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Life without 'Mommy'

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 1998


N

Jamie Bellush visits the grave of his wife Sheila Bellush in New Jersey.

Life without 'Mommy'
Jamie Bellush moved his family to New Jersey for a fresh start. But pain -- and struggle -- followed them.
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]

EWTON, N.J. -- On this lush, rolling hill with a view of the Kittatinny Mountains, Jamie Bellush sits sobbing. For the first time in days, he is alone, gazing at the thick blades of grass shooting up from his wife's grave.

There's something unsettled about the earth where Sheila Leigh Bellush rests. No footstone marks the ground. Still, this is where Bellush faces the truth of his wife's murder.

"It's not fair," he cries in short, shallow whimpers. "Nobody deserves to die like that. If she had cancer or something, at least I'd have time to say goodbye."

Several miles away, Sheila's teenage daughter Stevie sits in class, the dawn of summer upon her. She doesn't like living here but won't leave. She can't bear to think about the quadruplets, her half sister and half brothers, growing up without her.

Too young to understand, toddlers Frankie, Timmy, Joey and Courtney will always know their mother as the beautiful woman in the picture. Sheila Bellush is gone now. And as a recent day shows, the Sarasota wife and mother has left behind a family struggling to put their lives together.

* * *

It's close to 8 a.m. in this New Jersey suburb, and Nadia Nelson, a 20-year-old live-in nanny, is hovering over the kitchen table, spooning scrambled eggs on the plastic Winnie the Pooh dishes before Frankie, Joey and Courtney. Arthur, a cartoon aardvark, flashes on TV, and Nadia is begging the toddlers to dig in.

"Wow!" she squeals. "Look at Joey. Joey's eating."

Frankie, with a 2-year-old's vocabulary, is more interested in his t-wuck. Forget about the eggs. Standing up, sitting down, he rolls it over the table. Joey notices and, after grabbing it, he pushes it through his eggs.

Courtney, she doesn't want the high chair; no, it's the big girl's chair for her.

"Hi Daddy!" Frankie shouts as his father walks in. With just five hours' sleep, Jamie Bellush greets a new day. Timmy, his other son, is trailing behind.

Bellush is coming off a marathon media blitz in Washington. His mission was simple: Get the man he believes killed his wife out of Mexico and into Florida to face a first-degree murder charge. Police say Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. crossed the border after murdering Bellush in Sarasota on Nov. 7. He has been fighting extradition since.

"Did you see me on TV, Nadia?" Bellush asks. "Did I do good?"

"Yeah," she says. "You were great."

* * *

A salesman for Pfizer pharmaceuticals, Bellush spends most of his day on the road, hobnobbing with doctors.

A consummate salesman, he worked the media in Washington for 12 hours straight, repeating his message in front of the Mexican Embassy, as if he had pressed play on a tape recorder.

"This guy shot my wife through the face and cut her throat in front of my quadruplets. Why is he still in Mexico?"

Over and over.

"Stop buying Mexican products and vacationing in Mexico until this situation is resolved."

Over and over.

"You keep your message simple and consistent," Bellush says later. "You say the same thing over and over until it finally sinks in.

"You've got to ask for the sale five times."

Below the bravado and crusader's zeal is another side, a complex and solemn man working through his wife's death. A 6-foot-1, 240-pound ex-Marine, Bellush moved his family after the murder to New Jersey, some 1,200 miles from Sarasota, so he could live with his parents and create a network of support.

Dozens of unpacked cartons sit in a stuffy attic. Bellush can't bring himself to unravel the traces of Sheila's life: size 6 shoes, natural-tone eye shadow, Victoria's Secret lingerie.

"I wish it would go away," he says.

* * *

The red, company-issued Pontiac Grand Prix rolls along a ribbon of road that cuts through the mountain valley. A picture of William C. Steere, Pfizer's chairman and CEO, rests on the dashboard.

"He motivates me," Bellush says.

