03/11/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
For a man under a stubborn cloud of suspicion, actor Robert Blake has seemed notably self-contained in recent months. Many afternoons the 68-year-old star of the '70s TV hit Baretta has been spotted taking his 21-month-old daughter Rose for a walk in his suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, waving hello and stopping to chat with acquaintances. "For a while there I saw him all the time," says one neighbor. "He'd walk straight down the middle of the road, pushing a stroller. He always looked very unassuming."
That composure belies the attention focused on Blake ever since his second wife, Bonny Bakley, 44, Rose's mother, was found shot in the head on May 4 just after the couple left a neighborhood restaurant. While police have never publicly named Blake as a suspect, Bakley's family has openly accused him of having a hand in her murder, insisting he killed his wife because he wanted out of their troubled six-month marriage.
Ten months later, however, investigators acknowledge the case has proved a difficult one to solve. "The bottom line is that all the evidence is very circumstantial," says one Los Angeles Police Department source. "That's the toughest kind of case to prove. Nobody saw anybody do anything. Everything is going to have to be tied together very carefully before any charges are going to be filed against anybody."
Publicly all that is known of the murder is the version Blake told cops: After dining at Vitello's restaurant, he escorted Bakley to his 1991 black Dodge Stealth, parked on a side street. Realizing he'd left his licensed handgun in a restaurant booth, he headed back to retrieve it. When he returned to the car, he found Bakley shot once in the head. Blake ran to a nearby house, where the owner put in a call to 911. He then went back to the restaurant to summon help. When police arrived, he was pacing up and down the street and occasionally vomiting.
Blake, whose relationship with Bakley had long been acrimonious—he demanded a DNA test before accepting that he was Rose's father—soon fell under suspicion. And while cops won't release results of forensic testing of the crime scene—or of a handgun reportedly found in a nearby Dumpster soon after the killing—"they're still looking at Blake as the main suspect," says one LAPD source. But "the bar," notes another, "is a little higher now. We definitely don't want another O.J. [Simpson case] on our hands."
For Bakley's family, the waiting has been wrenching. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to check CNN to see if there's been an arrest," says Margerry Bakley, 40, Bonny's sister, who has tried—so far in vain—to get court-ordered visitations with niece Rose. "I know who did it. We all know who did it. Robert Blake, of course. There's no doubt in my mind."
Blake, however, maintains his innocence. "Be logical," scoffs his attorney Harland Braun. "If Robert Blake hired someone to kill his wife, would his alibi be 'I went back to the restaurant because I forgot my gun'? It makes no sense." Braun insists that a more likely suspect is someone from Bakley's murky past. He has presented police with documents that purport to show that Bonny was a scam artist, engaging in mail-order and lonely-hearts flimflams, with no shortage of enemies. "You've got 25 years of defrauding men," he says. "This is a case where there are too many suspects."
Investigators say they are looking into all the materials supplied by Braun as well as whether Bakley's murder may have been a robbery attempt gone awry. "They have to check out everything," says Cary Goldstein, a civil attorney for the Bakley family, "to eliminate reasonable doubt."
In the meantime, although Blake employs a full-time nanny for Rose, he has been handling much of the child-care duties himself, says Braun. In January he moved out of his six-bedroom home in Studio City (it's still on the market for $875,000) and into a gated community in Hidden Hills, where his daughter Deli-nah, 35, by first wife Sondra Blake, lives. Delinah, who is studying to be a psychologist, has been lending her dad a hand in taking care of Rose. "He's doing all right," says Blake's friend, actor John Solari. "He's hanging in there better than might be expected. All he wants to live for now is the baby."
Lorenzo Benet, Johnny Dodd and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles and Kate Klise in Memphis