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12.05.10

New Clue in Chasen Murder

Just days before publicist Ronni Chasen was gunned down in L.A., another woman driving alone in the same neighborhood was threatened by a gunman under eerily similar circumstances. Ann Louise Bardach on the terrifying L.A. crime spree no one is talking about.

Just days before publicist Ronni Chasen was gunned down in Los Angeles, another woman driving in the same neighborhood was threatened by a gunman under eerily similar circumstances, according to an exclusive email obtained by The Daily Beast’s Ann Louise Bardach. Plus new details on Chasen’s personal life, her will, and other crimes that may be connected to her death, including:

• An exclusive email obtained by The Daily Beast reports that a woman driving in the same neighborhood a week earlier was threatened through her window by a gunman under similar circumstances.
• Just 10 days after Chasen’s killing, an L.A. man barely survived a near identical murder attempt, shot multiple times through the passenger side of his car at 12:50 a.m., virtually the same hour as Chasen’s murder.
• Despite hope that Chasen had a new will in her safe deposit box that might shed light on her killing, her brother, along with the police, found no new will.
• Experts say the killer did not have to be an expert marksman or professional hit man, contrary to reports.
• More details on her personal life, including being the lover of PR impresario Warren Cowan and even dating Larry King.
• Chasen was unconcerned about her safety and was looking toward the future—including plans for plastic surgery.

The end for Ronni Chasen had the requisite elements of Hollywood film noir: a hail of bullets, a tony Beverly Hills address, a swell car, an unsuspecting blonde, and a storyline that made no sense.

A half-hour after leaving the premiere party for Burlesque just past midnight on November 16, the veteran publicist was dead.

On Whittier Drive, just south of Sunset Boulevard, Chasen’s newly leased black Mercedes E350 struck a lamppost with such force that the concrete pole was hurled to the ground. In seconds, Chasen’s luxe-loaded coupe enfolded her like a black metal shroud. Her shoulder-length blond hair, expertly coiffed and weave-dyed every few weeks, flopped forward. But it was her navy-blue designer suit jacket, riddled with bullets and awash in her blood, that betrayed the horrific, lonesome death of Ronni Sue Chasen.

It has become an article of faith, fueled by police sources and a leaked preliminary autopsy finding, that Chasen’s murder was the work of a professional hit man. Reportedly, five closely woven 9 mm hollow-point bullets, which do more internal damage, were blasted through the right passenger window. One police source speculated that the first two bullets struck her right shoulder—prompting Chasen to turn toward the shooter, leading to the three frontal chest bullets.

A week before the murder, an unsettlingly chilling incident occurred just blocks from where Chasen was killed, prompting a resident to alert some of her neighbors by email. The source and residents requested anonymity. The email reads:

“Hi ladies, something that I wanted to warn you about in our hood...Over the weekend, a neighbor told me that last week she was driving down Benedict Cyn and an African American guy with a shirt tied on his head—gang garb—was driving crazy behind her, cutting off drivers, then pulled up next to her at the Tower [Road] stop light and, with window rolled down, smiled at her while he pointed a gun at her. She ignored him and drove on. When they reached the Will Rogers Park, just after Sunset, he did a u-turn at high speed into oncoming traffic.

Claire Martin & Kate Aurthur: Is Chasen’s Killer Still Out There?My neighbor wanted me to know this because her friend had told her that there has been a string of shootings and car jackings happening within the last 2 months in the vicinity between Coldwater and Benedict.”

(According to one neighbor, the woman later said her assailant could have been Latino.)

A few details to those unfamiliar with Beverly Hills geography. Tower Road is just north of Sunset Boulevard, and the Will Rogers Park, a small triangular green patch made tabloid-famous by the arrest of George Michael in its restroom, borders the south side of Sunset, facing the venerable Beverly Hills Hotel.

On the night of Chasen’s murder, among the first to dial 911, at 12:28 a.m., reporting gunshots were residents living near Sunset and Benedict, as well as two blocks further west, toward Roxbury Drive, along with residents on Whittier.

Then, just 10 days after Chasen’s killing, a 53-year-old Covina man barely survived a near identical murder attempt, shot multiple times through the passenger side of his car at 12:50 a.m., virtually the same hour as Chasen’s murder.

Ronni Chasen had taken Sunset all the way. “She drove real slow, just like an old lady,” said a friend, “although she was often distracted with phone calls.” And while Chasen could be imperious, “road rage was not her thing.”

The Strip is legendary for its night life, neon, shops, and nightclubs, along with a healthy sprinkling of hookers, addicts, and drug dealers, especially after midnight. Cruising Sunset has long been popular with tourists, lowlifes, and gang-bangers.

Michael Baden, chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police, has his doubts about the professional assassin theory. “Automatic weapons are readily available and 9 mm bullets can be purchased just about anywhere,” he said. “You do not have to be a professional to pull this off. It could have been a hit man, but it also could be a gang guy. Within five or 10 feet, you don’t have to be such a pro. It’s no big deal to pierce the glass [of a car].”

