12.02.10

Is Chasen's Killer Still Out There?

Murdered Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen and the man who killed himself lived in separate worlds that are now linked. But the real killer may be on the loose.

Their worlds could not be further apart: She lived in a quiet, leafy and affluent corner of Westwood; he appeared to have been squatting in a transient building, in a seedy, rundown neighborhood on the east side of town.

How—if at all—their deaths were connected is the question that occupies people in Los Angeles in the wake of the man's suicide Wednesday night.

Described as a "person of interest" in the killing of Ronni Chasen—the Hollywood publicist who was mysteriously gunned down in her car last month—the man known by his neighbors as "Harold" remains an enigma more than a day after he turned his gun on himself in the lobby of the Harvey Apartments on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Residents alternately described Harold as quiet and somewhat paranoid. "He seemed like a troubled soul but was always nice, always shook my hand and gave me a half hug," said Robin Lyle, whose apartment is a few feet from Room 329, where Harold lived. Lyle, whom Harold visited every day on his way to the store to pick up beer, said he believed Harold's last name was Smith.

"He was calm but every once in a while would get agitated and say, 'Have the cops been here, have the cops been here?'" said another neighbor, who did not want to be named. This neighbor also claimed that shortly after the Chasen shooting Harold said to him, "I messed up."

Theories circulating in the media about the murder still conflict wildly. While Deadline Hollywood reported Thursday that Smith was a hit man hired to kill Chasen because of a business deal-gone-bad, citing the Hollywood Reporter, others questioned whether Harold, a black man in his early 40s who rode a beach cruiser and suffered a stutter, had any connection to Chasen's death at all.

Few of his neighbors thought he was capable of this kind of crime. Some of them even laughed at the idea that he was a professional hit man. "He must have been a broke professional hit man," said one resident who didn't want to share his name. "He's not connected to the publicist; there's no way it's possible," a local business owner named Sammy, who says he saw Harold's body lying in the lobby of the Harvey on Wednesday night, told The Daily Beast.

Private investigator and former police officer John J. Nazarian (who isn't connected to the investigation), came to get a look at the suicide scene on Thursday and told The Daily Beast he didn't think Harold was involved in Chasen's murder. "I personally don't believe he had anything to do with this case," said Nazarian, adding he'd taken an interest in the case because he was an acquaintance of Chasen. Harold, he said, simply did not fit the profile of the killer that has emerged from a leaked coroner's report. According to that document, Chasen's killer fired at least five shots into her car, with three bullets hitting her chest area, indicating a shooter with a very steady hand. At least one of the bullets was a hollow-point bullet.

"Normally they turn the gun sideways and this is something that was done with some skill," Gill Carillo, a former homicide detective who worked in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, told ABCNews.com earlier in the week after the coroner's report emerged. "I carried a gun for 38 years and had to fire it quarterly. I don't think that I could shoot and hit that mass like that."

“He was calm but every once in a while would get agitated and say, ‘Have the cops been here, have the cops been here?’”

After the suicide, both the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills police spokesmen were careful not to call Harold a "suspect" when speaking to the press. Tony Lee, of the Beverly Hills Police Department, described him as a "person of interest" and, when he slipped up and said "suspect" during a press conference Wednesday, quickly corrected himself.

On Thursday, when The Daily Beast's Christine Pelisek reached the Beverly Hills Police Chief, David Snowden to ask whether Harold was a suspect, he replied by email: "Nope, still just a person of interest we wanted to speak with."

The Los Angeles coroner told The Daily Beast that Harold has been identified, and they are waiting to notify his next of kin before releasing his full name.

Neighbors told The Daily Beast that Harold had lived in the building—described by one resident as a place where "there's always either a fight, a drug deal, or prostitution going on"—for three or four months before being evicted for nonpayment of rent.

As officers got ready to serve a search warrant on Harold early Wednesday evening, he turned his gun on himself inside the lobby of the Harvey Apartments, and pulled the trigger, police said. "There was blood all over the floor and it looked like brain matter," said Terri Gilpin, a neighbor, describing the scene.

By daybreak on Thursday morning, a janitor was sweeping the gray linoleum floor with a mop, erasing the last traces of what had taken place the night before. In the hallways upstairs, people congregated to talk about the suicide—not the only blood to be spilled at the Harvey recently, they said. According to the residents, someone's throat had been slit on the second floor, and a woman had jumped from the third floor in an apparent suicide attempt. Two of them explained that they lived at the Harvey because it was all their disability payments would cover.

To these residents, it was no secret that Harold had served time in prison. "He was a two-striker," an anonymous neighbor said. (A Los Angeles city official confirmed to The Daily Beast that the man had a prior arrest but declined to say for what, or whether he had actually served time in prison.)

The twin mysteries of her murder and his connection to Chasen (if any) has riveted Los Angeles across boundaries, both geographic segregation and class divides, from the squalid Hollywood neighborhood, where Harold took his own life in a rundown lobby, to the polished Beverly Hills corner where Chasen was gunned down on Nov. 16 in her Mercedes Coupe.

Indeed, the news of the suicide—and Harold's possible connection to the murder—brought the chatter back with a roar. In seedy hallways and at glamorous junkets all across the city, talking about the publicist's lurid death has become something of a parlor game, with everyone comparing theories and motives for the murder, instead of obsessing over food stamps or weekend box-office grosses.

Chasen, a well-known Hollywood publicist, represented a number of A-list stars and filmmakers, including the late Natalie Wood and Jaws producer Richard Zanuck. She was gunned down after attending the premiere of the Cher movie, Burlesque, and found slumped over the wheel of her car, which had crashed into a telephone pole.

That there is so little actual information out there has only fueled the feverish game of speculation. Was it a random act of road rage, as the website TMZ speculated at one point on Thursday? Or was it a coldly planned execution? Was it a Russian mob hit? Did it involve drugs? How about family debt? Or was it, as Deadline Hollywood suggested, a business-deal-gone awry?

Add to that the other questions—those pertaining to her wealth and art. Was there a boyfriend? And whom had she left her belongings to?

TMZ.com obtained a copy of an old Chasen will from 1994, revealing she left her seemingly substantial assets to a number of charitable organizations and family members. (Though it's unclear how accurate this document is, 16 years later, especially given that TMZ reported that a more recent will was prepared four years ago, and has still to be located.)

According to the 1994 will, Chasen's mother was to be her biggest beneficiary, getting three-quarters of Chasen's $6.1 million Beverly Hills estate. Because Chasen's mom has since died, her niece, Melissa Cohen, would now be a major inheritor, according to the 1994 will.

In that document, Chasen explicitly snubbed her niece Jill Gatsby, whom she "intentionally and with full knowledge of the consequences" left $10. When The Daily Beast reached Gatsby by telephone on Thursday, she laughed at the notion that her aunt had left her such a paltry sum. "Whatever—Ronni was a funny person," she said, and, when asked to elaborate, laughed even harder. "Ronni would hate it if I was talking to the press!" she said. And then she hung up.

Christine Pelisek and Nicole LaPorte contributed to this report

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Kate Aurthur is the West Coast Editor of The Daily Beast

A former editor of Men's Journal, Claire Martin has written for Outside, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times magazine.