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Actor Robert Blake holds his 11-month-old daugther, Rose Lenore Sophie Blake, at the funeral of her mother, Bonny Lee Bakley, on May 25, 2001, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

LOS ANGELES -- As a Hollywood crime drama, it had it all. With a bonus thumbs-up for being real.

The accused was a famous tough-guy actor, the victim a woman with a past, the scene a red-leather-boothed Italian restaurant in Studio City. The ensuing courtroom battles were compared to the O.J. Simpson trials. Both sides complained about a travesty of "celebrity justice."

It began with a bang in a Daily News headline 10 years ago: "'Baretta's' Wife Slain."

"It doesn't feel like a decade," attorney Eric J. Dubin said this week, thinking back to the killing of Bonny Lee Bakley on May 4, 2001. Dubin represented Bakley's children in a later wrongful death suit against Robert Blake.

The story was an instant legend.

Blake -- who starred as a murderer in the movie "In Cold Blood" and as a detective in TV's "Baretta" -- told police he and his wife of five months had just had dinner at Vitello's, the Tujunga Avenue restaurant where he was a regular.

Blake claimed that after they reached their car parked on Woodbridge Street, he remembered he'd left the handgun he carried for protection under a sweatshirt at their booth, and walked back to the restaurant to get it. When he returned to the car, he said, Bakley was bleeding from a head wound and gasping for life. Blake ran to a nearby house for help.

Nearly a year went by before Blake was arrested at his house in Studio City. Blake was charged with one count of murder and two counts of solicition of murder. Prosecutors contended he'd tried to hire two Hollywood stuntmen to commit the murder before doing the job himself.


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Bakley's back story was almost as lurid as her demise: Said to have made a career of defrauding older men and celebrities for money, she claimed to have a daughter with Marlon Brando's son Christian, before Blake demanded a DNA test that proved Blake was the father.

Shades of O.J., jurors in the criminal trial acquitted Blake but their counterparts in a civil case filed by Bakley's three grown children found he "intentionally caused" her death and ordered him to pay $30 million (a judgment cut to $15 million on appeal).

His acting career ruined, Blake declared bankruptcy in 2006, before being hit with a state tax lien for $1.1 million in 2010.

Now 77, Blake lives privately in the Los Angeles area, according to associates.

Delinah Blake, the actor's daughter from an earlier marriage, declined comment when reached by phone at her San Fernando Valley home.

Brad Roen, general manager and co-owner of Vitello's -- it changed hands a few years ago -- was only too happy to comment on the episode he said made the restaurant "famous, or infamous."

"There's still amazing interest after 10 years," Roen said. "We get people coming in five days a week, wanting to take a picture of that booth."

It's the first booth on the left.

"Negative publicity is as good, if not better, sometimes," Roen said.

Observers debated the legal implications of Blake's courtroom split decision, and people angered by Simpson's criminal-trial acquittal concluded another celebrity murderer had walked.

Dubin, who represented Bakley's children, says now that Blake was a beneficiary of "celebrity justice."

"It's almost impossible to get 12 jurors to convict a celebrity," Dubin said. "If a celebrity doesn't testify, jurors feel it's like convicting a friend without ever being able to ask him if he did it."

Blake didn't testify in the criminal trial but was compelled to take the stand in civil court. Dubin said the lesson from the civil judgment against Blake is: "Justice can take too long, but there is justice."

Dubin said Bakley's children live in Tennessee, happily out of the spotlight.

M. Gerald Schwartzbach, the Mill Valley-based attorney who represented Blake in the criminal trial and the civil appeal, said the actor actually was hurt by his stardom. "I'm not sure Robert would've ever been charged if he weren't a celebrity," said Schwartzbach, who believes police and prosecutors used Blake "to make up for the perception they blew the O.J. Simpson case."

Tests showed the gun in the restaurant wasn't the murder weapon, and Blake had no gunshot residue on his hands, meaning he couldn't have shot Bakley, Schwartzbach said this week.

If the argument goes on another 10 years, that's fine with Roen, the restaurateur. He said a Hollywood tour company is talking about routing one of its buses along Tujunga, stopping long enough for sightseers to pop into Vitello's for a photo or a quick meal at the scene of the crime.