Blake Trial Begins in Packed Courtroom

Times Staff Writers

More than 3 ½ years after his wife was fatally shot, Robert Blake listened to opening arguments in his murder trial this morning.

It was a packed courtroom in Van Nuys as proceedings against the award-winning actor finally began in the latest celebrity murder trial that has become a mainstay of cable television. The jury of seven men and five women, plus six alternates, was chosen from a pool of more than 1,000 people.

Blake has pleaded not guilty to murder and soliciting murder. He faces life in prison without parole if convicted.

Before his release on $1.5-million bail last year, the actor spent 11 months in the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, on a cellblock that once held some of California's most famous defendants — such as "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez and O.J. Simpson.

At the heart of the trial will be Rosie, Blake's apple-cheeked 4-year-old — and the passions surrounding her birth and custody. Even without direct evidence linking Blake to the killing of Bonny Lee Bakley, prosecutors believe they can convince a jury that the actor would do anything to protect his daughter Rosie — even kill her mother.

Blake, wearing a blue suit, a light blue shirt and a thin blue tie, stared vacantly as Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Shellie L. Samuels took almost two hours to outline the prosecution case.

"During the presentation of the people's case, the prosecution will establish that the victim in this was killed because the defendant wanted sole custody of their child and wanted the baby away from her mother and her mother's family," she said during the opening statement.

"The people will establish that the defendant despised Bonny Lee Bakley, that she got pregnant against the defendant's wishes and she refused to have an abortion when he asked her to," Samuels said. "The evidence will show that the defendant thought that Bonny's family, Rosie's other side of the family, were low-life trailer trash that all made their living working for Bonny in her illegal scams to scam money."

She then later said: "Shooting someone in real life is a whole lot different from shooting them in the movies."

Samuels spoke mainly from the lectern. But in his opening statement, defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach slowly walked back and forth in front of the jury box. He minimized the prosecution presentation by stressing that Blake was charged with personally shooting Bakley. "There is no direct evidence," he insisted. "But there is also no circumstantial evidence."

Then he repeated the theme by adding: "There is no physical evidence, no scientific evidence, no DNA."

Bakley was fatally shot the night of May 4, 2001, in Studio City, while sitting alone in Blake's car parked 1 1/2 blocks from Vitello's, the Italian restaurant where they had just dined. Her window, operated electrically, was down and Blake had taken the car keys, according to court documents.

Authorities say the crime was committed between 9:23 p.m., when Blake used his credit card to pay for their dinner, and 9:40 p.m., when the actor called 911 from a nearby house.

Blake, 71, said he had left Bakley, 44, and returned to Vitello's. He said he had left a handgun, which he carried for her protection, at their table. When he got back to the car, Blake said, he found his wife slumped over and bleeding from the head. He ran to a nearby house to call police.

Since Bakley's death, a succession of Blake's defense lawyers have portrayed her as a star-struck con artist who ran a mail-order pornography business swindling the men she attracted through personal ads. At one point, the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections persuaded a judge to order Bakley to stop soliciting inmates by mail.

Blake's defenders have said that any one of those convicts — or hundreds of other men — had ample motive to kill her.

The case against Blake is circumstantial. It relies largely on his conversations with two Hollywood stuntmen who are expected to testify that the Emmy Award-winning actor asked them to kill Bakley.

When they refused, prosecutors contend, he pulled the trigger himself.

In an attempt to discredit the stuntmen, defense lawyer M. Gerald Schwartzbach has stated in court that both were chronic abusers of illegal drugs and they could have been impaired when Blake allegedly asked them to "snuff" or "pop" his wife.

Authorities say Blake, who began his career as a child actor in the "Our Gang" series and is best known as the streetwise detective in the 1970s television show "Baretta," was a suspect from the start.

He met Bakley at a now-defunct Burbank jazz club. A few months later, she became pregnant.

In an audiotape, Blake accused Bakley of telling "vicious" lies, begged her to get an abortion and vowed to "never forget" that she had deliberately gotten pregnant, the very thing he said she knew "terrified" him.

Over the next several months, Blake tried several times to have Bakley jailed, eventually calling federal authorities in Arkansas, where she had been convicted of identity fraud, to report that she had violated parole by leaving the state. She returned to Arkansas, leaving Rosie in her father's care.

Bakley filed a paternity action, and then a kidnapping complaint, against Blake. After tests confirmed Blake's blood ties to the child, the couple married in California in November 2000.

