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Another trial

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

When Allen Blackthorne underwent a psychological evaluation in 1987, the doctor used one word to sum up his patient.

“The word ‘challenging’ appears to personify this individual, who may well view life in terms of overcoming obstacles and challenges, even if he has to create them artificially,” wrote a San Antonio psychologist who evaluated Blackthorne and his family in the late 1980s.

A decade later, after overcoming divorce, bankruptcy and numerous lawsuits over failed businesses, the now wealthy entrepreneur faces his greatest challenge – federal and state grand juries indicted him last week in connection with the slaying of his ex-wife, Sheila Bellush.

The mother of six children, including quadruplets born in San Antonio during her second marriage, Bellush was shot in the face and stabbed twice in the neck Nov. 7, 1997. Her body was found in the kitchen of her Sarasota, Fla., home.

Blackthorne, 44, faces a state murder charge issued Wednesday and federal charges of conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire, as well as interstate domestic violence. He remains in federal custody pending a bond hearing this week.

The maximum sentence allowed under the federal conspiracy charge is death.

Blackthorne, an avid golfer who made a fortune selling medical devices, has long proclaimed his innocence, denying he even dropped a hint to golfing partner Daniel Rocha that he wanted Bellush hurt or killed.

A Florida jury convicted Rocha, 30, of first-degree murder last year for his role in a plot authorities say was hatched in country clubs across San Antonio.

Samuel Gonzales, 29, a former attendant at San Antonio Country Club, admitted his role in a conspiracy. His cousin, Jose Luis Del Toro, 23, was identified by Gonzales as the triggerman in the plot. Del Toro’s trial is set for July in Sarasota.

The story behind Blackthorne’s two-year crusade to clear his name as authorities pursued a case against him can be explained in part by his turbulent past.

Court records, a psychological profile and numerous interviews portray a resilient man who frequently embraced conflict and usually managed to beat the odds.

Thousands of documents pertaining to the Bellush case are on file at his $800,000 mansion on the North Side. He and his wife, Maureen, compiled a thick notebook of records, which they say prove the allegations against him are a “web of lies.” They called their strategy “weeding.”

“He’s like a savant,” Sarasota prosecutor Henry Lee said. “He knows this case inside and out. He can go to the page and line of everyone’s statement right off the top of his head. He’s certainly no dummy.”

The process Blackthorne followed for months as he tried to control his fate was part of a lesson he learned years ago, a lesson gleaned from a childhood that also proved to be beyond his control.

Gasoline and fire

Blackthorne was born Allen William Van Houte in Eugene, Ore., on June 5, 1955.

His parents – high school sweethearts who married in Oregon – divorced before he was born.

It was the beginning of a troubled childhood for the murder suspect, one marked by an absentee father who disappeared for 16 years and an abusive mother who once doused her son with gasoline and set him on fire.

Beaten and scorned as a child, Blackthorne said he tried outrunning his demons as an adult by changing his name and breaking all contact with his family.

“It was just one way to finally say, ‘I’m done with it all,'” he said in one of several interviews before his arrest.

As a boy, Blackthorne first lived on his grandparents’ farm in Oregon and would later find sanctuary there from his mother, Karen.

He was a “fun little kid” who liked to dance to his favorite song, “Wake Up Little Suzy,” said his aunt, Debbie Oliver of Vancouver, Wash.

With big brown eyes, Blackthorne had a way of getting what he wanted. He also had a way of getting other children in trouble.

Adored by his grandmother but less so by his grandfather, his presence at the farm became so disruptive at times that it almost caused his grandparents to divorce, Oliver said.

“Allen was a very sweet little kid, but even then he wanted control,” said Oliver, who helped raise him. “He was manipulative.”

The sporadic periods when Blackthorne lived with his mother sometimes put him in the hospital.

When he left his tricycle behind the family car on one occasion, she hit him on the head with a board.

Sometimes, Blackthorne woke up in a hospital bed after his mother’s beatings, unsure of what had happened.

In interviews with the San Antonio Express-News, Blackthorne’s family members did not dispute his claims of abuse.

“She had lots of problems,” Blackthorne said of his mother, whom he hasn’t spoken to since the mid-1980s. “There were abuse issues. She tried real hard in life, but she just could never get a handle on it.”

Blackthorne’s father, Guy Van Houte, left Karen when she was pregnant with Allen, not to reappear until his son was in high school.

Blackthorne moved in with Van Houte, wanting to build a relationship with him. They soon developed a rivalry that intensified years later when they went into business together.

“Dad and Allen have always been head to head against each other,” said Nick Van Houte, Blackthorne’s stepbrother.

“My dad is very controlling, competitive with his children. I think that hit a nerve with Allen because Allen’s always been very bright and intelligent, and he and my dad really tried to outdo each other,” he said. “It’s like a game of chess with them. In fact, that’s the game they always played. They took it off the board quite a bit.”

