Empty Promises and Other True Cases (Ann Rule's Crime Files Series #7)

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In this unnerving collection drawn from her personal crime files, "America's best true-crime writer" (Kirkus Reviews) Ann Rule brilliantly dissects the convoluted love affairs that all too often end in violence.
Expertly analyzing a shocking, headline-making case, Rule unmasks the deadly motives inside a seemingly idyllic marriage: a beautiful young wife, a rising star in America's ...

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Empty Promises and Other True Cases (Ann Rule's Crime Files Series #7)

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In this unnerving collection drawn from her personal crime files, "America's best true-crime writer" (Kirkus Reviews) Ann Rule brilliantly dissects the convoluted love affairs that all too often end in violence.
Expertly analyzing a shocking, headline-making case, Rule unmasks the deadly motives inside a seemingly idyllic marriage: a beautiful young wife, a rising star in America's top-ranked computer corporation, and a prosperous husband, the scion of a family building business. With an adorable son and a gorgeous home, the couple seemed to have it all. But a furtive evil permeated their days and nights, dragging them into a murky world of drugs, sordid sex, and con operations. In this realm, one of them would prove to be a virtual innocent, the other a manipulator with no conscience. Sudden, violent death brought their charade of a fairy-tale romance to a tragic end — with a brutal crime that might never have come to light were it not for the stubborn detectives and prosecutors whose fight for justice spanned an entire decade.
Empty Promises recounts several other cases where the search for love brought only lies and betrayal — a cautionary primer, perhaps, for those who trust too much too soon. Powerful because they strike so close to home, the cases in Empty Promises will leave readers shaken by the realities of love gone terribly — and fatally — wrong.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"If anything happens to me, be sure and investigate it...and please have Ann Rule write the book." Sheila Blackthorne Bellush was eventually killed, and true-crime queen Ann Rule has written the book, perhaps the first ever penned at the request of a murder victim. Read it, weep, and keep the night light burning.
Publishers Weekly
The latest from respected true crime veteran Rule (And Never Let Her Go, etc.) walks readers through the tortured life and ugly murder of Sheila Bellush, a woman relentlessly pursued by her sexually obsessed ex-husband, Allen Van Houte. The crime scene is horrific: Bellush lies dead in the kitchen while her toddler quadruplets are left to walk naked through her blood. Bellush had long warned close friends that she feared her ex-husband's reprisals and went so far as to request "if I'm not here... find Ann Rule and have her write my story." Rule, in classic form, meticulously re-creates the prosaic lives of her characters, charting one woman's pleasantly humdrum existence undermined by a man bent on making a fortune though defaulting on bank loans and pedestrian cons, such as swindling family members. After he lured Bellush into his world of sexual play, she left him, and he hired a man to kill her. The subsequent fallout included a complex and lengthy inquiry by investigators. There are no surprises here for the reader, though some may enjoy Rule's examination of Van Houte's manipulative and predatory nature. Essentially, this account is too long for its limited subject matter. (Oct. 15) Forecast: Sixteen of Rule's 18 books have been bestsellers. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
As in her previous true-crime accounts, Rule presents the facts of a murder case with all the intrigue, suspense and characterization of an accomplished novelist. Listeners learn how young Sheila Bellush met and married charismatic Allen Blackthorne, only to find that his charming exterior hid a ruthless, abusive swindler. After years of beatings and the birth of two daughters, Sheila left him and later remarried and had quadruplets. Alan also remarried and was hugely successful in business, but seemed obsessed with the need to punish Sheila for leaving him. When she was found brutally murdered, her toddlers crying and huddled around her body, investigators quickly found the culprits but were they sent by Sheila's ex-husband, or did they act on their own? Veteran narrator Brown strikes just the right note in her reading. Her voice is varied and expressive, not one-note, and pleasant to listen to. But apart from a touch of sympathy, she is not emotional and does not project herself into this nonfiction account. Instead, she steps back and lets the story tell itself, altering her voice slightly to indicate a quote and deepening it a bit if it's a man talking, but not offering character voices. Based on the Free Press hardcover (Forecasts, Sept. 17, 2001). (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
CRIME Rule, a former police officer, investigates another cold-blooded murder. This one has an unusual origin: the doomed woman, suspecting her eventual demise, tells a relative to contact Rule in case she dies suddenly. Every Breath You Take points to the perpetrator, so it is the narrative skill that hooks us. From a much longer book, this abridgment's brisk pace is well calculated for audio, with Blair Brown's straightforward narration. The tale involves wife and child abuse, kinky sex (no details provided), and fortunes made and squandered on the wrong things. Will the evil man who specializes in colossal deception in the end slip through the legal net? Strong as fiction, these hard facts have been researched. Definitely recommended for popular true-crime collections. Gordon Blackwell, Eastchester, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Bestselling true-crime specialist Rule (Bitter Harvest, 1998, etc.) certainly has her fans, but here her leering, hyperventilating style is merely distasteful. The story at its center is tragic. Sheila Bellush met handsome, slippery Allen Blackthorne, fell in love, and married him when she was much too young. Allen turned out to be trouble. He beat her, he cross-dressed, he ripped off her parents and everyone around him. Eventually, Sheila got away, but years later Allen tracked her down and had her murdered; he was caught, convicted, and went to jail. In between, Allen became a millionaire, Sheila had quadruplets, they both remarried, and everyone moved to San Antonio. Rule doesn't omit a single tawdry detail; between the two of them, Allen and Sheila have so many dissipated relatives and face so many assorted disasters that it's impossible to keep them all straight. Any sense of reality gets lost in this bloated, exaggerated, highly condescending retelling, which reads less like nonfiction than the script for a made-for-TV movie. Rule's claim that Sheila's sister sought her out and told her Sheila had wanted her to write about the case seems, to put it mildly, self-aggrandizing. Exploitative and sad. Literary Guild/Mystery Guild alternate selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671025335
  • Publisher: Pocket Books
  • Publication date: 1/1/2001
  • Series: Ann Rule's Crime Files Series, #7
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 246,615
  • Product dimensions: 6.82 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann  Rule
Ann Rule is a former Seattle policewoman and the author of more than two dozen New York Times bestsellers. She is a certified instructor for police training seminars and lectures frequently to law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and forensic science organizations, including the FBI. For more than two decades, she has been a powerful advocate for victims of violent crime. A graduate of the University of Washington, she holds a Ph.D. in Humane Letters from Willamette University. She lives near Seattle and can be contacted through her website AnnRules.com.
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    1. Hometown:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 22, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lowell, Michigan
    1. Education:
      Creative Writing Program, University of Washington