Indeed, one person could have done the crime solo without a driver, Baden said, say if both cars stopped at the red light at Sunset and Whittier. “At this close range, [it] does not require superb marksmanship. You open your window and shoot.” He noted that, typically, “the pros aim for the head—not the chest.” Based on the leaked reports, he said, “a schlemiel could have done this.”

Another argument against the sharpshooter hit man theory is that a seasoned hired gun would likely use a silencer rather than alert an entire neighborhood—which was the case with Chasen.

Neither Los Angeles County Coroner, Dr. “Lucky” Lakshmanan, who worked for Baden for years in New York, nor his spokesman, Ed Winter, would comment on the case.

Film producer Lili Fini Zanuck, a longtime Chasen friend and client, said that if the conventional wisdom that Chasen was a targeted hit is true, it wouldn’t stem from a movie deal gone bad. “We don’t kill each other in the movie business,” she said. “Not only do we not kill each other, we don’t sue each other—except to settle quickly. That’s why this case makes no sense.”

Unless Chasen was a mistaken target.

***

Veronica Cohen was born 64 years ago and raised near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. She had married once briefly in her early 20s. In many ways, she was her finest production: leading a fiercely acquisitive yet reasonably contented life—its hours and minutes packed with work, friends, events, parties, swag, and periodic romances.

“The good news is that Ronni didn’t see it coming,” said Martha Smilgis, Chasen’s close friend since 1979, a former reporter for Time and People, and a co-executor of her 1994 will. “She had no idea, and that makes me feel better about the whole thing,” she said. “Ronni was really organized, almost programmed. She was fearless and very smart, and if, for a minute, she had any idea she was being followed or was going to be hit, she would have ducked into the driveway of Beverly Hills Hotel. And she would not have been calling her office minutes before [at 12:22 a.m.] with a to-do list.”

Zanuck echoed Smilgis: “If Ronni had a whiff or a suspicion that she had trouble brewing in her life, she would have had [Hollywood security expert] Gavin de Becker on it…in a heartbeat.”

After the initial shock, the search was on for a new will, one Chasen had drafted in 2006. Then there were the numerous codicils made to the initial 1994 will, all drafted by attorney Jim Murphy of Cox, Castle and Nicholson.

In September, during a hike in Franklin Park, Chasen told Smilgis that there was a new will and that she was still co-executor. And then the two shared a laugh about discussing such things.

In a bid to resolve the matter and all manner of speculation, Chasen’s brother, Larry Cohen, a filmmaker and screenwriter, opened her safe deposit box at her bank late last week, accompanied by detectives from the Beverly Hills Police Department. “Larry did it all very kosher,” said a studio executive, who requested anonymity. “He asked the cops to go with him, and there was no will in the box. There was some very good jewelry in there—and that was about it—and they left it there.”

The same friend dismissed the rumors that gambling debts or a possible bankruptcy of her elder brother were somehow connected to her death.

Three of Chasen’s closest friends say they never heard her refer to her brother as having any gambling or bankruptcy issue. “She would have told me—nor do I believe she would she have covered for him,” said the studio executive. “I truly doubt it.” The rumor is further potholed by the fact that her brother was not her legal heir.

“Larry was much older and more fragile. They had their issues, like all siblings, and she didn’t always get on with all of his wives,” said a leading Hollywood player. “But she defended him always, even pitched his projects around town. I must have read six of his scripts that she gave me.”

Indeed, Chasen was fraught with worry when Cohen underwent heart surgery a few years back. In a brief conversation, Cohen said he disavowed and “had no idea” about the many published reports about his sister and himself.

One Chasen friend described Cohen as appearing “broken and bereft” by his sister’s death. Another noted that he has worked closely with the police from the beginning.

After learning the news, Larry Cohen told friends that he was convinced the murder was “random.”

***

Chasen named four co-executors in her 1994 will, including her brother and pal Smilgis. Aside from a half-dozen charities, Chasen left the bulk of her estimated $6 million estate to her sweet-natured niece, Melissa Cohen, Larry’s daughter. (Chasen had been a shrewd longterm player of the stock market and had done very well investing in platinum.) At the same time, she pointedly excluded Melissa’s sister, Jill Gatsby, whom friends say was not part of Chasen’s life. The excluded niece has an uncanny and pretty resemblance to her aunt and posted a YouTube video of her singing a song she wrote about Chasen a week after her death.

***

More than a dozen interviews with Chasen’s close friends, colleagues and clients make clear that there were two Ronni Chasens—with an array of personalities and a singular gift for compartmentalizing parts of her life. There was the Ronni for close friends and clients, “generous, loving, all heart, an irresistible, gurgling laugh, and great jokes” and another for folks that didn’t matter quite so much, notably rivals and some collaborators.