The same competitiveness held true for other people, even in play. Blackthorne liked to practice wrestling with his uncle, Thomas Oliver, who learned self-defense in the Navy. Once, Oliver hit a pressure point near Blackthorne’s thumb and the teen-ager fell to his knees.

After Oliver let go, Blackthorne closed his eyes and grew silent for a minute. “Now do it,” he said.

Oliver tried the pressure point again. Blackthorne wasn’t fazed, to the amazement of his relatives.

“He took his emotions under control,” Debbie Oliver said. “That’s what he learned as a kid. He had to.”

After Blackthorne turned 21, his mother tried to commit suicide with a shotgun. She lived, but she lost her arm.

Following the amputation, she gazed upon her son as she emerged from a haze of anesthesia. “You are the reason for my life’s entire problem,” she told him.

It was one of the last times he saw her.

Jack G. Ferrell Jr., a clinical and forensic psychologist who evaluated Blackthorne during his 1987 divorce from Bellush, wrote that Blackthorne survived “very extreme odds” as a child.

Ferrell concluded that the backdrop of painful circumstances in Blackthorne’s youth appeared to be “replicated” in his adult life in the form of career instability, marital distress and allegations of abuse.

“Overall, Mr. Blackthorne appears to be a very effective individual in controlling his destiny and that of his family, but clearly may use those control mechanisms in rather manipulative, and at times, seemingly pathologic ways,” Ferrell wrote.

Love and marriages

When Blackthorne joined the Army on the day before his 18th birthday in 1973, military records listed Ellen G. Van Houte as his wife.

Blackthorne’s uncle, Thomas Oliver, said the newlyweds joined the Army under a program for married couples. Blackthorne left the service with an honorable discharge a few months later.

In an interview and in court records, however, Blackthorne said his first marriage was in 1979 to a woman named Mary Meyers. They were married the same year Blackthorne opened a chain of music equipment stores known as Capitol Hi-Fi.

Blackthorne told Ferrell that his dating relationship with Meyers had been positive, but the marriage was strained because he left for Taipei on their wedding night. The business trip to Taiwan, which was supposed to last three weeks, took nine months.

During his divorce from Meyers in 1982, Blackthorne’s attorney introduced him to Sheila Leigh Walsh. She was bright, ambitious and seemed to want to achieve something with her life, Blackthorne recalled.

After three dates with the woman who later would be known as Sheila Bellush, the couple married Feb. 4, 1983. It was the same year Blackthorne had his first brush with the law.

Blackthorne, then 28, was accused of leaving the scene of a fatal accident in Oregon that killed a motorcyclist, Clackamas County court records show.

“This guy on a (Harley-Davidson) came across Allen and Sheila and created an accident just by weaving in and out,” Nick Van Houte said. “Allen honked his horn at him, and the guy just kept cutting really close and he misjudged. He went under the car and was killed.”

Blackthorne, who later turned himself in to police, pleaded not guilty, and the charge was eventually dropped.

Meanwhile, Blackthorne brought Sheila and her parents into his business, but Capitol Hi-Fi went bankrupt after the birth of his first daughter. The company folded amid family arguments and after at least one lawsuit was filed claiming it sold defective equipment.

The couple moved to Hawaii, where Blackthorne started a new company called Pacific International Electronic Supply Co. The business sold electronic medical devices designed to rehabilitate injured muscles.

But U.S. marshals and Customs officials seized a warehouse full of 2,700 muscle stimulators, taking issue with Blackthorne’s claims that the devices shaped up bodies without exercise, according to a May 29, 1985, article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

The Bank of Hawaii slapped a lien on the devices, clamoring for payment of a $160,000 loan.

To resolve Blackthorne’s problem, Guy Van Houte formed a new company called WestPac Electronics that received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to relabel the stimulators as health devices, not exercise devices. Blackthorne’s failure turned into his father’s success.

“That hurt,” Nick Van Houte said. “That’s really the point when Allen and my dad stopped communicating.”

Blackthorne’s marriage also was deteriorating. He began viewing his wife as a “gold digger” and thought she was cheating on him. He was upset when she told him she was pregnant with their second child.

Pursued by creditors and looking for a new start, the family moved to San Antonio. On March 14, 1986, Allen Van Houte legally changed his name to Allen Blackthorne.

Sheila told Ferrell that her husband wanted to avoid creditors. The name was taken from the main character in the television miniseries “Shogun,” based on the novel by James Clavell.

The story is about Englishman John Blackthorne, an explorer and plunderer who becomes stranded in Japan with his crew in the 1600s.

Allen Blackthorne identified with the character, who became an astute player in the intrigue of Japanese politics, because of his own love for Southeast Asia, his wife told Ferrell.

For his part, Blackthorne said he chose the name because he learned the identity of his real father, who he said was James Blackthorne.

After the name change, Blackthorne cut off all contact with his family in Oregon except for business dealings with Guy Van Houte in Hawaii. It was his way of divorcing his past, he said.

