From the PROLOGUE:
The calendar said spring, but winter still loomed.
On the overcast morning of the day when the police finally came for actor Robert Blake, Southern California’s familiar desert winds, trademark palms and steady sunshine glow that usually lit up the L.A. basin like klieg lights all were absent.
By noon, the marine layer lifted, but it remained chilly. At least the news helicopters now 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 22-month-old toddler, Rose Lenore Sophia.
The copters hovered because all morning long, rumors of the 68-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. The buzz spread like brushfire through L.A.’s news rooms, but the truth of those reports had yet to be confirmed to Blake’s attorney Harland Braun. If true, Braun would pass the word on to his client. Until then, Blake went about life as usual.
Thus, one news copter captured an aerial shot of the actor climbing into his beige Chevy Blazer 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 approached and saw the small convoy of news vans lying in wait just on the other side of the fence did he abandon his trip, make a U-turn and head 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 lawn at one point, almost in defiance of the stalking camera crews in the sky. Since moving in to the home the previous summer, he’d put up two swing sets and a playhouse in the front 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 now creeping across the country and as channel after channel sprouted talking heads that speculated on Blake’s fate, the dark, diminutive actor gave up on the front yard. He retreated inside the sprawling ranch-style estate 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 no retreating on the afternoon of April 18, 2002. Police were already on their way.
“I am really surprised,” Harland Braun 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.’”
Hours passed. As the cold spring sun dropped toward the edge of the nearby Pacific, a convoy of cop cars led by an unmarked white sedan rolled to a stop in front of the Blake home. Four LAPD officers climbed out, moving en masse toward his front door. All four car doors remained wide open as 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 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 up 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 to have both gates shut so you’re closed off from the world and then to have helicopters circling … Pretty unnerving.”
By now, the sky overhead was thick with news copters capturing every move down on the ground and broadcasting it across the nation. It was already primetime on the East Coast, where sitcoms had to be 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 prospect of a Blake arrest after nearly a yearlong LAPD investigation was a guaranteed show stopper. Palestinian suicide bombers and the Israeli Army might be wrestling the Middle East toward the brink of war, but there was simply no other news in L.A. that evening.
Robert Blake had been arrested for allegedly killing his wife.
TV experts began weighing in – video attorneys of every stripe whose familiar instant analysis of all things criminal became a running counterpoint to the play-by-play from Rather, Jennings and Brokaw during such legal crises. Comparisons to a similar LAPD celebrity arrest from eight years earlier flooded both the airwaves and the national consciousness. The bad taste left by 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 watch TV, Bob.
“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, and while waiting for Robert to emerge, the linking of Blake to O.J. became inevitable and 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. It absolutely deserves our attention right now, right now as in tonight…”
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 non-televised civil trial, and while Simpson remained officially not guilty, the prevailing belief from coast to coast was that the ex-NFL running back, comic 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 6 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time, with sky video of a handcuffed Blake in a green ball cap, dark trousers, and a clean white sweat shirt that declared “I Survived Malibu Canyon” across its back. Before emerging from his home, he’d instructed Delinah to take care of Rosie, but when the moment came to leave, he became 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 moved 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 now 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 of 1994. O.J. Simpson made a freeway run for the Mexican border that day, riding in a white Bronco that was also trailed by news copters, as well as more than a dozen police cars. Simpson finally made his own U-turn and headed home to Brentwood where he was taken into custody without further incident, much the way Blake went quietly now.
But unlike Blake, Simpson alone was charged with murdering his wife.
According to police, Robert Blake had an accomplice in the execution of Bonny Bakley. At the same time detectives were arresting dark, diminutive and defiant Blake in Hidden Hills, another cadre of cops arrived at an apartment in Burbank where Blake’s burly and bewildered 46-year-old chauffeur and bodyguard lived. Earle Caldwell, the subservient handyman who had been at Blake’s side since he married Bonny 18 months earlier, was charged with conspiring with Blake to kill her. A half a head taller and over half a hundred pounds heavier than Blake, Caldwell held his head high, but put up no resistance to police. His wrap around 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, mini-cams, 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 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. Then and now, he might have reflected on where the unscrupulous celebrity-stalking Bonny Bakley finally wound up. A shrewd lewd groupie who had spent a desperate 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 of her mother’s 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 down and continued walking, flanked by Ron Ito and Bryan Tyndall, the two LAPD detectives who finally brought the actor down. 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 of 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, 44-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, there were no witnesses, no forensic evidence, and no immediate clues that would fix the blame on Robert Blake beyond a reasonable doubt.
Indeed, the actor 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 while delivering the following story to investigators:
Before they left Blake’s home for Vitello’s, a nearby neighborhood bistro, Bonny insisted that her husband pack one of his pistols because she believed someone had been stalking her. The couple parked beside a vacant house that was under construction on a side street and walked a block to the restaurant, which had been a Blake haunt for close to 20 years. They arrived around 8:30 p.m., sat in a corner booth, and Bonny ordered seafood and wine while Blake had chicken soup.
