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Bellush murder

 


Suspect in murder to fight extradition

By LEANORA MINAI and KELLY RYAN

©St. Petersburg Times, published November 20, 1997


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- It will be a long time before anybody stands trial in the shooting death of Sheila Bellush, the Sarasota mother of six.

The attorney for one of two San Antonio men arrested in connection with her death said Wednesday he will fight to keep his client from being extradited to Florida for prosecution.

The attorney for the other suspect said he is considering the same.

And Jose Luis Del Toro Jr., who authorities believe killed Bellush, continued to elude U.S. and Mexican authorities, as he has since Nov. 10. Texas Rangers on Wednesday traveled to Mexico where, with the help of Piedras Negras officials, they distributed pictures of Del Toro.

"I would speculate that there isn't going to be any great rush on those defendants going to Florida," said San Antonio Magistrate John A. Smith, who on Monday arraigned two suspects, Daniel Alex Rocha, 28, and Samuel Gonzales, 27.

In other developments Wednesday:

Several Tampa Bay media organizations requested an emergency hearing in Sarasota, arguing that arrest records for Rocha and Gonzales should be made public. The hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. today with Chief Circuit Judge Andrew Owens Jr.

Bellush's ex-husband, San Antonio businessman Allen Blackthorne, and his wife met for several hours with prominent south Texas defense attorney Roy Barrera Jr.

Barrera said Blackthorne and his family are increasingly nervous about persistent rumors that he is a suspect in Bellush's death.

Bellush, 35, was found dead Nov. 7 in her Markridge Road home, two months after she moved there from a San Antonio suburb with her husband, quadruplet toddlers and two daughters from her marriage to Blackthorne. Bellush and Blackthorne divorced in 1987, but they continued to spar over custody issues until several months before her death.

The first arrests in the case came Monday when Texas Rangers picked up Gonzales, Del Toro's cousin, and Rocha, a golfing buddy of Blackthorne's. Both men are charged with conspiracy to commit murder and are being held at the Bexar County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail.

Attorneys for both suspects said Wednesday that they have not seen affidavits outlining the probable cause for their arrests.

"There actually is no evidence that he conspired to commit any crime in Florida," said Gonzales' attorney, S. James McHazlett of Uvalde, a small south Texas town where Del Toro was a high school football standout.

"We believe that in the end, he will be exonerated," he said. "We're going to look to see if we can keep him here in Texas. It's hard to do that, but we feel we may have a leg to stand on."

Sarasota prosecutors have 30 days after an arrest to file paperwork with Gov. Lawton Chiles' office as part of the process to return the suspects to Florida for trial, said state extradition coordinator Susan Smith. Officials in her office then review the documents for "legal sufficiency" and send them to the Texas governor to request a governor's warrant.

If prosecutors need more time to get the documents to Texas, they can ask for an extension of 60 days, she said.

Once the governor's warrant is issued, the suspects are "re-arrested," and they can request an extradition hearing.

The attorneys, meanwhile, can file court papers, asking Texas and Florida prosecutors to present some evidence, detailing why their clients are being held on the warrant.

At the extradition hearing, a judge will hear evidence from prosecutors and decide whether there is enough evidence to send Rocha and Gonzales back to Florida.

Danny S. Vela, Bexar County's deputy chief in charge of criminal warrants, said Rocha and Gonzales have refused to return to Florida.

"Sometimes it takes the full 90 days," said Smith, Florida's extradition coordinator, of the extradition process. "Sometimes it is in the first two weeks. It really is dependent on a lot of factors."

Like Blackthorne, Rocha has hired a prominent criminal defense attorney.

Gerald H. Goldstein, who has represented Manuel Noriega, says he has won 12 reversals of guilty verdicts in capital murder cases.

Goldstein declined to discuss the circumstances of Rocha's arrest and said he has not decided whether to fight extradition on his client's behalf.

But, Goldstein said, "I think it's not only time we see the "allegator' but see some of the allegations."

Several news organizations have similar interests.

The Times, as well as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-Ch. 8, will argue this afternoon before Chief Judge Andrew Owens Jr. that Rocha and Gonzales' arrest records, as well as search warrants and other court documents, should be made public.

Owens has said the records should remain sealed because the suspects were picked up on fugitive warrants, which allow authorities to hold suspects on outstanding warrants from another state.

He has said that the suspects have not been served with the warrants out of Florida, which is grounds to keep them sealed.

That means Gonzales and Rocha know they face conspiracy charges out of Florida, but they have not been informed of the detailed allegations that back up the warrants and are typically found in arrest reports.

Attorneys for the media will argue that the documents are "judicial records" that are required by law to be open for public inspection. The arrest documents were signed by Owens on Monday and are being maintained in court files that are sealed.

"They sent a papered-over warrant out there where nobody can see what the basis is," said St. Petersburg attorney Thomas McGowan. "You just don't go arresting people for no reason. To arrest two people on a charge of murder and say we've got an affidavit and we're not going to tell you what's in it because we've got this fugitive warrant is disingenuous at best.

"It's an interesting way to get around the public records law."

Also closely monitoring developments in the case is Blackthorne, who with his wife and infant son spent several hours meeting his attorney in a downtown San Antonio office.

Since Bellush's death, rumors have swirled that Blackthorne was involved in the slaying. Through his attorney and in an interview with the Times, Blackthorne has denied involvement but continues to meet regularly with his attorney because he fears being arrested.

Barrera has said his client does not know Gonzales or Del Toro, although he conceded that Blackthorne frequents private golf courses with Rocha.

Barrera said Wednesday he is preparing the family for any and all possibilities.

He said, "They are in fear of being whisked away in the middle of the night."
-- Times researchers Barbara Oliver and Kitty Bennett and information from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune were used in this report.


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