Instead of going on a honeymoon, Bakley again returned to Arkansas to complete parole. She also had been convicted earlier of illegal drug possession in Tennessee.

Five days before her death, Bakley came back to California and moved into a guest house behind Blake's Studio City home. Blake had promised that she would be reunited with Rosie a few days later.

In a televised interview, Blake told ABC's Barbara Walters in February 2003 that he had been trying to work things out with his wife and had been looking forward to her three other children joining them in California.

But Samuels, the prosecutor, said Blake actually hated her and her family. He allegedly called them "piranhas." One stuntman testified that Blake had told him he feared that Rosie would "wind up a porn star" if left with his wife and her family.

Bakley's adult children have defended their mother, saying it was "both unbelievable and despicable" that anyone would imply that she deserved to die.

Schwartzbach said that there could be "another side of the coin" in the prosecution's reliance on Bakley's sordid past to prove that Blake had a motive to kill. Other men — including Christian Brando, son of actor Marlon Brando — also might have wanted Bakley dead, he said. Bakley first told Brando that Rosie was his daughter, and named her Christian Brando.

There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, nor has anyone reported hearing gunshots.

The next day, police found the murder weapon, a vintage Walther P-38, in a garbage bin near the scene. It was unregistered. There were no fingerprints.

The actor's hands and clothing bore traces of gunpowder residue, but experts testified that it could have come from the gun the actor carried the night of the slaying. No blood was found on Blake's clothing.

It took Los Angeles police investigators nearly a year to make a case against Blake, who was arrested in April 2002. Detectives traveled to more than 20 states, interviewed more than 150 witnesses and collected about 900 items of evidence in what was described as the most extensive homicide investigation in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A former LAPD detective is expected to testify that Blake told him he intended to force Bakley to have an abortion and, failing that, "whack her."

The witness, William Welch, testified last year at the preliminary hearing that the actor had called him the next day to say he was abandoning the plan.

After the baby was born in June 2000, Blake turned his focus to keeping Rosie while getting Bakley out of his life, Welch testified.

In March 2001, Blake allegedly contacted two stuntmen — Gary "Whiz Kid" McLarty and Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton — who told investigators that the actor had asked them to kill his wife.

McLarty, 63, testified at the preliminary hearing that Blake had devised four scenarios for "popping" his wife, including one similar to the actual crime. He said he refused Blake's offer of $10,000 to kill her.

Hambleton, 69, said he too was asked by Blake to "snuff" Bakley.

No one can corroborate those conversations. But records from a prepaid telephone card show that 56 calls were made from Blake's house to Hambleton's and three to McLarty's in the weeks before Bakley died.

Hambleton told authorities that he had instructed Blake to purchase a prepaid phone card, which he told the actor would make his calls untraceable.

Samuels said the phone records confirmed that Blake wanted to keep those contacts secret: "If he was calling them to do a movie, why would he use a phone card?"

McLarty has admitted to fatally shooting a 49-year-old ex-convict living at his house after first lying to police about the death. Authorities ruled the 1991 shooting an act of self-defense.

Hambleton pleaded guilty this month to brandishing a firearm, a misdemeanor. The case involved police investigating a 911 call at his house in San Bernardino County.

Last year, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Darlene E. Schempp dismissed conspiracy charges against Blake and Earle S. Caldwell, the actor's handyman and bodyguard, ruling that there was insufficient evidence. Caldwell's defense costs and $1-million bail were paid by Blake. And Caldwell has asserted his constitutional rights against self-incrimination.

Though he is no longer a defendant, Samuels said Caldwell still is "involved up to his eyeballs." The judge rejected a defense motion earlier this month to exclude evidence involving Caldwell, including a hand-scrawled supply list police found in Caldwell's Jeep a month after the killing.

Authorities allege that the list — "two shovels, small sledge, crowbar, 25 auto, 'get blank gun ready,' old rugs, duct tape-black, Draino, pool acid, lye, plant" — amounts to a recipe for murder. One of Blake's alleged scenarios was to kill Bakley in the desert and bury her there.

The defense argues that the items are typical handyman stock.

Regardless of what the future may bring, prosecutors say Blake already has what he wants most: Rosie is being raised by his older daughter, Delinah.

No one from Bakley's family has seen the child in more than a year.

"Rosie is God's magic," Blake said. "When she smiles, the sun takes a much-needed rest."

Times Staff Writer Jean Guccione contributed to this story.

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