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It was a Sunday afternoon, the last day of September 1990, when Judy Hagel began to feel uneasy. Usually she grew annoyed and exasperated when her son-in-law, Steve Sherer, phoned constantly to check on her daughter, Jami. He kept such close tabs on Jami that she seemed to move on an invisible tether. If she left home to visit her parents, he called to be sure she arrived within fifteen minutes, and then he kept calling to ask what she was doing, and very soon, of course, to insist that she come back home to their house in Redmond. If he had his way, Jami would never visit her family at all.

But this afternoon, Steve didn't call — not for five hours. It was a record for him, and Judy found herself jumpy not at the ringing of her phone but because of the silence. She had expected Jami all day, and Jami never showed up. Judy was baby-sitting with Jami's little boy, Chris, and it wasn't like her daughter to stay away when she had promised Chris she would be back soon.

Bellevue was once as far removed from Seattle in lifestyle and population as any of a number of small towns that dot the state of Washington. Fifty years ago it was a rustic hamlet on the other side of Lake Washington, where farms and blueberry bogs could be found just outside town. Before the first floating bridge connecting Mercer Island and Bellevue to the mainland in Seattle was completed in 1940, the little town was far off the beaten path. No one ever imagined Bellevue would become the third largest city in the state with its own mirror-windowed skyscrapers and upscale malls. After World War II, it became a bastion of affordable three-bedroom, bath-and-a-half houses that young marrieds could afford, and they flocked to the neighborhoods of Lake Hills and Eastgate. Returning veterans and recent college graduates found jobs at the Boeing Airplane Company. Young husbands went off to work and young wives stayed home and raised four children per family, long before anyone had heard about the population explosion. Appliances were avocado green, carpets were an orange shag that had to be raked as well as vacuumed, and tile floors were waxed faithfully once a week.

