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Arrest of Caldwell Surprises Friends

Profile: Many say his involvement in Blake case is unbelievable.

April 28, 2002|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earle Caldwell, aspiring country rock guitarist, part-time car stereo installer and, until two weeks ago, full-time bodyguard and personal assistant for actor Robert Blake, impressed many people with his loyalty, reliability and honesty.

He is the person, prosecutors allege, the 68-year-old actor turned to for help in planning the killing of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, 44, and the disposal of her body.

Although Los Angeles police believe Caldwell was out of town on May 4, 2001, the night Bakley was shot, co-defendant Caldwell was beside the actor Monday when Blake was arraigned on a murder charge. Caldwell, 46, is charged with conspiracy in the slaying.

Both men, who have pleaded not guilty, were arrested April 18; Blake at his daughter's Hidden Hills home and Caldwell near his Burbank apartment.

Blake, in custody since his arrest, posted $1-million bail for Caldwell, who was released from jail Friday.

Prosecutors allege in court papers that while Blake was plotting to kill Bakley, Caldwell supplied the actor with a small-caliber handgun and drew up a list of supplies, which allegedly included two shovels, a crowbar, old rugs, duct tape and swimming pool acid.

Several of Caldwell's relatives, friends and acquaintances said in the days since his arrest that his involvement in a murder case seems unbelievable.

The worst things Caldwell had been accused of previously were threatening a former girlfriend and waking neighbors with the roar of his motorcycle at odd hours, they said.

"Earle reeks of honesty," said Dan DiPaola of Burbank, who has known Caldwell nearly 20 years. "If he is lying, it's the first time I ever heard a lie from him."

DiPaola said Caldwell had called him collect from jail Tuesday and reported he was "doing OK." He said he was interviewed April 20 by Los Angeles detectives and told them only positive things about Caldwell.

DiPaola, 49, who produces high-technology digital sound for the entertainment industry, met Caldwell through a mutual friend in the early 1980s.

DiPaola and Caldwell worked together on special effects and designing sets for music videos. They worked on the television program "Rockin' America," a late-night 1980s music video show.

"Earle has always been one of those hard-working guys who goes to bed early," DiPaola said. "He wasn't the type to go out with the guys and have beers."

Friends and relatives said Caldwell's wife lives in San Mateo, a city of 94,000 about 20 miles south of San Francisco. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

At Caldwell's mother's home in Millbrae near San Francisco, the handyman's older sister defended him.

"I've known my brother all of his life and I know he would never be involved in anything that wasn't right and honest," said Jacqui Villanueva, 51. "He's a very decent man. I'm so proud of him. I love and adore him, and so does the rest of his family."

Blake's lawyer, Harland W. Braun, said authorities are trying to get Caldwell to turn against the actor. "He is accused of a crime, and they are offering the key to the jail if he makes up a story against Robert," said Braun, who described Caldwell as "low-key."

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said she could not confirm or deny whether Caldwell had been offered a deal.

Caldwell was born in San Francisco. The family moved to Millbrae, where Caldwell attended Mills High School. He was active in sports, particularly pole-vaulting.

His father, Roy, died when Caldwell was a teenager.

In 1981, Caldwell met Tawn Mastrey, a disc jockey for a San Francisco radio station.

"He had a jock mentality and was a bit of a macho guy, but he was very sweet to me," said Mastrey from her sister's home in Minneapolis.

Caldwell and Mastrey moved into an apartment in Burlingame, south of San Francisco, and in 1984 to Studio City.

They were briefly engaged before Mastrey broke off the relationship. Caldwell, she said, was never violent toward her until the last day they were together in 1986.

"I was packing, getting ready to leave, and we started talking about how it wasn't working out and he tried to talk me back," Mastrey said. "Then it got ugly.

"All of a sudden he lunged at me, picked me up by my neck and shirt and forced me against the wall," said Mastrey, now a hard rock disc jockey in Minneapolis.

"It was like a scene in a movie. My feet were dangling and kicking and he was strangling me."

She did not file a police report. But for a year after she moved away, Mastrey said, Caldwell would leave her threatening messages.

He never harmed her, she said.

Mastrey described Caldwell as a man religiously devoted to working out.

"He didn't seem to have much in the way of material goals or dreams," said Mastrey, adding that part of Caldwell's attraction initially was that he was "so normal and not into show business like me."

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