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Defense tries to chip away at murder probe by questioning detective

Robert Blake
Robert Blake

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VAN NUYS, California (Court TV) -- Actor Robert Blake may have thought his wife a woman of ill repute, but that didn't lead detectives investigating Bonny Lee Bakley's murder to scour the underground for "drug dealers, bikers, and trailer park tattoo people," a detective testified Wednesday.

"... I was dealing in a murder investigation, not in association," LAPD Detective Brian Tyndall replied under cross-examination from Blake's lawyer, Thomas Mesereau, Jr., during the sixth day of the actor's preliminary hearing.

Tyndall, one of the lead detectives who investigated Bakley's May 4, 2001, murder, testified that the department was not unaware of Bakley's checkered past as a mail-order pornography maven. In fact, he said, detectives traveled across the country to search for suspects other than Blake, but did not specifically look for the "drug dealers, bikers, and trailer park tattoo people" -- Blake's own description of his wife's associates.

Bakley had been dead almost a year before Blake was arrested on April 18, 2002.

During his cross-examination of Tyndall,  Mesereau sought to portray the department as leaving a number of stones unturned. The defense claims that police focused too quickly on Blake and did not take the time to examine other possible suspects.

Prosecutors say Blake shot Bakley twice as she sat in his Dodge Stealth behind Vitello's Italian Restaurant, then dumped the vintage murder weapon in a garbage container before returning to the restaurant to call for an ambulance. Blake claims he left Bakley to look for a different gun he had left in the restaurant, and returned to the car to find her dead.

Police officers testifying in preliminary hearings are allowed to say what witnesses told them during interviews, which is a violation of hearsay rules during standard court proceedings.

The Van Nuys, Calif., proceeding, now in the middle of its second week, is only a dress rehearsal, with prosecutors required to prove they have enough evidence only to try, not to convict, Blake and his handyman, Earle Caldwell, a suspected co-conspirator. Blake's lawyer is also seeking for bail for the actor, who has been in a Los Angeles jail since his arrest.

Tyndall's testimony has fleshed out the lengths that prosecutors say Blake was willing to take to get rid of his wife, whom he suspected of tricking him into a baby and a marriage.

Tyndall testified Tuesday about a number of witnesses he interviewed, from Cody Blackwell, a woman Blake hired to be his nanny, to Luis Mendoza, whom Blake allegedly asked to slip damaging information on Bakley to the FBI.

Mendoza, a narcotics informant for U.S. customs officials, told Tyndall that Blake twice paid his way to Los Angeles in exchange for passing on information about Bakley's illegal activities.

As with his cross-examination of Detective Ronald Ito, Mesereau focused heavily on Tyndall's knowledge of author Miles Corwin's access to the department's investigation of Bakley's murder. The lawyer has repeatedly tried to show that the writer's access to evidence, documents, and breaking developments in the case jeopardized the integrity of the information.

Mesereau asked Tyndall whether Corwin was "part of the chain of custody," a term of art referring to the carefully logged transfer of evidence from the crime scene to the courtroom, for the murder weapon, a Walther P-38.

"Well, that's stretching it," said Tyndall, explaining that the author only sat in the car while he transferred it back to the station.

Tyndall has also helped prosecutors build a case against Earle Caldwell, Blake's handyman who is charged with conspiracy to commit murder. On Wednesday, Caldwell's attorney launched an exhaustive and exhausting line of questioning concerning a note found in Caldwell's 1997 Jeep. The note, which called for items such as lye, pool acid, a crowbar, and two shovels, has been singled out by prosecutors as a shopping list for murder.

But Arna Zalotnik, representing Caldwell, sought to portray the items on the list as routine tools used often by any handyman. Though the lawyer's tact is sound -- the list is one of the most damning pieces of evidence against her client -- her delivery has been less than polished. One of the list items Zalotnik asked Tyndall about was a roll of black duct tape.

"The color black, that is not atypical, is it?" asked the lawyer.

"To who?" replied Tyndall.

"To common duct tape users?" Zalotnik continued, drawing laughs from the gallery.

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