Murder on Spec
Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that Robert Blake murdered his wife. If so, then, how could he have counted on none of the numerous people to whom he'd vented his hatred of Bonny Lee Bakley coming forward after her death hit the papers? And how could Blake have possibly planned to shoot her in the middle of the evening, undetected, on a street where he and his car were familiar sights - and little more than a block from his favorite hangout? Then again, what are the odds of a random murder occurring during the five or fewer minutes that Blake left Bakley alone in his car? These were undoubtedly some of the questions and speculations on jurors' minds when, on January 13, they finally got to see Vitello's restaurant and walk the same street that Blake and Bakley did moments after her last supper.
The quiet Studio City neighborhood took on the appearance of a movie set: small manicured yards with picket fences and stone benches, a child's empty swing hanging from a tree and the massive Moorish house that had since risen near the crime scene, an alcazar completely dominating Woodbridge Street's modest postwar homes. The jurors' posada became a loosely scripted re-enactment of history and an obsessive exercise in simulation - not only had the prosecution parked the same kind of Dodge as Blake's at the same spot he had on the night of May 4, 2001, the D.A.'s Office had also located and towed the original debris dumpster to the front of the black Stealth.
If that wasn't eerie enough, Blake himself unexpectedly showed up just before the jury's evening arrival - strolling about 30 feet in front of his lawyer, Gerald Schwartzbach, before disappearing down an alley near the murder site. Later, pool reporter Eric Leonard, of KFI radio, told the media mob who weren't allowed to accompany the jurors that during their visit Blake had stood silently in the shadows, hands in pockets, as the panel members walked past him in the cold night. (Leonard's online audio reports, by the way, carry the funniest and most trenchant observations about the trial. See www.kfi640.com/BlakeTrial.html.)
Although Woodbridge Street had been blocked off by police, nearby Tujunga Avenue was busy that night, as was Vitello's, which is the type of Italian restaurant that invites opera and Broadway-musical buffs to sing during dinner, and whose patrons are still served the kind of garlic bread and sweet sauces that were popular in the 1970s.
"The food is for old white people," John Solari had complained about Vitello's earlier that day. "Real Italian food bites you. Try Frankie's on Melrose - that's where the wise guys go. But Robert liked it - mostly because he liked singing along with the crowd there."
Solari, the onetime convict, sometime actor, has been kept at arm's length by his friend Blake, though Solari says he is not sure why. He told me how Blake had asked him to move into his house before Bakley's arrival from Little Rock, Arkansas, to "calm" the Baretta star.
"He was lying on the floor in a fetal position," Solari said. "This was when the trunks started to arrive - big steamer trunks with her letters. She was going to set up her business in the back office upstairs. Robert had this nice cowboy furniture upstairs - nice wood made in a Western style. But she didn't want it - she wanted everything to be in black."
Solari's suggestions to Blake about how to handle Bakley, a mail-order porn entrepreneur, are well-known.
"I told him she should be taken off the count," Solari repeated, referring to the census count, but hastened to add that he was not offering to kill Bakley himself or to arrange the crime. That Blake didn't ask him to follow up was proof, to Solari, of the actor's innocence.
"He said, Don't even talk that way! I'm gonna make this work - I'll even fuck her if I have to.'
Such chivalry notwithstanding, Blake's lawyer has his hands full trying to present his client as a normal dad who was merely concerned about the welfare of his infant daughter, Rosie. Instead, he spent much of one day last week grilling Miles Corwin, the author and former Los Angeles Times crime reporter. Schwartzbach repeatedly asked him why he hadn't kept his notes on the case, implying that by destroying them, Corwin was concealing facts about how he might have compromised the crime scene, which he visited during a ride-along with members of the LAPD robbery-homicide bureau.
Corwin, an angular, scholarly-looking man who wears gold-rimmed glasses, stammered at times while explaining that in 25 years of journalism, he'd never been asked to produce his research notes, nor had he ever kept them - he just didn't have the room in his house. While several reporters covering the trial bristled at Schwartzbach's suggestion that a journalist's notes are practically state property, I couldn't help but remember all the times the L.A. Weekly's lawyer, Alonzo Wickers, has hammered into our heads the importance of holding on to steno pads and interview tapes for at least one year, preferably longer. By an odd coincidence, Wickers is also Corwin's attorney.
The problem with Schwartzbach's further implication, that Corwin was a media mercenary, are the facts that while Corwin's book, Homicide Special: On the Streets With the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit, was optioned for a film, it was never green-lighted for production, and nor had he received royalties from an excerpt from the book published by Playboy, whose cover Blake's lawyer displayed on a screen. Ironically, stuntman Duffy Hambleton, who waited six months before mentioning that Blake solicited him to murder Bakley, originally told police his meetings with the actor only revolved around a spec script about motorcyclists he was working on - a script, it's safe to say, that also never saw a green light. Hambleton is one of the most vivid reminders of the moral ambiguity of so many people involved in the case - Blake's hired help who did nothing when they learned of Bakley's death, but revealed their knowledge of Blake's murder wish only when prodded by the authorities. Perhaps Blake knew his people well enough to count on their silence after all.
One of them, William Welch, a private investigator hired by Blake and told by him of a plan to "whack" Bakley, said last week that he hadn't contacted the LAPD - his former employer - at the time, because he did not want to interrupt a fishing trip. Nor did William Jordan, another P.I. and former LAPD officer, dial 911 after learning of Bakley's murder, even though Jordan had been part of a duplicitous strategy to win Blake custody of Rosie and knew very well of Blake's poisonous feelings toward his wife.
Perhaps the most pathetic character in Blake's retinue is Cody Blackwell, a woman whom Blake met at a 1995 AA meeting and then hired to be a $300-a-week personal assistant. By 2000, however, part of her duties included moving into Blake's house to pretend she was a nurse (she was told to set-decorate her room to make it appear she'd lived there a long time) so that Blake could take his daughter Rosie away from Bakley and hand her off to Blackwell. The plan worked, with Blackwell spiriting Rosie away, first to her Laurel Canyon home and later to Calabasas. With the baby-snatch complete, Blackwell said, Blake felt on top of his game against Bakley and her family.
"Just let them come to my house, let them come over the fence!'" Blackwell says he shouted. "I'll shoot them dead and the birds can pick the flesh off their bones.'"
In court, Blackwell cut a petite figure with disproportionately large breasts, and wore her hennaed hair short with spit bangs. As she described her masquerade as "Nurse Nancy" in the plot to steal baby Rosie, Blackwell assumed a more sinister aspect - kind of like the nanny Billie Whitelaw played in The Omen. Perhaps this was because Blackwell was dressed all in black - and because of the pentagram pendant she wore in a tabloid interview photograph, taken with her wolf-mix dog, Deja Vu. Schwartzbach had that photo projected onto a screen as Blackwell continually broke down and cried when she said she didn't go to the police because she'd feared being arrested on kidnapping charges. Instead, she went to the Star, which paid her $8,000 for her story, a point Schwartzbach reliably hammered upon.
Shattered by her interrogation (Schwartzbach had skipped his customary greeting to this witness), Blackwell left the courthouse late in the morning. She was soon followed by Blake, who stood before a group of reporters to eulogize Johnny Carson, noting how the old showman had supported Blake: "When I was arrested, he was the very first person to come out and [speak] on my behalf."
Meanwhile, John Solari's off the count - inside Courtroom 810, that is. Schwartzbach had Judge Darlene Schempp remove him from the room on the grounds that he may be called as a defense witness, a possibility Solari finds highly unlikely.
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