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Bellush murder

 


Links unfold in killing of Sarasota mother

By KELLY RYAN and LEANORA MINAI

©St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 1997


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Detectives in two states said Tuesday they expect more arrests in the killing of a Sarasota mother of quadruplets.

"There's definitely more to the entire event," said Sarasota sheriff's Lt. Bill Stookey.

"It's going to hamper the investigation if we talk about it."

The first major break in the case came Monday, when two San Antonio men were charged with conspiracy in the Nov. 7 shooting death of 35-year-old Sheila Bellush. A suspected gunman was identified Nov. 10 but since has eluded authorities in the United States and Mexico.

Sarasota sheriff's investigators and Texas Rangers would not comment on a motive or what they believe to be the role of Samuel Gonzales, 27, and Daniel Alex Rocha, 28. They also would not say whether those suspects are cooperating or how many other suspects they are seeking.

Also on Tuesday:

An attorney for Bellush's ex-husband confirmed that his client is a golfing buddy of Rocha's, but said that connection is a coincidence. San Antonio businessman Allen Blackthorne divorced Bellush in 1987, but the couple continued to spar until this summer over custody of their daughters, 12 and 13.

Authorities confirmed that Gonzales is a cousin of Jose Luis Del Toro Jr., the 21-year-old suspected of fatally shooting Bellush with a .45-caliber pistol. Rocha, an independent contractor and friend of Gonzales', was portrayed Tuesday as a well-known golfer who frequently played with Blackthorne.

Sheila Bellush was killed in her Markridge Road home two months after moving to Florida with her husband, quadruplet toddlers and two older daughters from a previous marriage. She moved to escape intense scrutiny in Texas, where she faced a bitter divorce, a lengthy custody battle and allegations of beating her 12-year-old daughter.

Since her death, attention often has focused on Blackthorne, a vice president of a medical equipment company. Blackthorne has hired a prominent criminal defense attorney, saying media reports had sullied his reputation by linking him to the crime.

Blackthorne spent hours Monday night meeting with attorney Roy Barrera Jr. in his downtown San Antonio office.

At a news conference Tuesday, Barrera stressed that Blackthorne's friendship with Rocha does not mean he is guilty. The day Bellush was killed, Blackthorne played 18 holes of golf with Rocha and two other men at The Bandit, a public course that opened Nov. 1 just outside the city.

"I emphasize my client was not in and around Florida and is not responsible for the death of Sheila Bellush," Barrera said, adding that Blackthorne does not know Gonzales or Del Toro.

John Martin, a Texas Ranger working the case, said investigators are looking into leads, but that they are in "the early stages of the investigation."

No warrant has been issued for Blackthorne's arrest, he said.

Barrera said he met with Texas Rangers on Monday night. He said that he and Blackthorne will take things day by day.

"We wait. We listen. We learn, and we react," Barrera said.

Authorities still are searching south Texas and a Mexican border town for Del Toro, a popular track and football star at a south Texas high school. Detectives have said Del Toro drove to Florida, killed Bellush and returned to Austin, Texas, where he abandoned his car.

Gonzales and Rocha are being held at in the Bexar County Jail in lieu of $1-million bail each. Rocha's parents visited him there Tuesday afternoon and were too upset to talk about the circumstances of his arrest.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said she heard both suspects may fight being transported to Florida for prosecution. Neither man has spent time in a Texas prison nor has a criminal record, state officials said.

The only mark on Rocha's record is a speeding ticket.

Up until about six months ago, neighbors said, Del Toro and Gonzales lived together with other men in Crystal Springs, a San Antonio apartment complex down the street from Precision Golf Center where Gonzales worked.

Annette Cruz, who lived below their apartment, said she remembered Del Toro and Gonzales after seeing their pictures in newspapers and on television. She said they played golf together because she often saw them carrying golf bags.

While the men kept to themselves, she said, they were terrible neighbors.

"They had mean faces," she said.

Cruz said the men would play loud rock music and party with women until 6 a.m.

"I thought they were salesmen," Cruz said. "But when it came to weekends, they would let themselves out of their ties and shirts and be wild."

Employees at the San Antonio Country Club said Gonzales worked on the golf course but would not elaborate. The manager at Precision Golf Center, where Gonzales also worked, was not available for comment.

The investigation continues to involve numerous state and federal investigators, including those from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, Texas Rangers, Bexar County Sheriff's Office, Eagle Pass police and Austin police.

Phones at the Sarasota Sheriff's Office are staffed 24 hours a day to take calls from witnesses and people expressing grief for the Bellush family. Mexican authorities also continue to take tips about Del Toro's whereabouts.

He is believed to be hiding in Piedras Negras, a small border town in Mexico, but authorities have not ruled out that he could be in Texas. Since he graduated from high school in 1995, Del Toro has became familiar with several metropolitan areas of the state.

"It's my understanding we're working with Mexican authorities, and they have the appropriate paperwork, and all we need is Del Toro," said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "Texas is a big state. We're looking for him here, and Mexican authorities are looking for him over there."

James Bellush, meanwhile, has moved to New Jersey with the children to be closer to his family.

"We don't know why it happened," said James Bellush's brother, Joel Bellush. "It's going to be difficult for a long time even after they're arrested. There's still a tremendous amount of grief and shock."

Sheila Bellush will be buried in New Jersey at 2 p.m. Thursday.
-- Times researchers Barbara Oliver and Kitty Bennett, and Sarasota Herald-Tribune staff writer Jose Luis Jimenez contributed to this report.


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