Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Who Murdered Bonny Lee Bakley?


In the meantime the Los Angeles Police Department, foreseeing the intense public scrutiny that this case would receive because a celebrity was being questioned, assigned its top detectives from the Robbery – Homicide Division to the investigation, a team of 16 investigators that would be led by Captain James Tatreau. Because of problems associated with the Rodney King case of the early 1990s, the O.J. Simpson case, and because of the more recent Rampart Division scandal in which many individuals claimed that their rights had been violated with some claiming that they had been framed by officers from that division, Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks and the police commissioners were going to make certain that this case was handled methodically and by the book with their every move made with consultation from the district attorney's office. There could be no slip-ups or mistakes associated with this case.

The sign on Blake's Mata Hari Ranch
The sign on Blake's Mata Hari Ranch

On Saturday, May 5, 2001, the team of detectives from LAPD's Robbery – Homicide Division converged on Blake's rustic Mata Hari Ranch, on Dilling Street in Studio City, about five minutes from Vitello's. The brown, ranch style home was in need of repair and a paint job, and consisted of two carports that had been added on at some point in the house's history. The longer of the two carports had an older model station wagon parked beneath it and the other, shorter one apparently was being used as a lounge area and was equipped with a cushioned swing and a lawn chair. An older model van was parked on the grass, and lawn tools were propped up against the front of the house. An upside down five-gallon bucket lay near the front door. A five-foot fence and gate covered in wire mesh, similar to chicken wire, enclosed the property, and being fond of birds, he kept an aviary outside his home.

The home and property did not have the character normally associated with a celebrity, but then, the detectives really didn't know Robert Blake. As they approached the house they could see from the driveway another white stucco home, a bungalow, behind the main residence and that was where, they were told the night before when Blake allowed officers into the dwelling, that Bonny Bakley had lived. They walked to the front door of the main residence and knocked loudly.

Blake's house and carport
Blake's house and carport

When Blake came to the door they presented the actor with a warrant to search his home. They also conducted yet another interview with him about the previous evening's events. After about an hour into the interview, the detectives purportedly accused him point blank of murdering his wife. Blake, unable to throw the cops out of his home because of the search warrant, promptly stopped the interview. It was learned a short time later that Blake had hired high-profile criminal defense attorney Harland Braun, who has worked on cases such as that of the Rodney King police brutality case and the more recent and far-reaching LAPD Rampart Division investigation. Later that afternoon Blake came out of his home accompanied by three men as police officers, detectives, and reporters in the street looked on. Wearing a black baseball cap, a light blue T-shirt and sunglasses, Blake climbed into the passenger seat of a waiting Mercedes-Benz sedan and was driven away. An LAPD cruiser followed Blake and his entourage, whose destination was not revealed.

"He was not arrested," LAPD spokesman Guillermo Campos said. "He's as free as a bird."

In response to a pack of ravenous reporters representing several different news organizations, LAPD spokesman Don Hartwell announced that afternoon that Robert Blake was not a suspect in his wife's murder.

Bakley's guesthouse
Bakley's guesthouse

"He was interviewed like any witness would be interviewed, but he wasn't questioned," Hartwell said. "Mr. Blake realized that he had left some property in the restaurant and he went back to the establishment and retrieved the property. Upon his return to the vehicle, he discovered the injury to his wife... he was (subsequently) interviewed as a witness to the crime... there is no weapon that has been recovered at this point, and there are no primary suspects." However, Hartwell added when asked if his status could change: "Anything can change."

In the meantime, while one group of investigators removed several items from Blake's home and the house behind it where Bonny lived, another group of investigators returned to Vitello's and removed a large trash bin from the restaurant's parking lot. Similarly, an independent contractor was brought in to remove the dumpster on Woodbridge Street that Blake had parked about six feet behind the night of the murder and was instructed to take it to a secure police location where its contents could be examined under more controlled surroundings. They didn't want to risk losing potential evidence to the elements of nature.

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