@THE GUSS REPORT-Of the various celebrities seen in my local supermarket, the easiest to recognize may be actor and mid-octogenarian Robert Blake, due as much to his sleeveless shirts and cowboy hat as the familiar face hidden by the latter.
Having occasionally chatted with him, the next time I see him I will let him know he is due an apology from the Los Angeles County District Attorney, now Jackie Lacey, for her predecessor Steve Cooley’s attempt to prosecute him on murder and related charges related to the death of Blake’s then-wife, an undisputed grifter named Bonny Lee Bakley on May 4, 2001, behind Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City.
What changed my mind from believing in Blake’s guilt to believing in his innocence is the recent episode on the case from ABC News’ 20/20.
An important element of the show’s recount of Bakley’s murder is the fair and sober telling of Blake’s childhood, why throughout his life he comes across as idiosyncratic and peculiar, and why that element of his personality worked against him in the subsequent wrongful death civil trial won by Bakley’s family after his criminal acquittal.
In the 20/20 episode, Blake explains that even while in-vitro, he was hated by his mother, her husband and her husband’s brother – who is Blake’s biological father – as a result of their illicit affair. If ever a child came into the world unwelcome and with the deck stacked against him, it was Robert Blake. He also claims he was subjected to extreme abuse by his parents, as well as his father picking a fight with none other than MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, resulting in the entire family being banished from the studio. It took Blake years to earn his way back to lead actor roles.
While Blake’s quirky personality was kept in-check during stages of the criminal proceedings by his slew of famous attorneys, including Harland Braun, Thom Mesereau and Gerald Schwartzbach, Blake’s zany over-confidence from the acquittal may have worked against him by resurfacing during the lower-burden-of-proof civil case.
Shellie Samuels, an LA County prosecutor during the criminal trial, acknowledged a lack of forensic evidence against Blake, their inability to connect him to the murder weapon that was recovered by the LAPD, and that there was neither any other evidence nor eyewitnesses to Bakley’s slaying.
“They couldn’t place the gun in (Blake’s) hands,” a juror in the criminal trial told the press after the acquittal.
Most importantly, 20/20 brilliantly addressed the big question of if not Blake, then who dunnit?
The show plausibly suggested that the actual mastermind of Bakley’s murder may have been Christian Brando, son of actor Marlon Brando, as the younger Brando had previously been sentenced to five years in prison for the manslaughter of his half-sister Cheyenne Brando’s boyfriend Dag Drollet in 1990.
And the younger Brando certainly had the motive, opportunity and means to arrange Bakley’s murder.
Bakley, despite knowing that Blake was proven through a DNA test to be her daughter Rosie’s father, continued to scam Christian Brando into believing that he was the baby’s father. The younger Brando was overhead during a speakerphone conversation stating, “somebody should put a bullet in that bitch’s head,” and in another phone conversation (one of many that were illegally recorded by Bakley) Brando forewarned, “You’re lucky. You know, I mean, not on my behalf, but you’re lucky someone ain’t out there to put a bullet in your head.”
And that’s precisely what eventually happened, predicted at least twice by the younger Brando.
The judge in Blake’s criminal trial prevented his defense team from using the alternate theory of Brando as the murder mastermind.
The 20/20 episode also explained who the likely gunman in the Brando scenario may have been. That person and Brando are both now deceased.
When the episode originally aired earlier this year, I reached out to Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office to see whether she now feels Blake is due an apology, but the response came back in a single sentence: “Our office stands by the evidence presented at trial.”
The episode was scheduled for re-broadcast last Friday but was pre-empted by news coverage of the earthquake that took place just a half-hour beforehand; another instance of Blake’s bad luck. But it should once again be viewable on the ABC News website and its app in the coming days after a brief blackout period.
It is a fascinating two-hour story, expertly told, and it might just change your mind on the entire case, as it did mine.
(Daniel Guss, MBA, is a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has contributed to CityWatch, KFI AM-640, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, Movieline Magazine, Emmy Magazine, Los Angeles Business Journal and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @TheGussReport. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.