It seemed eerily familiar. A Hollywood star standing handcuffed in a posh L.A. neighborhood; a white car speeding down a freeway with an armada of helicopters overhead; the LAPD announcement that a celebrity had been arrested for the murder of his wife.
But Robert Blake is no O.J. Simpson. And while Gloria Allred and Marcia Clark popped up on TV to narrate the latest scandal, the arrest of the 68-year-old Baretta star will not play out like the Trial of the Last Century. First, there’s the matter of timing. Careful to avoid accusations of a rush to judgment, the LAPD took 11 months before making the arrest, charging Blake with the slaying last May 4 of his 44-year-old wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. On April 22, he pleaded not guilty to one count of murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait (making him eligible for the death penalty), two counts of solicitation of murder, and one of conspiracy. He is being held in the L.A. County Jail without bail.
Details of the case are indeed salacious. Authorities allege that after dinner at Vitello’s in Studio City, the actor got Bakley into the passenger seat of his 1991 Dodge Stealth, opened the windows, came around to her side, and shot her twice with a WWII-era Walther P38 9mm handgun before tossing it into a nearby Dumpster. Moreover, prosecutors claim he had previously approached two people about killing Bakley and also plotted with his handyman/bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, 46, who allegedly drafted a list of items for the task that included ”2 shovels, small sledge, crowbar, 25 auto, ‘get blank gun ready,’ old rugs, duct tape, Draino [sic], pool acid, lye, plant.” According to Blake’s attorney, Harland Braun, that was merely a shopping list of pool supplies. (Caldwell pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit murder and was being held on $1 million bail.)
This time, the players seem to have learned from the O.J. media frenzy of seven years ago. ”The police department has to vindicate themselves from prior investigations,” notes Bakley family attorney Cary Goldstein. And the press-shy approach of prosecutors Patrick Dixon and Gregory Dohi seems designed to erase the memory of Christopher Darden handing Simpson that ill-fitting bloody glove. ”We’re anxious to get this case into court,” says DA spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons. ”The evidence needs to be tested in a court of law, not on a sidewalk.”
But the victim’s family isn’t backing away from the spotlight. Bakley’s sister Margerry figures to be a key prosecution witness, and the family plans to pursue a civil case against Blake. However, they do not intend to seek custody of Rose, the 22-month-old daughter of Bakley and Blake currently living in Hidden Hills, Calif., with Delinah, 35, Blake’s daughter from a previous marriage.
There’s also no dream team at the defense table. Blake is represented solely by Braun, who successfully defended one of the L.A. cops in 1993’s federal Rodney King trial. So far, Braun’s main argument has been that many people had reason to kill Bakley—whose past included arrests for possession of stolen credit cards and passing bad checks. But he concedes that his task may be more difficult in a post-O.J. world. ”Celebrities get harsher justice,” Braun says, ”because DAs want to win celebrity cases.”