May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

The Rock Store, a popular biker hangout 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, probably wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a family eatery. But nearly every Sunday morning for the past year actor Robert Blake brought his young daughter Rose in for breakfast. Almost always dressed in pink, Rose—who will turn 2 in June—charmed the staff, who could see how tenderly the supposed tough-guy Blake treated the toddler, cooing and baby-talking to her and wiping her face with a wet napkin at the end of the meal. “At one time [in his life] he was really wild,” says Veronica Savko, who owns the Rock Store with her husband, Ed, and has known Blake for 25 years. “I think, for whatever reason, Bobby just needed love.”

At the moment, a few legal breaks wouldn’t hurt either. One year after his wife, Bonny Bakley, 44, was found shot to death on a street in suburban Los Angeles minutes after having dinner with Blake, the former Baretta star now stands accused of being the killer. In announcing the arrest of Blake, 68, along with his handyman-cum-assistant Earle Caldwell, 46, who was charged with conspiracy in the murder, L.A. police asserted that investigators had uncovered more than enough physical and circumstantial evidence to make the case stick in court. Underscoring their confidence, prosecutors charged Blake with murder with special circumstances, in this instance “lying in wait” to murder Bakley, meaning that he could face the death penalty. “This was a hit by a husband,” said LAPD Capt. Jim Tatreau, who supervised the investigation.

Ever since the night of the murder, Blake—for whom even the twilight of stardom seemed to have faded—was the subject of much lurid speculation and suspicion. But almost none of it could rival the noirish ingredients contained in the court documents. Prosecutors say that Blake had been plotting his wife’s killing for months, simply because, as one police official put it, “he was trapped in a marriage he wanted no part of.” According to the official felony complaint, he tried repeatedly to line up men—one of them a Hollywood stunt performer—to do the job for him, offering to supply them with an untraceable weapon, directing them to possible murder sites in Arizona and California and instructing them to shoot Bakley in the desert, and then bury her in a grave Caldwell would have already prepared. When those efforts fell through, say court papers, Blake finally decided to handle it on his own, shooting Bakley—a veteran con artist who fleeced men through lonely hearts magazine ads—in the head as she sat in his Dodge Stealth near Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City on May 4, 2001. (In one eerie echo, the pilot of the 1975-78 Baretta series had Blake’s fictional fiancée being bumped off in front of an Italian restaurant.)

The charges came as little surprise to Bakley’s family, who had all along loudly voiced their certainty that Blake was the triggerman. Bonny’s sister Margerry told PEOPLE that her sister had long feared that Blake—who felt he’d been trapped into marrying Bakley—would kill her. Still, with criticism of their methods in the O.J. Simpson case still stinging, L.A. cops wanted to take it slow. At a press conference after Blake’s arrest, outgoing Police Chief Bernard Parks stressed that investigators had interviewed 150 witnesses and traveled to 20 states running down clues.

Their wariness was especially evident in the way police handled Blake’s arrest. Shortly before 6 p.m. on April 18, a caravan of nearly a dozen police vehicles rolled into Hidden Hills, the gated community where Blake has been living with Rose since January. The actor had been given about 15 minutes’ notice that he was about to be taken into custody. At his request, police agreed to wait until his older daughter Delinah, 35, by first wife Sondra Blake, arrived to care for Rose, who was in the house with her father and her full-time nanny at the time of the arrest. Blake was later transferred to the hospital ward of the L.A. County Jail, where high-profile detainees can be kept away from other inmates. At his arraignment on April 22, Blake, who, like Caldwell, has pleaded not guilty, was held without bail, with no timetable for a trial. “He is very philosophical,” says his lawyer Harland Braun. “Being in custody is not the worst thing that has ever happened to him.”

Perhaps not, but he may be looking at substantial time behind bars. According to cops and several press reports, police have linked a World War II-era handgun found in a large trash bin at the murder site to the shooting. Several news reports go further, linking a box of bullets found in Blake’s home to those found at the scene. In the court papers, police maintain that Caldwell supplied the weapon to Blake. But Braun argues that the handgun is nothing more than a red herring. He points out that it was not discovered until a day after the crime and questions whether police can tie it to Blake.

Authorities have also evidently been picking apart Blake’s statement to them the night of the murder. Blake’s story has long been that after dinner he and Bakley had walked a block and a half to his car when he suddenly realized that he had left his own handgun, a .38-cal. that he was licensed to carry, back at Vitello’s. Leaving her in the car, Blake said he went back to the restaurant, got the gun and returned to the scene to find a bloody and dying Bakley inside the vehicle. Investigators have reportedly focused on several aspects of Blake’s behavior that night. For one thing, they wonder why he parked in a dimly lit area behind a truck-size trash bin next to a construction site. So far, though, it is unclear whether there are any outright inconsistencies in Blake’s statement. “There should be no glaring holes in his story,” says one LAPD source. “His comments to different officers and detectives have to match.”

According to the charges filed, Blake approached Caldwell, who served as a chauffeur, bodyguard and handyman for the actor, several months before the killing to ask for his help. Caldwell then allegedly began keeping a shopping list of items that might be needed for disposing of a body, including two shovels, a sledgehammer, old rugs, duct tape, Drano, lye and pool acid. In one cryptic passage in the complaint, Caldwell is alleged to have tried to ambush Bakley, jumping out of some bushes and brandishing a gun, while she and Blake walked along a river during a vacation last April. The assumption by Braun and other legal experts is that by charging Caldwell, who police acknowledge was not even in Los Angeles on the night of the murder, prosecutors are hoping he will provide evidence against Blake in return for leniency.

