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Blake Accuser Says Changing Story Was 'Right Thing to Do'

A retired stuntman testifies he feared retaliation when he first talked to police.

March 04, 2003|Jean Guccione and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

A retired stuntman testified Monday that he twice told police that Robert Blake never asked him to kill the actor's wife, before changing his story and "telling it like it is," implicating the former "Baretta" star in the May 4, 2001, slaying of the woman.

Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton said he had a "fear of reprisal not only against myself, but against family members, including my grandchildren" if he cooperated with police in the Bonny Lee Bakley murder investigation.

But after twice denying any involvement with Blake, Hambleton eventually led police to a significant piece of physical evidence -- the records from a prepaid telephone calling card that Blake allegedly bought at a convenience store near his home shortly after the two men had lunch in March 2001.

Those records document more than 50 phone calls made from Blake's house. Hambleton and Gary McLarty, another stuntman who once worked with Blake, testified that the actor offered them money to kill Bakley, 44.

The ailing, 66-year-old Hambleton, of Lucerne Valley, was on the witness stand in the Van Nuys courtroom all day Monday, the fourth day of testimony in the preliminary hearing for Blake, who is charged with killing his wife, soliciting the two stuntmen to kill her and conspiring with co-defendant Earle S. Caldwell to commit murder. He faces life in prison.

At the end of the hearing, which is expected to last six more days, Superior Court Judge Lloyd M. Nash will decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to hold Blake and Caldwell for trial. He also will decide whether to set bail for Blake, who has been held at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles since his arrest April 18.

Hambleton was the third witness to testify that Blake discussed killing his wife.

Hambleton testified last week that Blake drove him to a parking lot adjoining Vitello's, the Studio City restaurant where Blake and Bakley ate minutes before she was fatally shot, and suggested someone could wait nearby and kill her.

"He wanted to know basically what it was going to cost him for my services," Hambleton testified, saying that he did not give Blake a price because he never intended to kill Bakley, who was slain less than a month later.

Hambleton testified that Blake told him he had begun moving money out of the bank in small amounts to avoid suspicion. According to court documents, Blake allegedly withdrew a total of $25,000 in $5,000 increments from his bank accounts in March 2001. He allegedly moved an additional $15,000 in January and February, those documents show.

Hambleton said he was not truthful in the first two police interviews because cooperating with police was "not readily accepted" among his peers.

During cross-examination, he said he was not scared of Blake but was "concerned about the overtones of our conversations."

Under threat of a grand jury subpoena, Hambleton at first threatened to exercise his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

"I finally made up my mind that telling it like it is was the proper and right thing to do," Hambleton testified Monday. "I believed it was morally right."

Defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. tried to discredit Hambleton, suggesting that he had relied on supermarket tabloids for much of the information he eventually gave to police.

For nearly four hours, Mesereau combed through pages of transcripts of Hambleton's first two interviews with Los Angeles police investigators in May 2001, outlining inconsistencies, especially Hambleton's repeated denials of having ever been solicited by Blake to kill Bakley.

Mesereau said, "You told police, 'I was not offered $100,000 and nothing of that nature was ever discussed.' "

"That is correct," Hambleton answered.

Hambleton initially told police that he told David Attwater that Blake had offered him $100,000 to kill his wife to try "to ferret out a snitch."

Attwater, who was living on Hambleton's San Bernardino County property, went to authorities shortly after Bakley's death and told them that Blake had recently called the house and that Hambleton told Attwater that the actor asked him to kill Bakley.

"You told him you made it up to see if Attwater was a snitch?" Mesereau asked.

"That is true," Hambleton answered.

At one point, when Deputy Dist. Atty. Gregory A. Dohi tried to cut off questions, Mesereau told the judge he was trying to show that Hambleton had a history of threatening violence and drug abuse. The witness admitted he "experimented" with methamphetamine.

Hambleton denied that police or prosecutors offered him help in a pending criminal case. He is awaiting trial in San Bernardino County on misdemeanor charges of brandishing a gun at a police officer and resisting arrest.

Outside of court, Mesereau said that Hambleton and McLarty "are both disasters for the prosecution, giving Blake new hope for his future."

"The country is seeing what a ridiculous case this is," Mesereau said. "They are seeing that it's a case made out of Hollywood tabloids, not reality."

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