Horrified residents in the middle-class neighborhood that Sheila and her husband, Jamie Bellush, 34, had moved to just weeks before told police that a stranger in camouflage fatigues and a white cap had been lurking about. Within days, police named Joey Del Toro, a 21-year-old weight-loss counselor from San Antonio, as a suspect. But it would take another 2½ years before a federal jury in Texas would finally convict the man prosecutors say masterminded Sheila Bellush's brutal murder: her former husband, millionaire medical-devices developer Allen Blackthorne, 45. Following the jury's July 6 verdict, Sheila's daughter Daryl, 15, echoed the feelings of her entire family. "I'm glad it's over," she said. "It's taken long enough for it to happen."
By all accounts, the hasty 1982 marriage between the twice-divorced Blackthorne and Sheila Leigh Walsh, the Oregon-born daughter of an Air Force pilot and his wife, started out happily enough. But the newly wed Sheila knew little about her husband's clouded past, and even now some facts are unclear. Born Allen Van Houte in Eugene, Ore., the only child of parents who separated before he was born, Van Houte has told the press that he was physically abused by his mother. "He says that she burnt him; it never happened," says his uncle Tom Oliver, 60, who raised Blackthorne for two years. "He also told people I held a gun to him to get him to do homework. It was a lie. He fantasizes all these things, and people believe him."
By 1985, relations between Blackthorne and Sheila began to sour. Blackthorne moved the family to Hawaii after a stereo store partnership with Sheila's parents ended in-bankruptcy. Just a year later, he took the family—which by then included two daughters, Stevie and Daryl—to San Antonio, changing his name to Blackthorne after a favorite character from the miniseries Shogun. But prosecutors said the new name was hardly a nod to nostalgia. He was, they said, eluding hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. "Even his name is a lie, chosen to deceive creditors," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin. It was also during this period, according to family and friends, that Sheila began appearing in public with bruises and at least once checked into a shelter for battered women. Though the couple's divorce became final in 1988, their fight for custody of the two girls escalated into a protracted and vicious legal battle in which each accused the other of child abuse.
Things began to look up for Sheila in 1992, when, on a flight to San Francisco, she met Jamie Bellush, a former Marine who had served in Operation Desert Storm as a reservist and who had taken a sales job with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. "It was open seating," recalls Bellush, "and I thought, 'I'm going to sit next to that cute blonde.' " The two married in 1993, but Sheila's problems with Blackthorne, who continued to have visitation rights with his daughters, only worsened. "Anything Sheila did for the girls as far as rules and discipline was undone by their father," says Bellush, who occasionally argued with Blackthorne. "There was no bedtime, no rules, and they could eat any junk food they wanted."
Though Blackthorne married his fourth wife, Maureen Weingeist, 39, in 1994, prosecutors say he became enraged the following year when Sheila gave birth to quadruplets and the local press fawned over his ex and her new husband. But it was in July 1997, the same month that Blackthorne inexplicably surrendered his parental rights, that he also hatched a fateful plot with a golfing buddy, bookie Daniel Rocha, 27. At first, Blackthorne "wanted Sheila in a wheelchair with broken legs, broken arms, her back broken and her tongue cut out," Rocha later testified. Reluctant to do the killing himself, Rocha called a friend, golf-course maintenance worker Sammy Gonzalez, 27. Gonzalez declined but contacted his cousin Joey Del Toro. As payment, Blackthorne offered Del Toro $4,000.
In September, fearful of Blackthome's reprisals, Sheila, telling no one her new address, moved with her husband and six children to Sarasota, where Bellush had a job offer. "From the time she left him," recalls Sheila's sister, Kerry Bladorn, 33, "he said, 'You will never leave me. If you do, I will take the kids or I will kill you.' " In early October, Blackthorne paid a private detective agency to locate Sheila. Four weeks later, carrying $500 and a Colt .45 semiautomatic handgun, Joey Del Toro drove from Texas to Sarasota, found Sheila's house on Markridge Road, shot her once in the face and then cut her throat with a kitchen knife. Del Toro had left a vivid trail of clues, including a bloody fingerprint, and was easily identified. But it wasn't until Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and Rocha, convicted of first-degree murder, turned on Blackthorne that her ex's fate was finally sealed.
Today, Blackthorne, facing possible life imprisonment, waits in a San Antonio jail cell for sentencing. Jamie Bellush, along with Stevie and the quads, has returned to his boyhood home on the shores of Kemah Lake in New Jersey. And Daryl, who until the murder had remained close to Blackthorne, is now living with her aunt and uncle in Oregon and patching up a once-rocky relationship with her stepfather.
Following the verdict, Bellush, who watches over his children in a front yard littered with plastic pull-toys and a brightly colored swing set, is coping as best he can. "I couldn't crawl up in the corner and wither away," he says. "I had to work. I had to take care of them." And now there is something else he has to do. Soon he will make a pilgrimage to the cemetery in nearby Newton, N.J., where Sheila is buried. "I don't know if you can talk to the dead," says Bellush, "but I'm going to tell her, 'We got him.' "
Bob Stewart in San Antonio and Lori Rozsa in Sarasota
- Bob Stewart,
- Lori Rozsa.
Stevie Bellush's mother had dropped her off at school that morning, but when she called home later in the day to ask about being picked up, there was no answer. "I didn't get through," recalled Stevie, just 13 that autumn afternoon in 1997, "so I came home by bus." It was not unusual for her to find the front door of the family's Sarasota, Fla., home unlocked, but at first she saw no sign of her mother. Then, in the kitchen, she discovered Sheila Bellush, 35, motionless on the floor in a pool of blood. "I saw her laying between the two counters," Stevie would later testify, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Her throat was split, and there was blood everywhere." Nearby, their faces and feet stained with her blood, were Courtney, Frankie, Joey and Timmy, Sheila's 2-year-old quadruplets, clad only in the life jackets their mother had dressed them in for a dip in the backyard pool.