article

12.14.10

Chasen Murderer's Secret Past

Harold Smith, who police say killed publicist Ronni Chasen in a botched robbery, was a native New Yorker, drug abuser—and fearless bicycle thief. Ann Louise Bardach reports on his dark past.

Last Wednesday, the Beverly Hills Police Department held a press conference outside its ode-to-God building, in a neighborhood ringed with Dr. Seuss palm trees, to render its verdict in the murder of publicist Ronni Chasen: Harold Martin Smith, 43, was a single gunman, acting alone, who killed Chasen in her black E350 Mercedes coupe in “a robbery gone bad.” His getaway vehicle: a bicycle.

It was an ending that elicited boos and nays from Hollywood, as did its ancillary message—that random, senseless, violent acts of crime can happen even in the toniest enclaves of Los Angeles, notwithstanding the finest private security systems, surveillance cameras, a well-funded police department, and private security guards.

The blowback from “the industry” was fast and fierce: from the friends and clients of Chasen to her fellow publicists, and even the local newspapers, websites, and bloggers who had run with the assumption that a professional assassin or mob hit man was the killer. “I don’t believe it for one minute,” Kathie Berlin, longtime Chasen friend and fellow publicist, told KNBC. “And not one person I’ve talked to believes it. You’re going to shoot someone in the heart five times from a bicycle and then just ride off?” Chasen’s friend, the film producer Lili Fini Zanuck, was nonplussed: “Anyone watching CSI can do better. It’s from an SUV?! It’s from a bike?!” she said. “What the fuck?”

Hollywood, after all, is a community of professional storytellers who know something about good plotting, plausible conspiracies, and third acts. Worse, the woeful ending offered by police was more than a tad unsettling. Yes, it was understood that these things happen downtown or in East L.A., but on the Westside, one of the wealthiest bastions of America?

In the car culture of Southern California, automobiles have emerged as a target of opportunity, especially when the drivers are women of a certain age, driving alone. A week prior to Chasen’s murder, a resident of Benedict Canyon, was threatened in her car just north of Sunset and Benedict, although the woman, also blond around 50, declined to file a police report. And not far away, another woman was shot at in her SUV the night before Chasen’s murder, according to police in Thousand Oaks.

Questions were hurled back at the Beverly Hills Police Department. A black man cycled seven miles to Whittier and Sunset, a cornerstone of ivory-white Beverly Hills, and no one clocked him when police are famously alert to African-American men in the area? Not a snippet to be found on any of the security cameras at the grand homes along Sunset Boulevard? No spent cartridge casings in the street? In short, the general complaint went, a thief simply does not accost a Mercedes on the most famous boulevard in Southern California in order to rob its driver and take nothing for his efforts, all with just a bicycle for transportation.

“He was troubled and he was in trouble,” said a neighbor. “He had several different bikes, stolen bikes. He used to keep them next door by the Dumpster.”

How Ronni Chasen’s Death Became a PR Nightmare That would be crazy, insane.

All good points, certainly, but overlooking one crucial fact: Harold Smith, a lifelong drug and alcohol abuser who was in and out of prison for much of his adult life, was indeed crazy.

On that point, the denizens of the Harvey Apartments, the benighted rooming house worthy of a Raymond Chandler novel, on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vine Street, tend to agree.

“He was always wearing these oversized gray gardener’s gloves,” said his neighbor Robin Lyle. “I think it was some germ phobia thing of his. Even if he shook my hand, he put the glove right back on.”

According to the Associated Press, Smith’s criminal history went back to 1985, when he was convicted of burglary in New York. By 1991, he had relocated to California, where he was arrested for burglary that year, as he was again in 1994, and on other charges in 1997. The Beverly Hills Police Department points out that Smith had a history of accosting women, as he did there in January 1998 in a robbery attempt on Doheny Boulevard and again in West Hollywood. In 1998, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison and released in 2007. He also reportedly was arrested in Jackson County, Oregon, in 2009. That same year, Smith was arrested for marijuana possession in Manhattan Beach. He pleaded guilty to loitering and spent a month in County Jail, according to the Los Angeles Times. After being a no-show in court in September, a warrant went out for his arrest.

Yet however unsteady Smith was in life, he achieved perfect balance when hunched forward over a bicycle. A seven-speed two-wheeler synched perfectly with his restless nature and drug of choice: speed. An avid, fearless cyclist, Smith often scoured the flat, sprawling borders of Los Angeles on one of his bicycles. He regularly sprinted downtown a few miles east, and spoke of biking back and forth to Burbank, about 10 miles north, and into Beverly Hills, some six to seven miles westward.

John Kratzel, 60, a self described “survivor of Vietnam, the Marine Corps, and 14 foster homes” maintains a well-kept room down the hall from where Smith lived. Kratzel said Smith was “a lost soul,” even by the standards of the Harvey, where many of the residents, he says, are on welfare, disability, drugs, or dodging trouble or the law. “I’d say about half the folks here are transient,” said Kratzel, who’s been a resident for a year. “They stay here until they get kicked out.” This category included Smith, who hoped to hold on to his room until December before the marshal arrived to evict him.

“He was always roaming the halls trying to engage me,” said Kratzel, who added that he told Smith more than once not to come into his room. “He was troubled and he was in trouble. He had several different bikes, stolen bikes. He used to keep them next door by the Dumpster.”

A longtime employee of the Harvey said Smith had four or five bikes during the few months he lived at the Harvey. “All stolen,” he added. Smith’s favorite, and the one he kept in his room, he said, was a burgundy-colored seven-speed, which the LAPD have taken into evidence.

