In Cold Blood: The Murder of Bonny Lee Bakley
She had a string of marriages – and famous suitors – but her final relationship with Robert Blake ended when she received a shot to the back of the head.By Grace Srinivasiah July 9, 2015
On May 4, 2001, acting legend, Robert Blake, and his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, ate dinner at Vitello’s in Studio City, California. After the uneventful meal, the couple returned to their car, parked around the corner from the restaurant.
Blake claimed he left his gun at the restaurant and left his wife at the car to retrieve it. At some point in the block and a half it took him to walk back to the restaurant, find the gun, and drink two glasses of water at the bar, Bakley was murdered. He returned to the car to find her lifeless – shot in the head and shoulder.
Blake ran to a nearby house and frantically asked someone to call 911. Paramedics arrived, but they were unable to revive her. She was pronounced dead at the hospital at 10:15 p.m. She was 44 years old.
Born on June 7, 1956, Bakley had a complicated relationship to fame. After her acting ambitions didn’t pan out, she built a reputation as a con artist with a celebrity obsession. She pursued Hollywood types, like Dean Martin, Frankie Valli, Gary Busey, and Christian Brando. It was while dating Brando in 1999 that she met Robert Blake.
Blake, who was noted for his long career in show business, began acting as a child and eventually found stardom with his roles in the film In Cold Blood and television show Baretta. When he met Bakley, the 66-year-old award-winning actor was still working – and highly regarded in his field.
After the two started dating, Bakley continued to see Brando as well. She gave birth to a daughter, who she initially named Christian Shannon Brando. When Bakley admitted to Blake she was unsure of the baby’s paternity, he demanded a paternity test. It confirmed Blake was the father, and the child was renamed Rose Lenore Sophia Blake.
Bakley and Blake married in November 2000. The marriage was rocky, and the two never lived together (Bakley lived in Blake’s guest house). After the questionable child paternity, Blake was distrustful of his wife, and at one point hired a private investigator to dig up information on her. He discovered that Bakley was still running scams.
While detectives struggled to find more evidence beyond the murder weapon – a 9mm pistol – and Bakley and Blake’s strained relationship, two key witnesses came forward claiming to have information about the murder. Stuntmen Ronald Hambleton and Gary McLarty claimed that Blake tried to hire them to kill Bakley and agreed to testify against him.
On April 18, 2002, Blake was arrested and charged with the murder of Bakley. His bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, was also arrested and with conspiracy in connection with murder.
The murder trial began on December 20, 2004. The prosecution built their case on Blake and Bakley’s shaky marriage, claiming he killed her to avoid the divorce process. The defense built upon the lack of evidence against Blake, including the fact that no gunshot residue was found on Blake, and that there were no witnesses to the shooting. Blake did not testify in his defense.
On March 16, 2005, the jury reached their verdict. Blake was found not guilty. Although both jury and the public opinion was mixed, many felt the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence to convict him.
Blake was free, but Bakley’s children still demanded justice. Her three oldest children from previous relationships filed a lawsuit against him, claiming he was responsible for her death. A jury found Blake liable for the death, and although he later appealed, the conviction held and he was ordered to pay her children $15 million.
Blake maintains a low profile to this day, and continues to claim his innocence. Rose, his daughter with Bakley, lives with Blake’s other daughter, and is reported to have no contact with him. Bonny Lee Bakley’s murder remains unsolved.
Public fascination with the murder still continues, despite the case going cold. Award-winning journalist Dennis McDougal and entertainment-media expert Mary Murphy penned Blood Cold — a riveting account of couple’s lives and the fateful decisions that might have ultimately led to Bakley’s death.
KEEP READING FOR AN EXCERPT OF BLOOD COLD, THEN DOWNLOAD THE BOOK AT Amazon, Barnes & Noble, AND ITUNES.
News helicopters were already hovering overhead. They had an unobstructed view of the street where Blake lived. His lavish home, which he owned jointly with his grown daughter, Delinah, was tucked away inside the gated community of Hidden Hills, and it was there that he was raising his twenty-two-month-old toddler, Rose Lenore Sophia. The copters stayed in place because all morning long, rumors of the sixty-eight-year-old actor’s impending arrest for the murder of Rose’s mother, Bonny Lee Bakley, had been leaking out of Parker Center police headquarters.
One news copter captured an aerial shot of the actor climbing into his beige Chevy Suburban for what appeared to be a routine trip to the store. Blake drove to a security gate checkpoint that kept the public—and the media—at arm’s length. Only when the former star of TV’s Baretta spotted the small convoy of news vans lying in wait just on the other side of the fence did he abandon his trip. He immediately made a U-turn and headed back home.
