Film and television actor Robert Blake won an Emmy in 1975 for playing an undercover New York City detective in the crime drama Baretta. However, Blake’s legal troubles offscreen would dominate headlines later in his life when he stood trial for the murder of his 44-year-old wife Bonny Lee Bakley.
Bakley died on May 4, 2001, from two gunshot wounds suffered during an evening out with Blake in Los Angeles. A criminal jury acquitted Blake of her death in March 2005 to conclude a three-month trial that drew national attention. However, months later in November 2005, Blake was found liable for her death in a civil case and required to pay Bakley’s children $30 million in wrongful death damages.
Bakley’s murder is back in the spotlight after Blake died from heart disease on March 9 at age 89. He was notably absent from the In Memoriam tribute at the 95th Academy Awards on Sunday, with host Jimmy Kimmel even referencing the omission in one of his jokes.
Nearly 22 years later, Bakley’s murder remains unsolved, but here’s what we know about the case.
Who Was Bonny Lee Bakley?
Bonny Lee Bakley was born on June 7, 1956, in Morristown, New Jersey. She had a troubling childhood, according to sister Margerry Smith in an interview with ABC News. Their father was an alcoholic, and Bakley was raised by her grandmother. She was also bullied in school.
According to Smith, Bakley grew up near a nudist colony, and the sisters accidentally attended a “clothes-off” swimming event when Bakley was 11. Bakley frequently returned to the colony after that, and people began taking photos of her and selling them.
At 21, Bakley married her first cousin; they had two children together. Their daughter, Holly Gawron, told Barbara Walters in a 2015 interview that Bakley was her “best friend” and “supported me in anything I wanted to do.” However, Bakley’s behavior was often questionable and eventually turned criminal.
She developed a reputation as a con artist. ABC News contributor Larry Hackett said she would place ads in swinger magazines, using different aliases to lure men into sending her money. If they responded, she would send “sexy pictures of herself.” Later, her cons became more elaborate. She began stealing credit cards and forging drivers licenses. She was charged with fraud in Arkansas in 1998 and sentenced to three years’ probation.
Bakley, who had pursued a career in show business without much success, was also obsessed with celebrities. In the late 1980s, she moved to Memphis chasing a relationship with musician Jerry Lee Lewis. When she became pregnant again, she claimed the baby was Lewis’ love child. However, a DNA test proved otherwise. Author Dennis McDougal wrote in his 2002 book, Blood Cold: Fame, Sex and Murder in Hollywood, that Bakley also stalked legendary crooner Dean Martin.
Bakley met Robert Blake at a jazz club in 1999. They married in November 2000 and had a daughter, Rose Lenore Sophia Blake, who was 11 months old at the time of the murder.
What Happened to Bakley?
On May 4, 2001, Blake and Bakley went to dinner at his favorite restaurant, Vitello’s, in Los Angeles’ Studio City neighborhood. According to ABC News, Blake told police the two walked to their car after the meal before realizing he had left a gun, which he was permitted to carry, at their table.
Blake said he went back into the restaurant to retrieve the weapon and returned to find Bakley sitting in the car with two gunshot wounds. He began banging on the door of a nearby resident, Sean Stanek, to ask for help. Stanek was the one who called 911. Stanek told ABC News in a 2018 interview there was a “massive amount of blood everywhere.” The mother of four died after being taken to a nearby hospital.
A busboy at the restaurant contradicted part of Blake’s account, telling police that he cleared the pair’s table before Blake returned and didn’t find a gun.
Ten days after the shooting, ABC News reported police had found a gun in a trash bin a block and a half away from the scene. The Walther pistol, described as a collector’s item, contained a bullet that matched the two used to kill Bakley. However, the serial number had been filed off, so the gun’s ownership could not be traced.
On April 18, 2002, the Los Angeles Police Department announced detectives had arrested Blake for the murder. A news release said detectives had examined over 900 items of evidence linking Blake and Bakley and interviewed more than 150 people, leading to “compelling and conclusive” evidence that Blake was responsible. In addition to the murder charge, he faced two counts of solicitation for murder.
So How Was Blake Acquitted?
According to The Washington Post, prosecutors contended that Blake had tried to hire hit men to murder Bakley before eventually committing the crime himself. Blake did not take the stand in his trial and maintained his innocence.
According to A&E True Crime, two stuntmen testified at the trial that Blake tried to hire them to kill Bakley. However, the defense attacked the testimony as not credible due to their histories of heavy drug use.
A small number of particles of gunshot residue were found on Blake’s hands. However, a defense expert testified Blake would have had nearly 100 particles on his hands if he had fired the gun, not the four or five that the defense and prosecutors claimed.
The jury voted 11–1 in favor of acquittal on the murder charge and also voted to acquit Blake on one charge of solicitation. They deadlocked on a second solicitation charge, which the judge dismissed.
Blake trembled with emotion and sobbed as the verdict was read. He had been facing life in prison if convicted. The jury foreman told reporters that prosecutors “couldn’t put the gun in [Blake’s] hand” and could “never connect all the links in the chain.”
Was Christian Brando Involved?
Blake’s defense attorneys argued that Christian Brando, the son of Hollywood icon Marlon Brando, could have been Bakley’s killer or played a role in her murder, but evidence is sparse.
Christian Brando had already gone to prison for manslaughter following a highly publicized trial. He killed his sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, Dag Drollet, on May 16, 1990, after she told him that Drollet had been physically assaulting her.
According to Reuters, Brando told the Los Angeles Times in a 1991 interview that he didn’t intend to kill Drollet, and the gun went off accidentally during a struggle. He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced in 1991 to 10 years in prison. He served almost five years before his release in January 1996.
While Brando was in prison, Bakley began communicating with him and sending him nude photos, her sister told ABC News in a 2019 story. The two met after his release and began a relationship; they were still together when Bakley met Blake.
In June 2000, Bakley gave birth to her daughter and claimed Brando was the father. However, a paternity test revealed the child was actually Blake’s.
In August 2002, while Blake was in jail while awaiting trail, CNN reported his defense lawyer Harland Braun released a recorded 2000 phone call between Brando and Bakley. Brando angrily warned Bakley during the conversation about her lifestyle, saying, “You’re lucky somebody ain’t out there to put a bullet in your head.”
Brando was never formally charged in Bakley’s murder and was not even in Los Angeles when it occurred. Blake claimed a friend of Brando’s could have committed the crime to gain favor with him. Blake’s defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach told A&E True Crime in 2021 he believes this is what actually happened. Brando died in 2008.
With two key figures from Bakley’s life now gone, we may never truly know what happened on that fateful 2001 night.
Tyler Piccotti joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had worked almost eight years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor. He is a graduate of Syracuse University, an avid sports fan, a frequent moviegoer, and trivia buff.