The former Baretta star is found liable for the death of Bonny Lee Bakley

By Howard Breuer and Stephen M. Silverman
Updated November 18, 2005 04:00 PM
Credit: Nick Ut/AP

Actor Robert Blake has been found liable in the wrongful death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, and ordered to pay $30 million in damages by a jury in California.

The former Baretta star, 72, was acquitted in a criminal trial last March of murdering Bakley, but the civil lawsuit brought on behalf of Bakley’s four children sought to hold him civilly responsible for her death.

“It’s a good day for justice,” said Bakley family attorney Eric Dubin. “These kids lost their mom and that got overlooked over the years. This was a real family and this was a real person.”

Jury foreman Bob Horn said the jury didn t care about awarding an amount Blake could afford so much as sending a message that might deter others.

“Whether he can pay it or not, it’s a message to anybody else who would ever consider doing something like this,” Horn said. “There is no standard to putting the price on the love of a mother.”

Jurors said they were convinced that Blake was responsible, although they weren t sure if he pulled the trigger of the Nazi-issue 38-mm handgun recovered from a dumpster near the shooting.

They added that they were offended when Blake attorney Peter Ezzell suggested that Bakley s loss was of no value to her four children; Bakley was portrayed as a grifter who ran lonely hearts scams. “It is not right to take someone else’s life, regardless of what kind of person they were,” said juror David Lopez.

When the verdict was read, Blake, who wore a black suit and black tie, appeared distressed but did not make a big emotional display.

At the heart of this second trial, which lasted two months, was a claim by the children that Blake and his former handyman, Earle Caldwell, were behind Bakley’s murder on May 4, 2001. Bakley was shot after she and Blake dined at an Italian restaurant, Vitello’s in Studio City, Calif. Caldwell was not found liable in the case.

At the time of the initial investigation of the murder, Blake told police that his 44-year-old wife was shot while she sat in his car waiting for him to retrieve a gun he carried for protection and inadvertently left behind in the restaurant.

Unlike Blake’s criminal trial, where the jury had to decide guilt unanimously, the civil wrongful-death case required only that nine of 12 jurors believe by a “preponderance” of the evidence that Blake was responsible for the crime. In this case, the vote was 10-2.

The civil case had been on hold pending the outcome of Blake s criminal trial. Dubin had hoped that Blake would offer enough money to settle out of court. Blake said he offered $250,000 in pretrial talks, which Dubin rejected, insisting the actor had $25 million as of late 2003.

In his civil-case defense of Blake, Ezzell offered jurors alternative theories on others who might have killed Bakley, a woman with a checkered past that included soliciting money from men with suggestive pictures of herself. The suspects, Ezzell suggested, could have been one of her previous husbands or Bakley’s onetime lover, Christian Brando, son of the late actor Marlon Brando.

Ezzell also said that Blake was dedicated to making his marriage to Bakley work in order to provide a healthy environment for their daughter, Rosie, who is now 5, and, therefore, had no motive to kill his wife.

Dubin contended that Blake despised Bakley, believing she trapped him into marriage by getting pregnant, and that he decided to get rid of her so he could raise their child himself.

Though Blake did not take the stand in his criminal trial, he did testify in the civil case. “My fervent hope and prayers,” he said on his last day of testimony, “are that when this is over that everyone get on with their lives.”