After A Body Was Discovered In An Alabama Wood, Detectives Knocked On A Sports Star’s Door

It’s one month into the search for Aniah Blanchard, and police make a grim discovery in woodland in Alabama. Yes, investigators find human remains that will later be confirmed as those of the missing teen. And when one famous sportsman and his family find out the terrible news, their worlds will no doubt be completely shattered.

Blanchard hailed from Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. At 19 years old, it appeared that she had a bright future ahead of her. She was living in Auburn in Lee County, AL, and attended Southern Union State Community College, which has a number of campuses dotted throughout East Alabama.

When Blanchard was still in high school, she had shown a talent for softball. As a result, her father, Elijah, asked her if she’d considered joining a college team. However, the student was seemingly eager to focus her efforts on her general education while she figured out the discipline in which she might want to specialize.

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As previously suggested, you see, Blanchard had the world at her feet in the early days of her college education. There were many avenues open to the teenager – and she was still mulling over what she wanted to do in life. These potential career avenues included education, art and perhaps even business.

So, not only did Blanchard have an exciting path ahead of her, but her family also wanted to stress that she had a kind heart and a generosity of spirit. In November 2019 her father Elijah told Alabama daily newspaper the Montgomery Advertiser, “Aniah is a nurturing person. She likes to make sure [that] everybody is okay.”

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Continuing to detail Blanchard’s friendly character, Elijah added, “She’s not a mean person. I’ve never heard her say anything bad about anybody. She was always a forgiving person, she has a heart of gold and would do anything to help anyone who needed it.” But in November 2019 the distraught dad feared that someone had “taken advantage of her kindness.”

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You see, by the time her father had made those comments about Blanchard, she had been missing for almost two weeks. The 19-year-old’s last known movements had been caught on CCTV, when she visited a convenience store near her home on October 23. That night, she contacted a roommate, but that was the last time anyone heard from her.

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Blanchard’s worried loved ones subsequently reported her missing on October 24, 2019. As a result, it seemed likely that she had vanished at some point late on the evening of October 23 or in the early hours of October 24. The exact circumstances of her disappearance remained somewhat of a mystery, however.

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News of Blanchard’s disappearance first broke on the day she’d been reported missing. In a statement obtained by local Alabama newspaper The Auburn Plainsman, police described the missing teen as “a light-complexioned black female, 5 foot 6 inches tall and [weighing] about 125 pounds.”

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It was also confirmed that she had brown hair and brown eyes and that at the time she was last seen, she had been wearing a black dress, black stockings and tan boots. Appealing to the public for assistance, police added that the teenager drove a 2017 black Honda CR-V – the location of which was also unknown.

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But this wasn’t the case for long. In fact, the first breakthrough that police made on Blanchard’s case was the discovery of her car. The vehicle was found on October 25 outside an apartment block in Montgomery, AL. And this was 55 miles to the west of the teen’s last known location.

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Blanchard’s vehicle was dented and scraped – damage that had occurred between the last time it was seen and the point that it was subsequently recovered by the police. So, while authorities continued to attempt to locate the missing student, they also began to gather evidence from within the car. And it was through this line of inquiries that investigators came to the conclusion that the teenager may have fallen victim to criminal activity.

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As the investigation into Blanchard’s disappearance continued, the local community rallied around her loved ones. For example, a service was held for the missing teen at Auburn United Methodist Church. And this was attended by members of the teenager’s immediate family, including her mother, Angela Haley-Harris.

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At the service, the congregation said prayers and sang some of Blanchard’s most-loved worship songs. In addition, The Auburn Plainsman reported that Haley Tembarge read a statement on behalf of the teenager’s family, thanking the community for its support. She said, “They’re so grateful to see everybody out and supporting Aniah and the family… Just to know that people are still aware of the story and looking for her means the world to them.”

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During her speech, Tembarge also revealed that Blanchard’s family were remaining hopeful that she would be found alive. She said, “That is the main focus right now, to keep everybody hopeful that we’re going to find her alive and bring her home… That is what the family is holding on to.”

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Meanwhile, Blanchard’s father, Elijah, told the Montgomery Advertiser, “I’m a man of faith… I still have faith she is still out there living. If it wasn’t for prayer, I couldn’t make it. I really hang my hat on faith. We ask everybody to pray with us and pray for us. That has given a sense of peace to me. I know that so many people out there are praying for us.”

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Then, in a bid to encourage anyone with information about Blanchard’s disappearance to come forward, a monetary reward totaling $105,000 was established. Speaking to the Montgomery Advertiser, Elijah urged readers, “If you have seen her, say something… If you see something, say something. That’s not only for my daughter but [for] all of the young ladies and children who have been abducted.”

