When is a Murder Entertainment?
Originally published September 14, 2004
“Only in LA do you call a book author two hours after the murder.”
On April 18, 2002, the LAPD staged an arrest of Robert Blake and his handyman Earle Caldwell on the magnitude of the ending of a big budget Hollywood movie. Several police cars, armed policemen, helicopters, and a caravan of news reporters invaded the very private community of Hidden Hills in time for the 6 o’clock news.
While the arrest was being televised, talk show host Larry King was on the phone to Harland Braun, Blake’s lawyer, who was stuck in traffic on his way to meet his client in Parker Center. Later, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks grandstanded the arrest at a press conference, announcing “that the Bonny Lee Bakley case has been solved.” A chilling description of how Robert Blake rolled down the windows, got out of the car and shot Bonny Bakley in the head and shoulder ensued. Parks was not accusing Blake, he was passing judgment in a Court of Public Opinion.
At least one murder is reported every night on the evening news in Los Angeles. Had Bonny Lee Bakley been with one of her other scam victims, one not so well-known as Robert Blake, the report of the murder on the nightly news would have ended on May 4, 2001, with little or no follow up. But the nation was bored. No wars, no terror alerts, no distractions to get our national blood pressure soaring. We Americans like our opinions and we like being angry. So during all but a couple of days in May 2001, the press reported some new sensationalism about Robert Blake and Bonny Lee Bakley. So-called experts paraded nightly on cable news talking about a very public Blake remembered from 30 years before. Over and over the public watched clips of old Baretta shows, with Blake was angrily yelling and shaking a co-star. “In Cold Blood” and “Electra Glide in Blue” became hot video rentals. Robert Blake was a top 10 internet search.
In some twisted form of “fair unbiased reporting,” cable news gave equal time to both sides. Harland Braun would tell tales of Bakley’s tawdry sexual escapades, while Cary Goldstein, Bakley’s lawyer, expounded on her virtues as a caring mother. A tearful Margerry Bakley, consoled by victims’ rights advocates, provided the loving but abused sister picture of Bonny.
Silent and deadly tabloid headlines screamed at supermarket shoppers, “Cops: How Blake Did It” and “Cops: Blake Had Gunpowder on his Hands.” Mainstream news participated in the tabloid celebrityfest, taking every opportunity to play an audio tape of Blake asking Bakley to have an abortion. Blake was heard to say, “you swore to me, you lied to me” at slower than normal speed for B-movie effect.
Ratings were up, tabloids were selling, writers were busy with articles, books, and movie scripts. The pros knew it was big business, and they knew the clock was ticking on those 15 minutes of fame. Robert Blake was sold to the highest bidders.
Bonny Lee Bakley’s funeral provided that one last dash for Blake ratings in 2001. The stage was Forest Lawn Cemetery, famous home of Hollywood ghosts. Blake played the starring role, surrounded by his family. Margerry Bakley commented like a sportscaster in the broadcast center of Fox News in New York. The media buzzed outside Forest Lawn like flies on a corpse.
For a while it seemed that Bonny Lee Bakley had been put to rest and her murder would remain a mystery. The press directed their attention to other things and Robert Blake no longer appeared at the top of the internet search lists.
On the night of the Blake’s and Caldwell’s arrests, the LAPD and the LA District Attorney’s office successfully resurrected the media frenzy.
CNN’s News Night dedicated two hours to Blake’s arrest. It garnered its highest rating share ever.
Fox News broadcast Geraldo Rivera, straight from Afganistan, who spouted unfounded tabloid stories about Blake’s previous marriage.
CNN stole from Fox News exclusives with Margerry Bakley, who tried to clean up Bonny’s image and tarnish Blake’s. Up to this time, Fox News was the keeper of the Bakley family shockers. It was reported that CNN actually used guards to protect Bakley from other networks’ advances.
At least two networks offered OJ Simpson a job as commentator on the Blake trial. An egotistical Simpson said he’d love to do it but hinted that he thought Blake was guilty. Apparently Simpson doesn’t realize that the networks, by having an accused murderer comment on an accused murderer, are making sport not only of Robert Blake but of Simpson as well.
The media, however, are not fully responsible for encouraging a nation to be judge and jury. During the Blake preliminary hearing in March 2003, Deputy District Attorney Pat Dixon asked LAPD Detective Brian Tyndall to explain why he called William Welch, a witness, to advise Welch that his name was being released to the media. Tyndall replied that in June, 2001, Assistant DA Greg Dohi, part of the prosecution team, had phoned him and said that the “court order sealing all affidavits and documents in the case was ordered released to the general public, specifically the press.”
Some point a finger at Harland Braun for “trashing the victim” thus creating a media circus atmosphere against Blake. But Blake was in a no-win situation. Whether Braun had given the press information about Bakley’s past was immaterial. While the press dug into Bakley’s past, the LAPD was furnishing tabloid fuel; Braun had no choice but to defend his client or let the press accuse Blake of hiding the facts.
In August, 2001, eight months before his arrest, Robert Blake gave an exclusive interview to KCBS-TV news, a local Los Angeles station in regard to the sale of his house. He appeared in front of his Studio City home wearing a tank top and jeans, his shoulders and biceps in boxer-fit shape. The black iron fence stood between him and his interviewer, Paul Dandridge. At the time it would have been unbelievable that 11 months in an isolated jail cell would suck the energy and spirit from Blake, and turn him into a pitiful old man.
Blake said that he was unable to live in the house he had owned for 18 years. It had become a tourist attraction, strangers hanging around day and night. A tour bus made periodic stops in front as part of an infamous murder tour of Los Angeles, which also included stops at Vitello’s restaurant and Nicole Simpson’s Brentwood condo. It was an atmosphere in which he said he could not raise his year-old daughter, Rose.
“There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t ask the world to change,” Blake said. (Channel2000.com – Blake Selling Property Shared with Wife, 8/24/01).
The sensationalism of Bonny Lee Bakley’s murder waned nearly three years ago. Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Martha Stewart have now become the trials of this century. Even news about the release of a confidential prosecution memo to a book author gained but passing interest at the bottom of an Associated Press story on jury selection in the Blake case. The September 2001 memo stated that the LAPD could not link Blake to the murder weapon and that evidence had been contaminated. The press reacted far differently to the release of a similar memo regarding Michael Jackson, which cleared him of previous allegations of child molestation. Still, in February 2003, the world wondered whether Barbara Walters would secure a jailhouse interview with Blake for the February ratings sweeps.
It is the perception of truth, and not the jury’s verdict, that labels a man guilty.
In May 2001, the first lines of Baretta’s theme song, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” became a cruel, ugly cliché aimed at Blake. But the last line of Baretta’s Theme may be much more prophetic for Robert Blake than the first. It says, “Where can I go where the cold winds don’t blow now?”
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