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Bellush murder


Del Toro won't face death penalty


©St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 1997

Sarasota prosecutors have agreed to waive the death penalty against Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. so the suspected hit man can be returned to Florida and prosecuted in the murder of a mother of quadruplets.

That concession was the only option for prosecutors, who want the 21-year-old former high school football star extradited from Mexico to stand trial in the killing of Sheila Bellush.

As that announcement was made in Sarasota on Wednesday, co-defendant Samuel Gonzales pleaded guilty in a San Antonio, Texas, courtroom to paying Del Toro, his cousin, to kill Bellush on Nov. 7.

Details of the plea agreement were kept secret, and attorneys would not say whether Gonzales had agreed to testify against other defendants in exchange for a lesser sentence.

On the decision to waive the death penalty, Bellush's husband, James, said he was disappointed but understood that prosecutors had "their back against the wall."

Prosecutors contacted Bellush before deciding and said they would rather see Del Toro spend life in prison than be set free by Mexican authorities.

"I don't like it, but what else are they going to do?" Bellush said from New Jersey.

Sheila Bellush, 35, was found dead in her Sarasota home two months after she moved there from San Antonio with her husband, quadruplet toddlers and two daughters from a previous marriage to businessman Allen Blackthorne.

Bellush and Blackthorne went through a bitter divorce and a custody battle that began in 1987 and lasted until her death.

Police began an international manhunt for Del Toro on Nov. 11 and found him nine days later in Monterrey, an industrial city in Mexico.

He has been held since in a Mexico City jail while U.S. authorities sought his return.

Their efforts included an array of top government officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, Mexican Ambassador Jesus Reyes-Heroles, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, several U.S. senators and the U.S. Justice Department.

Despite those efforts, Mexico routinely fights extradition of defendants to the United States; plus, the U.S. extradition treaty with Mexico requires states to waive the death penalty in capital murder cases.

"We tried to do everything that we could do behind the scenes," said Charlie Roberts, an assistant state attorney in Sarasota. "'We were left with no choice."

U.S. Justice Department officials are translating probable cause affidavits, which will be sent to Mexico within a week, Roberts said. After an extradition hearing, Del Toro could be in Florida as early as next month, he said.

Del Toro's south Texas attorney, Alfredo Padilla, has spent a month working with a team of Mexican attorneys to contest the extradition.

Padilla said he now is concerned that Del Toro could be indicted in San Antonio and could face the death penalty there. Roberts, an assistant state attorney in Sarasota, said Texas prosecutors have not indicated that they are interested in pursuing charges against Del Toro.

"We're happy that Florida has waived the death penalty," Padilla said. "That's one less thing to worry about for a 21-year-old man."

Sarasota prosecutors are also trying to bring two other defendants -- Gonzales, 27, and Daniel Alex Rocha, 29 -- back to Florida on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. Within three days, the Texas governor's office expects to finish paperwork authorizing the move.

Both men were arrested Nov. 17 on the Florida conspiracy charges. Within the past few weeks, they also have been indicted by a Texas grand jury, charging that both men hired Del Toro three days before the killing.

Neither will leave Texas before their charges are resolved there. No trial date has been set for Rocha, a golfing buddy of Bellush's ex-husband.

San Antonio District Attorney Steve Hilbig requested that Gonzales' plea agreement be sealed because the investigation is continuing. No sentencing date has been set. He would not speculate on whether other suspects could be the focus of a grand jury probe.

Rocha and Gonzales are being held in the Bexar County Jail.

"I anticipate that under the terms of the plea agreement, it will be necessary for him to travel to Florida prior to sentencing," Hilbig said.

Charles "Bucky" Tennison, Gonzales' attorney in San Antonio, declined to say why the plea was sealed by Judge Sharon MacRae.

His only comment: "We thought it was the best thing for Sammy Gonzales."

©Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.