Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Who Murdered Bonny Lee Bakley?

The Murder

Robert Blake
Robert Blake

Studio City, located on the northern foothills of the Santa Monica mountains, was named in part because the Central Motion Picture District put up some $20 million to form a film alliance that resulted in movies and short feature films being made by Mack Sennett during the 1920s silent era, including the Keystone Cops two-reelers. The area was subsequently aptly named Studio City. In 1935 Republic Pictures basically took over the area, and attracted such stars as Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan, Tony Curtis, James Stewart, Ray Milland, Jack Webb, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Roy Rogers, to name only a few. Even Alfred Hitchcock made his claim to fame at Studio City's Republic during this time frame. Located some 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles, Studio City provided quick and easy access to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The city soon had a reputation for being a safe place to live and a great place to raise children. The economy prospered over the years as businesses such as boutiques, banks, and fine restaurants popped up along Ventura Boulevard and elsewhere. Today, with a population of about 30,000, Studio City is considered one of the most desirable places to live within the City of Los Angeles and is often referred to as the Jewel of the Valley, a name it has kept since its meager beginnings. However, like anywhere else, it has not been without its share of problems, including violent crime.

It was during the cool evening hours of Friday, May 4, 2001 that actor Robert Blake, then 67, and Bonny Lee Bakley, 44, his wife of only a few months, parked their 1991 black Dodge Stealth on the south side of Woodbridge Street in Studio City, a Los Angeles suburb located about two miles from Hollywood. Blake pulled the car into an opening a few feet behind a construction Dumpster, facing east beneath a burned-out street lamp. Blake, a carryover from Hollywood's earlier years and perhaps best known for his role as TV's Baretta, got out of the car, locked it, and walked around to help Bonny out of the passenger seat. They strolled arm-in-arm a block and a half to Vitello's Italian Restaurant, located at 4349 Tujunga Avenue. It was a nice, clear evening, even if, at 60 degrees, a bit on the chilly side for Southern California. A slight breeze blew in from the west and made their short walk to the restaurant all the more chilly that fateful evening. They had met nearly two years earlier at a jazz club Blake was known to frequent after Bonny arranged her presence there around Blake's, and a one-night stand later at a Holiday Inn had turned into more than either of them had bargained for.

Vitello's restaurant
Vitello's restaurant

Vitello's Restaurant, known primarily to the locals prior to May 4, 2001, is a large, highly rated family-owned eatery that sports a casual Mediterranean ambiance and fresco-painted walls, freshly baked bread, and some of the best Italian food in the San Fernando Valley. Reservations are rarely needed, and it was one of Robert Blake's favorite restaurants. He was known to eat there frequently, often two or three times a week over the past 20 years, enough for the owners to name a tomato and spinach pasta dish after him, fusilli a la Robert Blake. On that particular evening, Blake and Bonny were there to discuss their future plans and their somewhat troubled relationship. Blake's grown daughter, Delinah, from a previous marriage to actress Sondra Kerr, cared for their 11-month-old daughter, Rose, that evening at her home in Hidden Hills.

Joseph Restivo, who co-owns Vitello's with his brother, Steve Restivo, seated Bonny and Blake, not at Blake's usual corner booth, number 42, but at a booth near the rear of the restaurant that was still visible to the other dining patrons. Both Blake and his wife dined, with Bonny having fish and wine and Blake having his usual tomato and spinach pasta dish, and they enjoyed the restaurant pianist as he played Blake's favorite song, "I Remember You."

About halfway through dinner, while Bonny drank her third glass of red wine, Blake excused himself and went to the men's room where another patron reportedly witnessed him vomiting into a trashcan, pulling at his hair, and mumbling to himself. When Blake walked out of the men's room, he appeared somewhat agitated, shaky and ill, according to the patron who saw him vomit. Blake did not drink any alcohol that evening, and he did not complain to his waiter or to the owners about the food. He simply returned to his booth, paid with a credit card, left the waiter a 25 percent tip, and exited the establishment sometime between 9:30 and 9:40 p.m. Together, he and Bonny walked back to the black Stealth. After letting Bonny into the car, Blake realized that he had left a handgun at the restaurant, a weapon that he had begun carrying recently because of Bonny's growing fear for her safety and suspicions that she was being stalked. He told her that he would be right back and purportedly walked back to Vitello's to retrieve the gun.

Upon his return to the car a few minutes later, Blake found Bonny slumped over in the passenger seat, unconscious and bleeding profusely from a wound to her head. Unable to revive her, the actor ran to the home of filmmaker Sean Stanek, located directly behind Vitello's and just across the street from the car. This marked the beginning of a case that would rock Hollywood like it hadn't been rocked since O.J. Simpson was accused of killing his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman, and would consume much of Robert Blake's life in the months that followed.

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