Murder of Bonny Lee Bakley
Murder of Bonny Lee Bakley, born on June 7, 1956, the second wife of actor Robert Blake, was tragically shot and killed in May 2001 while seated in Blake’s parked car outside a restaurant in Los Angeles. Bakley had been the tenth spouse in her lifetime.
Subsequently, in 2002, Robert Blake faced charges of murder, solicitation of murder, conspiracy, and the special circumstance of lying in wait in connection with Bakley’s death. However, in March 2005, a jury acquitted Blake of all the charges. Nonetheless, seven months later, he was held responsible in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bakley’s children. Despite these legal developments, the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley remains officially unsolved.
Profile of Bonny Lee Bakley
In an effort to support herself, Bakley began a mail-order business sending nude pictures of women, including herself, to men. She also ran “lonely hearts” ads in magazines advertising for a “male companion”. After communicating with the men who answered her ads, she would ask for money for rent or travel expenses. Bakley’s business and scams eventually afforded her enough money to buy several houses in Memphis, Tennessee, and one house outside Los Angeles. She pursued a Hollywood career as a singer and actor under the stage name Lee Bonney, but was unsuccessful.
Bakley’s involvement in a mail-order business and other transactions led to multiple arrests over the years. In 1989, she faced drug possession charges in Memphis, resulting in a $300 fine. In 1995, Bakley encountered legal trouble when she attempted to pass two fraudulent checks from a Memphis record company’s account. After negotiating a plea deal, she received lesser charges and a $1,000 fine, along with a sentence to work on a penal farm on weekends.
Continuing her questionable activities, Bakley was arrested in 1998 in Little Rock, Arkansas, for possessing five driver’s licenses and seven Social Security cards, all under different names. She used these false identities to establish various post-office boxes as part of her “lonely hearts” scam.
Obsession with celebrities
Bakley had a reputation for being fixated on celebrities, and those close to her described her as “celebrity-obsessed.” Conversations captured on tape revealed her starstruck demeanor and her unwavering determination to marry someone famous, believing it would elevate her status above others.
In 1990, she set her sights on singer Jerry Lee Lewis. Bakley managed to meet Lewis and developed a close friendship with his sister, Linda Gail Lewis. Later, in 1993, she claimed that her daughter, Jeri Lee, was actually Jerry Lee Lewis’ child. However, this assertion was later disproven by DNA testing. After giving birth to Jeri Lee, Bakley decided to move to California, leaving the child to be raised by her ex-husband Paul, while she continued to provide financial support.
Once in California, Bakley pursued relationships with other celebrities, including Dean Martin, Frankie Valli (though Valli denied any past relationship with her), and Gary Busey. In 1991, her interest turned to Christian Brando, the eldest son of Academy Award-winning actor Marlon Brando and former actress Anna Kashfi. Christian Brando had garnered significant media attention during his trial for the murder of his half sister’s boyfriend, Dag Drollet.
Brando pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to ten years in prison. While he was in prison, Bakley began writing him and sending photos. After his release in 1996, Brando and Bakley began a romantic relationship. In 1999, Bakley discovered she was pregnant and initially thought that Brando was the child’s father. In June 2000, she gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter she named Christian Shannon Brando.
Marriage to Robert Blake
During her involvement with Christian Brando, Bakley began dating actor Robert Blake, whom she met at a jazz club in 1999. After the birth of their daughter, Christian Shannon Brando, Bakley expressed uncertainty about the child’s paternity, suggesting that Blake might be the father. To resolve the matter, Blake insisted on a paternity test, which later confirmed that he, not Brando, was the biological father of Bakley’s youngest child. Subsequently, they legally changed the child’s name to Rose Lenore Sophia Blake.
Before agreeing to marry Bakley, Blake laid out certain conditions that needed to be met. He asked her to sign a temporary custody agreement, which outlined that Bakley would have supervised visits with Rose and required written permission for her friends and family to visit Blake’s property. Moreover, the agreement specified that if either spouse chose to end the marriage, the other spouse would retain custody of Rose.
