Private eye must open files to police
By LEANORA MINAI
©St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 1998
SARASOTA -- A judge's decision Wednesday may lead the way to critical answers in the death of a Sarasota mother of quadruplets.
The judge ruled that information compiled by a private detective hired to investigate Sheila Bellush, only a month before her death, must be turned over to investigators in the case.
The ruling by Circuit Judge Robert McDonald resolved a question on whether written records, videotapes and audiotapes compiled by Bradenton private investigator Chuck Chambers are protected by state law.
"I feel relieved," Chambers said after Wednesday's hearing. "I felt like I was in a vice between the law and doing the morally right thing for the Bellush family."
Chambers has declined to discuss what he dug up on Bellush for secret clients. However, he said he was hired less than a month before her death by "more than one person" in Texas.
Detectives with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office are reviewing the material. While the judge's order opened files to detectives, the informationhas not been made public because it is part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Chambers' information likely will lead authorities back to Texas.
"Everything keeps going back that way," Chambers said.
Bellush, 35, was found dead in her Sarasota home Nov. 7, a few months after moving there from Texas with her husband, quadruplet toddlers and two daughters from a previous marriage to San Antonio businessman Allen Blackthorne.
Since the killing, three Texas men have been arrested.
Investigators say Jose Luis Del Toro, 21, shot Bellush, then fled to Mexico, where he is awaiting extradition to the United States. A cousin of Del Toro's and a golfing buddy of Blackthorne's have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
None of the three men arrested in the murder are thought to have a direct link to Bellush. Prosecutors have not charged anyone with originating a plot to have her killed.
Still, Wednesday's court ruling could provide answers.
The legal debate centered on whether private investigators such as Chambers can reveal the identity of their clients and the information they gather for them.
One attorney, Mark Lipinski, of Bradenton, argued that such information is private and should be protected much like the relationship between an attorney and client.
But Judge McDonald disagreed.
"There is compelling reason to believe this could involve a criminal investigation," he said.
Chambers, who charges $60 an hour plus expenses as a private investigator, described the relationship with his clients as "very businesslike."
"It was really an everyday request," said Chambers, 50. "We worked it over a period of days."
Chambers said he was shocked when he learned Bellush had been killed.
"I picked up the morning paper. I said, "Oh gosh. Oh no,' " Chambers said.
Earlier this month, Chambers was asked by Sarasota prosecutors to divulge his findings, including the substance of conversations with the people who hired him.
Prosecutors wanted to see, among other things, correspondence and documentation of telephone calls and fee payments, as well as the identity of anyone who had contact with the people who hired Chambers.
Concerned his clients played a role in Bellush's death, Chambers soon provided investigators with the records, but they were sealed in an evidence locker.
Chambers refused to answer investigators' questions, saying revealing confidential client information could land him in jail and jeopardize his license.
Chambers then notified his Texas clients, who hired Lipinski to head up Wednesday's court fight.
Lipinski was unsuccessful but said he may appeal. He will not name the clients, described in court papers as "John/Jane Doe."
Roy Barrera Jr., the Texas attorney representing Bellush's ex-husband, Allen Blackthorne, did not return calls seeking comment.
In Texas and New Jersey, the judge's decision brought hope for a resolution.
"We just pray to God, that's all, to help everybody through all this," said Maria Arvizo, the sister of Jose Luis Del Toro, the man charged with killing Bellush.
Jamie Bellush, Bellush's husband, said he hopes Chambers' information will "expose and get to the bottom of the case."
"We're just taking it day by day," he added.
-- Times staff writer Kelly Ryan contributed to this report.
©Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.