Hollywood gripped by real whodunnit

Forensic evidence is slim to non-existent. They have few credible witnesses or obvious lines of inquiry. And, as if to add insult to injury, detectives investigating the high-profile murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen last week managed, quite by accident, to prompt their only potential suspect to kill himself.

The chilling development in a mystery which already had the entertainment community transfixed occurred late on Wednesday when an ex-con called Harold Smith shot himself in the head as officers arrived to interview him as a "person of interest" in the two-week-old case. He died immediately. Smith at first seemed like the perfect suspect for an attack that bore many hallmarks of a professional job. A career criminal who suffered from money troubles, he had in the run-up to his death informed neighbours that he'd been paid $10,000 to "take out" the publicist.

Yet as a clearer profile of the dead man emerged yesterday, he looked less like the calculating killer of Chasen, and more like a petty crook who suffered from a slew of mental health problems and got kicks from telling casual acquaintances that he was responsible for well-known crimes. Police were originally given Smith's name as a potential suspect via an anonymous tip-off from a viewer after the TV show America's Most Wanted featured Chasen, who was killed as she returned from a party at the W Hotel for the film Burlesque, starring Cher and Cristina Aguilera, on 16 November.

Her killer is believed to have been in a motor vehicle, viewers were told. But it yesterday emerged that Smith cannot drive, so travelled largely by a bike, which was taken away by police for forensic examination. Leaked coroners reports raised speculation that Chasen was killed by a seasoned pro, due to both the tight shot pattern and fact that a bullet recovered from her body was hollow-nosed - a type often used by experienced hit-men. But what sort of professional assassin, cynics ask, would tell casual acquaintances of their chosen profession?

As to why Smith might have killed himself when police arrived at the $600-a-month Harold Appartments, where he lived, neighbours say the convicted robber was terrified of the police, since any fresh conviction, however minor, would have seen him jailed for life under California's controversial "three strikes" law.

"He was like a loose screw; a loose cannon waiting to blow," said Terri Gilpin, who lived in the next flat. Her husband, Brandon, added: "He told me several times, ‘If it ever came back to me going to prison, I would die first'."

Police, for their part, have now admitted that it is "unknown if [Smith] was involved in the Chasen homicide". That effectively puts them back to square one: trying to work out whether Chasen fell victim to a random road-rage attack, or was indeed the subject of a contract killing carried out by a different perpetrator.

Speak to anyone who knew Chasen, which is most of Hollywood - her funeral was attended by 1,000 guests, including several famous actors, composers, and studio bosses - and you'll most likely find the "road rage" explanation touted as the most likely. "She was a lovely person, but could also be slightly brash, so maybe she provoked someone," says Caroline Graham, a longstanding friend in the PR business. "Plus, she was never a great driver; in fact, we used to joke about that."

Chasen's brother, screenwriter Larry Cohen this week used an interview with the website Showbiz411 to say "I'm sure it was road rage... some kind of random thing." He denied rumours that her death may be linked to a $500,000 gambling debt he'd run up. "I don't play poker. I don't gamble."

The publicist's finances were meanwhile in perfect shape. Executors of a will published earlier this week put Chasen's net worth at over $6m. The lion's share of that money will now be shared among charities and one of her nieces, Melissa Cohen. In a section of that will that perhaps lays bare her steely side, Chasen notes that Melissa's sister, Jill, is to be effectively cut off from an inheritance. "I have intentionally and with full knowledge of the consequences omitted to provide for my niece, Jill Cohen, also known as Jill Gatsby, except for the gift of $10," it reads.

A publicist of the old school, who was on first name terms with the small but important community of voters who decide the outcome of movie awards, Chasen specialised in helping add gloss to Oscar season campaigns. For the coming months, she was contracted to work promoting at least eight fancied films, including Danny Boyle's 127 Hours and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, a prospect which by all accounts filled her with excitement.

Martha Smilgis, one of the co-executors of her will, denied that she had expressed any fear or concern in recent conversations. "Believe me," she said, "this woman expected to live on and on." The murder-mystery, in other words, continues.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?