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Another breakthrough in Blanchard’s case came when police identified a person of interest. A man wearing dark pants and a camouflaged Vans jacket was captured on CCTV in the convenience store that the teenager had visited in the hours prior to her disappearance. He had subsequently left the area in a silver or gray Lincoln Town Car.

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The man caught on camera was later identified as Ibraheem Yazeed of Montgomery, AL. And he was arrested in Pensacola, Florida, on suspicion of first-degree kidnap. Police later revealed that at the time of his arrest, he was on bail for attempted murder and had been charged with kidnap before.

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An initial hearing was held for Yazeed on November 20, 2019. At the hearing, however, detective Josh Mixon was the only witness to testify. He claimed that CCTV footage put Yazeed and Blanchard in the same location at a Chevron store on the night that she disappeared. Mixon alleged that a witness had also come forward, claiming they’d seen Yazeed force the teenage girl into a car before driving off.

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Furthermore, according to Yazeed’s arrest affidavit, blood that was “indicative of someone suffering a life-threatening injury” had been found on the passenger side of Blanchard’s car. At the preliminary hearing, then, the suspect’s bond was denied, and his case was referred to the grand jury.

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A few days later, a second suspect was arrested in connection to Blanchard’s disappearance. And that person went by the name of Antwain “Squirmy” Fisher. Court records later confirmed, you see, that Fisher had been detained on suspicion of aiding Yazeed by disposing of evidence and providing him with transportation.

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The next development in Blanchard’s case came on November 25, when officers located human remains that were believed to have belonged to the teenager. They had found the evidence in woodland off the side of County Road 2 in Shorter, AL. However, the remains would need to undergo testing to confirm if they were indeed those of the missing student.

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Blanchard’s family’s worst fears were then confirmed a couple of days later when police announced that the remains they had located did indeed belong to the missing teen. And as a result, Police Chief Paul Register announced that the case had subsequently become a homicide investigation, with additional charges anticipated for the suspects who were linked to the death.

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The news of Blanchard’s untimely passing no doubt rocked her family – and this included professional UFC fighter Walt Harris. That’s because the mixed martial artist – who is number nine in the UFC heavyweight rankings – was in fact the teenager’s stepfather. Yes, he is married to Blanchard’s mother Angela Haley-Harris, and they cared for four children together, including the unfortunate student.

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When Blanchard first disappeared, Harris also turned to social media to urge his followers to look out for any signs of his step-daughter or her car. He had also shared a series of photos featuring the teenager online and vowed to keep searching for her. In one Instagram post, for instance, the fighter wrote, “I won’t rest until I find you, baby girl! I love you! #FindAniah.”

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And as the search for Blanchard continued, Harris received the continued support of the MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] community. Prominent names in the sport contributed funds towards a reward for any information on the missing teen. This included UFC President, Dana White, who also shared a video to highlight the teen’s disappearance.

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In the clip, White announced, “To help find Aniah, I’m contributing an additional $25,000 to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s $5,000 reward.” Furthermore, UFC light heavyweight champion Joe Jones also put funds into the reward. And MMA fighter Alistair Overeem offered words of support to Harris after he backed out of a bout they were due to have on December 7, 2019.

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Responding to Harris’s decision to bow out of their fight, Overeem empathized with the pain his opponent must have been feeling over Blanchard’s disappearance. He said, “Our thoughts go out to Walt and his family… As a father, I can only imagine how devastating this must be. I would have made the same decision. Family is the most important thing in life.”

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It seemed, too, that the support Harris and his family received in the wake of Blanchard’s disappearance was certainly much appreciated. As the investigation into her vanishing continued, the UFC fighter told ESPN, “I just pray that everybody keeps the hope alive… We’re staying hopeful.” But when the teenager’s remains were eventually located, all hope was lost.

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Following the tragic development in Blanchard’s case, Harris took to Instagram to pay tribute to his step-daughter. In November 2019 he shared a picture of himself and the teenager from years gone by. And alongside the snap, he wrote, “My sweet baby girl… I just wanna thank you for helping me change my life for the better.”

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Harris’s heartfelt post continued, “[Thank you] for teaching me how to be a man and a better father! For being my biggest fan – win, lose, or draw! For always knowing what to say to put a smile on my face and lift me up when I was down and wanted to give up. You light up my world in so many ways.”

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Concluding his tribute to Blanchard, Harris promised to be strong, despite the “unbearable” pain that he was feeling. He explained, “Right now nothing makes sense, and I’m so lost. I just want you back. I hope I made you proud. I’m gonna keep going, daddy just needs time. I love you so much. Look after us like you always did. We need you now more than ever. My lil mighty, mighty tiger is an angel now. I love you, baby girl, forever and ever!”