As the afternoon wore on, the number of copters, vans and reporters multiplied. From the sky, Blake could be seen out on his front lawn at one point, almost in defiance of the stalking camera crews. Since moving into the home the previous summer, he’d put up two swing sets and a playhouse in the yard for Rosie and a patio and porch swing, where he could relax while he watched her play. But as the whirlybird buzz matched the televised buzz spreading across the country, and as channel after channel sprouted talking heads who speculated on Blake’s fate, the dark, diminutive actor retreated inside the sprawling ranch-style house and shut the door. As close pal Mark Canavi once noted, Blake behaved much like a bear when under attack, withdrawing to his cave until the worst blew over.
But for Robert Blake, there was nowhere to hide on April 18, 2002. Police were already on their way.
“I am really surprised,” Harland Braun, Blake’s attorney, told CNN. “I got a call from the police just before they got to his house to have me call Robert and alert him that they were coming. He was shocked, but I just said, ‘Remain calm. Come on out and cooperate.’”
As the cold spring sun dropped toward the nearby Pacific Ocean, a convoy of police cars led by an unmarked white sedan rolled to a stop in front of the Blake home. Four LAPD officers climbed out, advancing en masse toward his front door. All four car doors remained wide open while the plainclothesmen entered the Blake residence, as though each officer knew that he would be returning momentarily, quarry in hand. Instead, the quartet remained inside for the better part of an hour. Blake stalled them long enough to call Delinah home from work early to watch the baby.
The car doors gaped. The copters hummed. To fill the dead air, TV commentators recounted what they could of the events leading to this moment. L.A. radio reporter Brad Pomerance—who grew up with both of Blake’s adult children, Delinah and Noah Blake—described the scene as surreal. “A lot of the homes have horses out there, and the whole place is pretty serene with lots of trees. It’s almost like a beautiful part of Texas,” he said. “Dr. Laura [Schlesinger] lives there, and so does one of the Jackson Five. It’s not a thoroughfare to anywhere, and a lot of people live there for that very reason. And then to all of a sudden have both gates shut so you’re closed off from the world and then to have helicopters circling, it’s pretty unnerving.”
By now the sky overhead was thick with news copters capturing every move down on the ground and broadcasting the scene across the nation. It was already prime time on the East Coast, where sitcoms were interrupted with news bulletins, but California was still coming up on its evening newscasts. News directors at every station in Southern California understood that the arrest of Robert Blake for allegedly killing his wife after nearly a yearlong LAPD investigation was a guaranteed showstopper.
TV experts began weighing in—video attorneys of every stripe, whose analysis of all things criminal became a running counterpoint to the play-by-play from Rather, Jennings and Brokaw. Comparisons to a similar LAPD celebrity arrest from eight years earlier were rife. The reprise of the O.J. Simpson case ricocheted from CNN to MSNBC to FOX and back again even before police hauled Blake out in handcuffs.
Simpson himself had offered up ironic advice to Blake months earlier via the syndicated TV show Extra!: Don’t take a polygraph test and don’t smear your dead wife, but above all, don’t turn on the television set. “I know that watching TV is only going to frustrate him,” Simpson explained, adding, “As far as I’m concerned, this man is innocent until a jury comes back and calls him guilty.”
Against the eerie aerial shot of the open-doored white sedan yawning in front of the Blakes’ manicured $1.4 million home, the linking of Blake to O.J. became irresistible to commentators, tele-attorneys, and news anchors alike.
“Now some of you, perhaps even most of you, are whispering to yourselves, ‘O.J.,’” said CNN’s Aaron Brown. “Yes, I hear that too. How this plays out over time, how media crazy we all go on this, what lessons we learned or didn’t are for another day. This is a well-known person and a case with lots of little twists and turns.”
Though acquitted in a sensational televised eight-month trial in 1995, Simpson had been subsequently found responsible for the death of his wife, Nicole, and her young friend Ron Goldman during a nontelevised civil trial, and while Simpson remained officially not guilty, the prevailing belief from coast to coast was that the ex-NFL running back, comic co-star of the Naked Gun film trilogy and airport broad jumper from countless Hertz Rent-a-Car TV commercials had literally gotten away with murder.
And now pundits wondered out loud: Was history about to repeat itself?
ABC News interrupted its broadcast just before six o’clock, Pacific Daylight Time, with a sky video of a handcuffed Blake in a green ball cap, dark trousers and clean white sweatshirt that declared I SURVIVED MALIBU CANYON across its back. He was passive—even friendly. As Harland Braun later explained, his client had spoken frequently over the months with detectives investigating Bonny’s death, and was fully prepared if this day ever came.