It was a world of kaffeeklatsches, where wives shared recipes for frozen strawberry jam, onion soup dip, and complicated casseroles whose main ingredient seemed always to be Cheez Whiz. Yards sprouted gardens, and wives traded seedlings as frequently as they took turns baby-sitting. It was a time long before day care and two-income families. Bellevue seemed to promise that after the long dark war, everything was going to be all right. It was an ideal community in a halcyon era.

But the decades that followed brought a tragic tumbling-down for many of the children whose future had seemed so bright. Bellevue, Washington, wasn't unique; drugs and more wars and assassinations and rock and roll and XXX-rated movies and videos and the erratic vicissitudes of fortune eroded family-based towns all over America. As Bellevue became a little grittier and far less inviolate, Jami Hagel's desolate destiny began to take shape, despite her family's struggle to save her.

Judy and Jerry Hagel left tiny Carrington, North Dakota, in 1967 and headed for Washington State; Judy's two brothers lived there, and they said the job prospects were good. Judy and Jerry's oldest child, Randy, was five then and Jami Sue was almost three. A year later, Judy gave birth to twin boys, Rob and Rich.

Rather than resenting all the attention the twins got, Jami was enthralled with them, and their birth gave her a tighter bond with her mother. Even though she was only three, she took care of the twins for her mother. "I wasn't expecting twins," Judy recalls. "I had no help, and Jami was there to help me. We had a little rocker, and I couldn't feed two babies at one time, so I'd hand one baby to her and she'd rock it to sleep. And I'd get the other baby and hand it to her. She was very helpful for me. She was always holding them — they were so little."

And so was Jami. She was so petite as a child that she wore only size zero or size one. Her mother would seek out little specialty stores where there were clothes small enough to fit tiny Jami.

Growing up in Bellevue as the only daughter in a family with three sons, Jami was in the thick of whatever her brothers were doing, despite her size. Randy was three years older than Jami, and her twin brothers, Rich and Rob, were three years younger. Jami looked like a little doll with bright brown eyes, luxuriant dark hair, and a "lovely smile," but she could give as good as she got from her brothers, who teased her, as all brothers do. Even when she was grown, Jami weighed only 95 pounds and stood just a smidgen over five feet tall. Jami was sweet-natured, but she wasn't afraid of anything. Judy and Jerry had raised her to be self-confident.

Jerry Hagel and all of his children were involved in softball competitions early on. The whole family played in local leagues, and Jami was a tomboy. "She was small but feisty," her brother Rob recalled.

Judy Hagel stayed at home to raise her children. She was the mother who was always available to drive her children and their friends to Lake Sammamish to swim or to the movies or to go horseback riding. Jami loved horses even more than baseball, and she and her friend Lori Stratton also loved to climb trees.

Besides playing softball together, the Hagels spent their vacations together. They usually traveled back to North Dakota to visit their extended family during summer vacations. Christmas and all holidays and birthdays were special for them, and the Hagels' family album grew thick with photos of various celebrations. Judy loved her boys, but she delighted in her only daughter and the feeling was mutual. Judy and Jami shared secrets and discussed problems together.

Judy couldn't imagine that life would ever be any other way. Jami was close to her father, Jerry, too. In photographs she is usually sitting near him. He treated her as if she were made of porcelain, and Jami always expected to marry a man like her dad.

Jami Hagel was a nice girl who grew up to be a kind woman. A friend several years younger remembers how she idolized Jami. "She had a wonderful bedroom," the woman says, "with a rainbow theme. I thought it was so beautiful. Jami used to let me come in and look at her things, even though I was probably a little pest."

As a teenager, Jami Hagel went to Sammamish High School, near Lake Hills in Bellevue. When she was a sophomore, she began going steady with Greg Coomes, who was very handsome and a year older than she was. They went together for five or six years, all through high school and beyond. Jami's family approved of Greg. The young couple had a monogamous, "very serious" relationship and eventually became lovers. "She was my first love," Greg would recall one day. "She was the first woman I was ever intimate with."

Jami's high school world would have been the envy of any teenager. She had her own car, but she wasn't spoiled. She worked hard at her studies, and she was confident. Greg described her as having a strong sense of self. Most of her friends used the word "bubbly" or "outgoing and friendly" when they described her then — and later.

