Former child actor Robert Blake, who went on to star in In Cold Blood and Baretta, dined with his second wife Bonnie Lee Bakely at Vitello’s Restaurant in Studio City, Calif., on May 4, 2001. While sitting outside of the restaurant in Blake’s car, Bakely was shot in the head. Blake was Bakley’s 10th husband.
Blake told authorities that he gone into the restaurant to retrieve his gun, which he said he had left at the Italian eatery. He also claimed that he had not been present when the shooting took place. Authorities later determined the gun Blake claimed to have left in the restaurant was not the murder weapon.
On April 18, 2002, Blake was arrested and charged with Bakley’s murder. Additionally, Blake’s longtime bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, was also arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the murder. The LAPD arrested Blake after retired stuntman Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton agreed to testify that Blake had attempted to hire him to kill his wife. Another retired stuntman Gary McLarty also came forward with a similar story.
On April 22, 2002, Blake was charged with one count of murder with special circumstances, which carried a possible death penalty sentence. He was also charged with two counts of solicitation of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. The former Little Rascals actor pleaded not guilty on all charges. Caldwell was charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit murder and also entered a plea of not guilty.
On April 25, 2002, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office announced that it would not be seeking the death penalty, but would seek life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Caldwell was released on a $1 million bail posted by Blake, whose bail was denied by a judge. Almost a year and a half later, Blake was finally granted bail set at $1.5 million. He was placed on house arrest while awaiting trial.
Blake was placed on house arrest during this time. On October 31, 2003, the judge dismissed the conspiracy charge against Blake and Caldwell during a pre-trial hearing.
Shellie Samuels, the prosecutor handling the case, admitted to 48 Hours Investigates reporter Peter Van Sant that the prosecutors had no forensic evidence implicating Blake in the murder, that they could not tie him to the murder weapon, there were no witnesses, and essentially no hard evidence.
Blake’s criminal murder trial began on Dec. 20, 2004. The prosecution argued Blake intentionally murdered Bakley to free himself from a loveless marriage. The defense claimed that Blake was an innocent victim of circumstantial and fabricated evidence.
Prosecution testimony detailed that Bakley was shot twice while sitting on the passenger side of the parked car and the passenger window was rolled down, which they argued meant that she may have known her assailant. The murder weapon was a semi-automatic Walther P38 pistol that was eventually found in a dumpster a few yards away from where Bakley was shot.
On Feb. 7, 2005, Gary McLarty took to the stand and claimed that in March 2001, the actor tried to get him to take a contract out on his wife’s life and he declined. Blake’s defense team brought up McLarty’s history of mental problems.
On Feb. 9, Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton also testified that Blake went to him to contract him to kill Bakley. During the cross-examination, the defense brought up his record of past convictions for various petty crimes including drug and gun possession.
The prosecution rested its case on February 14. The defense Blake’s defense team, led by attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach, began its case with a series of witnesses, who testified to Hambleton and McLarty’s drug use during their stuntman days. The defense also argued that because Blake did not have gunshot residue on his hands meant he could not be the shooter. Blake did not testify. The defense rested its case on Feb. 23, 2005.
On March 16, 2005, a jury found Blake not guilty of murder and not guilty of one of the two counts of solicitation of murder. The other count was dropped after it was revealed that the jury was deadlocked 11–1 in favor of an acquittal. Following the ruling, Los Angeles District Attorney Stephen Cooley called Blake “a miserable human being” and the jurors were “incredibly stupid.”
Following the decision, fans of Blake celebrated at his favorite restaurant–Vitello’s, also the scene of the murder.
Following the criminal trial, Bakley’s three children filed a civil suit against Blake, arguing that he was responsible for the death of their mother.
During the civil trial, Eric Dubin, the attorney for Bakley’s family, called the Caldwell’s girlfriend to the stand and asked if she believed Blake and Caldwell were involved in the crime. “Dead silence filled the court. Tears filled her eyes as she paused for what seemed like a decade, then leaned into the microphone and said that yes, she did believe that they were involved,” Dubin recalled in his book The Star Chamber: How Celebrities Go Free and Their Lawyers Become Famous.
On Nov. 18, 2005, a jury found Blake liable for the wrongful death of his wife and ordered him to pay $30 million to her children. On Feb. 3, 2006, Blake filed for bankruptcy.
On April 26, 2008, an appeals court upheld the civil case verdict, but cut the payment to $15 million.