Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Cry for Help and Water

"He's shaking and he's crying and he's in agony and he could barely breathe. He was white as a ghost. He was a mess." -- Witness Sean Stanek in a Good Morning America interview on May 7, 2001, regarding Blake's behavior.

By the morning of May 5, 2001, the press had already garnered their first witnesses.

"She was very bloody. She was still bleeding," Sean Stanek told an ABC News reporter, referring to Bonny Lee Bakley's condition. Stanek lived in the neighborhood near Vitello's restaurant, and on the night of Bakley's murder, Robert Blake had pounded on Stanek's door seeking help.

Within days, the press was reporting that after Blake asked Stanek to call 911, he left the scene to return to the restaurant where he drank three glasses of water. All of this was true and wholly irresponsible of the media, which either didn't bother to get the full story or left out key points intentionally. On the first day of testimony, Prosecutor Shellie Samuels called Stanek and others to recreate the events of May 4, 2001, and, with an edited copy of the 911 tape, attempted to employ the same tactics the press had used for the past three and a half years.

Minutes before 9:40PM, Stanek was working in the back office of his house on Kraft when he heard someone banging on his front door, screaming for help. His porch light was out, but when he opened the door, he instantly recognized Blake.

According to Stanek, Blake was yelling, "You've got to help me! My wife, she's bleeding. You've got to help me!"

When he asked Blake what happened, Blake replied that someone had mugged her or had beaten her up. He was wide-eyed, pale, and his pupils dilated.

Stanek testified that Blake continued to yell as Stanek talked with the 911 operator. "Tell them to get here, just tell them to get here!" Blake said. Blake told Stanek that his wife was in his car and pointed in the direction of the Dodge Stealth. He then headed toward the restaurant to find a doctor.

Samuels questioned Stanek specifically regarding Blake's parting statement, and asked him if Blake ever said where he was going. Stanek answered no. She then asked him if he had ever told police that Blake told him he was going back to the restaurant. Stanek replied that he didn’t recall, but he might have said that during his interview with police.

Samuels played the 911 tape. On it, Stanek is reporting the incident while Blake is heard screaming loudly in the background. But no record was heard of Blake telling Stanek he was going to the restaurant.

Later, Samuels asked whether the 911 operator asked if Blake had returned to the car and whether Stanek had answered. Stanek said he did not recall.

Restaurant witnesses described Blake as frantic and hyperventilating. He told restaurant owner Joe Restivo his wife needed help and asked for a doctor. George Brumbly, a waiter, testified that he went table to table looking to find anyone who could help. Waitress Robyn Robichaux said Blake looked like he had aged 50 years; she thought that it was Blake who needed medical aid. While Blake waited for Brumbly to return, Blake told Robichaux he couldn't breathe and asked for water. Robichaux brought him two glasses, one with ice and one without.

Brumbly found a nurse, Teri Lorenzo-Castaneda, who was dining with a friend. According to Brumbly's testimony, when Lorenzo-Castaneda reached Blake in the foyer, Blake put the glass of water down, and he and Lorenzo-Castaneda immediately left for the car.

In the meantime, Stanek, on the phone with 911, got dressed, got a towel (per 911’s instructions), and went to the car. He approached the driver's side of the car and saw Bakley, sitting upright but slumped and leaning toward the console. He opened the car door and knelt on the driver's seat to speak to her1. When he saw blood, he backed out of the car and went around to the passenger side. There he found the door locked and the window open. Without thinking, he returned to the driver's side and unlocked the car with the automatic door lock. At this point, Blake and Castaneda returned to the car.

Stanek pressed the towel against Bakley’s cheek to stop the bleeding. In front of the car, Blake screamed hysterically, “What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with her?”

Stanek struggled to see the injury; the streetlamp had backlit the car's interior. Lorenzo-Castaneda reached in and turned on the dome light. It was only then that Stanek saw he was attending to a gunshot wound. Stanek testified that he (Stanek) "got a little more frantic" and handed the phone to Lorenzo-Castaneda.

At that point the paramedics arrived. Blake remained by the car, close to the passenger door. He was still hysterical, and the paramedic told Stanek to take him away. Blake refused. According to a police transcript of Stanek's tape recorded interview, Blake said, "No, I want to be close by. I want to be close by."

Stanek was able to persuade Blake to sit on the curb between the car and the dumpster. A criminalist later testified he found Blake's car keys in approximately the same spot described by Stanek, in the gutter about an inch away from the curb.

Paramedics were still working on Bakley when Sergeant Melvin Patton, Officer Samer Issa, and other police officers arrived. Patton took control of the crime scene and ordered Issa to keep watch on Blake because he was a potential suspect. Bakley was taken to the hospital minutes later.

Issa questioned Blake for about an hour while other officers secured the area and interviewed witnesses. Another officer, Escobar, secretly recorded Blake’s and Issa’s conversation. Blake continued to be frantic and upset. Issa tried to calm him as much as possible, and Issa testified that Blake was cooperative in answering questions. According to Issa’s notes taken at the crime scene, Blake vomitted three times2. One of the officers asked Stanek to bring Blake some water. Stanek brought two or three glasses to Blake that night.

On cross examination of Stanek, Defense Attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach asked if he could play another copy of the 911 tape for the jury. He asked that it be entered into evidence as Defense Exhibit A.

"It is my understanding," Schwartzbach told the court, "that there were apparently two recordings and they're of different lengths." He pointed out that the Prosecution's exhibit, People's number 3, did not have a discovery number on it.

"I believe the tape I'm going to play is a different tape and a longer tape," he continued.

"You mean there's more content than this morning?" Judge Darlene Schempp asked.

Yes, Schwartzbach replied.

Schwartzbach played a portion the tape. In it, Blake is heard in the background telling Stanek he was going to the restaurant. Schwartzbach then continued to play the more of the tape. In that part, Stanek tells the operator he has arrived at the car, and the 911 operator asks Stanek whether Blake is there. Stanek replies yes.

It was never explained how the prosecution had produced an edited 911 tape nor whether the edited version had been turned over to the defense in discovery. Certainly, it would have been an advantage for the prosecution to argue that Blake never said where he was going and that he stalled in the restaurant by drinking water while Bakley died with others attending to her. If the defense had been less prepared, Samuels might have pulled it off.

1According to Blake’s civil trial testimony and his statement to police that night, Blake knelt into the car to wake Bakley, the same way Stanek described he had. Neither man got blood on his clothes, although the plaintiff’s attorney, Eric Dubin, argued that Blake could not have knelt into the car without touching blood.

2Witnesses’ descriptions of Blake's physical appearance and actions are consistent with someone who has a sudden severe drop in blood pressure caused by an adrenaline spike. It was reported that Blake went to the hospital that weekend for blood pressure-related problems. Blake’s medical condition was not testified to at trial.

(Posted 10/17/07 - JHills)
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