Ongoing stories
Bellush murder


Mexico will not deport suspect


©St. Petersburg Times, published November 23, 1997

The return of murder suspect Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. was indefinitely delayed Saturday after the Mexican government announced that he would be held in Mexico City for formal extradition proceedings rather than deported from that country as an illegal alien.

The decision could force Sarasota prosecutors to drop the death penalty as a possible punishment should Del Toro be convicted in the murder of Sheila Bellush, 35, who was shot Nov. 7 as her quadruplet toddlers played in the home.

Del Toro, 21, was charged Nov. 10 with first-degree murder in an arrest warrant issued by a Sarasota judge, but the former south Texas football star fled to Mexico, eluding police for almost two weeks. The hunt for Del Toro ended Thursday when he was found in Monterrey.

Friday, Texas officials spoke confidently, saying the Mexican government had agreed to expel Del Toro because he had failed to obtain the proper visa for visiting the country. Plans were made for Texas Rangers to pick him up at the border and a south Texas sheriff said he planned to house Del Toro in his county jail.

But Saturday, something changed. The Mexican attorney general's office issued a statement in which it said Del Toro would face extradition proceedings rather than deportation.

"U.S. authorities have 60 days to formalize their request for extradition" in the case, according to the statement. The statement did not explain the reasons for the Mexican government's apparent change of heart.

Del Toro's attorney Alfredo Padilla said Saturday's announcement was good news for his client.

"I was afraid they would just push him across the border," he said. "Everything slows down for a little while."

The decision took U.S. officials at the border by surprise. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Laredo, Texas, said it was expecting Del Toro to be turned over no later than Tuesday. That is no longer the case.

The difference between deportation and extradition is stark. Had he been deported, Mexican officials would have quickly determined that Del Toro had no right to be in that country, then turned him over to Texas law enforcement, who would have arrested him on Florida's first-degree murder warrant. Then, Del Toro would have been extradited to Florida.

Now, the process could take significantly longer. A California homicide detective who recently tracked a Sacramento man who fled to Mexico estimated the extradition process could take as long as two years. In that case, the suspect got tired of waiting in a Mexican prison and waived the extradition proceeding.

In an October case, Mexican officials refused to turn over David "Spooky" Alvarez, who is charged with four counts of murder in the U.S. After California prosecutors refused to waive the death penalty, Mexican officials pledged to put Alvarez on trial in their country rather than sending him back.

Mexico does not have a death penalty in murder cases and its extradition treaty with the U.S. calls on it to be waived in most cases here before a person in Mexico will be extradited.

Saturday night, the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office learned of the announcement from a reporter. Lt. William Stookey acknowledged that bringing Del Toro to Florida will now take longer.

"We were hopeful he'd merely be deported," Stookey said. "This may take more time but we're still confident U.S. officials will able to bring Jose Del Toro to the U.S."

Sarasota detectives are eager to talk to Del Toro. Two other Texas men have been arrested in Bellush's death. Samuel Gonzales, 27, a cousin of Del Toro, and Daniel Alex Rocha, 28, have both been been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and are in jail in San Antonio awaiting transfer to Florida. Detectives have said more arrests are possible.

Henry Lee, chief assistant state attorney in Sarasota, said Saturday that his office has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty in the Del Toro case. He said he doubted the delay would harm the case, only slow it down.

"I'm sure they'll eventually extradite him," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Henry Lee. "I don't think in the long run it will affect the case."
-- Information from the Associated Press and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune contributed to this report.

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