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Stuntmen to testify in Blake trial

Prosecution's star witnesses mark turning point in actor's trial

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

Court TV:  Case coverageexternal link

VAN NUYS, California (Court TV) -- Stuntman Gary McLarty had a secret that was burning a hole in his gut.

"I've been holding something inside that I never even told my girlfriend. It's been eating inside me," McLarty told a friend after learning that Bonny Lee Bakley, the wife of actor Robert Blake, was gunned down near Vitello's Italian restaurant on May 4, 2001.

Ten days after Bakley's murder, McLarty found himself in an interview room at the North Hollywood Homicide unit, sitting with lead detective Ronald Ito and his partner Steven Eguchi. The stuntman gave the investigators the biggest break yet in their case: In March 2001, McLarty claimed, Robert Blake offered him $10,000 to "pop" his wife.

McLarty, who testified about the alleged solicitation at a 2003 preliminary hearing, is expected to take the stand Wednesday in the "Baretta" star's murder trial.

His testimony marks a pivotal chapter in the prosecution's case, which for the past six weeks has revolved around experts who uniformly agree there is no forensic evidence tying Blake to his 44-year-old wife's murder, and witnesses who have vouched that the actor hated Bakley and repeatedly attempted to get her arrested for probation violations.

McLarty, 64, and stuntman Ronald Hambleton, 68, the prosecution's star witnesses, are expected to testify about their alleged discussions with the actor about a variety of murderous schemes, including a lying-in-wait scenario that mirrored Bakley's final fate.

Hambleton may testify as early as Monday.

The stuntmen's testimony could make or break the prosecution's case against the actor -- a circumstantial case that offers no fingerprints, blood spatter, fibers, hair or any forensic evidence linking Blake to his wife's murder.

So far, prosecutors have called witnesses who have served mostly to build a narrative for jurors, a prelude to the stuntmen's entrance into the story. Blake jurors have even seen crime-scene photos that depict the full May moon as a backdrop.

But Blake claims that, although he may not have loved or even liked his bride of six months, he never wanted her dead. The defense says that the stuntmen's claims of a money-for-murder plot are little more than hallucinatory ramblings from two witnesses whose perceptions are skewed by years of drug abuse.

Background in killing?

Gary "Whiz Kid" McLarty first met Blake on the set of "Baretta" in the mid-1970s, and later worked with the actor on the 1980 film "Coast to Coast."

McLarty's extensive resume includes a 1986 Best Stunt Coordinator honor at the annual Stunt Man Awards for his work on "Beverly Hills Cop." Most recently, McLarty was a stunt driver in the Tom Cruise drama "Collateral."

But prosecutors say that Blake chose McLarty because of a different kind of experience.

"He was looking for people who had killed people," prosecutor Shellie Samuels told jurors during opening statements.

In 1991, McLarty shot and killed his houseguest during a confrontation. The victim, Donald Deppe, 50, was an ex-convict with a history of violent assaults and was wanted for the rape of a female friend of McLarty's. The shooting was ruled justifiable homicide and the stuntman was never charged.

McLarty's turn on the stand this week will not be his first time testifying in a high-profile trial.

McLarty was a prosecution witness in the 1986 "Twilight Zone" trial. The stunt coordinator testified about a helicopter accident during a dangerous action shot that killed actor Vic Morrow and two child actors. Director John Landis was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges.

Like McLarty, Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton worked with Blake on the "Baretta" set, where he doubled for the actor doing car rolls, fights and other stunts.

About 30 years later, a mutual friend, Roy "Snuffy" Harrison, contacted Hambleton on Blake's behalf and the two men reunited on March 11, 2001, at a Studio City coffee shop. They had three more meetings.

But when Hambleton was initially interviewed by detectives, he denied Blake ever mentioned murder, saying the two had met to talk about a script.

Seven months after Bakley's death, Hambleton implicated Blake during his third police interview. According to court documents, Blake allegedly told Hambleton that, if he didn't commit the murder, the actor would have to do it himself.

Various scenarios

McLarty and Hambleton never met with Blake together, but both are expected to testify that the actor suggested killing Bakley in myriad ways, including following the couple on a road trip and ambushing Bakley when Blake pulled over to relieve himself or sneaking into the guesthouse on Blake's property and killing her in her bedroom as she slept.

Hambleton told detectives that Blake drove him around Vitello's restaurant to view possible murder sites. McLarty will testify that Blake suggested a scenario in which he'd take Bakley out to dinner and then leave her alone briefly in the car, giving the killer time to "pop her."

Both men will say that Blake showed them nude photos of Bakley, disparaged her lifestyle, and spoke of his concern for the welfare of their infant daughter, Rosie.

Both claim they refused to help Blake.

"He wanted to know what my thoughts were, and I explained to him that I wouldn't do anything like this," McLarty testified at the preliminary hearing. "That girl didn't do anything to me. I had no eyes to do anything like that." McLarty says Blake never called him back.

Hambleton, who had several conversations with Blake, suggested that the actor buy a phone card, mistakenly thinking they could talk without leaving a paper trail.

A records custodian from AT&T is expected to testify this week that Blake dialed Hambleton 56 times and McLarty three times between March 11 and May 4, the night his wife was killed.

Checkered past

Still, the former stuntmen have plenty to answer for during cross-examination.

At a pretrial hearing, attorneys argued about McLarty's psychotic breakdown last fall, which was allegedly spurred by excessive methamphetamine use. McLarty was taken to a psychiatric ward in Glendale after crawling on his stomach over a mile from his home to his son's house because he believed that detectives were after him.

The story was splashed across the pages of the National Enquirer and confirmed to a defense investigator by McLarty's son, Cole, who will likely be called as a defense witness.

"[McLarty] talks about hearing voices from aliens from another planet. He talks about the fact that people were after him," defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbach stated during a pretrial hearing, adding that the witness's drug-induced hallucinations point to his state of mind when he met with Blake.

In February 2001, a few weeks before the alleged solicitation, McLarty was admitted to the hospital for chest pains and acknowledged having used cocaine, according to Schwartzbach.

Hambleton recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge stemming from a six-year-old incident in which he called police claiming that a robbery was in progress at his residence. When officers arrived Hambleton came out of his home waving his .22-caliber rifle in the air, but no intruders were present.

"Mr. Hambleton was using substantial amounts of methamphetamine well before 2001 and throughout 2001," Schwartzbach said during a hearing. "In 1999, we know that he had a hallucination, both visual and auditory, believing that 20 armed people were in his residence when no one was there."

Hambleton was sentenced to 90 days in jail, which he is expected to serve on weekends in March.

"Sure, these are drug users. That's who the defendant went to commit the murder," prosecutor Shellie Samuels argued during the hearing. "He didn't go to the FBI and say, 'Hey do you guys have some snipers I can rent?' He went to the lowlifes that he knows that do drugs, that are involved with guns, that live in the desert."

Samuels expects to wrap up her case in another week.

Robert Blake, 71, is charged with one count of murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait and two counts of solicitation of murder.

He faces life in prison without parole if convicted.

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