On May 4, 2001, Bonny Lee Bakley was shot to death in her husband Robert Blake's parked car in Los Angeles — but who pulled the trigger?
At first glance, the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley seemed like a simple criminal case. Bakley had been fatally shot two times while sitting in a parked car on May 4, 2001. Her husband, the actor Robert Blake, admitted that he had briefly left her side to retrieve his gun from a nearby Los Angeles restaurant called Vitello’s, where the couple had just had dinner.
But there was nothing simple about Bakley, a con artist with a Hollywood obsession whose various romantic entanglements would soon become media fodder.
A “lost soul” who’d been married 10 times, Bakley had chased Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis, struck up a relationship with Marlon Brando’s son while he served time for manslaughter, and eventually wed Blake, an actor best known for his role in the 1970s crime drama Baretta.
A known grifter, Bakley had made plenty of enemies. And since Blake was later acquitted of killing her, her murder remains officially unsolved today.
“A Con Artist, Plain And Simple”
Born on June 7, 1956, in New Jersey, Bonny Lee Bakley had a troubled childhood. Her sister Margerry Smith told ABC News that their father was an alcoholic and that Bakley was a victim of local bullies. Blake also later alleged that “she was already doing stuff with men” by the age of 10.
As her sister tells it, Bakley was indeed introduced to sexual concepts at a young age. Smith told ABC News that they grew up near a nudist colony and that, when Bakley was around 11 years old, they went to the colony for a “clothes-on” swim day. However, it was actually a “clothes-off” day. Smith never went back after that, but Bakley returned frequently. And Smith says that some adults at the colony soon started taking advantage of her.
“That’s where Bonny got her start in the taking of nude photos,” Smith said. “She was underage [and] people were taking photos of her and selling them.”
Bakley eventually realized the value of nude photos. As an adult, she placed ads in swinger magazines, where she made up different stories about why she needed money. When men responded, Bakley would send them nudes. Her cons slowly grew in scope as she stole credit cards and forged driver’s licenses to make her aliases seem more legitimate.
Meanwhile, Bakley led something of a tumultuous love life. She was married 10 times, and seemed especially intrigued by the idea of marrying a celebrity. Robert Blake’s lawyer later alleged that she “wanted to be famous or be married to somebody who was famous” and though he certainly had an agenda in saying so, Bakley’s actions seem to line up with what he said.
In the 1980s, she moved to Memphis to be closer to rock ‘n’ roll star Jerry Lee Lewis and succeeded in joining his inner circle. Bakley even claimed that Lewis had gotten her pregnant, but a DNA test proved otherwise.
“She was a con artist, plain and simple, and a good one,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister remarked, according to the New York Post.
Bonny Lee Bakley also attempted to get close to 78-year-old Dean Martin, and struck up a relationship with Marlon Brando’s troubled son Christian while he was in jail for killing his sister’s boyfriend. Then, in 1999, Bakley met Robert Blake at a jazz club. In June 2000, the pair welcomed a daughter and were married later that same year in November.
But the marriage wouldn’t last long. Just months later, Bonny Lee Bakley was murdered in Los Angeles after dining with her new husband.
The Murder Of Bonny Lee Bakley
On May 4, 2001, 44-year-old Bonny Lee Bakley and 67-year-old Robert Blake had dinner at Vitello’s, a favorite restaurant of Blake’s. After they finished their meal, the couple walked back to their car. But on the way there, Blake realized he’d left his gun behind. He left Bakley to retrieve it at their table.
Blake, a former child star who made a name for himself in the Oscar-nominated film In Cold Blood (1967), the Emmy-winning crime show Baretta, and for his dozens of Tonight Show appearances, recovered the gun from the restaurant and then went outside to rejoin his wife.
As Blake tells it, he then found Bakley in their car with two gunshot wounds.
Blake banged on the door of nearby resident Sean Stanek, who told ABC News that he was “stunned” to find the actor on his doorstep. Stanek quickly called 911 and went to the car, horrified by what he saw.
“I open the [car] door, I sit in next to her [Bakley] and I pull her up,” Stanek recalled. “I tell her squeeze my hand but all she’s doing is gurgling and there’s just massive amount of blood everywhere. It’s probably about a minute or two minutes before he came back. When I saw Robert Blake had a gun, I thought to myself, ‘We’re in deep s—.’ This was a murder. This is your quintessential Hollywood murder noir story. This is it.”
Witnesses later said that Blake’s behavior seemed unusual — even phony — and one alleged that the police seemed to handle the actor with “kid gloves.”
“For most of the time, paramedics were working on [Bakley]; he was just sitting on the curb,” the witness claimed, according to PEOPLE. “An officer had his arm around him, just consoling him.”
Bakley, who had been shot in the right cheek and the shoulder, died soon afterward at a nearby hospital.
The next morning, police recovered an unregistered 9mm Walther P-38 in a dumpster about 10 feet away from the crime scene. The vintage gun, once favored by Nazis, contained a bullet that matched the two that had been used to kill Bakley. It was not the same gun that Blake had retrieved from the restaurant, and the serial number had been scratched off, making the murder weapon’s owner hard to identify.
But almost a year later, in April 2002, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested Robert Blake for Bonny Lee Bakley’s murder.
“The LAPD’s investigation has developed compelling and conclusive evidence that Robert Blake killed Bonny Lee Bakley,” they said in a statement.
The subsequent murder trial would become a media sensation.
Who Killed Bonny Lee Bakley?
In a trial that began at the end of 2004, prosecutors alleged that Robert Blake had tried to hire hitmen to kill Bonny Lee Bakley, then decided to murder her himself. His motive, they claimed, was that he felt that Bakley had “tricked” him into getting married after she got pregnant.
Blake “was tricked by Bonny Lee and hated her for it,” prosecutor Shellie Samuels claimed. “He talked tough and acted street, [then] he got taken by a small-time grifter.”
The prosecution even played a recorded phone call, which, per A&E, captured Blake berating Bakley for lying about promising to get an abortion.
Though the defense agreed that Blake did not like his wife, they worked to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. They claimed that the alleged hitmen — stuntmen who testified that Blake had asked them to kill his wife — were not credible or reliable witnesses because of their heavy drug use.
And even though the police had found gunshot residue on Blake’s hands, a defense expert insisted that it was a small amount. According to Biography, they said that Blake had only four or five particles on his hands, but he would have had nearly 100 particles if he had fired a gun himself.
In the end, Robert Blake was acquitted of murder on March 16, 2005 (though he was found liable for Bakley’s death in a civil case later that year and had to pay her family $30 million), leaving many questions about Bakley’s murder.
Indeed, some have claimed that Blake was innocent, and that Bakley’s former lover, Christian Brando, arranged her death. In another taped phone conversation, Brando was heard berating Bakley about her controversial lifestyle: “You’re lucky somebody ain’t out there to put a bullet in your head.”
Christian Brando died in 2008. Robert Blake died in 2023. And the mystery of Bonny Lee Bakley’s death has endured ever since. What really happened on that spring night in 2001? It seems that we’ll never know for sure.
After reading about the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley, go inside the strange case of Kathleen McCormack, the missing wife of multimillionaire murderer Robert Durst. Or, learn about the tragic murder of SNL star Phil Hartman.