Like Fucking Piranhas

"Robert, do you know Dominick Dunne? He came out from New York for the good weather! Gerry — this is Dominick Dunne."

The smiles and handshakes being exchanged might have been traded in a lounge at the Peninsula or Chateau Marmont, except that the "Robert" being introduced here was accused murderer Robert Blake and "Gerry" was Blake’s attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach. Last Monday the soft, recessed lighting and blond wood paneling belonged not to a West Hollywood celebrity grotto but to Room 810 of the L.A. County Superior Court in Van Nuys. It was Dunne’s first day covering the trial for Vanity Fair, but this morning the only news in town was the serial storms lashing Southern California — not a single still photographer or TV crew stood outside the courthouse.

The morning’s testimony was accordingly sluggish, and, after three weeks of trial, we were still walking the streets surrounding Vitello’s in the hours after Blake and his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, left the restaurant. (By now everyone in the courtroom can see the aerial diagram of Vitello’s neighborhood in their sleep, and the pedestrian trajectories of Blake and witnesses have become as familiar to many as the route of John F. Kennedy’s motorcade through Dealy Plaza.) Deputy D.A. Shellie Samuels called on LAPD Robbery-Homicide Detectives Steven Eguchi and Martin Pinner to help hammer home the prosecution’s contention that Blake’s operatic mad scene following his wife’s death was played strictly for the balcony seats.

In fact, the past week of testimony has seen prosecution and defense counsels engaged in an interpretive tug of war over such things as whether Blake’s crime-scene sobbing produced actual tears and if his nausea was heartfelt and fluid, or confined to insincere dry heaves. Samuels prodded Eguchi to note that, significantly, a puddle of vomit produced by Blake that night lay closer to the trash dumpster — where he stayed during the paramedics’ resuscitation efforts — than to the car where his wife sat dying with two bullets in her.

"It was green and appeared to be regurgitated spinach," Eguchi solemnly elaborated.

This was not the first — nor, likely, the last — time the contents of Blake’s May 4, 2001, dinner have come up in testimony. It’s been noted that vomit was found in a trash receptacle of the men’s lavatory of Vitello’s after Blake had paid a visit to the room. (Evidence of a nervous amateur about to commit murder or the infirmities of age? But then, who vomits into a trash can as opposed to a toilet?) Not ceding an inch to Samuels, defense counsel Schwartzbach fought to have Eguchi acknowledge the sincerity of Blake’s reactions and, during his cross-examination, asked the detective if Blake’s curbside vomit was — well, real.

"As opposed to what — fake vomit?" Samuels interjected. Her exasperated outburst showed how impatient the deputy D.A. has become with Schwartzbach’s circuitous, low-volume interrogations.

"Objection — incomprehensible!" she interrupted during one of his whispery cross-examinations of Eguchi. Admittedly, Blake’s phlegmatic lawyer was at the height of his soporific powers Monday, quietly meandering down a list of questions that, at one point, caused a witness to lean far forward and ask him to repeat what he’d just said.

"I’ve heard he can bore a starving dog off a meat truck," Samuels said to an associate in an elevator during a recess. Someone then asked her opinion of Schwartzbach’s lengthy opening statement.

"I can’t remember it," she replied. "My eyes glazed over after an hour and a half."

But there is a method to Schwartzbach’s maddening cross-examinations, and everyone knows where he is going — straight to former L.A. Times reporter Miles Corwin, who had ridden along with the LAPD to the Blake crime scene for a book he was researching on the Robbery-Homicide Division. During his opening remarks last month, Schwartzbach had projected a group of photographs on a courtroom screen. There was Corwin, standing with the cops at the crime scene — in the very middle of Yellow Tapeland — laughing with the detectives here, expertly shining his own flashlight on an object there.

Schwartzbach effectively cast Eguchi as an eager but green homicide detective lacking the forensic training undergone by members of the department’s Scientific Investigation Division. Eguchi admitted to the lawyer that he’d received only a rudimentary education in fingerprint preservation. Yet, Schwartzbach countered, Eguchi had clambered up all four sides of the dumpster to paw around its contents before the SID pros showed up, possibly destroying prints. Blake’s lawyer is driving home his own theory that publicity-hungry cops rolled out a red carpet for Corwin over a fragile ecology of evidence and clues. Schwartzbach also made hay of the fact that the dumpster, from which a WWII-era pistol was eventually recovered, had been hauled out to a landfill, where its load was spilled, willy-nilly, onto dirt ground for inspection.

Stephen Bingham, the lawyer whose case stemming from a bloody San Quentin prison break Schwartzbach brilliantly won in 1986, told me that forensic evidence is Schwartzbach’s meat.

"If there’s any DNA involved," Bingham said, "watch out — because he will thoroughly research it."

So far the only part DNA has played in the Blake case is in how it established the actor’s paternity of Bakley’s daughter, Rosie, who was born out of wedlock. There seems little debate over the fact that once Blake (and not, as the enterprising Bakley had hoped, Christian Brando) was identified as Rosie’s father, he became protective of the infant, even as his loathing of Bakley and her picaresque family grew. Detective Pinner recounted that, when Blake was interviewed at the North Hollywood station shortly after Bakley’s death, the actor declared to his attorney at the time that he wanted to draw up a will to provide for Rosie and to keep her away from Bakley’s Arkansas kinfolk, whom he described as criminals and "piranhas."

" ‘Like fucking piranhas,’ " Samuels helpfully annotated, reading from the interview. Pinner nodded.

The testimony has yet to move from piranhas to the bottom feeders with whom Blake allegedly conspired to kill his wife. In her opening remarks, Samuels told the jury that the case’s cast of characters would not be drawn from a Sunday-school picnic. Besides the murder victim herself, Samuels was also alluding to Gary McLarty and Duffy Hambleton, the two stuntmen whom Schwartzbach portrayed in his own opener as drug-fried desert rats eager to trade favors with cops from L.A. to San Bernardino. But they, like Miles Corwin, must wait before they make their entrances in Room 810. For now the trial is still focused on the immediate aftermath of murder, with both sides reading auguries in Blake’s vomit.


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