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Bellush murder


Two arrested in Sarasota murder


©St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 1997

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Two men were arrested Monday in the shooting death of Sheila Bellush, the Sarasota mother of six found dead in her home nearly two weeks ago.

Texas Rangers arrested San Antonio residents Samuel "Sammy" Gonzales, 27, and Daniel Alex Rocha, 28, and charged them with conspiracy to commit murder. They were being held on $1-million bail each at the Bexar County Jail.

Authorities in Florida and Texas declined to comment on whether or how Gonzales and Rocha knew suspected triggerman Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. They also did not offer a motive in the Nov. 7 slaying.

The search for the 21-year-old Del Toro, a former high school football standout, continued late Monday in the small border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico.

The arrests brought renewed interest in Bellush's ex-husband, Allen Blackthorne, who spent several hours in the downtown San Antonio office of his prominent criminal defense attorney, Roy Barrera Jr.

About 6:20 p.m., Barrera and Blackthorne left the office together, leaving behind a media horde awaiting comment.

Although Blackthorne wouldn't talk, several people in San Antonio were linking Blackthorne and the two men arrested Monday with a common interest: golf.

A next-door neighbor of one of the suspects said Rocha knew Blackthorne and had golfed with him.

"He's one of the better golfers in the community," Rick Speights said of neighbor Rocha. "He's pretty well-known. He's just considered a good guy."

Speights said Rocha was friends with Gonzales, who worked at a golf equipment store in San Antonio.

Blackthorne, a vice president of a medical equipment company, routinely golfed from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, often at private Oak Hill Country Club. The day Bellush was killed Blackthorne was golfing with three others at a new, posh course called The Bandit.

The San Antonio Express-News reported that on the day Bellush was killed, Rocha called the paper and told a sports writer that he had golfed with Blackthorne that day. He told the newspaper that he had known Blackthorne about a year.

About lunchtime Monday, Speights said two Rangers approached Rocha's house and shook his hand before escorting him to a waiting car. Gonzales was arrested at his father's appliance store.

The arrests came two months after Sheila Bellush, 35, moved to a modest home in Sarasota with her husband, James, quadruplet toddlers and two daughters from her marriage to Blackthorne.

Her 13-year-old daughter, Stevie, found her dead after school on Nov. 7. The quadruplets, wearing life vests, were wandering in their mother's blood but were uninjured.

Bellush's family moved to Florida to escape a storm of controversy after the birth of the quadruplets -- Frankie, Timothy and Joseph, and a girl, Courtney. She was accused of beating her 12-year-old daughter with a belt in late August and had gone through a long, bitter divorce with her ex-husband.

In an interview with the Times last weekend, Blackthorne said he had not talked to Sheila for months and had not had contact with his daughters since their move to Florida.

Blackthorne is well-known in the San Antonio area and has been a member of several private country clubs. He lives in a pink stucco mansion north of downtown that took him and his current wife, Maureen, a year to build.

After word of the two arrests became public Monday afternoon, reporters descended on Blackthorne and his attorney.

As 6 p.m. approached, a dozen reporters swarmed the parking lot of Barrera's office. A television cameraman stood on a car roof craning his neck for a closer look at the office where Blackthorne sat. Other reporters peered through an opening in a window. Inside, Blackthorne could be seen smoking a cigarette and sipping a Diet Coke.

Just after 6 p.m., a man drove Blackthorne's four-wheel-drive truck away. A short time later, Blackthorne, wearing an Oak Hill Country Club baseball cap, emerged from the office with his attorney and got into a pickup truck.

With camera lights in his face, Blackthorne said nothing as reporters fired questions at him. He climbed into the truck and sat stone-faced. Blackthorne arrived home about 7:30 p.m. where a crew of reporters waited on his street.

Barrera previously has said that Blackthorne was shocked by Bellush's death and that he did not know Del Toro.

After complaining that Sheila Bellush was not letting the girls visit him, Blackthorne voluntarily gave up custody of his daughters in July. He is remarried and has two sons, 3 years and 6 months.

The break in the case came early last week when Sarasota sheriff's detectives announced Del Toro as the suspected killer.

Among the clues they found linking him to the crime: fingerprints on Bellush's clothes dryer, a hotel receipt and copy of his driver's license that he used to secure a room at the Hampton Inn in Sarasota, and the .45-caliber pistol used in the killing.

Del Toro, who grew up in a small rural south Texas town, is being hunted in Mexico, where authorities say he has several friends and knows his way around. His car was recovered Nov. 10 in Austin, Texas.

Detectives have said for days that they suspect Del Toro had help. For one thing, the Bellushes' home in Sarasota is not listed in county records, their driver's licenses show a post office box and they do not have a listed phone number.

Henry Lee, chief assistant state attorney for Sarasota County, said his office has requested a federal warrant charging Del Toro with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Once the Department of Justice receives the paperwork, they will contact Mexican authorities about picking up Del Toro.

Lt. Ray Cano, a spokesman for the Texas Rangers, said Florida investigators participated in Monday's arrests and have questioned the two suspects. He said he did not anticipate any other arrests Monday night.

Rangers could not confirm reports that Gonzales is a cousin of Del Toro's. A spokesman would not say whether Blackthorne has been questioned by authorities, but did say there is no warrant out for his arrest.

Rocha lives in an upper-middle class neighborhood of mostly two-story brick homes. Rocha, an independent contractor who does home-remodeling, moved there in May with his wife, Eva, and three young sons.

"He's a very nice guy, plays with his kids, just a normal guy," said Speights. "He takes his little boys bike-riding."

A woman who answered the door at Rocha's mother's home, where the blinds were drawn, told a reporter to go away.

Gonzales was a friend of Rocha's and worked for a business called Precision Golf Center. When arrested, he was wearing a baseball cap with a golf logo.

Gonzales was arrested at Gonzales Appliances, a business owned by his father, Jose, 52. The elder Gonzales said his son had worked for a local country club but did not say which one.

"His life is his life," Jose Gonzales said. "I'm not with him all the time. He's got his own life to live."
-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Barbara Oliver and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune contributed to this report.

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