Suspect in Hollywood murder shoots himself in front of police

Misfit told neighbour he gunned down publicist Ronni Chasen, but crime still a mystery

A man described as a "person of interest" in the killing of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen has committed suicide in front of police officers attempting to serve a search warrant on his property, adding a further dramatic twist to a murder mystery which is transfixing the entertainment community.

Detectives who had spent several days quietly seeking the individual, identified only as "Harold", watched him calmly remove a pistol from his pocket and shoot himself in the head when they tracked him down at a Los Angeles apartment complex shortly after 6pm on Wednesday.

They told reporters that officers with a search warrant approached the man in the lobby of the Harvey Apartments, a cheap residential building in central Hollywood, and ordered him to raise his hands. The man refused and, after a brief stand-off, shot himself in the head. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

It was unclear whether detectives believe "Harold" fired the gun which killed 64-year-old Chasen during a late night "drive-by" attack in Beverly Hills, or whether they were merely investigating him as a potential accomplice. His official status was "person of interest", which doesn't necessarily mean that he was suspected of any crime.

Neighbours in the building, on an unlovely stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, described the middle-aged man as an unstable individual who had been evicted from his rented home on previous occasions and had served two stints in state prison, most recently for drugs and firearm possession.

One resident, Terri Gilpin, told reporters that "Harold" had recently approached her and confessed to the Chasen killing. "He said something about some publicist, a famous lady. He said 'oh yeah, I offed her!' and that he was going to get paid some money. He was bragging about it. I walked away down the hall. He talked crazy stuff. He always kept bragging about having a gun."

Another neighbour, Brandon Harrison, told the Los Angeles Times that "Harold" recently claimed to be about to receive a windfall of $10,000 from an undisclosed source. He also seemed preoccupied about the prospect of ever having to return to prison. "He told me several times, 'if it ever came back down to me going to prison, I would die first'," recalled Mr Harrison.

So, was "Harold" the clinical hitman behind an unlikely murder which has shocked Hollywood? Or was he merely a psychologically wobbly ex-con with a suicidal streak, who decided to inform casual acquaintances that he was responsible for an unsolved crime which has dominated news for a fortnight?

The police would of course prefer the former explanation to be true, since it never looks good when officers trying to make a peaceful arrest end up with a corpse on their hands. But if "Harold" is indeed the killer, then a slew of unanswered questions would still surround his role in Chasen's death.

A veteran publicist who specialised in the sort of behind-the-scenes schmoozing that helps build momentum for films and artists during Oscar season, Chasen made her name in the 1980s, when she was behind the successful Best Picture campaign for Driving Miss Daisy. She had since masterminded a slew of awards campaigns, most recently on behalf of Jeff Bridges, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor this year for his film Crazy Heart.

She was widely known and (on the face of things) almost universally liked in Hollywood, particularly by composers, whose role in film-making she had consistently championed. Her funeral was attended by more than 1,000 friends and clients, including the actors Michael Douglas and Elliott Gould, and the musician Hans Zimmer.

Chasen's untimely death came as she drove home from the after-party for the premiere of the film Burlesque, starring Christina Aguilera and Cher, and shocked almost everyone who knew her. A coroner's report said that between three and seven bullets, some of them hollow-nosed (a variety often used by professional hitmen) were fired into her Mercedes as it waited at traffic lights on Sunset Boulevard.

Three gunshot wounds were found in Chasen's right chest, and two in her upper left shoulder. There was also damage to her right and left upper back, though some of those wounds may be exit holes. The close pattern of the shots suggests that her assassin was a relatively experienced shot, experts say.

In the immediate aftermath of Chasen's death, it was widely speculated that she had been the victim of mistaken identity. However it later emerged that she had recently told friends of being followed by a mysterious stranger. Some reports have suggested links to the drug trade.

With the death of "Harold", who at the very least may have been an important interviewee, police have even less to go on. However, it last night emerged that detectives are examining CCTV tapes from the home opposite the crime scene, which belongs to Sherry Hackett, widow of comedian Buddy Hackett.

A history of Show business murders

George Reeves

In June 1959, news broke that Superman star George Reeves had been found shot dead in his Los Angeles home. A coroner's report returned a verdict of suicide, but in 2006 a big-budget film called Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck, suggested that Reeves' death could have been a contract killing ordered by a jilted lover's husband.

Sharon Tate

In 1969, the wife of film director Roman Polanski was found stabbed to death in their Beverly Hills home. Members of the serial killer Charles Manson's "Family" (a cult-like commune led by Manson) were later charged with the actress's murder. She was more than eight months' pregnant when she died.

Tupac '2Pac' Shakur

In 1996, one of the world's most famous rappers was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Numerous conspiracy theories emerged surrounding the killer's identity but the most fervent accusations were aimed at rival rapper Notorious B.I.G, who denied the claims. He was shot dead a year later. No one was ever charged with the murder.

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