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By the time the remains were confirmed as being Blanchard’s, police had a total of three suspects in custody. As well as Yazeed and Fisher, police had also arrested David Johnson Jr. in relation to the missing teenager’s case. Johnson was charged with hindering prosecution after he allegedly lied to police about his son David Johnson Jr. III’s links to main suspect, Yazeed. Johnson was subsequently released on a $7,500 bond.

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The horrific discovery also meant that Yazeed’s charges were upgraded to murder, with District Attorney (D.A.) Brandon Hughes revealing that his office would be seeking the death penalty against him. According to Hughes, the Auburn Police Department was alleging that Yazeed kidnapped the teenager from the Chevron store and had subsequently killed her. Indeed, an autopsy had confirmed that she had died as a result of a gunshot wound.

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In a statement obtained by CNN in December 2019, Hughes said, “We have determined that Mr. Yazeed was the lone person responsible in this case for abducting Aniah Blanchard… He is the only person responsible for Aniah’s murder.” The D.A. added that the teen’s murder was a “horrific crime” that had “absolutely shaken [the] community to its core.”

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Hughes explained why he felt that the death penalty was the appropriate punishment if Yazeed was found guilty of murdering Aniah. In December 2019 he told The Auburn Plainsman, “It is my intention that the response to this horrific crime serves as a warning to anyone who believes they want to come to Lee County and engage in violent criminal behavior; you will certainly be dealt with, and the consequences will be severe.”

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It won’t be clear if Yazeed is the person responsible for Blanchard’s murder until he faces trial. In the meantime, however, fellow suspect Fisher had the charges made against him dropped. It was decided that as he was not in the immediate vicinity at the time of the main offense, and, therefore, he could not be described as an accomplice.

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While Yazeed awaits trial, there have been some calls for a change in the rules when it comes to who is eligible for bail in the state of Alabama. The proposed legislation would deny bail to those accused of seven major crimes. The bill, which has been filed by Senator Cam Ward, is a response to Yazeed’s case. He was out on bail at the time of his arrest, in relation to a number of charges, including kidnap.

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Speaking to The Auburn Plainsman in January 2020, Ward explained, “You look at the Aniah Blanchard case, and that guy should have never been out on bail… He just shouldn’t have been.” However, only time will tell if Yazeed is indeed the person responsible for Blanchard’s murder.

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Devastatingly, Aniah Blanchard isn’t the only person to have died in such horrific circumstances. And sometimes, similar cases have been mulled over for decades. You see, while Robert Blake has largely dodged the limelight since the 2001 murder of his wife, the case has recently been brought back under the spotlight.

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When Bonnie Lee Bakley was murdered in cold blood in 2001, she hadn’t long been married to the Baretta star Robert Blake. So, soon after the fatal shooting, Blake was accused of killing his wife to end their so-called loveless marriage. But now the acquitted actor has finally spoken out about the saga.

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Blake entered the world Michael James Gubitosi to parents Elizabeth Cafone and Giacomo Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey, in September 1933. His mother and father were both performers, and soon Blake, too, would follow in their footsteps. Indeed, he first took to the stage in 1936 alongside his two siblings under the name “The Three Little Hillbillies.”

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And in 1938 Blake moved with his family to Los Angeles where the youngster got his first taste of the movies. After starting out as an extra, Blake soon made it in Hollywood – most notably starring as one of The Little Rascals in MGM’s Our Gang short movies.

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At this time, Blake was working under the name Mickey Gubitosi. However, in 1942 he started using the moniker Bobby Blake, which would eventually become Robert Blake. By the time In Our Gang ended in 1944, he had featured in 40 shorts, cementing his status as a child star.

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But out of the spotlight, Blake’s childhood was far from happy. At age 10 he started attending public school but was picked on and got into physical altercations with his fellow students. Furthermore, Blake allegedly had difficulties at home at the hands of his mother and alcoholic father.

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Yes, Blake was reportedly abused by both of his parents during his difficult childhood. And he would later claim that they used to punish him by making him eat his food off of the ground or by shutting him in a closet. The seemingly unhappy situation caused Blake to flee his family home at the age of 14. But this wouldn’t be the end to his woes.

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Blake then joined the U.S. Army in 1950, remaining in service until he was 21. But after finishing his time in the military and finding himself unlikely to get a job, the former child star suffered from depression. During this dark time in his life, too, Blake became addicted to heroin and cocaine, selling drugs to get by.