Jami Hagel was unfailingly happy and never moody. While some teenagers go through angst and self-doubt, no one recalled that Jami was ever depressed. She was certainly not suicidal. She remained close to her family, particularly to her mother, a special relationship that Judy Hagel cherished.

Jami and Greg's relationship did not, however, survive the changes that inevitably come with maturity. He graduated a year ahead of Jami and went to work for a hotel chain in Portland, Oregon, for six months. After that, he came back to the Seattle area to work at the Boeing Company. There was no big emotional breakup, but they simply saw each other less and less. "By 1986," Greg said, "we were down to just phone calls."

Nevertheless, they remained friends, just as Jami kept her friendships going with most of the people who were part of her school years. June Young, a beautiful brunette, met Jami when they were in the ninth grade. "We were best friends. We were from the same background — we both had brothers," June remembers. "She had a great self-image," June says. "She was outgoing, happy, bubbly. Jami was a T-shirt-and-jeans girl."

Jami and June continued to be best friends for a dozen years, even though they both encountered tragedies and problems. June went off to Western Baptist Bible College for a year after high school. When she lost her sister in a traffic accident, she came home to help her family bear the loss and took a job at an insurance company. June got married in 1988.

Right after Jami graduated from high school, she found a job in the computer industry and moved into an apartment with another girl. She came home to live briefly when that living arrangement ended. After that, Jami got an apartment by herself in Redmond, about six miles from her parents' home.

Jami Hagel's bond with her family remained strong; she called her mother three or four times a week and spent most weekends with them. Unlike many girls her age who can't wait to grow up and go through a period of proving how independent they are, Jami often dropped by to talk with her mother. If Judy was out in her garden or in the kitchen, Jami sat with her and talked about what was going on in her life. There were no secrets, and Judy could always find Jami when she needed to talk with her.

But sometime in the mid-eighties, while Jami was living in her own apartment in Redmond, she met a man who was nothing like Greg Coomes. He was nothing like anyone Jami had ever dated, and her family and friends were a little surprised that Jami was attracted to him.

Judy Hagel remembers the first time she ever saw Steve Sherer. He and Jami "drove up on a motorcycle," Judy says, "and he was very proud of the motorcycle because he had bought it from his winnings at the racetrack."

Every other boyfriend that Jami had brought home to meet her parents had made an effort to be polite and friendly, but Steve seemed completely uninterested in them. The first time he met the Hagels, he strutted around as if he thought they should be impressed with him and his shiny new motorcycle. Almost as soon as Jami and Steve arrived, he was anxious to leave. Jami climbed on the bike behind him and they roared off, leaving the Hagels puzzled and worried. They told themselves that Jami couldn't really be interested in such a man.

At twenty-four, Steven Frank Sherer was two years older than Jami. Despite his small stature, he had a powerful personality, more abrasive than pleasant much of the time, but he could also be completely charming. Steve told Jami early on that he was the son of a very wealthy family, and she noticed that he always seemed to have money. The money didn't matter that much to her; Steve's personality did. In the beginning, she liked his take-charge attitude.

No one can predict the chemistry between two people, and for whatever reason, Jami Hagel and Steve Sherer soon began to date steadily.

Steve claimed to be five feet nine, but he was closer to five seven. He carried himself like a much taller man. He often bleached his thick light brown hair so it turned blond in the sun and then combed it in a pompadour. His knife-like profile, while not handsome, was striking. He had a solid, muscular body, and he drove new cars, although he seldom seemed to work.

Judy and Jerry Hagel saw nothing about Steve that erased their first impression of him, but they were smart enough not to voice their feelings to Jami; finding fault with Steve would just have made him seem more appealing.

To a parent, Steve was anything but appealing. He was a spoiled rich kid whose rap sheet was longer than his job résumé, although Judy and Jerry Hagel didn't know about that when Jami first brought him home. He was also possessed of a truly ugly temper and just about every bad habit and addiction available. He drank, used marijuana and cocaine, gambled at racetracks and card rooms, and believed that women were basically chattels. When Jami answered his questions about men she had been with before she knew him, Steve was furious.

Greg Coomes, her high school boyfriend, received a call in 1986 that at first seemed to be a wrong number. A man on the phone started swearing at him, using the worst gutter language. "He said he was going to kill me," Coomes recalled. "I had no idea who he was."

