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Ex-spouse faces life term for murder by a hitman

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Sheila Bellush's family hopes the guilty verdict in her ex-husband's murder-for-hire trial will send a strong message about the horrors of domestic violence.

A jury on Thursday convicted Allen Blackthorne, 45, on charges of interstate conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and interstate domestic violence in Bellush's 1997 death. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

"There's no doubt about it," said Bellush's widower, Jamie Bellush. "The federal government took a stand and said this kind of treatment will not be tolerated."

Bellush, 35, was slain in Sarasota, Fla. She had been shot in the cheek, and her throat had been slit. Her body was discovered by her 13-year-old daughter from her marriage to Blackthorne. Bellush's 2-year-old quadruplets from her second marriage were crawling in her blood, unharmed and wearing their life jackets for use in the back yard swimming pool.

Hours before Blackthorne's verdict was announced, the hit man pleaded guilty in a Florida courtroom. Jose Luis Del Toro Jr., 24, after singing a gospel song in court asking for forgiveness, was given two consecutive life sentences.

Two middlemen in the plot are already in prison: The man who hired Del Toro, his cousin Sammy Gonzales, got 19 years behind bars. And Daniel Rocha, Blackthorne's golfing buddy and the man who asked Gonzales to find someone to kill Bellush, is serving life in prison.

Blackthorne made his fortune selling medical devices. His International Rehabilitative Sciences, based in Vancouver, Wash., sells muscle stimulators under the name RS Medical.

Bellush and Blackthorne divorced in 1989 and went through bitter custody disputes involving their daughters. Bellush moved to Florida, but Blackthorne hunted her down, prosecutors said. Six weeks after she moved, Bellush was dead.

"It's a tragic story for everyone involved," Jamie Bellush said.

Prosecutors said Blackthorne turned the hatred he had for his ex-wife into a scheme to have her killed, offering $54,000 for the murder plus a bonus if he regained custody of their two daughters, who had been adopted by Bellush's second husband.

During the trial, Blackthorne took the stand and admitted he once threatened to kill Bellush because he thought she was a negligent mother. But he denied arranging her murder. The federal jury took 33 hours to find him guilty.

"I believe there's a very strong message that (domestic violence is) going to get acted on," U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg said. "Even against someone who is wealthy and has resources like Allen Blackthorne, it's going to get pursued vigorously."

Bellush's stepfather, Don Smith, hoped the slaying of his stepdaughter would send a message to women in domestic violence situations.

"When you live with a man that does those kinds of things, get rid of him as soon as you can," he said.