“I saw him once on that bicycle with the banana seat and curled handlebars,” said neighbor Terri Gilpin, 46, who occasionally chatted with Smith, “and he was holding a can of soda in his right hand. And he could ride with both hands in the air.”

Could Smith have killed Chasen, as police say, acting alone without accomplices—then fled on his bicycle? Could it be that Chasen’s murder is simply as frighteningly incomprehensible as that of Ennis Crosby, son of Bill Cosby, who was senselessly shot dead while changing a tire?

Yes.

One resident said Smith sometimes sat on the steps in the Harvey’s cheerless lobby or on the floor under a barred window or near the cashier’s cage. That’s where Smith ended his misery with a bullet to his skull with a .38 revolver on Dec. 1 at 6 p.m., when police arrived to question him. It was the same gun that police say is a ballistics match with the one used to kill Chasen.

In short, Smith was a desperate, wanted man.

Gilpin and her 26-year-old husband, Brandon, said Smith’s drugs of choice were crack cocaine or crank—souped-up methedrine—and he was up for a drink anytime, anywhere. “He was on GR,” said Gilpin, “general relief, but most all of it went to drugs.”

About two weeks before Smith took his life, he showed up excitedly outside Robin Lyle’s door. He had received “a few thousand dollars” from a lawsuit filed on his behalf by personal injury law firm of Larry H. Parker, though he complained about the lawyers “taking most of it.”

Another neighbor recalled Smith showing him “a legal document, something that gave him $5,000.” Both neighbors say the money, whatever the amount, was gone in a matter of days. “He spent it all on crack,” said one. Lyle remembers Smith asking to borrow toilet paper soon after his windfall. “He said, ‘I don’t have the money, I spent it. I did me,’ meaning he spent it on something fun for himself,” she said. “When money goes fast like that, usually it’s drugs.”

***

Michael Baden, the chief pathologist for the New York State Police, never doubted that Chasen’s murder did not require a trained hit man. But the Beverly Hills Police Department’s press conference, he said, raised more questions than it settled: “What is the provenance of the gun?” asked Baden. “When did he get the gun? Was it a hot gun someone wanted to get rid of? Were there other fingerprints on the weapon? And most importantly, did the bike have trace evidence on it?

That said, “trace evidence,” in the words of one police source, was found at the intersection of Sunset and Whittier, referring to the shattered glass of Chasen’s passenger window. The source also clarified that the investigators were not suggesting that Smith accosted Chasen’s Mercedes on his bicycle—but rather on foot.

True enough, the left turn signal at the Sunset/Whittier light is unusually long. Last Saturday night at 9:15 p.m., it took more than 2 minutes to change to green. On Sunday afternoon, one minute and 15 seconds elapsed before it turned green. Either duration would have been enough time for Smith to have bolted from the hedges on the northeast corner of Sunset and accosted Chasen at the intersection, demanding her purse or car.

Police believe Smith carried out the shooting on foot as Chasen waited for the light to turn. He could well have staked out the corner, waiting past midnight into the wee hours of Nov. 16, a weekday, when traffic is at its lightest. He would have waited for a clear stretch without other passing cars, then made his move for Chasen’s vehicle, goes the police’s theory.

Smith reportedly killed Chasen with a .38 revolver, which can take regular or hollow-point bullets. A revolver does not discharge cartridge casings, as has been endlessly speculated.

In the botched robbery, Smith unloaded five bullets at the veteran publicist, then dashed back to his seven-speed and fled the scene, police say. Chasen did not surrender her purse, jewelry, money, or car, but lurched leftward onto Whittier, where she crashed into a lamppost.

In the parlance of Hollywood, it’s a cheesy storyline with cliched characters and plot-holes the size of potholes, capped off by a lousy ending. As is the case sometimes in real life.

It was supposed have a different, happy finale, with Chasen celebrating the nominations of clients like Diane Warren at Tuesday’s Golden Globe event.

***

Crime, say residents, has been moving steadily westward. Nor do all victims file police reports—owing to celebrity, insurance, fear, immigration status, or privacy concerns. One block in Benedict Canyon, tellingly, has two Neighborhood Watch captains.

One week after Smith took his life in the lobby of the Harvey Apartments, the Los Angeles County Morgue conducted a mass burial of nearly 1,700 residents.

On Dec. 8, with little pomp or ceremony, “the unwanted, unclaimed remains” of 1,689 cremated Angelenos were buried at the county’s Potters Field at Evergreen Cemetery in East L.A. According to Ed Winter of the Los Angeles Coroner’s office, “We do one of these funerals every two or three years.”

Those interred are a fraction of the 50,000 street people of Los Angeles, the largest population of homeless in the United States. Some are simply poor or broke, 6,000 are veterans, others are drug addicts or hopeless drunks, some are criminals, others are insane and a few are criminally insane.

In the last category would be Smith, who will likely be joining his transient brethren there. Last week, the L.A. Coroner’s Office tracked down and spoke with several of his relatives living in upstate New York, where Smith was raised.

At press time, none had responded to requests to arrange for his disposal or interment.

While “the industry” scoffs at the police’s resolution of Chasen murder, Hollywood’s tourist industry has found a way to embrace the tragedy. The Starline bus tour, which features the homes of the stars, now drives by Sunset and Whittier, with its bullhorn announcing the intersection as the famed murder site of Ronni Chasen.

The Chasen stop comes after 722 North Elm Drive, the house of Jose and Kitty Menendez, who were killed by their sons in 1989, and just before the tour gets to Michael Jackson’s home on Carolwood—his last.

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.