In a courthouse staked out by camera crews, satellite trucks, notepad-clutching journalists and starstruck looky-loos, Robert Blake pleaded innocent Monday to murdering his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, nearly one year ago.
Appearing in public for the first time since his arrest last Thursday, the former Baretta star showed up in the Van Nuys, California, courtroom to answer to four counts stemming from the May 2001 slaying.
The 68-year-old Emmy-nominated actor, who traded in his jailhouse jumpsuit for a gray blazer, tie and slacks for the court date, was mostly silent, only saying "not guilty, your honor" during the brief arraignment, which lasted less than 10 minutes.
His bodyguard, Earle Caldwall, 46, also made a cameo in the courtroom, entering an innocent plea to the charge of conspiracy to commit murder.
Both men will remain jailed until his next court date on May 1. The judge will also take up the issue of Blake's bail at that time. Caldwell's bail remains set at $1 million.
Earlier in the day, the Los Angeles District Attorney formally charged Blake with one count of murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait (which carries the death penalty), one count of conspiracy to commit murder and two counts of solicitation of murder.
In a gripping five-page complaint, prosecutors outlined what they say was Blake's long-simmering plot to kill Bakley, who was slain May 4, 2001, outside one of the couple's favorite dining spots, an Italian eatery in suburban Los Angeles called Vitello's.
Blake drove Bakley to the restaurant, parking more than a block away--behind a dumpster at a construction site, according to court documents. After returning from Vitello's, Blake made the 44-year-old Bakley sit in the passenger seat of his 1991 Dodge Stealth. He lowered the windows, took the keys, exited the car and walked around to the passenger side, where he "personally and intentionally" shot her twice at close range with a vintage World War II Walther P-38 handgun. He then tossed the unregistered weapon in the dumpster, prosecutors say. (A complete copy of the complaint can be found online at TheSmokingGun.com.)
Prosecutors say Blake first hatched the scheme at least two months earlier, in March 2001. At that time, the actor contacted two different people to perform the hit either at Vitello's or in the Arizona desert. Caldwell, who supplied Blake with a supposedly untraceable weapon, would dig the holes for burial in the desert.
Meanwhile, the D.A. says, Caldwell had assembled a murder kit, including "2 shovels, small sledge, crowbar...old rugs, duct tape, Draino, pool acid, lye, plant." Caldwell also allegedly hid in the bushes and jumped out with a gun while Blake and Bakley were vacationing in Arizona and California, according to court papers. For some undisclosed reason, Caldwell never fired.
Prosecutors believe that when Blake couldn't convince the two would-be trigger men to do the crime, he did it himself.
Blake had one reason to go to such lengths to get rid of Bakley. Says Captain Jim Tatreau of the LAPD's robbery-homicide division, "Robert Blake had contempt for Bonny Bakley. He felt that he was trapped in a marriage that he wanted no part of. Quite frankly, the entire situation was not one of his liking at all."
Or, as Margerry Bakley, the victim's sister, tells E!, "There was no love there. It was a sham from the beginning."
In an exclusive interview airing Monday at 8 p.m. on Robert Blake: The E! True Hollywood Story, Margerry Bakley traces the couple's marriage, which she says was doomed from the moment they met in 1999 at a Los Angeles-area nightclub.
"She had her own pleasures, and her pleasures were being around stars," Margerry explains to THS. "That was her life's dream. Marry a movie star. Have a movie star's baby. It was right there, and she jumped on that." (The couple had a daughter, Rose, who turns two in June. She is being cared for by Blake's adult daughter, Delinah, from his first marriage.)
"She thought that he would fall in love and they'd live happily ever after...But Mr. Blake rejected her. I don't think he wanted her near him," Margerry tells THS.
Outside court Monday, Margerry Bakley said she was "tremendously relieved" that Blake had been arrested and charged. "We've been waiting for this day for a long time," she told reporters. "The other side has said a lot of things [about Bonny Lee Bakley]. I hope the public will learn the truth."
If the defense has its way, Bonny Lee Bakley's salacious past will likely be on trial as much as Blake. The actor's lawyer, Harland Braun, has portrayed Bakley as a scheming star-chaser who glommed onto Blake because of his celebrity. Braun has suggested that someone from Bakley's sordid past--she was a convicted felon who ran several scams and bilked many men out of money--may have pulled the trigger.
"The real killer," Braun said last week, "is still out there."
Whether the certain-to-be-sensational case plays out on live television remains to be seen. Los Angeles prosecutors say the murder case against actor Robert Blake will be tried "inside the courtroom, not in the hallways or the courthouse steps." But they say they won't oppose broadcast coverage of the trial. Blake's attorney has said he opposes TV coverage and has asked the judge to ban cameras. A ruling on that motion is pending.