Finally, Coomes heard a woman's voice and recognized Jami. She apologized for the caller and said he was her "lover" and the "person she lived with."

In the beginning, shocked as she was by Steve's need to possess her, she also saw it as a sign that he was very much in love with her. Steve's jealousy made her feel happy and secure.

Copyright © 2001 by Ann Rule

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Table of Contents



Empty Promises

Bitter Lake

Young Love

Love and Insurance

The Gentler Sex

The Conjugal Visit

Killers on the Road

A Dangerous Mind

To Kill and Kill Again

The Stockholm Syndrome

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Friday, November 7, 1997, was an ordinary day in Sarasota, Florida—or so it seemed. It was a weekday, and the morning began with the sun burning golden in an azure sky, but as one enthusiastic resident remarked, "The sun is always shining, and every day is beautiful in Sarasota. It took me a while to realize that I didn't have to take advantage of the days the sun shone the way I used to do in Connecticut; I could stay inside and read because there would always be another perfect day...and another...and another."

But later on this November day, clouds moved in over Sarasota. They were a peculiar leaden gray-purple shading to black, full of unpredictable electrical impulses that made one's hair stand on end. It was going to rain, but it wouldn't be a soft rain; it would surely be rain that thudded against the earth with a vengeance, forcing trees and bushes to the ground with the sheer weight of water, pounding the grass flat.

The entrance to the Gulf Gate subdivision was flanked by sweeping buff-colored brick walls bearing its name, but that was the limit of Gulf Gate's ostentation. In November the jacaranda trees planted there four decades ago were a froth of peach-colored blossoms, so lovely that they could not be real. Many of the summer flowers were faded, save some bougainvillea, and residents planted petunias and impatiens to carry them through the winter until the late summer sun's molten heat fried them.

Once a family neighborhood where children played, Gulf Gate was home now to many older couples and widows, who kept their shades drawn and hired yardmen to mow their lawns and prune their glossy-leafed trees into round orbs that looked like green plastic. Gulf Gate was close enough to Bee Ridge Road and I-75 for easy shopping and access to downtown Sarasota, but it was quiet, the streets hushed and almost free of traffic in the middle of a weekday. More often than not, there was no one walking a dog, or even peering out at the street from behind jalousie windows, those windows whose very name originates in the French word for jealousy—"to see without being seen." But few of the residents watched from their cool rooms, because there was nothing to see outside.

One woman who lived in Gulf Gate was watchful, almost unconsciously moving often to the front windows of her home to scan the street for a strange vehicle or for someone she didn't recognize approaching her house. She had good reason to be leery, although she and her husband had taken every precaution to keep their address secret.

Most of the homes in Gulf Gate were owner-occupied, not lavish but very comfortable L-shaped ramblers, painted in the soft pastels of the Florida gulf coast, peach and pink and even lavender—sunrise and sunset colors. Many had Florida rooms and swimming pools to make up for Gulf Gate's distance from Sarasota Bay. Although the neighborhood was far away from the beach, the November air was usually drenched with the salty-clean smell caught in the wind as it raced east toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Much like the rest of Gulf Gate, Markridge Road was a wide, tree-lined street with single-story houses set on small, perfectly groomed lots. The white rambler with the yellow door and matching shutters in the 3100 block had once been the cherished home of an elderly couple. By 1997 they were both dead, leaving their house and its furnishings to their son. Most of the time he lived in a northern state and rented out the Markridge house. He had changed nothing; the place was frozen in a time warp with furnishings that were modern three decades earlier. "All the furniture, even the knickknacks, dated back to the sixties," one former renter recalled. "But there was a warmth about that house. Everything was still there, even their old sheet music and books, just the way they left it. We enjoyed that when we lived there."

The couches and chairs reflected the tastes of another time, but they were comfortable. The appliances were decades old too. The refrigerator was avocado green and the stove bright yellow—but they worked. The phone bolted to the kitchen wall above the dishwasher had a rotary dial. It took a lot longer to make a call than a push-button phone, but until November 7 that was merely inconvenient and not disastrous.