After Blake climbed into the rear of the waiting white sedan, all four doors finally slammed shut and the car drove off slowly through the pleasant suburban streets of Hidden Hills—hidden, appropriately enough, at the westernmost end of the sprawling San Fernando Valley. The car picked up speed as it ducked out a side gate, far away from the security checkpoint, where the news crew encampment was quickly dismantling. Few were fast enough to catch up to the unmarked police vehicle as it neared the Ventura Freeway and headed into rush-hour traffic, but copters never lost sight of the white sedan, prompting TV’s talking heads to comment again on the similarity to another media chase back in June 1994. O.J. Simpson had made a freeway run for the Mexican border, riding in a white Bronco that was also trailed by news copters, as well as more than a dozen police cars. Simpson finally made a U-turn and headed home to Brentwood, where he was taken into custody without further incident.
Unlike Blake, Simpson alone was charged with murdering his wife. According to police, Robert Blake had an accomplice. At the same time detectives were arresting a dark, diminutive and defiant Blake in Hidden Hills, another cadre of cops arrived at an apartment in Burbank, where Blake’s burly forty-six-year-old chauffeur and bodyguard lived. Earle Caldwell, the subservient handyman who had been at Blake’s side since he married Bonny eighteen months earlier, was charged with conspiring with Blake to kill her. A half head taller and more than half a hundred pounds heavier than Blake, Caldwell held his head high, but put up no resistance to police. His wraparound sunglasses and a black T-shirt with SEZ WHO? emblazoned over the heart pretty much said it all. In addition to arresting Caldwell, detectives hauled boxes, a shotgun and two gun cases out of his second-floor apartment.
As night fell over Los Angeles, the cars containing Blake and Caldwell both pulled up at the booking entrance at the rear of Parker Center. Blake faced a small army of men and women armed with boom mikes, Minicams, notepads and floodlights. As a star of film and television for most of his life, the one-time TV icon of the hit cop series Baretta was accustomed to media tumult, but this time there was no red carpet waiting, and the rude questions tossed at him could in no way be construed as celebrity softballs.
“What are you being charged with?”
“Mr. Blake, did the arrest come as a surprise?”
“Did you do it, Bob? Did you kill your wife?”
Robert Blake said nothing, keeping his blank eyes focused straight ahead and maintaining the self-imposed silence he’d kept since the day he buried Bonny Bakley ten months earlier.
Her May 25, 2001 funeral at Forest Lawn Cemetery had been Blake’s last public appearance. It was an odder quirk of fate that the unscrupulous celebrity-stalking Bonny Bakley finally wound up there. A shrewd groupie who had spent a lifetime trying to wedge herself into the Hollywood milieu now had a permanent berth on the artificially green hillside opposite the Hollywood sign and within sight of Warner Brothers, Disney and Universal studios. In his terse eulogy, however, Blake never once mentioned the irony to the cameras.
“It was [Bonny’s] will, her conviction, not mine, her dedication that brought Rosie into this world,” Blake pronounced solemnly over his dead wife’s grave, dramatically removing a white rose from the spray atop her casket. Cradling Rose in the crook of her arm, Delinah also plucked a flower off the casket and handed it to the toddler.
After that, Robert Blake never spoke publicly about Bonny or anything else again, and that didn’t change now that he had been arrested for her murder.
He kept his head bowed and continued walking, flanked by Ron Ito and Brian Tyndall, two LAPD detectives who had been investigating the case. For months they too had maintained their silence. Enduring speculation from both Harland Braun and a jaded L.A. news corps that the May 4, 2001, murder of Bonny Lee Bakley might never be solved, neither cop uttered a single substantive word about the case. During the early days of the investigation, the media flooded their offices in the elite Robbery Homicide division up on Parker Center’s third floor with calls wanting to know the status of the case. After a couple months had passed, the flood became a trickle. Summer gave way to fall, and fall to winter, but the detectives’ answer to the media was always the same: “The case remains under investigation.”
Indeed, the killing of Bonny Lee Bakley, forty-four-year-old groupie-cum-wife of actor Robert Blake, had evolved into the most expensive and, arguably, the most extensive investigation in LAPD history. Of the 584 murders committed in the nation’s second largest city during 2001, over half had gone unsolved, and police officials all the way to Chief Bernard Parks’ office were painfully aware that the murder of Bonny Bakley had been among those that officially remained a mystery. Though Bonny’s famous husband had been the obvious suspect from the start, the police had turned up no witnesses, no forensic evidence and no immediate clues that would fix the blame on Robert Blake beyond a reasonable doubt.
Indeed, the actor had behaved like a stricken and bereaved husband. While Bonny lay dying in an ambulance headed toward nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital, Blake alternately wept and vomited into the gutter half a block from the murder scene.
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Photo (top): Courtesy of Murderpedia; Getty Images; Getty Images