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Somewhere, the truth

Allen Blackthorne shows his frustration in court. "We aren't depending on our lawyers," he says. "We're depending on ourselves."

Photos by Lisa DeJong of the Times Staff

A rich man plays golf, dotes on his children, loves his wife. Is he also capable of murder?

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 15, 1999


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Allen Blackthorne rocks back and forth in a beat up office chair, outside his garage, swaying in his special spot.

He doesn't allow smoking inside his $1.4-million Mediterranean home, and he smokes like a chimney, so that adds up to him spending a lot of time out here, barefoot, in his sweat shorts and T-shirt.

The trail
Motorists slow and stare. He says they're not gawking at him, they're admiring the pearly-beige home he shares with his third bride, Maureen, their two young sons and live-in nanny.

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The morning ritual: Allen and Maureen Blackthorne bring coffee, diet Snapple and cigarettes out by the garage to start the day. Says Blackthorne: "You never know how close a marriage is until you've faced something horrible."

His brown hair is thick and wavy, longer than the close-cut in the photographs splashed across newspapers the last 21 months. He likes to sit out here, surrounded by his lush lawn (it's Tiff 419 Bermuda grass, and he keeps it mowed to tee box height) and brood over the buzz that consumes his every day:

Did he do it? Did he get a golfing buddy to arrange something awful for his ex-wife?

Life goes on for Allen Blackthorne. He gets price quotes for health insurance. Maureen test-drives a $54,000 Cadillac. Jeff McKinley, the pool man, comes every Wednesday.

McKinley recently bought a set of Blackthorne's old Yonex golf clubs. "I'm saving them," he says. "They'll be worth money some day."

McKinley heads off to test the chemicals in the 60,000 gallon swimming pool, about triple the size of a typical backyard pool.

Maureen, fresh from a dip, joins Blackthorne as he expounds on that tricky emotion called love.

"What is being in love?" he asks. "It's a good question. I went a lot of my life not believing in the concept."

That's because his mother did things like club him with a 2-by-4 for leaving his tricycle behind the car. As psychologists tell it in court records, she doused him with gasoline when he was 13, lit a match and held it to him until he caught fire.

A man smothered the flames with a blanket. "He got the hell burnt out of him," Blackthorne says, which leads him to this: "Love wasn't something that existed."

He married once, a woman who left him for her ex-husband after three weeks. Then he met Sheila. She was perfect. "Almost too good to be true."

She was gracious, accommodating, charming, and she was pretty. He thought they were perfectly compatible: He cooked dinner, she washed the dishes.

But it was just an image, he says now, smoking another Vantage, just some sort of idealized vision. He says the nicest thing Sheila ever did for him was file for divorce.

He was home watching TV when he heard the first report out of Sarasota: Sheila had been shot in the face, her throat slit. He says he shed not a tear.

"I never loved her," he says. "Never."

The way Blackthorne tells it, their lives as husband and wife went like this: Sheila spent his money and slept with other men while he traveled the country, building his company, teaching people how to sell the muscle stimulator he developed.

By the time Sheila filed for divorce, they had two girls, Stevie and Daryl. The divorce was bitter, the children pawns, the court file growing to thousands of pages of accusations and name calling. Blackthorne started videotaping the hand-offs, when he would get the girls for the weekend, or return them to mom.

"Go to momma," Blackthorne begs a sobbing daughter in a 1988 clip. "Honey, come on. You've got to."

Over nine months, Blackthorne says, lawyers bled him of $900,000, and he filed for bankruptcy. Sheila sued him, saying he was hiding business assets to defraud her of her interest in Blackthorne's company.

A grand jury accused him of sexually assaulting Stevie when she was 4. Blackthorne says it's not so and blames the accusation on more divorce ugliness, convinced that Sheila put their daughter up to it. It took a year, but the case was dismissed, an assistant district attorney concluding: "She will not tell daddy's secrets; he doesn't do it anymore."

They remarried, Blackthorne to Maureen, Sheila to Jamie Bellush, who sells drugs for a pharmaceutical company. Sheila worked as an administrative assistant in a law firm. When she delivered quadruplets, she made the San Antonio Express-News and became known as the "Quad Mom."

The newspaper wrote about her again when police came to her home, took custody of Daryl and led Sheila to jail. They examined the welts on Daryl's legs and charged Sheila with assault, because Daryl said mommy hit me with a belt. Now it was Sheila's turn to blame the charges on the ugly divorce.

