12.03.10

The Chasen Murder's Mystery Man

The murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen has confounded police who now face another mystery: Who was Harold Smith, the man who killed himself after police connected him to the crime?

Last Saturday, Harold Martin Smith knocked on the door of his neighbor Robin Lyle's apartment to say goodbye. Smith, a friendly, if troubled man who blinked a lot and walked with a shuffle, had been evicted from his shoe-box-size apartment in the seedy Harvey Apartments complex in East Hollywood, and wanted to bid his friend farewell.

"I just wanted to say goodbye. It was good being your neighbor," Lyle recalled Smith saying.

Smith then said "God bless you" and told Lyle that he was going to leave the city and "go up north somewhere."

He never got the chance.

On Wednesday, Smith, who has now been identified as a 43-year-old African-American career criminal who served time in prison for robbery, took his life when he saw police show up at his home to question him in connection with the murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen.

Immediately, Smith, who the Los Angeles Police Department calls a "person of interest" in the Chasen case, became a media sensation—of far greater interest in death, unfortunately, than in life.

Despite all the scrutiny—being fueled by the fact that there is so little other information at this point—it is looking increasingly less likely that Smith had anything to do with the murder of Chasen, a popular publicist who was shot to death on Nov. 16, while driving home to her Westwood apartment after a movie premiere. Two former law enforcement sources with ties to the investigation told The Daily Beast on Saturday that the gun used in Smith's suicide doesn't match the one used to kill Chasen.

Despite reports, such as one on Thursday by DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com that Smith was a "Hollywood hitman" who had been hired to kill Chasen over "a business deal gone bad," a source close to the investigation told The Daily Beast's Christine Pelisek that the LAPD believed that the reason Smith killed himself was because he thought the police were confronting him about a rash of burglaries in the nearby area that he is suspected of committing. ( TMZ.com also reported this.) And on Friday, the LAPD released a press release saying: "At this time, it is unknown if [Smith] was involved in the Chasen homicide."

( The Los Angeles Times reported that the police were investigating Smith, based on a tip from an America's Most Wanted viewer.)

So if Smith isn't a cold-blooded killer, but indeed just a "person of interest," albeit one with a sketchy past, who exactly is he?

The portrait that comes together based on reports of Smith's criminal past, and nearly half a dozen conversations with Smith's neighbors and crime experts, conducted by The Daily Beast's Claire Martin, suggest a criminal who was desperate and possibly unstable, but who did not seem like someone who would be involved with a murder that was carried off with such extreme precision. According to the leaked coroner's report, 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.

Most of Smith's past crimes—beginning in 1985 in New York City—were robberies, but according to court documents, he has never harmed or killed anyone. The Associated Press reported that one of the victims of Smith's more recent robberies in Los Angeles testified that he grabbed her in a bear hug and demanded her purse, but when she screamed and struggled, he fled, taking only her portable music player.

“I just wanted to say goodbye. It was good being your neighbor,” Lyle recalled Smith saying.

Lyle, a 44-year-old African-American man who works at a Cadillac dealership in Brentwood and visited with Smith every day in Lyle's apartment, described Smith as "a mellow guy… always pleasant. He said he'd been in jail a couple times, but he didn't say what for."

Smith didn't appear to do drugs—a not uncommon pastime at the Harvey Apartments, which one resident described as a place where "there's always either a fight, a drug deal, or prostitution going on"—though according to Lyle, he "would always get a (Steel Reserve) 211 beer, a tall can every day."

"He'd say, 'I'm going to get a beer, you need anything?'"

But another source said that Smith would sometimes hang out in front of a strip joint down the street, mumbling to himself.

Smith didn't have a job or any other visible means of income and "would go around asking people if he could have something to eat, or toilet paper, or batteries," said one neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous.

He was behind on rent, this person said, and always talking about an incoming windfall.

Another neighbor, Terri Gilpin—who has become something of a media gadfly over the past few days—said that she overheard Smith telling her husband that he was expecting a $10,000 payday for the killing of Chasen.

No other neighbors corroborated this or said they had ever heard Smith mention Chasen. And multiple residents described Gilpin as an unreliable source.

Lyle said that the only time Smith spoke about money, it was related to a lawsuit, which Lyle believed had to do with wrongful termination. Smith told Lyle that when he received the settlement from the suit, it was far less money than he'd expected.

Some neighbors said that Smith's biggest fear was going back to jail. According to the Associated Press, Smith served 11 years in state prison for a 1998 robbery in Beverly Hills. He was released in 2007. Because he was a two-strike offender, a third felony could have sent Smith to jail for life under California law.

"He was scared to go back," said the neighbor who wished to remain anonymous.

This may have been why Smith would "get agitated," the source said, "and say, 'Have the cops been here? Have the cops been here?'"

Smith wasn't beloved by all. One man who lived nearby, who said his name was Sammy, and who had long, stringy blond hair and wore a black cap with a flame logo on the front, said, "The guy was nutty. I never had good vibes. He would stand outside the bar for hours. I got bad vibes."

Still, Sammy adamantly said that Smith "is not connected to the publicist. There's no way possible."

The most convincing argument against Smith's association with Chasen's death is the murder itself. As Jason DeWitt, a private investigator in San Francisco who works on Hollywood cases, told The Daily Beast: "My impression is that [Smith] is like a homeless, halfway-house kind of loser guy. Just out of prison. It would be a weird situation for him to be wandering around that specific area, and that specific neighborhood, and pull off what happened. It just seems a little bit implausible.

"The thing that bothers me most about the case is that, if the reports of the coroner's reports are correct, the patterns of the shots fired would indicate to me someone very proficient with firearms. If it was just some crazy guy or road rage, you're generally going to have bullets all over the place."

Even if Gilpin's claim—that Smith openly said he was involved in Chasen's killing—is true, there could be a deeper psychological reason for such a statement, other than for confessional purposes.

"People occasionally brag, posture, or confess to things that they have nothing to do with or know nothing about," Dr. Ron Martinelli, a forensic criminologist who does criminal profiling and was trained by the FBI, told The Daily Beast. "And if you're in Hollywood, and take the mixture of instantaneous Hollywood fame, because of TMZ and the tabloids, a person bragging about a high-profile crime will get a tremendous amount of media attention."

The fact that Smith may have been paranoid, and perhaps mentally unstable, gives further evidence to this theory.

"If we have a person who has mental problems or is somehow disturbed, he's someone who might make a false brag or confession because he's seeking attention and even negative attention is good to some people, because it's attention nonetheless," Martinelli said.

Christine Pelisek 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.

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