The actor, his trailer trash wife and a 'murder' straight out of central casting

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When the former Hollywood star Robert Blake wanted his wife killed he turned to two stuntmen who had worked with him 30 years ago on his hit television show Baretta, a jury heard yesterday.

When the former Hollywood star Robert Blake wanted his wife killed he turned to two stuntmen who had worked with him 30 years ago on his hit television show Baretta, a jury heard yesterday.

But when the stuntmen refused to carry out the murder he did it himself, according to prosecutors.

Now, three and a half years after his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, was found shot to death in his car, 71-year-old Blake is on trial for her murder.

There were no witnesses, there was not enough gunpowder residue on his clothes to show that he fired a gun and there was no direct evidence linking him to the murder, conceded Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels in Los Angeles Superior Court.

But the case came together when the two former stuntmen came forward to report that Blake had tried to hire them to kill his wife. One, Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, said that Blake had offered him $10,000 (£5,100) to "snuff" Bakley and told him that if he would not do it, Blake would have to do it himself, said Miss Samuels. "The evidence will show you that is exactly what he did," she said. The other stuntman, Gary "Whiz Kid" McLarty, said that Blake had devised four scenarios for "popping" his wife, including one similar to the actual crime.

Prosecutors say that the passions surrounding the birth and custody of Rosie, the four-year-old daughter of Blake and Bakley, are at the centre of the case.

Blake would do anything to protect his Rosie ­ even kill her mother, said Miss Samuels. "Our motive ­ which I think is clear as day ­ is that he wanted the baby and he didn't want his wife," she said. Blake murdered his wife because he considered her to be "trailer trash" and he was obsessed with keeping Rosie away from her, she said. He wanted sole custody of Rosie and did not want his wife or her family near her.

Blake, who began his career as a child actor in the Our Gang series and went on to star in a number of films, including In Cold Blood, before landing the role of the streetwise detective in the 1970s television show Baretta, is accused of shooting 44-year-old Bakley in the head as she sat in the couple's car outside a Hollywood restaurant in May 2001.

Miss Samuels said that Blake despised Bakley and considered her family to be "low-life trailer trash".

Blake's defence lawyers have portrayed Bakley as a star-stuck confidence trickster who ran a mail-order pornography business swindling the men she attracted through personal ads. They contend that any one of hundreds of men she swindled, many of whom were prison inmates, had ample motives to kill her.

Blake met Bakley at a jazz club in Burbank, California, and when she became pregnant she filed a paternity suit against him. After tests confirmed that the child was Blake's the couple married in November 2000. Instead of going on a honeymoon Bakley returned to Arkansas to complete her parole for an identity fraud conviction.

"This was not a marriage made in heaven," Miss Samuels told the court.

Five days before her death Bakley returned to California and moved into a guest house behind Blake's home. Bakley was murdered after they had been out for dinner at an Italian restaurant. Authorities say she had been sitting alone in the car when she was shot. The murder weapon was found in a rubbish bin near the car, the jury heard.

Blake has contended that he had nothing to do with the murder and told police it occurred when he had returned to the restaurant to collect a handgun, which he carried for her protection and which he had left at their table. When he got back to the car, he said, he found his wife slumped over and bleeding from the head. He ran to a nearby house to call police.

It took Los Angeles police investigators nearly a year to make a case against Blake, who was arrested in April 2002. Detectives travelled to more than 20 states, interviewed more than 150 witnesses and collected about 900 items of evidence in what was described as the most extensive murder investigation in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Blake has pleaded not guilty to murder and soliciting murder with a special circumstance of lying in wait. He faces life in prison without parole if convicted. Before his release on $750,000 bail last year, the actor had spent 11 months in jail.

Rosie is being raised by Blake's older daughter, Delinah.

The case continues.