Police say the murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen was "a robbery gone wrong" after evidence showed the gun used in the killing matched the gun that suspect Harold Smith used to commit suicide last week. As The Daily Beast’s Annie Bardach reported in an exclusive story earlier this week, the crime is increasingly looking like a random act of violence, not the work of a professional hit man as many media reports had suggested.
The Ronni Chasen murder mystery took another stunning turn Wednesday when police announced that the gun used to shoot the Hollywood publicist was the same weapon that Harold Smith, the " person of interest" in the case, had used to kill himself with last week.
A hastily arranged press conference held outside the Beverly Hills Police Department provided the most substantive picture yet of what happened on the night of Nov. 16, on a dark corner of Sunset Boulevard, as Chasen waited to make a left turn toward home.
"This was a random act of violence," said Beverly Hills Sgt. Michael Publicker. "With Mr. Smith's background, we believe it was most likely a robbery gone bad." (Smith had been convicted for robbery.)
According to police, Smith likely shot Chasen while riding a bicycle. (The Daily Beast reported that, according to neighbors, Smith owned a beach cruiser.) And contrary to widespread speculation that Chasen was the target of a planned attack by a hitman, Publicker said that the murder was more likely a "desperate" act.
Reports based on a leaked coroner's report, suggesting that Chasen's killer might have been an expert shooter based on the pattern of bullet holes in her chest, were dismissed as inaccurate. However, Publicker also said that the case is only "60 to 70 percent done" and that there is "still investigating to do."
Ever since Chasen was gunned down last month in her black Mercedes-Benz while driving home following the afterparty of a movie premiere, L.A. has been riveted by the story—one that combined the classic Hollywood ingredients of fame, money, and mystery. With little concrete information available, however, people soon began to develop wildly different scenarios, cooking up conspiracy theories and transforming the Chasen murder into a morbid parlor game.
When Smith, a 43-year-old African-American man, killed himself last week as police were approaching him in the rundown apartment complex in East Hollywood where he had lived, two camps soon emerged: those who believed in Smith's innocence, and those who believed that the police had shot Chasen's killer. Interviews with neighbors and court records painted a portrait of an unstable man, who veered from kindness to paranoia, someone who didn't own a car, was often broke, and occasionally found himself in trouble with the law.
Robin Lyle, a neighbor of Smith's at the East Hollywood Harvey Apartments, an apartment complex riddled with violence and drugs, was incredulous when reached by phone on Wednesday. "Holy moly! The ballistics did match? That's a big surprise," she said. "I'm freaked out because I shook the hand of a killer."
And friends of Chasen's were equally surprised; confused by how Smith had managed to pull the murder off, if he indeed was the killer.
“I’m freaked out because I shook the hand of a killer.”
"Now they're telling us that some guy, who could barely shuffle, was on a bike on Sunset in the middle of the night, with a gun, and that he stopped his bike and was so clever—I mean, you'd have to be a kind of triathlon athlete to do that," said one friend who wished to remain anonymous. "I find it very hard to think of it as an open and shut case," this person continued. "It's an easy way of putting a very uneasy situation to bed, and that's all."
But Beverly Hills Police Chief David L. Snowden was openly disdainful about some of the theories connected to the Chasen case. Referring to previous reports that the gun Smith had used to kill himself with didn't match up with the weapon that killed Chasen, Snowden said it was the result of "quasi experts" who "go on the radio and TV and don't know what the heck they're talking about. They draw conclusions based upon erroneous information. It was wrong."
Reporters at the press conference seemed equally frustrated by the wild turns the Chasen case has taken. Before the conference began, one reporter was overheard saying, "I'm just going to have to dust off everything I said last week in interviews." Another complained of getting "whiplash" from the story.
"I think, in a 24/7 news environment, there's always a demand for new information," said Steve Katz, co-executive producer of Fox's America's Most Wanted, which received the tip that led police to Smith. "This is especially true in the entertainment business, where everyone's got their sources, everyone's going to tell them something, a lot of people are saying a lot of things.
"I can understand, from a reporter's point of view, the pressure to get a story, and the incentive to go with something that's not 100 percent sourced," he said. With "all the spotlight on this case, every little thing got magnified a lot."
Claire Martin contributed to this report
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.