Hollywood Flashback: In 2005, Robert Blake Was Found Not Guilty of Murdering His Wife

Robert Blake is escorted by sheriff's deputies after he was found not guilty of murdering his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley- Getty - H 2020
Lee Celano/WireImage

The 'Baretta' actor, who was the prime suspect in Bonny Lee Bakley's murder investigation, later lost a civil suit in which he was orderd to pay Bakley's children $30 million (reduced to $15 million) for "intentionally causing" her death.

Fifteen years ago, after a four-month trial, a Los Angeles jury found actor Robert Blake not guilty of murdering his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, closing the books on a case "that involved revenge, hit men and some Hollywood bit players," as THR described it.

The killing had occurred in 2001 when Blake, then 67, and Bakley, 44, dined at Vitello's in Studio City. After leaving the restaurant and walking to their 1991 Dodge Stealth on a side street, Blake doubled back, telling Bakley he'd left the pistol he legally carried inside Vitello's. When he returned to the vehicle, he told police, he found Bakley shot in the head and dying in the front seat. From the beginning, Blake was the prime suspect, and details of their odd marriage were splashed across headlines. He had been a child star (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), played a killer in 1967's In Cold Blood and won an Emmy for his catchphrase-generating character on the 1970s detective show Baretta ("Don't do the crime if you can't do the time"). She had been married nine times before, had run myriad sex-based con games, desperately wanted to wed a celebrity (one target was Jerry Lee Lewis) and was on probation for fraud when Blake married her six months before her death. (She also had a 5-month-old daughter who she claimed was fathered by Marlon Brando's son, Christian; testing proved the baby was Blake's).

"This was the first celebrity murder after O.J. Simpson," says Blake's attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach. "The LAPD and D.A. wanted to make up for the perception that they'd blown that case. They wanted a conviction and didn't care how they got it." In a civil suit eight months later, Blake was ordered to pay $30 million (reduced to $15 million) to Bakley's children for "intentionally causing" her death by conspiring to have her killed. The actor, now 86, lives in an apartment in the San Fernando Valley. 

This story first appeared in the March 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.