A year later, in 1987, Sheila filed for divorce, sparking a lengthy civil battle that would not fully resolve itself until a decade later, when Blackthorne relinquished custody of his daughters.

The divorce was contentious, taking up thousands of pages of court documents and involving allegations of abuse against the children made by both husband and wife.

Sheila also alleged in the original petition that Allen was physically abusive. He was convicted of assaulting her in 1987, a charge to which he pleaded no contest. He received 12 months’ probation.

In an interview, he admitted he struck Sheila but said it never happened again.

Meanwhile, creditors clamored for assets he claimed didn’t exist. In November 1989 he was charged in Oregon with aggravated theft for a $27,000 debt to First Interstate Bank of Salem.

As a condition of bond, he was required to get court permission to leave the county. A judge denied his request, but a month later a probation officer learned Blackthorne had violated his release agreement and planned to leave the country on business.

On Dec. 7, 1989, authorities arrested Blackthorne in Portland as he departed a Delta Air Lines plane that had arrived from Texas, according to a report filed by Marion County probation officer Rod Swinehart.

Days later, Blackthorne pleaded guilty to the charge. He was sentenced to two years’ probation.

In San Antonio, Blackthorne faced an array of angry business partners who took him to court. Larry Macon, a well-known San Antonio lawyer, represented them.

Claiming he was penniless and without an attorney of his own, Blackthorne became a quick study of the law and prepared for trial.

“What choice did I have?” Blackthorne said. “I had nothing.”

Tall and sharply dressed, Blackthorne cut a dashing figure in the courtroom. He added melodrama and moral indignation to an otherwise stale civil dispute, Macon said, and jurors appeared fascinated by the performance.

“I was nervous,” Macon said. “(Losing) would have been damn embarrassing. He did a magnificent job.”

The result of the litigation, observers said, was a draw: Jurors sided with the business partners, but they spared Blackthorne from paying damages.

“Allen Blackthorne (represented himself) against one of the top lawyers in San Antonio … and was able to match the guy,” said Ron Ross, one of Bellush’s divorce attorneys. “What I’m telling you is, he is that sly and that smart.”

The best revenge

Sheila Bellush saw little of the $275,000 she was awarded in a divorce settlement with Blackthorne in 1988, and Blackthorne subsequently filed for bankruptcy a second time.

But amid his legal woes, an acquaintance introduced him to Washington state investors Rick and Patrick Terrell.

Blackthorne didn’t mention his costly divorce proceedings or debts, and convinced the brothers to go into business with him selling muscle stimulators, Rick Terrell said.

His new business partners eventually found out about Blackthorne’s troubled background, but they were still impressed with his experience. Their new company was called International Rehabilitative Sciences, which sells muscle stimulators under the name RS Medical, based in Vancouver, Wash.

With no initial investment, Blackthorne began earning a $5,000 monthly salary and 10 percent of the company’s annual pretax profits. He also held 50 percent of RS Medical’s stock, early company records show.

According to articles in the Portland Business Journal, RS Medical treated 50,000 patients between 1990 and 1997. Revenues increased from $8.7 million in 1995 to $14.2 million in 1996. It was ranked the 20th fastest growing company in Portland and Vancouver in 1996.

The FDA was still investigating Blackthorne and his muscle stimulators, but he found a way to deal with the agency. Blackthorne’s company hired a consultant to pose as a medical device maker, and they both filed applications with the FDA to produce the same muscle stimulators.

“That was Allen’s recommendation,” said Rick Terrell, president of RS Medical.

The consultant won approval within three months, while the FDA took a year to turn down RS Medical. Blackthorne’s company briefly became a poster child for the cause against oppressive government.

U.S. Magistrate John Primomo of San Antonio called the FDA “arbitrary and capricious” in June 1993 for its treatment of RS Medical.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Ennis and chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, spoke against the FDA in 1995, citing RS Medical’s travails.

Proud of the trick, Blackthorne hung a framed Wall Street Journal article on the wall of his study that mentioned his company’s ploy.

His personal life also took a positive turn. He went on a blind date one night and hit it off with the date’s friend, Maureen Karol Weingeist.

They began dating, and the couple married May 7, 1994, about the same time Blackthorne became less involved with RS Medical – he eventually resigned from the company and cashed in his stock in 1997 – and devoted more time to family and golf.

After a year of “learning the rules” of married life, such as being home for dinner and remembering birthdays and anniversaries, Blackthorne said he finally learned what love is.

He describes Maureen as his soul mate and dotes on their two sons, ages 4 and 2. After Bellush’s death, the Blackthornes devoted a section of their lavish home to store reams of documents pertaining to the Bellush case, seeking to prove Blackthorne’s innocence.

But their happy marriage, financial success and adorable children are perhaps the best evidence that Blackthorne didn’t send a killer after his wife, he said.

“The best revenge,” Blackthorne said before his arrest, “is moving on in life, and being happy and successful.”

E-mail: jtedesco @ express-news.net