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Quadruplets’ Mother Enjoyed New Life in Florida Until Gunman Took It Away

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Few of the neighbors had gotten to know the new family on Markridge Road, and now it is too late.

In the most sensational murder in Sarasota history, 35-year-old Sheila Bellush was found shot to death earlier this month, her quadruplets discovered next to the body, wearing life preservers and crawling in her blood.

“I never really had a chance to even meet them,” said Joe D’Ambrosio, who lived across the street. “I feel kind of bad about that.”

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Indeed, the execution-style killing of the mother of six children--including the 23-month-old quads--leaves many in this community feeling bereaved as they hear of evidence that the slaying may be linked to the victim’s troubled past.

After a 10-day manhunt, police in Mexico captured the man officials believe committed the daring daylight slaying--a 21-year-old former Texas high school football star known as “Joey the Bull.” Held on charges of first-degree murder, Jose Luis Del Toro was picked up without incident Nov. 20 in a house in Monterrey, 385 miles south of San Antonio.

Two other San Antonio men--Samuel Gonzales, 27, a cousin of Del Toro; and Daniel A. Rocha, 29--were arrested three days earlier on charges of conspiracy in the Nov. 7 killing.

Meanwhile, Bellush’s ex-husband--a wealthy Texas businessman named Allen Blackthorne--has hired one of San Antonio’s top defense attorneys to deny he had anything to do with the slaying. However, Roy Barrera Jr. did confirm reports that his client was acquainted with Gonzales and Rocha--and in fact played golf with Rocha the day Bellush was slain.

In San Antonio, Bellush’s killing has been a front-page sensation.

She and her second husband, James, became local celebrities in 1995 when the quads were born. More recently, Bellush was in the news in Texas as a result of a custody fight with Blackthorne, the vice president of a medical equipment firm, over their two children.

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The slaying also is rating big headlines in Sarasota, a Gulf Coast resort community of about 350,000 known for tourists and its retirees from the Midwest--not violence. In fact, the last time TV satellite trucks pulled up to the downtown police station for a news conference was in 1991 when Paul Reubens--a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman--was arrested in an adult cinema for indecent exposure.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Stookey described Bellush’s death as “a needless killing of a beautiful woman who had six kids, including quads who are cute as buttons.

“We’ve had an outpouring of empathy for the family over this, and expressions of outrage,” Stookey said. “We’ve had calls from all over about adopting these kids. It’s not just Sarasota’s case, it’s everybody’s case.”

Most of the neighbors knew the Bellushes only well enough to wave hello when Sheila pushed the quads down the sidewalk in a four-seat stroller. But those who worshiped with the “born-again” Christian family came to know a little more.

“They were very open about their problems” in Texas, said the Rev. Michael Landry, pastor of Sarasota Baptist Church, which James and Sheila Bellush and their children attended after arriving in August. “Moving here was to be a fresh new beginning for them, and they were going to make the most of it.”

The problems Bellush discussed candidly with parishioners involved the long-running legal battle with Blackthorne over the custody of their daughters Stevie, 13, and Daryl, 12. Although divorced since 1988, the couple had been wrangling over custody for years. Each parent had faced charges of child abuse, and days before the family moved to Florida, Sheila Bellush had been released from jail on bond after being held on a charge of beating Daryl.

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Bellush’s body was found by Stevie when she came home from school. Her half-siblings--three boys and a girl, wearing life jackets as if headed for a dip in the backyard swimming pool--were crawling in blood next to the body.

In a hysterical phone call to the police, the girl reported that she thought her mother’s throat had been cut.

In fact, Bellush had been shot once with a .45-caliber bullet fired by someone who apparently stalked his victim and then surprised her in the small laundry room between the kitchen and the garage of the rented house.

Within days of the midafternoon shooting, sheriff’s detectives announced that the killer had fled, but not before leaving clues to his identity that even an amateur sleuth could follow.

The night before the killing, a man police identified as Del Toro paid cash for a room at a nearby Interstate 75 motel, where he registered under his own name and allowed his driver’s license to be photocopied.

The next day, police said, Del Toro bought camouflage fatigues at a local store. He drove a white Mitsubishi with Texas plates to a convenience store, where a clerk wrote out directions to Markridge Road. Neighborhood crime-watch volunteers later reported to police that they had seen a man in fatigues, and provided most of the license plate number.

When the Mitsubishi was recovered in Austin, Texas, authorities discovered in the car a .45-caliber handgun identified as the murder weapon, receipts for the motel room, fatigues, handwritten directions to the house on Markridge Road, a room key and a pilfered towel from the motel. The car is registered to Del Toro’s grandmother, according to Texas authorities. In the motel room, Sarasota police found a .45-caliber bullet. On the clothes dryer in Bellush’s laundry room, police said they found Del Toro’s fingerprint.

“He must be kind of klutzy,” Stookey said.

Sarasota investigators have refused to provide details on the information that led to warrants and probable-cause affidavits issued before the arrests of Gonzales and Rocha.

Police also have withheld comment on published reports that a private investigator in Bradenton, Fla., near Sarasota, had been hired to gather information on Bellush before she was slain. Detectives had earlier suggested that local sources may have tipped Bellush’s killer to her whereabouts because the couple’s address was not listed in public records and their mail was sent to a post office box.

On Nov. 20, Bellush was buried in New Jersey, where James Bellush, a pharmaceutical salesman, has family and where he and the children reportedly will stay.

The house on Markridge Road is empty. A handyman was preparing to plaster over the bullet hole in the laundry room wall, making the place ready to rent again.

Thus, the only legacy of the Bellush family’s brief life in Sarasota will be the trials to come, and the friendships they made at church.

“They weren’t here long, but when people are very committed to the Lord, an intimacy develops very rapidly,” Landry said. “So their leaving is tough. This gave us an opportunity to see what is required to minister to people in tragedies. This pulled the best out of our church. But this was a shock, and one of those things you hope will never happen.”

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Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.


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