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11.17.10

Hollywood Murder Stumps Detectives

Two days after celebrity publicist Ronni Chasen was gunned down in Beverly Hills, a source reveals that her killing may have been planned. Christine Pelisek on Chasen's last hours—and possible motives for her murder.

Two days after celebrity publicist Ronni Chasen was gunned down in Beverly Hills, a source reveals that her killing may have been planned. Christine Pelisek on Chasen's last hours.

The Beverly Hills Police Department is dedicating almost half its team of detectives to investigate the shooting death of veteran celebrity publicist Ronni Chasen, who was gunned down on a quiet tree-lined street in Beverly Hills early Tuesday morning. According to sources close to the investigation, eight of the city’s 19 detectives are working on the bizarre case.

Chasen was fatally shot as she was driving home to Westwood from an afterparty for the premiere of the Cher movie Burlesque at the W Hotel in Hollywood. She attended the party with her songwriter client Diane Warren and hobnobbed with her usual pals, celebrities and agents.

Friends said Chasen left the party shortly after midnight. She traveled down Sunset Boulevard before making a left on North Whittier Drive, a quiet street with million-dollar mansions. A few minutes later, shots rang out into the night. Chasen was found slumped over the steering wheel of her Mercedes coupe, suffering from gunshot wounds. Her car had collided with a light post. Her passenger side window was shattered. Paramedics took her to Cedars Sinai Hospital, where she died of her injuries about an hour later.

Two days later, Chasen’s death is still a mystery. Detectives have no motive or clue why anyone would want to kill Chasen, who worked in Hollywood for more than 40 years. “No one would be angry with Ronni,” said Caroline Graham, Chasen’s longtime friend. “Her clients adored her.”

But police are keeping their options open. Questions remain. Was the 64-year-old agent killed in an act of road rage? Was she followed from the W Hotel? Was she targeted, as some bloggers have suggested? Was she robbed?

“We haven’t ruled out anything,” said Beverly Hills Police Department Sgt. Lincoln Hoshino. “It is a wide-open investigation. We just don’t know. It is a big whodunit.”

“We have no suspect or no leads in this case at this point,” he said. “We don’t know if the window was shot out or broken as a result of the accident.”

“It is a wide-open investigation. We just don’t know. It is a big whodunit,” said Beverly Hills Police Department Sgt. Lincoln Hoshino.

Chasen, a fast-talking New Yorker with a quick wit, represented a number of A-list stars and filmmakers, including the late Natalie Wood and Jaws producer Richard Zanuck. She began her career in 1973, worked at Rogers & Cowan, and ran publicity at MGM before she formed her own company, Chasen & Co. Over the years, she worked on the marketing campaigns for Lolita, the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

Hoshino said detectives now believe that Chasen—who called her assistant and left a message about six minutes before the shooting—was hit before her car collided with the light post. However, detectives are hampered by a lack of eyewitnesses. “There are no witnesses that we are aware of,” he said.

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But there is a lot of speculation. “Whittier Drive is a pass-through street,” said Beverly Hills attorney Gina Hope, who lives nearby. “This is one of the safest streets. I don’t think it was road rage. This street is dead after 6. There is nobody around late at night. It seems to me it is pretty much, ‘I want you dead.’”

In a bid to help out the police department, friends and colleagues of Chasen are banding together. On Wednesday, the Palm Springs International Award Gala and Film Festival offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Chasen’s death.

Detectives were seen Wednesday canvassing the Whittier Drive neighborhood seeking video surveillance footage from residents, while others were looking for clues at the W Hotel and at Chasen’s high-rise condominium on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, about a five-minute drive from where she was shot.

On Wednesday, a makeshift memorial on Whittier Drive marked the spot where Chasen’s car jumped a curb and slammed into the light post. A copy of the Los Angeles Times, a white candle, and bouquets of flowers lay next to the memorial. Shattered pieces of glass and yellow police tape surrounded the spot.

Creepily, the location has already turned into a macabre tourist attraction, with tour buses regularly stopping by.

Chasen’s death was the third homicide this year in Beverly Hills. In May, Diane Newlander, 73, was found shot to death in her home in an apparent murder suicide. Her 69-year-old husband’s body was also found in the house. No motive was determined. On July 20, Katsutoshi “Tony” Takazato, the son of well-known Japanese film producer Fuminori Hayashida, was stabbed to death in a love triangle gone awry. His body was discovered about 6 a.m. at the front of his father’s Trousdale Estates home. Charged with the murder were his former girlfriend and her boyfriend.

“It is such a rare occurrence,” said Hoshino about Chasen’s death. “We don’t have drive-by shootings in Beverly Hills.”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.