The young couple who moved into 3120 Markridge Road in September 1997 had the look of dependable tenants, and they seemed to be pleased with the house even though they had six children and would have to squeeze to fit everyone in. They said they'd moved from Texas when the husband got a big promotion and they needed someplace to live in a hurry. Looking at their adorable bunch of toddlers, the landlord couldn't say no to them. He decided he could forgo occupying his parents' house for one winter.

The new renters had an excellent credit history, and they were attractive. Jamie Bellush was big and burly with the wide grin and the innate charm of a seasoned salesman. His wife, Sheila, was delicately pretty, very tiny and blond. Jamie did most of the talking, while Sheila seemed a little nervous. Well, the landlord figured, she had reason to be, with all those children to care for. The toddlers were winsome and totally captivating, and it was obvious that their parents adored them. The older girls' names didn't seem to fit them. The older sister, thirteen, was called Stevie, and she hovered over the babies as if she was a second mother to them. The other sister was a year younger, and her name was Daryl. Odd. Why would anyone give boys names to two very pretty girls?

Jamie Bellush explained that they were in the process of building a much larger home in Sarasota, so they could make do in cramped quarters until their house was finished in the spring.

No one in Sarasota knew that the couple had left a dream house 1200 miles behind them in San Antonio. It had been their ideal house in a wonderful neighborhood, so large that the Markridge rental would fit inside three times over. They had barely had a chance to live in it when they felt a desperate urgency to move. And move they had, under cover of darkness.

Only a handful of people in San Antonio knew where Jamie and Sheila and their six children were. They agreed it was best to tell no one except for their closest friends and relatives, including the couple who helped them move out of Texas in the dead of night. Sheila's family knew where they were in Sarasota and had their phone number, but not their street address. Maybe in time they could come out of hiding. It hurt Jamie and Sheila not to be in contact with so many people they loved, to contemplate holidays without those who were so important to them. Cutting off her life so abruptly was akin to cutting off her arm. Sheila only hoped that everyone understood that she had no choice.

Sarasota was a beautiful place to live, and thousands of people had chosen it because of that.

There was a magical blending of sea and land, merging so easily that it was difficult to see where Sarasota Bay ended and the sandy shoreline began. All the way south from Tampa, little lakes and rivers were mirrors reflecting the blue sky, and the soaring Sunshine Bridge rose like a giant roller-coaster over Tampa Bay. But it was dark when the Bellush convoy crossed it and they hadn't realized how high they were.

Had her circumstances been different Sheila would have loved the colorful history of Sarasota and the way the city embraced the arts. She still looked forward to exploring it with her girls and the babies when things were better. Although Ringling Brothers no longer wintered there, seventeen other circuses did and many circus folk lived there permanently. Ringling Brothers had thanked Sarasota with a wonderful art museum and a college.

There were sand castle contests, blues and jazz festivals, book fairs, local dramatic productions and Broadway plays on tour and the venerable Sarasota Opera House where the great Pavarotti once performed. Every season in Sarasota was packed with all manner of celebrations. Sheila loved to read and the new Sarasota library was huge and airy and filled with sculptures and soaring mobiles.

Marina Jack's in downtown Sarasota just off Route 41—also known as the Tamiami Trail—was the kind of restaurant Sheila would enjoy, with its circling staircase and magnificent water views. Someday, perhaps. For now, she and her younger children were entranced with simpler things like the tiny, tiny dust-colored lizards that darted from leaf to leaf and scuttled under bushes so quickly that they almost seemed to be figments of their imaginations. The cost of living was higher than in San Antonio; the rent on their house was a rather shocking $2300 a month. But Jamie and Sheila had chosen Sarasota because it might be a safe place to hide and, eventually, to start over.

One day they hoped to be able to be in contact with the people they loved, but for the moment they couldn't do that. They could give their address to very few people, and even that was a commercial mailing service, a "suite" that was really a locked mailbox in a mall. They might as well have been in a witness relocation program. Although both Sheila and Jamie came from loving, extended families, they were essentially alone.

James Joseph Bellush was an ex-marine, still saddled with his childhood nickname in his mid-thirties, although he no longer looked like a "Jamie." He looked more like a football linebacker. Jamie was a detail man—a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer, and he was very good at it, an asset to the company. The very nature of his career meant that he often had to travel away from home to call on physicians in their offices along the west coast of Florida. It wasn't hard to sell Pfizer products, especially with the emergence of Viagra, but he still had to make his rounds. Jamie had been with Pfizer for a long time, and when he asked for a transfer out of San Antonio, the company accommodated him and gave him the Florida territory, a promotion. They even arranged to buy his house in Boerne, Texas, for the man who would replace him.