Though detectives hadn't closed their case, social workers determined there had been no abuse and dropped their investigation. Daryl came home.

In July 1997, out of the blue, Blackthorne told a judge he didn't want anything more to do with the girls and gave up the parental rights he'd been fighting for since the divorce 10 years earlier. Sheila changed the girls' last names to Bellush, and she and Jamie moved to Sarasota in September. Two months later, the Quad Mom was all over the news again.

* * *

Dinner is done, California rolls and shrimp tempura at Koi Kawa, a San Antonio sushi bar, and Blackthorne and Maureen are heading home, where the nanny already has tucked in 4-year-old Brandon and 2-year-old Jacob.

They're in Maureen's black Mitsubishi Montero -- license plate, "4 3Boys" -- the windows down, the sun roof open, Blackthorne's hand wrapped around Maureen's. Ricky Martin is on the stereo, and Blackthorne is singing to his wife:

"I count the minutesI count the hoursI count the secondsTill you're here by my side again."

In Maureen, Blackthorne says, he has found his soul mate, his Venezuelan sweetheart. He has found the woman who puts his needs before her own, who makes him feel needed, wanted. They finish each other's sentences, light each other's cigarettes, call each other "Papa" and "Mama."

"There isn't anything that I don't love about Maureen," Blackthorne says. "I could sit for days and talk to Maureen and never grow tired. Physically, she's perfect. Emotionally, she's just ideal."

About seven years ago, one of Maureen's friends met Blackthorne through a computer dating service. He went to dinner with the woman and Maureen but ended up paying more attention to Maureen than to his date.

Maureen was delighted to have the attention of this very eligible man, but she had been stung before by cheating boyfriends. She hired a private detective when Blackthorne traveled to Las Vegas.

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Blackthorne encourages 2-year-old Jacob to be brave and jump, while 4-year-old Brandon hangs on to dad's shoulders. "Things that exist in my world," he says, "are love, kindness, sharing."

"I want to know everything he's doing," she says. "I want to know if he's with hookers, ordering room service for one person or two. I want to know what movies he's watching."

The private investigator reported back to Maureen. Blackthorne's vice: blackjack, $600 a hand.

"But now," says Maureen, "I know he's faithful."

There was a time, though, before they married in 1993: Maureen walked out on him. Sheila had warned her that Blackthorne was trouble. Maureen met Sheila and Jamie Bellush at an oyster bar in San Antonio, and Sheila told her that Blackthorne had hit her and sexually molested their daughter, Stevie.

Blackthorne says he remembers getting Maureen on the phone. "I said, "If you want to break up with me, why don't you do it for the right reasons?' "

He says he brought two boxes of documents to Maureen's house and dared her to read every last line of testimony, from his daughters, from doctors, and anybody else. Maureen read for three weeks.

"Then, she called up," Blackthorne says, "and apologized to me."

There was another moment, after they married. They argued about Maureen's $100,000 savings that she wanted to keep separate from their pooled finances. Things got heated, and Maureen, who was pregnant, wanted to drive away. Blackthorne wouldn't let her, so she got the police on the phone. They came out and counseled the couple for two hours.

How did it turn out? Did Maureen keep her $100,000 savings separate? No, she did it Blackthorne's way. She pooled her money.

* * *

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Louis Molinet gives Blackthorne a poke out on the course. "I see people talking, and they don't want to play with him," Molinet says. "It's got to hurt."

Golf and Blackthorne, Blackthorne and golf. They are practically connected.

How often does he play? "Just the days that end with Y."

He plays for the sport, and he plays because he loves to gamble. There's something special about the feel of a golf ball rocketing off a driver. Then again, there's nothing quite like standing over a putt with a few thousand dollars on the line.

"It gets rid of the complacency within golf of, "So what if you score poorly on a hole? So what if you miss a putt.' "

On the golf course it's one-on-one, not like the business world, where it's about competing companies. Allen Blackthorne likes to go one-on-one.

He hates welshers. "I'm tired of not getting paid when I win on the golf course," he says. "If I lose in golf, I pay. One of the other guys hung me out for $12,000. I want paid the same day I win, period."

Blackthorne plays at Oak Hills, the country club that he says cost him $22,500 to join, plus monthly dues of about $300. It's been uncomfortable around Oak Hills lately, with golfers threatening to leave if Blackthorne shows up.

