Ongoing stories
Bellush murder


Portrait of a murder suspect


©St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 1997

SAN ANTONIO -- Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. was a star running back at Uvalde High School in south Texas.

"Joey the Bull," as friends pegged him, was a good-looking and popular kid who hit it off with girls, even dating the high school prom queen.

In his senior yearbook, Del Toro was pictured more than 15 times, flexing his muscles, cuddling with football cheerleaders and leaping to score a touchdown.

Now, authorities in the United States and Mexico are searching for the 21-year-old Del Toro, suspected in the shooting death last week of 35-year-old Sheila Bellush, the mother of quadruplet toddlers, in Sarasota.

Late Wednesday, Texas authorities said Del Toro was seen in Piedras Negras, a Mexican town across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. Police in Mexico are working with Texas authorities to capture Del Toro and have offered a reward to aid the capture.

"Hopefully, we'll have him pretty soon," said Mike Cox, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is assisting in the case.

Police contacts
Authorities asked that people call (941) 951-4271 in Sarasota or the Austin, Texas, Police Department at (512) 477-3588 with any information about the case.

Detectives think Del Toro drove from San Antonio, Texas, to Sarasota, where he stayed at a local motel before the shooting Friday. They say Del Toro dressed in camouflage and left a trail of evidence, including a fingerprint in the Bellush home and a .45-caliber pistol.

Mrs. Bellush moved two months ago from San Antonio to Sarasota with her husband, James, the quadruplets and two daughters from her previous marriage, Stevie and Daryl. Mrs. Bellush left behind a stormy past that included a bitter divorce and allegations of child abuse.

Her former husband, Allen Blackthorne, has hired prominent south Texas criminal defense attorney Roy Barrera Jr. to handle the crush of media reports, some of them linking Blackthorne to the killing.

All this seems a world apart from the high school lore of Del Toro.

"All the girls liked him," said his high school football coach, Johnny Ringo, now coach at Coppell High School in Dallas.

Sports and friends came easy to Del Toro, who played running back at Uvalde High School in 1993 and 1994.

But Ringo questioned whether Del Toro was strong enough to turn down the lure of money, fast cars and flashy clothes, particularly because he came from a poor family.

"Joey, he longed for those types of things," Ringo said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he got involved with easy-money folks. . . . Joey's enough of a follower that if he got hooked up with the wrong people, he could easily go down that path."

Longing for more

At the intersection of the nation's two longest highways is the old-fashioned downtown square in Uvalde, population 14,500. Ninety miles southwest of San Antonio, the town consists of antique stores, a soda fountain, city hall and a three-story courthouse.

Seed shops dot the main strip and printed signs advertise "Bulls for Sale." On its tourist brochure, Uvalde boasts more than 1,100 miles of clear running streams and a landscape that is alternately rolling hills and miles of wide open plains where cattle roam.

Del Toro grew up here.

But friends and coaches say Uvalde didn't offer him enough. He was a flashy dresser and an impressionable person who longed for the finer things in life, they say.

Del Toro, though, had a soft place in his heart. In his senior year at Uvalde High, he wrote a poem about his football team, said Ringo, his former coach.

Del Toro spent part of his youth with his grandmother in La Pryor, 20 miles south of Uvalde.

"He had a lot of problems at home," said Jeremy Weisinger, 20, who played on Del Toro's football team at Uvalde. Weisinger is now a quarterback for the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"He was a tough kid. He really was," Weisinger said. "He believed in himself."

Weisinger said Del Toro wanted to attend Texas A&M University, but he never got that far. "He had no guidance," Weisinger said.

Del Toro's father, Jose Luis Del Toro, is serving a 30-year sentence in the Mississippi State Penitentiary on a charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The elder Del Toro is eligible for parole consideration in 2003, said Ken Jones, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Del Toro went to high school in La Pryor before transferring to the bigger sports district of Uvalde on Jan. 12, 1993. High school football is the pride of Uvalde and Del Toro became part of its lore.

If you did not know him, you certainly had heard of him.

"He was a stellar athlete," said assistant principal Victor Baron. "He was an involved student. There are a lot of teachers that knew him well."

More than 1,500 students attend the high school but Del Toro stood out.

He was good looking and he dated the prom queen. He was a member of the Spanish club who often helped the adviser. He earned good grades, as high as A's and B's, but excelled on football and track fields.

In the hallway to the principal's office, his name appears on a plaque of track and field records. It shows that in 1994 Del Toro and three others ran the 400-meter relay in 43.45 seconds.

His senior year, Del Toro was an all-district honorable mention running back who wore No. 30. That same year, his Coyotes were the district championship team with a 10-1 record.

In the yearbook themed "Splattered With Spirit," Del Toro is pictured numerous times in in 346 pages.

He is smiling in a tuxedo for his senior picture and looks proud in another as he poses in a football uniform. He is shown leaping over an Alamo Heights player for a touchdown. There are shots when his arm is looped around a friend's shoulder and one when he is jumping on a friend's back, celebrating a football victory. In another, he hams it up dressed in a cheerleader's uniform.

Above that, he flexes his muscles in a picture with this caption:

"Joey Del Toro shows off a perfect cheerleader body of big biceps and tattoos."

"He wasn't a violent kid," said Weisinger, who played on Del Toro's football team at Uvalde High School. "Joey was always good to me. Never lost my trust."

Different view

On Wednesday, Del Toro's name came up at the police station, the Uvalde Leader News and a gas station, where a clerk and friend pored over a newspaper story about him.

Some people were nervous, wondering about the whereabouts of Del Toro and how he had crossed paths with the Bellush family. Others were surprised to hear he might have a violent streak.

George Rodriguez was not one of them.

Rodriguez, 20, graduated in 1995 with Del Toro and ran into him about six weeks ago at the Purple Sage Bar in Uvalde.

Rodriguez said Del Toro told him that he was on his way to becoming a nurse. He said Del Toro had been studying at a school in Corpus Christi. He described Del Toro as a good football player who maintained a clean-cut image and tucked in his shirt to impress girls.

Rodriguez also said Del Toro frequently changed friends because he had asked for too many favors he had not repaid.

"He used to hang around with us until we caught him stealing from us," said Rodriguez, who said Del Toro had grabbed items from his family clothesline. "'He didn't have much common sense."

Rodriguez said Del Toro occasionally got into fights at school, recounting a June 1995 incident when someone used a butcher knife to cut Del Toro's arm and wrist. Del Toro was treated at a hospital but decided not to press charges.

Del Toro was popular, in part, because he hosted good parties, friends said.

"You'd see him partying too much," Rodriguez said. "Everybody did it, but he did it to the extreme."

Before he was named a primary murder suspect, Del Toro had only two brushes with the law. He was charged with aggravated assault, a felony, in January 1994, after a scuffle with several other young men. It was not clear whether weapons were used.

The victim was not sure who had injured him and Del Toro gave police his own version of events. The case was taken to a grand jury, which did not return charges against him, said District Attorney Anton E. "Tony" Hackebeil.

Acquaintances are stunned that Del Toro's name would come up in the shooting death of Sheila Bellush.

Also waiting for answers about the motive is Allen Blackthorne, Bellush's ex-husband, who has been the subject of intense scrutiny since her slaying.

Defense lawyer Barrera said his client does not know or recognize Del Toro.
-- Times researcher Barbara Oliver and reporter Darragh Johnson of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune contributed to this report.

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