdued and expressionless, he walked 15 feet, his eyes fixed on the ground.
Reporters shouted questions. What did he have to say to the Bellush family? No response.
Prosecutors hope Del Toro's rather uneventful return will be the first step in unraveling numerous questions over the death of Sheila Bellush, the Sarasota mother of quadruplets, who was slain in November 1997.
His extradition revives at least two other issues: Why did it take the Mexican government 20 months to return the U.S. citizen? And what role, if any, dida Bellush's ex-husband, Allen Blackthorne, play in the murder?
Del Toro, now 23, will make his first court appearance at 1 p.m. today in Sarasota Circuit Court. A public defender will probably be appointed, and Del Toro, a high school football star from south Texas, will most likely enter a plea of innocent
"We have had indications that his family is . . . unable to afford counsel," said Elliott Metcalfe, Sarasota County's public defender.
He will be tried next year in the first-degree murder of Bellush, who was 35 years old when she died.
Investigators say Del Toro broke into the Sarasota home of Jamie and Sheila Bellush and waited for her on Nov. 7, 1997. Del Toro shot her in the face and cut her throat twice in front of the quadruplet toddlers, they say.
He left behind a trail of evidence linking him to the killing, including his fingerprint on the Bellushes' clothes dryer and the .45-caliber pistol authorities say was used in the killing.
Del Toro will not face the death penalty. Instead, prosecutors say they will go for a life sentence. The U.S. extradition treaty with Mexico requires states to waive the death penalty before Mexico will send a murder defendant back for prosecution.
Prosecutors, congressional officials and U.S. Department of Justice representatives seemed unable to explain the sudden change
"Nobody was really expecting it or had any forewarning," Earl Moreland, the Sarasota County state attorney, said Tuesday.
Why Monday and not last year?
"I don't know how the word came up from who in Mexico to U.S. authorities," said John Russell, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney General's Office in Washington.
As possible reasons, officials pointed to last month's congressional hearing on extradition issues in Washington and Gov. Jeb Bush's trade mission this week in Mexico.
But Mexican officials say Del Toro simply exhausted his appeals.
During the 20-month legal dance, Del Toro filed two extradition appeals with Mexican courts. Essentially, he claimed Mexico's extradition treaty with the United States was unconstitutional.
Del Toro's final appeal was that the Mexican government violated his civil rights by saying he was eligible for extradition. That appeal was denied by three judges who then ordered Del Toro's extradition to the United States.
Before Del Toro could file another appeal, officials in Mexico had him on a jet, said Moreland, the Sarasota County prosecutor.
"I'm not sure anybody really knows what really was going on in Mexico," Moreland said.
On Tuesday, a top Mexican diplomat in Washington defended the pace of the process.
Jose Antonio Zabalgoitia, spokesman at the Mexican Embassy, said it took until Friday for Del Toro to exhaust the appeals process, which is available to anyone in Mexico.
Zabalgoitia said the length of Del Toro's extradition is not unusual.
"It was perhaps too long for Mr. Bellush," Zabalgoitia said. "It was perhaps too long for other people who wanted to profit politically. . . . But it was not long in terms of what it normally takes for these kinds of processes to conclude."
Moreland, the Sarasota County state attorney, said his dealings with Mexican authorities were frustrating. "We kept on getting conflicting information," he said.
Last month, Jamie Bellush, Sheila Bellush's widower, testified before a committee in Washington. He said Mexico harbored a fugitive. He said that since Del Toro is a U.S. citizen, he should have been deported after his arrest in Mexico in November 1997.
Bellush said Tuesday that political pressure by U.S. Rep. Dan Miller, R-Bradenton, and Bush's trade mission led to Del Toro's extradition. No public mention of the extradition was made at an official breakfast Tuesday between Bush and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.
U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow said he found nothing unusual in the sudden departure of Del Toro. "I think it's coincidental," he said. "We have been working on this for a long time."
According to prosecutors and records, Blackthorne wanted Bellush injured so he could get custody of their two teenage daughters, a plan that led Blackthorne to contact golfing buddy Daniel Rocha, who contacted his friend, Samuel Gonzales, who then got Del Toro to do the job
Texas Rangers were so sure Blackthorne was involved they put it in writing three weeks after her death. "Blackthorne's arrest is anticipated in the near future," a detective wrote in an investigative report Nov. 29, 1997.
Blackthorne, a wealthy San Antonio, Texas, businessman who invented an electronic muscle stimulator, has not been charged with any crime.
A grand jury in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, has reopened an investigation into the Bellush killing.
Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed would not comment.
"There isn't anything that we have to say about Allen Blackthorne at this time," Joy Clark, one of Reed's aides, said Tuesday. "Absolutely nothing."
Blackthorne could not be reached for comment.
His West Palm Beach attorney, Richard Lubin, said Del Toro's return is good news.
"Del Toro, if he says anything, will, I hope, tell the truth and again explain that Allen was not involved," Lubin said.
Blackthorne's wife, Maureen, would not comment Tuesday, but has supported her husband.
"Would you stay with a murderer?" she said recently. "Any woman that would, would be out of their mind."
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos and staff writers David Adams and Sara Fritz contributed to this report.