Louis Molinet, a born-again Christian, met Blackthorne after Sheila's death and has become his financial adviser. Molinet's 8-year-old plays with Blackthorne's son, Brandon.

"I'm divorced," Molinet says. "I hated my ex-wife. But 10 years later, I don't go whack her. Come on. I don't see it. I just don't see it."

For today's round, Blackthorne, Molinet and Lou Wood stay away from Oak Hills. They'll play Canyon Springs, a public course built on an old ranch. They'll play a game of skins, $10 and up a hole.

Wood, who owns a security business, is running late, so Blackthorne kills time at the driving range, launching ball after ball hundreds of yards, talking to himself all the while. "Come on Allen," he says. "Groove your swing. Get it in there."

He says his handicap runs between a 2 and a 10, and he won Oak Hills' 37th annual Black and White Championship a few months ago.

Wood shows up. A member at Oak Hills, he admires how his friend has kept his head up. "If I were in the same position, I don't know if I would continue going to the club because you know they're over there in the corners talking about you."

Blackthorne says being Gossip Topic No. 1 is no big deal.

"Truth," he likes to say, "is a process."

The Bexar County Courthouse is an architectural classic, built in 1896, of red sandstone. Early morning, before the heat of the day, it cuts the blue sky downtown.

The Blackthornes have 15 minutes before the hearing in Judge Pat Boone's chambers, time enough for a quick smoke.

Between drags on cigarettes, they are approached by two sheriff's deputies headed for court, their dark uniforms pressed to perfection.

Sgt. Jerry Torralva stops and introduces himself, extending his hand for a shake. Blackthorne, Oakley sunglasses propped on his head, smiles at his newfound admirer. Maureen chimes in: "He's the most popular never-charged suspect."

The sergeant has come to the courthouse on another case, but takes it upon himself to offer his services as Blackthorne's bodyguard. "There's always somebody here that might want some kind of attention," Torralva says. "He could be shot or whatever."

It's almost 9:30. "You ready?" Torralva asks.

Side by side, they weave around the metal detectors and security guards, down the hall and up the elevator to the fourth floor. Content that Blackthorne has arrived safely, his escort moves on.

Blackthorne and Maureen take seats on the wooden benches reserved for the audience. Three lawyers from Blackthorne's side sit at one table, across from two lawyers for Jamie Bellush. Sheila's widower filed this civil suit, accusing not only Blackthorne but Maureen of planning Sheila's murder, and for that, Bellush says, they should have to pay him $32-million.

Bellush isn't here today. He's in New Jersey, where he moved after the murder. The TV cameras roll.

Bellush's lawyer, Les Strieber, wants the judge to order Blackthorne to turn over his federal tax returns, bank statements, corporate stock records and golfing receipts. "This is a conspiracy to commit murder, judge," Strieber says. "The guy's not going to write a check out of his household account."

Blackthorne has filed his own countersuit against Bellush, for slander, for having the audacity to publicly accuse him of arranging Sheila's murder. Blackthorne's lawyers want the judge to let them see Sheila's diary and Franklin planner, because they think it could help them demonstrate that Sheila was not the happy, angelic wife as she has been portrayed.

The lawyers accuse each side of some of the worst things: lying, withholding documents, destroying documents. They drown each other out, arguing at the same time. The judge interrupts for the fourth time, asking the court reporter: "Can you take them both at the same time, Heather?"

"No, sir," she replies.

Two hours later, the hearing is over. The judge orders the Blackthornes to turn over their 1997 tax returns and bank statements. He postpones the civil trial until March 6, 2000.

In the hallway, Blackthorne, poised as usual, looks directly into the TV cameras, declares his innocence and goes off on his frustration with the system.

"They love the limelight, man," says bailiff Larry Contreras. "Right up until they go to the penitentiary, they're going to enjoy it."

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After court, Blackthorne gives Channel 5 reporter Brandy Ralston his take on how things went: "Are they afraid to turn over documents as the court ordered? Yes. They are very afraid, and they should be afraid. Is it frustrating to keep coming back? It is, but we'll get there."

Blackthorne settles into the living room sofa, and Maureen pops a tape into the VCR. It's news coverage they've recorded of the case, and they go over it like a football coach studies game film. Remote in hand, Blackthorne plays sound bite after sound bite.

Blackthorne rewinds the tape to the beginning, the night Sheila's body was discovered. "The search is on for the ex-husband of Sheila Bellush," a TV news anchor says on the tape.