An obsessive micromanager, she was a tough taskmaster. “I have five minutes for you,” she snapped at a colleague at Rogers and Cowan. “Go!” she commanded. “She was the cheapest! Always looking for bargains,” said another rival.

Certainly, much of her top drawer lifestyle and bling came from barter, industry perks, favors, or the generous swag handed out to publicists.

“She was not cheap about what she wore,” countered one colleague. “Whenever I went to Neimans and Saks—before Barneys—Ronni was there buying the best and most expensive.”

***

While Beverly Hills Police Chief David Snowden has kept mum, his family has not been as discreet. One pal of Chasen’s, while getting a touch-up at “the Botox place that everybody goes to,” found herself sitting next to his wife. Mrs. Snowden soon lamented that everything in the Chasen case that’s been reported is wrong. “The press have it all wrong,” she said. “That story about the guys on motorcycles, the cameras at the stoplight, all of it—it’s all wrong. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

It is a commonly heard lament. Contrary to published reports, Chasen’s two-bedroom, three-bath condo on Wilshire was on a high floor, spacious with stunning mountain views—and some superb pieces of furniture and art, including an antique Chinese cabinet, a small Picasso, and a Joseph Albers piece, along with high-quality antiques like a Secretariat desk. Sometimes she borrowed nice pieces from dealer friends for a few months. In her bedroom was another French desk, and a huge master bathroom along with immense and well-organized closets, crammed with designer clothes, all carefully bagged. (On Saturday, a Los Angeles TV station reported the condo had recently been burglarized.)

Every two years, Chasen leased a new luxury sedan—either a Jaguar or Mercedes. When she showed her new vehicle to Smilgis a few months ago, her friend warned her against it. “‘That car is a target,’ I told her. ‘You’ll be a blonde in a black Mercedes.’”

***

Chasen had a unique talent for doing business and having the occasional love affair with the men she worked for, and thereafter remaining close friends. For someone in the blab business, she could be remarkably discreet.

She was briefly engaged to the composer John Williams (of Star Wars and the Boston Pops) in the late 1970s. Williams was the first of many film score composers she would represent—a niche that she monopolized—including Hans Zimmer and Diane Warren, along with many of the clients in the stable of Gorfane, Schwartz.

Nor was she averse to being “the other woman” in the lives of several men of an advanced age who lacked good looks but wielded power and wealth. The savvy but rotund Warren Cowan was Chasen’s mentor—and lover. “Everyone knew she had a long-term affair with Warren [whose wives included the actress Barbara Rush],” said a former colleague, “and he paid her very well and gave her an unlimited expense account. Oh God, yes! Warren paid for her apartment, her hair, her car, those Neiman clothes.” And they remained friends until the end. Chasen “sat next to him, holding his hand” at Cedars-Sinai Hospital during his final weeks in 2008, the former colleague added, “with the wife in the room.”

After Cowan, according to several of her friends, Jim Robinson, the car tycoon and founder of Morgan Creek Productions, was another important relationship in her life, beginning in 1988 when she represented his company. For several years, she had an intense relationship with a New York media mogul, also married, that dissolved about five years ago. More recently, she was interested in a businessman who lived in Palm Springs. “She specialized in rich men,” quipped a friend.

Still, there were plenty of others she dated casually, from Jeff Price, a younger, handsome tennis pro in Santa Barbara, to a few dates with talk show host Larry King, who was “not her type,” according to a confidante. “Remember, Ronni was very pretty when she was young,” said Smilgis, adding that although Chasen was little more than 5 feet tall, she had been a soap opera actress and a glove model. “And she looked really good for her age and took very good care of herself.”

But a good deal of her dating was more social than romantic. “She had not had sex for two years,” said a confidante, who often stayed at her condo. “I know that.” And when Oscar campaign season began, she was too busy. Still, over the holidays, Chasen had hoped to go to Aspen, where she hoped to spend time with the tycoons on the slopes.

Self-improvement and physical enhancement were always on Chasen’s agenda. She had had two hip replacements—one for an injury after a spill at an L.A. mall years ago, the other earlier this year—both at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.

She had more skin lotions than a cosmetics store, observed a friend, “and more hairbrushes than Vidal Sassoon.” Everything had to be perfect. And while not a plastic surgery addict, like many in her set, she had some work done on her nose and eyes (by Beverly Hills’ finest, Frank Kamer, according to a friend), along with periodic skin plumpers and wrinkle vanishers. Next on her agenda was breast reduction surgery, noted a friend, who cited the procedure as proof that Chasen had plans to live for years to come.

Dying was simply not on Chasen’s agenda: She had places to go, people to meet, and all manner of expectations.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Ann Louise Bardach is author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and the acclaimed Cuba Confidential. She is Daily Beast contributor, a PEN/USA award winning reporter, a member of the Brookings Institution Cuba Study Project, and was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and has written for The New York Times, Washington Post Outlook, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, Today, and CNN, NPR among others.