Twenty years after actor Robert Blake’s hugely sensational 2005 murder trial ended in his acquittal, the shooting death of his wife Bonny Lee Bakley remains officially unsolved.
Bakley was 44 years old when she was shot twice on May 4, 2001, while sitting in Blake’s car after the couple had dinner at an Italian restaurant in Studio City, California. After a three-month trial, in March 2005 Blake was found not guilty of murder and not guilty of one count of solicitation to commit murder, with the jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal on a second solicitation count.
Blake, born Michael James Gubitosi and now 87, was widely known after a six-decade acting career with more than 160 roles. As a child, he was in “Our Gang (Little Rascals)” from 1939 to 1944, and later starred in the 1967 film In Cold Blood and the 1970s TV detective series “Baretta.”
“I appeared in court a week after I met the guy,” attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach tells A&E True Crime. He was the fourth lawyer hired by the actor and obtained his acquittal. “When I saw what a media circus it was, I said to myself: ‘I have to stay focused on being a lawyer and not getting caught in the media circus.'”
Blake had given an interview to Barbara Walters from jail while awaiting trial in 2003. Schwartzbach, who says he believed in Blake’s innocence from the first time he met him (he came across as “genuine” and “credible”), instructed his client not to talk publicly with one exception: He allowed Blake to make a statement when his friend Johnny Carson died.
Blake didn’t testify in criminal court. Eight months after his acquittal, he was found liable for $30 million in a civil wrongful death lawsuit brought by Bakley’s estate. (An appeals court later cut that sum in half.) Schwartzbach, who didn’t represent Blake at the civil trial, called it “a sham of a legal proceeding,” citing the attorneys’ unfamiliarity with the case, an erroneous ruling by the judge and juror irregularities. He also adding that Blake “kind of self-destructed on the stand.”
Blake gave his most recent public interview to “Piers Morgan on CNN” in 2012, where he called Bakley, his second wife, “a con artist.” “I didn’t know her well enough to know her,” Blake said.
By all accounts, Bakley, who’d been convicted of identity fraud and had nine husbands before Blake, was “not a woman who ever played by any rules,” Mary Murphy, co-author of “Blood Cold: Fame, Sex and Murder in Hollywood,” told “Marcia Clark Investigates: The First 48.” “She was an entrepreneur in the world of pornography way before the Internet.”
Blake and Bakley had a daughter, Rose Lenore Sophia Blake, who was 11 months old when her mother was murdered and was raised by Blake’s older daughter. In her first televised appearance on “Good Morning America” in 2019, Rose Lenore said she tried to stay away from discussing her mother’s death with her father.
“I just kind of told him that I am not really there yet. I don’t want to know the answers yet,” Rose Lenore said. “I think what happened was horrible and so sad. I don’t choose a side because I don’t know any better than anybody else.”
Los Angeles police investigators took 11 months before arresting Blake, who said he’d left Bakley alone in the car because he’d forgotten his gun, for which he had a permit, at the restaurant. When he got back, he said, he found Bakley slumped over and ran to get help.
Police found the murder weapon in a nearby dumpster, but its serial number was filed off, so ownership couldn’t be traced. “It was pretty obvious why the gun was in the dumpster. The guy who pulled the trigger, the guy who had the gun…couldn’t be with the gun [and had to dispose of it quickly],” LAPD Det. Ron Ito, now retired, told Clark.
Bakley had a habit of recording phone calls. In tapes played in court, Blake can be heard accusing Bakley of double-crossing him because she’d promised to have an abortion. Two stuntmen testified at trial that Blake tried to hire them to kill his wife; the defense attacked their testimony as not credible due to, among other things, histories of heavy drug use.
A key element of the case was a small number of particles—four according to the defense, five according to prosecutors—of gunshot residue found on Blake’s hands. A defense expert who test-fired the murder weapon testified Blake would have had nearly 100 particles on his hands if he’d fired the gun. The prosecution argued he could have wiped off his hands. Schwartzbach says the particles found on the actor’s hands didn’t constitute actual gun residue, which is composed of three different chemicals, but instead were “consistent” with gun residue.
In the end, prosecutors “couldn’t put the gun in his [Blake’s] hand” and the evidence “could never connect all the links in the chain,” the jury foreman told reporters, as told by CBS.
At the time she was seeing Blake, Bakley also had been seeing Christian Brando, son of Hollywood legend Marlon Brando. Blake married Bakley after a paternity test showed he was the father of little Rose Lenore.
There was no love lost between Bakley and Brando, who died in 2008. In taped phone conversations played at Blake’s criminal trial, Christian Brando was heard saying, “Not on my behalf, but you’re lucky somebody ain’t out there to put a bullet in your head.”
So who killed Bakley? “I believe it was somebody who did it either at the direction of, or in order to curry favor with, Christian Brando,” Schwartzbach says.
Officially, though, Bakley’s murder remains unsolved.
Blake has largely stayed out of the spotlight in recent years. He posted a series of “autobiographical life story” videos on YouTube from 2019 to 2020 that he titled, “I ain’t dead yet, so stay tuned.” The 14 videos, lasting from six to nearly 48 minutes, feature Blake reminiscing and musing about his life and career.
Among the things he says: “I should have never got married,” and “I’m really a very emotionally disturbed person, and we’re not going to get morbid about it.”
Schwartzbach says he and his former client had a brief falling out at one point, but otherwise kept in touch over the years and last spoke “a number of months ago.”
Blake “is a complicated guy,” Schwartzbach says. “When you are a celebrity, particularly when you are a child celebrity, you don’t know if people are being friendly to you because they are actually friends with you, because they actually like you, or whether people want to be attached to celebrities.”
And Blake’s celebrity didn’t help come trial time, Schwartzbach says.
“It’s true in Robert Blake’s case and it’s true virtually in every criminal case—the media and the general public don’t presume people innocent,” he says. “They presume people guilty.”
Robert Blake died from heart disease on March 9, 2023.