It is known that Blake submitted to gunpowder testing on the night of the killing. The results have never been disclosed, and one L.A. criminal attorney suggests that winning a conviction may be more difficult if no traces were found—good news for Blake, whose lawyers insist that if gunpowder had turned up, the actor would surely have been arrested immediately. All in all, concedes one LAPD homicide detective, the physical evidence may not be quite as airtight as investigators would like. “It’s a circumstantial case,” he says.

Which may place a considerable burden elsewhere, namely on the two men who, according to the complaint, Blake tried to recruit to kill Bakley for him. The court papers do not name the men, who are cooperating with police, but one of them appears to have been Gary McLarty, 61, a well-known Hollywood stuntman who met Blake when they worked on the 1980 movie Coast to Coast. McLarty wasn’t talking last week, but his son Cole, 29, also a stuntman, says his father met at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley with Blake, who “proposed money or something for my dad to do something to his wife…. He just left it at that.” His father, adds Cole, didn’t take the offer seriously: “He just walked out and thought that [Blake] was crazy.” Cole says that investigators learned of his father’s alleged involvement by tracing Blake’s phone calls. But Braun, for one, maintains he is not overly concerned. “It’s totally fabricated, or maybe Robert was bemoaning [Bonny] and said something like, ‘I could kill the bitch,’ ” he says. “Being Hollywood, these things get exaggerated.”

Were it not for Hollywood, Blake would likely not be in this trouble. Born Michael Gubitosi in Nutley, N.J., in 1933, Blake was the onetime child star of abusive parents who he claimed locked him in a closet and “made me eat on the floor like a dog.” He became an adult star with his portrayal of the sensitive killer Perry Smith in 1967’s In Cold Blood and then went on to lasting fame as Baretta, a street-tough detective who lived with a cockatoo named Fred. But Blake remained a Hollywood hard case, a man whose volatile temper and demands tested the patience of those who cared for him. “Complex doesn’t even begin to capture his personality,” says Baretta creator Stephen J. Cannell, who has had an on-and-off friendship with Blake. “If you were in business with him, you just had to strap in really tight, because you were going to get lurched around a lot.”

The acting work had long been drying up for Blake when he encountered Bakley. Even Braun freely concedes that Blake grew to despise her. They had met at an L.A. jazz club in 1999. Soon, Bakley—a New Jersey native with a criminal record, assorted aliases and a history of aggressively targeting celebrities—was pregnant. Initially she told Blake the baby belonged to Marlon Brando’s son Christian, but a paternity test later established that Blake was Rose’s father and Blake decided to wed Bakley for the child’s sake. Their custody agreement stipulated that in return for marrying Bakley, he would be assured of participating in Rose’s upbringing.

Still, he and Bakley never lived together. Instead he remained in his longtime home in Studio City while Bakley took up residence in a bungalow on the property. The actor was reportedly furious that Bakley, who had been involved in shady dealings for years, was still working a lonely hearts scam. “Look what she did to him,” says Braun, whose insistence that police fully explore Bakley’s background and her disgruntled clients for the killer added further time to the investigation. “To say there was no tension is absurd, but that doesn’t mean he killed her.”

In any case, even some of those who believe Blake guilty—including the Bakley family—concede that his resentment never extended to Rose. He turned the house in Hidden Hills, for which he paid $1.4 million in cash two years ago and where daughter Delinah lived for a time, into a virtual theme park for the youngster. To the consternation of neighbors in the horsey community, which is surrounded by riding trails, he put up two swing sets and a playhouse in the front yard. Recently he had installed a patio, complete with a porch swing, outside his front door so that he could relax and watch Rose at play. Says Scott Ross, a private investigator working on the case for Braun: “He liked to sit out there and watch the world go by.” Still, some neighbors contend that as a doting father there was less to Blake than met the eye. “He can often be seen outside with her, but he always has the babysitter with him,” says one Hidden Hills resident. “Primarily, Rosie’s caretaker is the babysitter.”

In the past, Bakley’s sister Margerry has declared that she might seek custody of Rose. But in the aftermath of Blake’s arrest she backed off, saying she was satisfied that Delinah, who is a college instructor, was doing a good job. “No baby should be raised by a murderer, especially the murderer of her mother,” says Margerry, 41, a homemaker who lives outside Knoxville, Tenn. ” [But] I have no desire to tear that baby from the woman she probably knows as Mom.” Braun says Rose is doing fine and “misses her dad.”

Meanwhile, at the Rock Store the Savkos miss Blake and his daughter’s weekly visits. Proprietor Veronica would like to believe that her longtime customer is innocent. She says that three weeks after the murder she asked him point-blank whether his conscience was bothering him. He said no. “Then I said, ‘Do you have trouble sleeping at night?’ ” she recalls. “He said no. Whether he’s guilty or not, I don’t know.” At this point Blake no doubt hopes he’ll face

a jury just as open-minded

Bill Hewitt

Lorenzo Benet, Lyndon Stambler, Alexis Chiu and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles and Kate Klise in Memphis

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