Ongoing stories
Bellush murder


Suspect who gets to Mexico hard to get back


©St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 1997

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico -- If suspected killer Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. is hiding here, the 21-year-old came to the right place.

Authorities say Mexico routinely fights extradition of defendants to the United States, and the U.S. extradition treaty with Mexico requires states to waive the death penalty before Mexico will send a murder defendant back for prosecution.

Sarasota County Sheriff Geoffrey Monge already has hinted broadly that Del Toro will face the death penalty if he is returned to Florida to face a murder charge in the shooting death of 35-year-old Sheila Bellush.

Bellush was killed Nov. 7 as her quadruplet toddlers were in her Sarasota home. She and her six children had just moved to the area from San Antonio, Texas.

Should Del Toro be caught in Mexico and refuse to waive extradition proceedings, Sarasota prosecutors could be forced to waive the death penalty. They would then lose leverage they have over Del Toro to get him to talk about what, if anything, he knows about the killing.

On Thursday, Mexican police still had a neighborhood in the border town of Piedras Negras under surveillance. Del Toro was last seen Wednesday walking on a street in the city.

"We'll get him, one way or another," said Detective Eddie Lopez of the Eagle Pass, Texas, Police Department, who was advising his Mexican counterparts. "He can run but he can't hide."

But catching Del Toro and bringing him to trial in Florida could be two different things, said experts who have worked to get U.S. defendants out of Mexico.

"It's not like you throw the handcuffs on him and walk across the bridge," said Ward Tisdale, spokesman for the Texas Attorney General's Office. "Papers need to be exchanged."

Sgt. Bob Mitchell, a homicide detective in Sacramento, Calif., waited seven days for a warrant to pick up a man charged with murder in that state. The man fled to Mexico. To secure a warrant for his arrest, Mitchell needed to complete a two-page summary and include an exact address where the killer was hiding.

"There could be a federale (Mexican police officer) standing right next to him and he can't arrest him without a warrant," Mitchell said. "That's the frustrating part. Now, you see why people flee to Mexico."

Sarasota authorities were answering questions Thursday about how Del Toro was allowed so much lead time after his name surfaced as a possible suspect.

Though Sarasota detectives may have known about Del Toro and his car as early as Saturday, the morning after the murder, they did not contact Texas authorities until Sunday, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

One detective in Bexar County, Texas, where San Antonio is located, said he tried to contact Sarasota officials Saturday morning, but no one would return his calls.

Del Toro, who is on probation in Texas for shoplifting, could have been picked up for violating that probation if law enforcement officials had been told to look out for him. That would have given Sarasota detectives time to work on their murder case against him, while keeping Del Toro in the United States.

Even after Sarasota officials were prepared to arrest Del Toro on Monday and received a warrant allowing him to be picked up, they waited almost 24 hours before notifying the media, and the public, that Del Toro was wanted for Mrs. Bellush's killing.

On Thursday, Lt. William Stookey, spokesman for the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, said detectives first learned Del Toro was a prime suspect on Saturday. Later, Stookey said he was incorrect on the day and said Del Toro was not a suspect until Monday.

Either way, it was more than a day before other law enforcement agencies, like Eagle Pass, Texas, and the public were asked to look out for Del Toro.

An alert to other law enforcement agencies, called a BOLO (Be On the Lookout) for Del Toro, was not sent out until Tuesday night, shortly before a news conference in Sarasota. By that time, Del Toro could have been in Mexico.

Stookey said the detectives handled the case in swift manner.

"We can't just put a BOLO out until we have a name," Stookey said. "To put a BOLO out for first-degree murder, you have to be sure."

Gerardo Romero Bloch, a regional Mexican immigration official, said from his office in Piedras Negras that border agents have now issued an alert for Del Toro.

He said local and federal Mexican police, as well as Texas authorities, were looking for the 21-year-old former football star from south Texas.

In Piedras Negras, population about 96,000, "Joey" Del Toro was the talk of the town.

Roger Martinez, a Uvalde, Texas, man visiting his girlfriend in Piedras Negras, said he had heard that Del Toro was hiding in Piedras Negras, and that "everybody knows about it.

"Just say "Joey,' and people know what you are talking about," he said.

Martinez said the case of Del Toro also is well-known among residents of Uvalde, where Del Toro went to high school, and the surrounding area.

"It was like a parade yesterday in Uvalde . . . the rangers and police looking for Joey," Martinez said.

After graduating from Uvalde High School in 1995, Del Toro departed from the path of a star football player. He told friends in his hometown of La Pryor and buddies from high school that he was going to school. When Del Toro was home about six weeks ago, he told several friends that he was on his way to becoming a nurse.

He had not been found by late Thursday, and Mitchell, of Sacramento, said it will be difficult to retrieve him after he is caught.

Mitchell recently handled the case of Robert Castorena, a Sacramento man accused of killing his wife and leaving her body in their home for two weeks with their two children. That case also attracted national attention.

Even after Mitchell got the arrest warrant for Castorena, he had to complete a stack of paperwork in Spanish, including a copy of the arrest affidavit and coroner's report.

Castorena was captured by Mexican officials and agreed to waive extradition proceedings because he grew tired of waiting in a Mexican prison. Had he fought, it might have taken two years to get Castorena out, Mitchell said.
-- Times researcher Barbara Oliver and Times photographer Mike Pease contributed to this report.

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