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However, Blake’s savior came in the form of an acting class ran by the actor Jeff Corey. After signing up, he began to get his life back on track and eventually returned to the silver screen. And throughout his career, Blake took on a number of roles in both TV and film – eventually becoming a decorated actor.

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You see, Blake’s breakout role came in 1967 when he starred as criminal Perry Smith in the Oscar-nominated In Cold Blood.  For many, however, the actor is perhaps most famous for his portrayal of Tony Baretta in the cop TV show Baretta. And this would eventually win him an Emmy.

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That’s right, Baretta ran from 1975 until 1978, following the escapades of an undercover cop who had a series of disguises at his disposal. Some more memorable aspects of the series included Fred, Baretta’s cockatoo, and the character’s catchphrases. These included “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” “You can take that to the bank,” and “That’s the name of that tune.”

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After the show ended, though, Blake sadly never replicated the success that he found on Baretta. However, he regularly appeared on various television shows throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993, for instance, Blake earned a third Emmy nomination for his performance in Judgment Day: The John List Story. In the TV movie, Blake starred as the eponymous killer. But less than a decade later, he would be facing murder charges himself.

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So, let’s take a look at the events leading up to this point in time. Blake met his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, in 1999. And prior to this, Bakley had already been married a total of nine times. It was also alleged that she had a history of taking advantage of rich and famous older men for cash. In fact, during the initial stages of her relationship with Blake, Bakley was supposedly also dating one of actor Marlon Brando’s sons: Christian Brando.

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Unremarkably, while Bakley was seeing both Blake and Brando she suddenly fell pregnant. At first, she informed both of her lovers that they were the father. However, Bakley later insisted that the child was in fact Brando’s and so she subsequently named the baby “Christian Shannon Brando.”

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However, Blake refused to take Bakley’s word for it when it came to the baby’s paternity. As a result, he asked his lover to provide a DNA test for the child. When Bakley agreed, it was later proved that Blake was indeed the father. So in November 2000 the couple married and renamed their infant Rosie.

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Unbelievably, though, just six months into her marriage with Blake, Bakley would be dead. Yes, she was shot on May 4, 2001, as she sat in her husband’s car in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. In the brutal attack, she sustained a fatal bullet wound to the head and was later found by her spouse.

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Prior to the fatal shooting, Blake and Bakley had just eaten dinner at one of the actor’s most-loved restaurants: Vitello’s. And according to defense attorney Allison Shalinsky, the couple had been chatting and laughing during their meal. As such, there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary about their date. So what happened next?

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Following their meal, Blake and Bakley left the restaurant and returned to their car, which was parked nearby. As Bakley entered the vehicle, however, Blake supposedly remembered that he’d left something in the eatery: his handgun. So the actor went to retrieve the weapon that he allegedly carried for protection while leaving his wife alone in the car.

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And it was during his absence that Blake would later claim Bakely was shot. When the actor returned to the car, you see, he apparently found his wife dying from a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Consequently, it seems Blake went to a house in the neighborhood and frantically requested that the homeowner phone 911.

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As you can imagine, then, the circumstances surrounding Bakley’s death were considered somewhat unusual. For she and Blake had been married for less than a year, and the actor had been carrying a gun on the night of his wife’s death. As a result, the star of TV and film soon became a suspect in the fatal shooting.

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To the police, it seemed probable that Blake may have aimed the gun at his wife himself or hired someone else to carry out the killing. However, it was later revealed that the gun Blake had left at the restaurant was not the one that had been used. Yet, of course, the actor still had to protest his innocence.

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And that’s because there was seemingly other evidence that appeared to put Blake in the frame for killing Bakely. Namely, Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton – a retired stuntman – testified that the actor had attempted to hire him as a hitman for the job. Then another stuntman named Gary McLarty gave a similar account, saying Blake had approached him, too. So the situation wasn’t looking great for the actor.

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As a result, police arrested Blake for the first-degree murder of Bakley in April 2002. What’s more, as a celebrity, the actor was placed in solitary confinement for his own safety and that of his fellow inmates. He was subsequently charged with one count of murder with special circumstances in relation to Bakley’s killing.

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Now, if found guilty of this charge, Blake would have been eligible for the death penalty. And to add to that, the actor also faced two solicitations of murder charges and one of conspiracy to murder. Meanwhile, Blake’s bodyguard Earle Caldwell was also charged with conspiracy to murder.

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Both Blake and Caldwell entered not guilty pleas to all of the charges against them. And soon after, the District Attorney’s office revealed that it would not be pursuing the death penalty if Blake was found guilty. Instead, prosecutors were going for a life sentence, with no hope of parole.

