Hollywood Mystery

Seven years after Ronni Chasen's murder, despite the suicide of a suspect and a closed case for the Beverly Hills Police Department, the crime remains shrouded in mystery.

Ronni Chasen with director Danny Boyle.
Ronni Chasen with director Danny Boyle.

Ronni Chasen had driven home from Hollywood film premieres late at night dozens of times. The high-powered publicist enthusiastically pushed her big studio clients on Oscar voters for years — and she was great at it. Producers of movies such as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Hurt Locker” counted on Chasen’s aggressive confidence and impressive Rolodex to score those coveted gold statuettes.

But unlike all those other apres-premiere trips, when Chasen drove through Beverly Hills around midnight following a November 16, 2010, premiere for the Cher film “Burlesque,” she never made it home.

As she made a left turn at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Whittier Drive, Chasen was shot to death. Seven years later, despite the suicide of a suspect and a closed case for the Beverly Hills Police Department, the crime remains shrouded in mystery.

The 64-year-old was found at about 12:30 a.m. in her black 2010 Mercedes-Benz E350, a quarter of a mile from the scene of the shooting. She was suffering from four gunshot wounds and was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Chasen’s car after she was shot on Sunset Boulevard.
Chasen’s car after she was shot on Sunset Boulevard.

Chasen appeared to have no enemies — certainly no one who’d seem to want to kill her — and police struggled to find a motive for the murder. Four days later, Chasen’s story appeared on TV’s “America’s Most Wanted.” One viewer, a musician named Laramie Beckay, called the show’s tip line and suggested that his neighbor, 43-year-old Harold Martin Smith, might’ve killed the publicist.

When police went to question Smith a few days later, he shot himself directly in front of the officers. Ballistics tests indicated that the gun Smith used to kill himself could be the same weapon used in Chasen’s murder. Their investigation led Beverly Hills police to believe that Smith shot Chasen in a robbery gone wrong and fled the scene on a bicycle.

Case closed, right? Maybe not. While those ballistic tests say that Smith’s gun could have been used in the Chasen murder, some experts claim it’s not a certainty. And why would Smith have been riding a bike around Beverly Hills after midnight anyway? No evidence places him at the scene or offers any motive, other than that Smith was poor and Chasen clearly wasn’t. Could Smith have been hired by someone to kill Chasen and, if so, by whom and why?

Suspect Harold Martin Smith.
Suspect Harold Martin Smith.

The Beverly Hills Police Department doesn’t have much experience with homicides. There were only five murders in town in the five years before Chasen was killed, and four of them were solved. The Chasen case was a challenge for the relatively untested department. Perhaps Smith’s suicide provided an all-too-easy opportunity to close the books on a high-profile murder.

Even if we accept the Beverly Hills cops’ conclusion that Smith killed Chasen, it’s a pretty strange and violent convergence of two perfect strangers living in somewhat close proximity, but dramatically different worlds. One was a blonde Hollywood publicist in a luxury car, her Prada purse resting on the leather seat beside her. The other was an African-American ex-convict on a bike who shared food stamps with the neighbor who eventually turned him in. Both wound up dead, and neither one got a Hollywood ending.

Want more mystery? Check out Misled Zeppelin, the bizarre unsolved case of a WWII blimp and its missing pilots.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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