Although Bakley’s attorney cautioned her against signing the document, citing it as “lopsided,” her eagerness to marry Blake led her to disregard the advice. Consequently, she signed the agreement on October 4, 2000. Bakley and Blake eventually got married in November 2000.
Although they were married, the couple never lived together. Bakley and Rose lived in a small guest house beside Blake’s residence in Studio City, California. The relationship was reportedly rocky; Blake was distrustful of Bakley and hired a private investigator to find more information about her. Blake later found out that Bakley had continued to operate her “lonely hearts” scam during the marriage.
Prior to her marriage with Blake, Bakley had been married nine times, many of which were short-lived, with one union lasting only a single day. Among her spouses was Glynn Wolfe, renowned for holding the record for the largest number of monogamous marriages.
Bakley had four children in total: a son named Glenn and a daughter named Holly from her second husband, Paul Gawron; a daughter named Jeri Lee Lewis, born on July 28, 1993, with a man whose identity remains unspecified, after DNA tests refuted her claim that Jerry Lee Lewis was the father; and a daughter named Rose Lenore Sophia Blake, born in June 2000 and initially named Christian Shannon Brando, fathered by actor Robert Blake.
On May 4, 2001, Blake and Bakley went to have dinner at Vitello’s Restaurant on Tujunga Avenue in Studio City, Los Angeles. Tragically, after their meal, Bakley suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head while seated in the passenger seat of Blake’s black 1991 Dodge Stealth. The car was parked on a side street near the restaurant. Blake asserted that he had returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left there and was not present when the shooting took place. However, the gun he claimed to have left in the restaurant was later found not to have been the weapon used to kill Bakley.
Following her passing, Bakley was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Criminal and civil suits
On March 16, 2005, a verdict was reached, finding Blake not guilty of the murder of Bakley and one of the two counts of soliciting a former stuntman to kill her. The other count of solicitation was dropped due to a deadlocked jury, with an 11–1 vote in favor of acquittal. Led by M. Gerald Schwartzbach, Blake’s defense team challenged the credibility of individuals who claimed Blake wanted to hire them to murder Bakley. They also raised the possibility that someone Bakley had defrauded in the past might have been responsible for her death.
According to law professor Laurie Levenson, the prosecution presented a potential motive for murder, suggesting Blake’s animosity towards Bakley due to her allegedly tricking him into fathering a child to gain access to his wealth. However, the prosecution failed to establish direct or indirect responsibility for the killing. CBS News legal analyst David Hancock noted that the case lacked a strong piece of evidence to overcome its numerous weak points.
Following the verdict, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley criticized Blake, calling him a “miserable human being,” and derided the jurors as “incredibly stupid.” In response, Blake’s defense team and jury members asserted that the prosecution had not proven its case. Throughout the trial, the defense claimed that Bakley was a drug addict who involved her eldest daughter, Holly, in prostitution.
On November 18, 2005, Blake was found liable for the wrongful death of his wife in a civil trial. Bakley’s three eldest children had sued him, asserting that he was responsible for their mother’s death. The trial included a famous Perry Mason moment when Eric Dubin, the attorney for Bakley’s family, called the girlfriend of Blake’s longtime bodyguard and co-defendant Earle Caldwell to the stand and asked if she believed they were involved in the crime, something no one had asked her before.
“Dead silence filled the court,” Dubin recalled. “Tears filled her eyes as she paused for what seemed like a decade, then leaned into the microphone and said that yes, she did believe that they were involved.” The jury ordered Blake to pay $30 million.
In 2006, facing financial difficulties, Blake filed for bankruptcy due to outstanding debts amounting to $3 million, including unpaid legal fees and state and federal taxes. Subsequently, on April 9, 2010, the state of California placed a tax lien against Blake for $1,110,878 in unpaid back taxes.
On April 26, 2008, an appeals court upheld the verdict of the civil case against Blake but reduced his penalty assessment to $15 million, cutting it in half. Blake’s legal team had argued that the jurors engaged in improper discussions regarding the verdicts of the Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson cases during their deliberations. However, the appeals judge ruled that such discussions were not inappropriate.