Sheila Bellush was thirty-five. She had worked in attorneys' offices since she was eighteen and had held an extremely responsible position in the law offices of Soules and Wallace in San Antonio for years. But now she was a full-time mom; there was no question at all of her going to work outside the home. She had more than enough to do. If she was discouraged at the prospect of fitting everyone into the Markridge house and being alone with their children while Jamie was on the road, she didn't complain. She did what she had to do, hoping always that their lives would become safer and calmer as time passed.

Sheila had no friends in Sarasota when they arrived in September, but she was working on that. She had always had friends, and it saddened her to have to leave so many behind without an explanation, although she suspected most of them knew why she had fled. Deeply religious, Sheila and Jamie were attending services at the Sarasota Baptist Church. It was a huge church with an active outreach program, and they were made welcome there. It was a start. They were rebuilding their lives, and she knew she could make new friends.

And so November 7 was an ordinary day, but only in the context of Sheila Bellush's life. In truth there were no ordinary days for Sheila; she had lived with fear so long that it seeped like acid into any fleeting serenity she might attain, corroding her thoughts, sending jets of adrenaline through her veins. No matter how the sun shone or how balmy the winds wafting off the bay, Sheila never really felt safe unless she was inside the house with the doors and windows tightly locked against the world. Those who didn't know her well wondered if she might be just a little paranoid. Those who knew her story understood, but they were far away and didn't know how to find her. It was safer that way—safer for them and safer for Sheila, Jamie, and their six children.

Just two months earlier Jamie and Sheila had lived in Boerne, Texas, a countrylike suburb northwest of San Antonio, where they owned their wonderful new home. Now it seemed as though they had never lived there at all. Maybe it had been too perfect to last.

But Sheila still had Jamie, and he loved her and protected her and their babies. He had begun the paperwork to adopt Stevie Leigh and Daryl Leigh, Sheila's teenage daughters by her former husband, Allen. They had their difficulties trying to get naturally rebellious teenagers and a longtime bachelor on the same wavelength, but Sheila believed things would work out.

On November 7, 1997, Jamie was on the road south of Sarasota, planning to visit several doctors' offices for Pfizer. It was important that he familiarize himself with his new territory and potential clients in west Florida. But it was Friday, and he had promised to be home long before it was dark. They would have the weekend together. Sheila had no doubt that they would spend the rest of their lives together.

She was half right.

Stevie Bellush, thirteen, was petite and small-boned like her mother, although she had her father's facial features and his dark hair. It was not difficult to say where she got her superior intelligence, because both Sheila and Allen, her father, were very smart. Stevie and Daryl, who was blond like Sheila, had always excelled in school and in sports. But they had been through a lot for anyone as young as they were; their childhoods hadn't been easy.

Now Stevie was in a wonderful mood as she hurried home from junior high school shortly before 4:00 P.M. that Friday. "I heard that a boy I liked was going to ask me out," she remembered. "And I wanted to tell my mom."

The front door was unlocked, and that was strange; her mother was adamant that they all lock the doors when they left, and even when they came back in after taking the garbage out. She didn't have a lot of rules, but that was one she insisted on. So it was unusual for the front door to be unlocked.

Afterward Stevie would remember that she couldn't make sense out of the first thing she saw when she walked into the front room. All of the babies were standing in the hallway crying as if their hearts would break. Her mother never let them cry; she always picked them up and soothed them. For some reason they had no clothes on—nothing but the little life vests they wore when they were in the swimming pool in the Florida room. Their faces were swollen from sobbing. Stevie thought they must have been crying for a long time.

What made the least sense to Stevie were the funny patterns of dark red specks on the babies' skin, some in their hair and on their feet. Some of them had swaths of the same color, as if someone had dipped a brush in red paint and then daubed at their flesh.

Shock and disbelief often block the mind from accepting what the eyes perceive. Even so, Stevie's dread was so great that there was a thunderous pounding in her ears. She patted the wailing toddlers absently and went looking for her mother, calling out for her as she moved through room after room.