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Blake was initially denied bail. However, the actor paid $1 million for his bodyguard Caldwell’s release until trial. And eventually, Blake himself was granted bail at $1.5 million, which he paid after spending almost 12 months in prison. In fact, while in jail, Blake met with Barbara Walters for an infamous television interview watched by 12 million people.

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In the 2003 interview, Walters asked Blake if playing tough men and criminals during his career had perhaps influenced his character. The actor denied that this was the case, saying, “No, the cops invented that person and shoved it down the press’ throat, and the press loved it.”

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Furthermore, when Walters asked Blake if he’d had no involvement in Bakley’s murder, he said, “Of course I’m innocent.” And when the broadcaster pressed the actor on how he felt about the prospect of being found guilty, he said, “What are they going to do to me that they haven’t done already? They took away my entire past. They took away my entire future. What’s left for them to take?”

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In October 2003, however, Blake and Caldwell received some good news at a pre-trial hearing. You see, the judge disregarded the conspiracy charges made against the men. And a month later a prosecutor on the case told CBS that there was a lack of forensic evidence linking Blake to the murder or indeed the gun that killed Bakley.

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What’s more, retired stuntman Hambleton had his testimony called into question during the trial. It turned out that his motives for giving evidence were linked to being potentially subpoenaed by a grand jury himself and facing misdemeanor charges. All in all, then, circumstances were beginning to get a little murky.

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So Blake’s murder trial started in December 2004. The prosecution alleged that the actor had killed his wife to end their seemingly loveless marriage. The defense, on the other hand, called every piece of evidence linking Blake to the crime into question. Instead, they claimed that he’d fallen victim to false and inconclusive information.

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Then in March 2005, Blake was found not guilty of murder and one count of solicitation of murder. But the other count of solicitation was dropped after the jury failed to reach a verdict. As a result, Blake was acquitted of all charges relating to Bakley’s killing. It didn’t end there, though. In November 2005 the actor was found responsible for Bakley’s wrongful death in a civil case and was made to pay damages totaling $30 million to her family.

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Worse still, Blake declared himself bankrupt the following year. This caused him to appeal the civil case verdict, and his damage payments were reduced by half – from $30 million to $15 million. Blake later asked the courts to have his payments reduced once more, but this was denied.

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Following his acquittal, Blake has lived somewhat in the shadows. Though he did write a memoir entitled Tales of a Rascal: What I Did for Love in 2011. The following year, too, the former actor did an interview on the CNN show Piers Morgan Tonight. But Blake seemingly lost the plot when he was questioned over the murder of his ex-wife.

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Yes, the interview with Morgan hit the headlines after Blake’s irate response to the topic of Bakley’s death. In an expletive-laden outburst, Blake accused Morgan of questioning his integrity, telling the interviewer, “Nobody tells me I’m a liar.” Later, Morgan took to Twitter to call his encounter with Blake an “incredible interview.”

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But while Blake initially appeared reluctant to address Bakley’s murder in interviews, in 2019 he unexpectedly began to open up. Yes, while appearing on a special two-hour episode of ABC’s 20/20 he revealed why he’s not acted since before or after his ex-wife’s death, simply saying, “Cause I’m half dead.”

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Nevertheless, Blake was still refusing to let the allegations regarding Bakley’s murder get to him. And he had a message for the cops who had locked him up almost 15 years ago. Yes, Blake told 20/20, “I’m still here, you b*stards. I didn’t die in that box, you got it?… I’m 85 years old, I’m beat up all to hell and gone, but I’m still here!”

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And ultimately, despite everything that had happened in his life, it seemed as though Blake was able to see the bright side. He explained, “If you live to be a thousand, you’ll never meet anybody with more miracles in their life than me.” However, what exactly he meant by that remains unknown.

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Blake’s 20/20 interview was aired three years after an investigator who worked on the actor’s defense team made his own revelation. That’s right, in 2016 Scott Ross told NBC News, “I do not believe for one second that he pulled the trigger… But yes, I do believe that he was involved.”

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So the murder of Bakley remains unsolved. And while there are many who’d like to get to the bottom of the crime, Blake’s alleged involvement remains too painful for some to consider. For you see, in October 2019 Blake and Bakley’s daughter, Rose Lenore Blake, spoke out after reconnecting with her dad. In fact, she hadn’t seen him for almost 15 years.

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And while Rose would like to know the truth about her mom’s murder, she can’t yet hear Blake’s side of the story. She told Good Morning America, “I specifically asked him not to tell me. I don’t want to know. Not right now, I don’t think I am ready.”

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