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Actor Robert Blake Acquitted in Shooting Death of His Wife

Times Staff Writers

After a 12-week trial that ended with jurors saying they did not believe two Hollywood stuntmen central to the prosecution’s case, actor Robert Blake was found not guilty Wednesday of fatally shooting his wife.

Prosecutors “couldn’t put the gun in his hand,” said jury foreman Thomas Nicholson. “I felt the primary thing from what I saw was that the circumstantial evidence was flimsy.”

Blake, 71, who would have faced life in prison if convicted, shook from apparent emotion when the verdict was read by the clerk for Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Darlene E. Schempp.

The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for nine days in a Van Nuys courthouse before acquitting Blake of charges that he had killed Bonny Lee Bakley, 44. The mother of four, Bakley was shot as she sat in Blake’s car on May 4, 2001, near Vitello’s, the Studio City restaurant where the couple had just had dinner.

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The jury also found Blake -- the star of the 1970s detective series “Baretta” -- not guilty of soliciting a stuntman, Gary McLarty, to kill Bakley. They deadlocked 11 to 1 on a charge that Blake had solicited a second stuntman, Ronald Hambleton. After the verdict, the judge dismissed that charge “in the interest of justice.”

The jurors, who ranged in age from 24 to 78, included an air-conditioning technician, a legal secretary, a retired librarian and a postal worker. They cited concerns about the circumstantial nature of the case against Blake, in which prosecutors were never able to link him to the murder weapon or produce a witness who could place him at the scene at the time of the murder.

“As things progressed, it just turned out there were a lot of gaps,” said Michael Pollack, 47, an alternate juror who said that when the trial began, he believed Blake didn’t stand a chance of acquittal.

In the absence of direct evidence, jurors were asked to believe testimony from the stuntmen, who testified that Blake had asked them to kill Bakley two months before she was slain. But Blake’s attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, was able to undermine their credibility by presenting evidence that their admitted use of cocaine and methamphetamine could have caused them to be delusional.

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“I didn’t believe either one of them,” said Charles Safko, a 50-year-old truck driver from Winnetka. “I thought they were both so full of it, it was unbelievable.”

Deputy Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Shellie Samuels, a career prosecutor who had won 48 of 49 murder cases before this one, said she was “blown away” by the verdict. She wondered what effect Blake’s celebrity had on the case.

“I can’t believe a jury would not convict on this,” Samuels said.

Eight of the 12 jurors noted on questionnaires they filled out during jury selection that they recalled Blake from his roles in TV’s “Baretta” and the silver screen’s “Our Gang” comedies. All said they were aware of the case before being called, but only four said they had followed it “quite a bit.”

Outside the courthouse, Schwartzbach said he had hoped for a quick verdict but instead got the prolonged deliberations. He also said Blake handled the trial with “tremendous grace.”

“He handled the deliberations with more composure than I was able to muster,” he said. “As the jury was about to come back, he said to me ‘You did your best.’ Now what kind of person says something like that when he doesn’t know which door he’s walking out of?”

After his acquittal, Blake was at times emotional during a rambling session with reporters outside the courthouse.

He said he was broke and had to get a job.

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“I used to be a rich man,” he said. “Right now I couldn’t buy spats for a hummingbird.”

“If you want to know how to go through $10 million in five years, I can tell you,” he said.

Asked who he “honestly believe killed your wife,” Blake shouted, “Shut up!”

He then asked for a pair of scissors to remove the electronic monitor that had been attached to his leg since he was released on bail two years ago.

Bakley’s daughter Holly Gawron wept as the verdict was read.

“It was not what I wanted to hear, but I will accept it and move on,” she said. “At this point there is nothing I can do. I would like him to suffer.”

Eric Dubin, Gawron’s lawyer, who is suing Blake for wrongful death in Bakley’s shooting, said, “I completely respect the jury’s decision, but in America, money and fame will buy you freedom.”

During the three-month murder trial, Blake did not testify in his own defense. But 110 witnesses were called, 74 for the prosecution and 36 for the defense.

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In the end, the two Hollywood stuntmen -- McLarty and Hambleton -- were crucial to the prosecution’s case, and their credibility proved an insurmountable problem for the prosecution.

McLarty, 64, of Lake View Terrace, said Blake offered him $10,000 to “pop” his wife, acknowledging that the actor never used the word “kill.” On the stand, the semiretired stunt coordinator also admitted to being hospitalized last year for a drug-induced breakdown during which he believed police were tunneling under his home and satellites were monitoring his every move.

Hambleton, 68, of Lucerne Valley, testified that Blake proposed several ways to kill Bakley, saying that one possible location for the crime could be near Vitello’s, Blake’s favorite restaurant. He told jurors that when he told Blake he wanted no part of the scheme, the actor responded: “Well, if you’re not going to do it, then I sure as hell am.”