Her own voice seemed to echo and bounce back from the walls. Stevie went out in the backyard and found no one there. She skirted the swimming pool in the Florida room and saw the babies' diapers inside their plastic pants on the table beside the pool, still shaped like their bodies. That wasn't strange; her half brothers and sister swam naked. If their diapers were still dry, her mom just put them back on after they swam. But she hadn't done that. All of their little bottoms were bare under their life jackets. Stevie couldn't figure out what was going on. She kept calling for her mother, and no one answered.

There was a funny smell in the house too—a hard, sweet iodiney-metallic odor, a smell Stevie could not recognize....

Copyright © 2001 by Ann Rule

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2001

    Excellent Reading

    If you enjoy reading True Crime books, this is a must. Ann Rule is probably the best author of this type of book. This book offers a collection of stories which are interesting and tragic.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent true crime anthology

    As expected from the files of true crime writer Ann Rule, EMPTY PROMISES is as frightening of an anthology a reader will find because the tales really happened. The premise behind the collection is not all relationships end in a happily ever after. Some end in violent death in which the killer betrayed the love and trust of their victim. <P>The ten stories, including the ¿novel¿ length title piece, of EMPTY PROMISES all hinge on a glib predator taking advantage of love to the point that perhaps it is better to not have loved and lived than to love at all. Each tale is haunting because they can easily happen to family, friends, and readers. Although not for everyone, this book proves Ms Rule still rules the true crime genre. <P>Harriet Klausner

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 31, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Compelling True Crime Anthology

    This is my first Ann Rule book, and the cases are scary. This book hits you in a certain way because all the crime cases are real, and not fictionalized. I like how Ann Rule sets up the plot giving good descriptions of the killers, and the reasoning behind their acts. Its scary to know there are real people out there like the people in these cases. I def. enjoy reading true crime stories, and am deeply saddened for the families that encountered these maniacs. Ann Rule tells the stories rightm and I highly reccomend her books to fans of the true crime genre.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2001


    EVER BEEN IN LOVE? Reviewer: A reader from PACIFIC NORTHWEST TERRITORY - 'EMPTY PROMISES' by Ann Rule. You will not be bored, I promise you. TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE ¿. That is the question ! True cases of different loves. This is a must read. I¿m lucky, I saw myself in one of these chapters and I made the right choices ¿. So I¿m alive and healthy and happy today. I do love Ann Rule, she explains HOW these kinds of things can happen. As I said you will NOT be bored ¿. You won¿t be able to put it down until the very last page. I have everyone of Ann Rule's True Crime books and I will not part with any one of them. Keep up the good work Ann, we need you.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2012

    Not what was expected

    Was a bit disappointed.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2012

    highly recommended

    Ann Rule is the best

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2005

    Her Best Novel

    Empty Promises is Anne Rule's best novel. I have read many of her other books, but none compare! While reading you find you can relate to some points, but after reading you feel like you have the perfect life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2002

    Empty Promises is a must


    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Incredible true story reads like fiction

    People see a handsome and charming person, who can make anyone believe he is your best friend willing to do anything for you. However, he is actually an abusive, masochistic transvestite, who loathes all females. His two former wives remain scared to death of him and feel fortunate to have survived marriage to him and remain relatively sane. <P>Sheila knows nothing about Allen¿s past and feels like the luckiest person alive when they marry. By the time they have two children, she knows she has married a monster who enjoys publicly humiliating her at any time. Gathering her courage, she tries to leave him, but he has plans to extort a cruel price by using their children as his means of control. When she remarries and has quadruplets with her new husband, Allen goes berserk and begins a harassment campaign that the military would be proud to adopt in Southern Iraq. Sheila and her husband move to another state, but Allen continues to harass her. The day comes when her throat is cut, but justice is not served time because her killer remains free and becomes the media¿s darling. <P> Except for the fact that Ann Rule is the ruler of true crime, readers will find it difficult to accept that EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE is true crime and not fiction. Ms. Rule captures the essence of evil making it available for her audience to take a deep look inside a human monster. The investigation ands trial is exciting and as good as any legal thriller can be, leaving readers holding their breaths to see if justice prevails. <P>Harriet Klausner

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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