The couple ate, Blake paid the bill adding a 25% tip, and they left at about 9:30 p.m., but when they got to his car, Blake discovered he’d left his .38 caliber hand gun behind. He returned to the restaurant, retrieved the gun, asked for two glasses of water, drank them, and left.
When he returned to his car, Blake found that in his brief absence, Bonny had been shot twice. After discovering his mortally wounded wife, Blake went to a house around the corner from Vitello’s parking lot and knocked. Actor/director Sean Stanek opened the door to a frantic Blake around 9:50 p.m. and, upon hearing his story, called 911. Then both men ran to the car where Bonny lay slumped in the passenger seat. Blood was everywhere. Paramedics could not revive her. Bonny was declared DOA at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 10:15 p.m.
While Blake’s story seemed riddled with inconsistencies, after nearly five hours of questioning, police did not arrest him. They declined to even name him a suspect. Bonny’s autopsy was sealed, Blake’s Dodge Stealth was impounded, and the murder weapon – a relatively rare 9 millimeter German military pistol called a Walther P38 -- was recovered a couple of days later along with a pair of gloves from a nearby trash bin.
But in the days, weeks and months that followed, neither Detectives Ito, Tyndall, nor any of the other half dozen investigators who worked the case with them would even confirm that they had located the murder weapon. Stung by its rush to prosecute O.J. Simpson, the department wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. Police Chief Parks, who had risen to the top of the department as an indirect result of the housecleaning the LAPD had undergone following the 1992 L.A. riots and the O.J. trials, urged the public and media to have patience.
“It’s a homicide that at least at this time has very few clues,” Parks told a local radio station two weeks after the murder. “It’s going to require an extensive amount of investigation.”
Asked if Blake was a suspect, Parks said, “No one’s been eliminated. It would not be an investigation if we just chose who should be a suspect and who shouldn’t.”
He vowed to provide whatever resources Robbery Homicide Capt. Jim Tatreau said his detectives needed to arrest, prosecute and convict Bonny’s killer. In the meantime, Parks muzzled everyone but his media relations officers and, after little more than two months of tabloid speculation, the mystery surrounding the murder of Robert Blake’s wife vanished from the headlines.
Over the following nine months, investigators traveled to 20 states where they conducted more than 150 interviews and amassed 35,000 pages of evidence. They explored the seedy after hours jazz joints on Beale Street in Memphis once haunted by star struck Bonny Bakley and her gal pals; the High Sierra resort where Blake took Bonny – and Earle Caldwell – on a belated honeymoon just one week before she died; and the mean streets of northern New Jersey towns where Bonny and Robert Blake were both born into very different, but equally dysfunctional, families.
The detectives traveled to Montana, Vegas, Arkansas, New York, Mississippi, Phoenix and Florida, speaking with many of the men whom Bonny had bilked of money, property, and insurance during a pornographic career that stretched over two decades. They interviewed transvestites, stuntmen, musicians, thieves, prostitutes, lawyers, bouncers, and at least one professional Elvis impersonator. They waded hip deep into Bonny’s disturbing netherworld of phone sex, dirty pictures, and gutter erotica and entered into Blake’s dark, obsessive, and equally disturbing twilight zone – a bitter world of “what ifs” and missed opportunity that Blake himself called “the third act” of his fast fading television and movie star’s life.
It was here, inside the tarnished imagination of the child actor who refused to grow up and leave the stage that Ito and Tyndall believed they finally found their killer. On April 18, 2002, the detectives concluded that the brooding screen persona that Little Rascal Bobby Blake nurtured into a lead role in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued to cultivate for half a Hollywood century finally crossed over from tough guy fantasy to killer reality.
“Robert Blake shot Bonny Bakley,” Capt. Tatreau told a hastily gathered news conference that Thursday night after Blake had been fingerprinted, photographed, booked and transferred to a holding cell. “We believe his motive is that Robert Blake had contempt for Bonny Bakley. He felt that he was trapped in a marriage that he wanted no part of.”
Outside of Parker Center, attorney Harland Braun held his own impromptu press conference after an hour long meeting with his client. A veteran defense lawyer who first gained national recognition 20 years earlier successfully defending director John Landis in the so-called Twilight Zone manslaughter case, Braun was as media savvy as any attorney in Los Angeles. He knew how to spin and he knew when he was being spun, just as he was this very moment.
Braun vented his frustration over being kept in the dark about Blake’s arrest which appeared to have been just in time for the evening news cycle. In answer to questions shouted at him about Blake’s reaction, the sandy-haired criminal defense veteran peered out over his trademark tortoise shell half-lenses and told reporters:
“His main concern right now is his children.”
Braun could have added that Blake’s children had been Blake’s concern all along, and that, in fact, this was a case all about children – an aging child of Hollywood who meets a desperate child of American Bandstand, conceives her child, and then leaves all of his children – adult and infant -- to sort out the bitter legacy of his own personal childhood demons.
Braun didn’t speculate though. He called it a night and bid the ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate a good evening. It had been a long, cold difficult day and the days that would follow promised to be equally long, equally challenging, and equally chilling.