In most of the murder plots Blake proposed, Hambleton said, the actor wanted to be present. He said that Blake told him: “Don’t worry about it. I’m an actor, you know, I’ll take care of it.”

A juror called one of the men “a prolific liar” and said the testimony of the other “had no bearing at all.” Several jurors cited their admissions of heavy past drug use.

Prosecutors contended that the stuntmen’s testimony not only proved the solicitation charges but also supported their theory that Blake feared that Bakley, who ran a lonely hearts mail-order con game, would corrupt their daughter, Rosie, now 4.

During the trial, prosecutors focused on records from a prepaid phone card documenting 56 calls from Blake’s house to Hambleton and three to McLarty between March 2001 and the May 2001 slaying, confirming the actor’s contact with them.

Schwartzbach suggested throughout the trial that someone other than Blake, possibly one of the hundreds of men he said Bakley had bilked with nude photos and promises of a sexual relationship, had killed her when she was sitting alone in Blake’s car.

Schwartzbach also emphasized repeatedly the lack of eyewitnesses, fingerprints or other forensic evidence linking Blake to the murder weapon, a Walther P-38 handgun.

Blake met Bakley, a small-time scam artist who dreamed of snagging a celebrity husband, in 1998 at a now-defunct Burbank jazz club. Their stormy relationship, which included a contentious child-custody dispute, provided the backdrop for the prosecution’s case.

One witness testified that when Blake learned that Bakley, whom he had not yet married, was pregnant, he threatened to “whack her” if she refused to get an abortion. He schemed to get her probation revoked on an Arkansas fraud case and tried to have her arrested for alleged crimes relating to her mail-order pornography business, prosecution witnesses said.

But several witnesses testified that once Blake saw Rosie -- and a paternity test proved she was his child -- he became a loving, doting father. A former employee of Blake’s testified that shortly after Rosie was born in June 2000, Blake refused to return her to her mother after a visit.

Bakley filed kidnapping charges, which she dropped after Blake agreed to marry her. Five days before she was killed, she moved into the guest house behind Blake’s home at the time, the “Mata Hari Ranch” in Studio City.

Nearly a year later, in April 2002, Blake was arrested at his home in Hidden Hills after what officials said was one of the most intensive investigations in Los Angeles Police Department history.

Blake spent the next 11 months in a private cell at Men’s Central Jail until his release on $1.5-million bail. While in jail, his hair, which he had previously dyed jet black, went gray.

For a while, the case was the nation’s most talked-about crime story, but as time passed, changes in Blake’s legal team, delays and bigger celebrity cases -- Michael Jackson’s, for one -- seemed to dampen interest.

When the trial started, defense attorney Schwartzbach questioned police tactics, accusing detectives of mishandling evidence and courting Miles Corwin, an author and former Los Angeles Times reporter, to bolster their careers. He suggested that detectives had targeted Blake early as a suspect to help boost sales of Corwin’s book about the LAPD’s elite robbery-homicide unit.

Several jurors said the issue was not central to deliberations. “They could have left him out,” said Safko.

The judge, in a pretrial ruling, found that Corwin’s presence during a search of Blake’s home violated the actor’s constitutional rights but declined to throw out any evidence, finding that Corwin was merely an observer.

One defense expert testified that whoever shot Bakley would have had significantly more gunshot residue on his hands than the few lead particles police found on Blake in the 2 1/2 hours after his wife’s shooting. Several jurors cited that testimony as important in the acquittal.

Bakley’s unsavory past played a surprisingly small role inside the courtroom, despite early efforts by Blake’s defense team to exploit her mail-order pornography business as the possible reason for her death.

Blake, born Michael James Vijencio Gubitosi in 1933 in Nutley, N.J., made his stage debut at age 3 in his father’s vaudeville act. He quickly moved to the silver screen, joining the “Our Gang” cast as “Mickey,” then played Red Ryder’s Indian sidekick Little Beaver in the Western serials.

Blake played a young boy in the John Huston classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and got rave reviews in 1967 for his terrifying performance as murderer Perry Smith in “In Cold Blood,” based on Truman Capote’s book.

The actor returned to TV in 1975, winning an Emmy for his role as New York detective Tony Baretta, a scrappy, streetwise cop who lived in a rundown hotel with his pet cockatoo, Fred. After three seasons, the series was canceled, and thereafter Blake worked sporadically in TV and movies.

Blake was nominated for an Emmy in 1993 for his portrayal of John List, a meek New Jersey accountant who killed his family in 1971 and led a secret life for more than 17 years before being caught.

Wednesday, he was once more in the spotlight as the media flocked to Van Nuys to hear the fate of an actor who had once shared the screen with Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy. After the verdict, jurors were allowed to keep their badges, which they had many of the trial’s participants autograph as souvenirs.

Also contributing to this story were staff writers Patricia Ward Biederman, Carla Hall, J. Michael Kennedy, Jean Merl, Sam Quinones and Andrew Wang.


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