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.

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home