Bellush is headed for Yellow Frame Cemetery, about 15 miles away, when he detours to his old high school to visit a former teacher who now teaches his 14-year-old stepdaughter. Bellush hasn't seen Stevie in a day or so. She approaches him in the classroom.

"Did you need me?" Stevie asks.

"Nah," Bellush replies. "We're just jackin' around."

End of conversation; Stevie returns to her classmates.

Fred Fedele asks about Washington.

"Caused a lot of trouble," Bellush tells his former teacher. "The Mexicans got embarrassed."

After 15 minutes of small talk, Bellush is back in his car and headed to his wife's grave when his cell phone rings. A female client is on the other end.

"How'd I do yesterday?" Bellush asks, referring to his appearance on the Today show. "Man, I was on a rampage, wasn't I?"

If she were younger, he says, he might date her.

He pulls through the cemetery's heavy iron gates and climbs out of the car when he reaches the plot where he will come to rest one day, too. Sometimes he breaks down when he visits; sometimes he doesn't shed a tear.

Today, tears roll. He misses her. She had such a tough life. She was 10 when her father died during the Vietnam War. She never seemed to get enough rest. She laughed at all his stories.

Then his memories turn. He picked out the pine casket. He and Stevie bought her burial clothes at the Gap: jeans, a black turtleneck, a sweater. There was a wake, which included an open casket. He didn't see her body. Couldn't bear to look.

Nov. 7 hangs heavy in his mind. "I wish I had five more minutes with her," he said. "Just ask her, "What do you want me to do, Sheila?' I'm convinced when she laid there, gasping, she probably said, "Take care of my children."'

Bellush leaves the cemetery and begins down the road when his cell phone rings again.

It's a radio reporter from Seattle. She wants to fly Bellush out.

"Send me a ticket," he says. "I'd love to come. I'd be more than happy to work with you. The bottom line is, you help me, I'll help you."

* * *

Their romance began on a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to San Antonio.

"Is that seat taken?" Bellush asked the attractive woman in the aisle seat.

Sheila was an administrative assistant for a high-powered San Antonio law firm. A petite woman, she weighed 110 pounds and stood 5 feet 3. Bellush was the intrepid salesman, the burly ex-Marine.

"It was kind of like love at first sight," he says.

After their airplane landed, Sheila let Bellush drive her home. She gave him her phone number and said good night.

Within a month, they were planning their wedding. Over Christmas, he dropped to one knee and proposed by the lake outside his parents' home.

"How much time do I have?" Sheila joked.

"None," Bellush replied.

They married in 1993.

Sheila was coming off her first marriage, to Allen Blackthorne, a wealthy San Antonio businessman who invented an electronic muscle stimulator. They had two daughters, Stevie Leigh and Daryl Leigh Blackthorne.

They ended five years of marriage with a decidedly messy divorce, each side accusing the other of abusing the girls.

Sheila eventually obtained custody, and Blackthorne terminated his parental rights. So technically, when Sheila died, Stevie and Daryl became orphans.

Police documents suggest a strong link between Blackthorne and an alleged conspiracy that ultimately led to Sheila's death.

Blackthorne, the records say, wanted Sheila injured so he could get custody of their 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.

Gonzales, 27, is serving a 19-year sentence. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and has cooperated with detectives. Rocha, 28, has been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder. Both men are in the Sarasota County Jail.

"Blackthorne's arrest is anticipated in the near future," Texas Rangers Sgt. Gerardo De Los Santos and Lt. Ray Cano wrote in a Nov. 29 report.

Blackthorne has not been charged, and his attorney maintains his innocence.

* * *

Home from school, Stevie is napping in her bedroom.

She says her mom comes to her in dreams. She is beautiful, her laughter filling the family van as they drive by their Sarasota home.

"I'm so proud of you," she tells Stevie.

When she awakens, Stevie sees her mother's long, slender face staring from a frame on her nightstand. Later, when she tidies her room, she tucks the picture in a drawer. She pulls it out days later.

Sometimes she looks at the picture and grows weary.

"Days like those," Stevie says, "I think about my mom all day."

