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.

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