The Blackthornes had just come in from dinner at Morton's steakhouse and flipped on the news.

"Can you imagine?" Maureen says. "This is what we heard November 7th. Can you imagine getting in your living room at night, and you hear on TV that police say your husband is responsible for the murder of this woman?"

The next day, investigators from Sarasota were at Blackthorne's door. Roy Barrera Jr., who had narrowly lost a race for Texas attorney general, sent them away. Barrera told the detectives he was Blackthorne's lawyer and any questions had to go through him.

To this day, Blackthorne has not given a statement to authorities. To this day, Maureen says she hasn't asked her husband if he ordered Sheila's murder.

"I don't have to," she says.

Maureen has her own concerns. Danny Rocha, her husband's golfing partner, says it was Maureen who came up with the code name for their little operation: "Blackcow."

"Let me share something with you," Maureen says. "Venezuela is in South America, but I did not grow up on a farm."

After watching news clip after news clip, the Blackthornes move down the hall to a big room decorated with lots of art, including a David Hockney print, a Scott Mutter framed poster and an oil painting.

This used to be Blackthorne's business office, when he was marketing the muscle stimulator device that made him a millionaire. Now at age 44, he's essentially retired, relying on a 30-percent share in the Washington company that markets his devices. Two years ago, he and Maureen made nearly half a million dollars. Maureen, 38, does consulting work from their home, helping hospitals purchase equipment.

They have transformed that old business office into what amounts to the Allen Blackthorne Is Innocent campaign headquarters. He says he and Maureen work here 40 hours a week, plotting, organizing, reflecting on his situation.

"I'm innocent," he says. "I really am."

He and Maureen have put together meticulous poster boards, highlighting evidence they say exonerates them.

They have binders cataloging witness testimony, maps of Sheila's neighborhood in Sarasota and scores of questions they want authorities to answer.

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Maureen and Allen Blackthorne have put together homemade evidence boards, complete with photos of the major players, portions of depositions, phone records and questions they have developed. "I feel like part of my life has been stripped," Maureen says.

Here's one: "Why didn't you investigate to find out Jamie's debt before the murder, and that Jamie had several life insurance policies on Sheila?"

Blackthorne says the cops have been after him from the get-go, ignoring evidence that might implicate others, like Jamie Bellush. "He was able to divert all attention from himself on to myself," Blackthorne says.

Yes, he says, he golfed with Danny Rocha the day Sheila died. Yes, Rocha came to his home that day, but only to pay a gambling debt.

"It looks weird," he acknowledges, but it doesn't mean he's guilty.

And Rocha's statement -- that Blackthorne asked him to arrange for Sheila's tongue to be cut out -- cannot be trusted.

Blackthorne is standing now, on the plush tan carpet, acting out Sheila's murder. Maureen watches, her hands cupped around a mug of instant coffee.

"This was rage," he says, his fists punching the air. "He stabs her like this, all the way to the spine. He cuts the bottom of her feet, her forearms. He takes a knife and drives it through the palm of her hand -- 33 some cuts."

The police say Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. was alone when he slit Sheila's throat. Oh, says Blackthorne, then why weren't his black boots splattered with blood? Why was there no blood on Del Toro's camouflage jacket and shirt?

There had to be a second man, Blackthorne says, and that man was Jamie Bellush, who not only plotted Sheila's murder, he says, but was there, dressed in Desert Storm camouflage, to see that it was carried out. Blackthorne says Sheila was unhappy with her marriage to Bellush and had contacted a divorce lawyer just two days before her death.

Del Toro, now in the Sarasota County Jail, told authorities in Mexico that it was Sheila's "ex-husband" who wanted her dead and that another man was with him that day, someone named "Jorge."

Blackthorne says he's pinning a lot of his hopes on Del Toro agreeing to talk. "I'm excited about him naming the other person."

Jamie Bellush's attorneys say Blackthorne's poster boards and news interviews are a well-orchestrated campaign to create confusion for whatever jury eventually may be seated. "All he's doing is making crap up, and the media's buying it," says Strieber, one of Bellush's lawyers.

It's quite something to be Allen Blackthorne. He goes about his life, a giant cloud following him everywhere, yet charged with no crime. People keep asking him why, after nearly two years, he hasn't been arrested. His answer is simple: He hasn't been charged because he's innocent.

"Who has been the only suspect for 21 months?" he asks. "Who has it been? Me."

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