She thinks about the nights they sat up in bed, reading and making googly-eyes at Harrison Ford on TV. She thinks about listening to the quads' heartbeats under her mother's belly. She thinks about finding her mother's body.

The school bus had just dropped her off. Inside, she saw the quads crying, wearing only life vests.

"Where's Mommy?" she asked.

After searching for her mother from room to room, Stevie walked into the kitchen. There was a trail of blood. A telephone dangled off its hook. "Mom? Mom?" she demanded as she knelt beside her.

Stevie pushed aside her mother's mane of light brown hair. Her green eyes were open. But she did not answer.

A blackened bullet hole pierced her right cheekbone. Her throat was cut.

In a nightmarish fog, Stevie ran to the bedroom. She grabbed the phone and dialed 911.

"Wait a second," she thought, "this isn't happening." She slammed down the phone and returned to the kitchen.

She pulled the receiver to her ear again.

"Hi," the dispatcher said, "this is the 911 center, what's the matter?"

* * *

Stevie acts like any teenager.

She counts calories and worries about pimples. She jogs 2 miles a day and trains for the soccer team. She talks about six end-of-the-year parties she wants to attend and the boyfriend she's thinking about breaking up with.

Yet, in a year, she has experienced what many never face in a lifetime.

She attended three schools. Her mother was killed. Her father disowned her and is mentioned in her mother's death. Her 12-year-old sister, Daryl, was sent to live with her aunt in Oregon because of behavioral problems, Bellush says.

Stevie used to carry a photo of Bellush and her mom in her pocket. She folded away Bellush's face, leaving a crease. She says she only wanted to see her mom.

"It's really hard here," Stevie says. "I don't get along extremely well with Jamie or his parents. "I get so frustrated because I feel like he doesn't help out with the kids. I want to sit down and just cry. I want to be a kid. I want to go to the movies. I want to go to friends' houses."

Bellush knows she is unhappy.

"She's in a home where she's loved and wanted," he says. "I don't know what I can for for that kid. I'm doing everything I can for her. She really doesn't know where she belongs, because, quite frankly, she's an orphan."

* * *

The quads have finished their meatball dinner. Dad is in the living room, munching on pizza, watching Jeopardy! and letting the toddlers crawl over him.

Bellush reaches for an 8-by-10 picture on a table.

"Mommy, Mommy," he instructs. "That's Mommy."

Frankie, nicknamed Cranky Frankie, clutches the frame.

"I want to see Mommy," he says. "Where's Mommy?"

"Right there," Bellush replies.

They play some more.

He wants Courtney to give him kisses. He points to his nose. "I got a boo-boo," he tells her. He points to his elbow, "Courtney, I got a boo-boo, right here. Please, please," he begs.

No kisses tonight.

"She plays hard to get, like her mom," Bellush says.

Bedtime rolls around at sundown. As Stevie helps carry the quads upstairs, they call for Nadia: "Nana, Nana," their high-pitched voices ring through the house.

* * *

It's nighttime, and the kids are in bed. Bellush is on the living-room floor. He pulls out a video of the quads' birthday, Dec. 5, 1995. They were born a minute apart.

He hasn't watched it since Sheila's death. He presses play. Stevie watches.

Video camera in hand, Bellush captured Sheila before the births.

"We're very excited," Sheila says. Her belly is stretched, the size of a beach ball. She gained 80 pounds and was ordered bed rest in a hospital for two months.

"Hi babies! Hi kids!" she says.

"Joey, Timmy, Frankie, Courtney," she announces, touching her belly. Then she issues the disclaimer, "If I'm right."

Later, a relieved Sheila looks into the camera and says: "I'm very happy. Everyone's doing good, and your dad's real happy, which makes me happy."

Bellush watches a little longer and stops the tape.

Stevie heads upstairs. He's alone now, staring at the ceiling.

The video has taken him where he doesn't want to go.

"She was like a part of me, you know," he says. "I think sometimes I need to look at that just to bring myself back to where I know I should be.

"Maybe sometimes I'm too happy."


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