Hollywood Murder Mystery: Was Ronni Chasen’s case closed too soon?

The successful Hollywood publicist’s murder is officially solved, but not everyone agrees with the conclusion

Hollywood award season was Ronni Chasen’s busiest and most anticipated time of the year. The pint-sized ‘power publicist’ had worked on several successful Golden Globe and Oscar campaigns for her A-list clients, among them singer and songwriter Diane Warren, actor Michael Douglas, and musician Hans Zimmer. After spearheading the Oscar campaign that is credited with Driving Miss Daisy’s 1989 Best Picture win, Chasen’s boutique agency focused increasingy on film music — composers and songwriters — elevating the profile and respect for music categories at the Oscars and Golden Globes.

The night Chasen was gunned down, her high season was just gearing up: It was shortly after midnight on November 16, 2010; she was driving home from a premiere of the film Burlesque and had been joined at the afterparty by her friend and client Warren, who would go on to win a Best Original Song Golden Globe for “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” which she wrote for the movie. Chasen loved her job, and by all accounts she’d had a lovely night.

Turning into a quiet street in a particulary wealthy pocket of Beverly Hills, Chasen was shot somewhere between three and five times in the chest while behind the wheel of her Mercedes, which continued to careen until it crashed into a street lamp. Neighbors called 911 when they heard gunshots, and police arrived just a few minutes later. But it was too late for Chasen, who was prounounced dead after being transported to Cedar-Sinai Medical Center.

For weeks, it was all anyone in the entertainment business could talk about. How could this have happened? Who could have done this? Chasen was certainly a popular person in the business; persuasive and to the point. When she wanted something, she tended to get it — a quality that made her one of the most sought-after publicists in the industry. And as good as she was at her high-powered job, she didn’t seem to have any enemies.

“She really cared, her clients were like family to her,” Warren told the Hollywood Reporter shortly after Chasen’s death. “She’d tell you what to do and people listened to her.”

So it almost made sense when, three weeks later, the Beverly Hills Police Department said they were investigating Chasen’s death as a result of a random carjacking gone terribly wrong.

Until it didn’t make sense.

In December 2010, the Beverly Hills police gave a news conference to announce that they had found a possible match between the gun that killed Chasen and the weapon an ex-convict with a robbery record used to take his own life when police approached him at a run-down apartment complex in Hollywood. Harold Martin Smith died instantly, and was never questioned by police, who had reportedly sought him out based on a tip from an acquaintance who said Smith had spoken of being involved in Chasen’s death — bragging that he had been paid to kill her. Smith had a long criminal record, made up primarily of burlgary arrests — some in the Beverly Hills area — but his criminal history did not include much violence, except for a mugging in which he briefly restrained his victim.

From early on, police persistently expressed confidence that Smith was the perp — though there was never any physical evidence that could place him at the scene — and that he acted alone, shooting Chasen through the passenger side window of her car after riding to her location on a bicycle. He didn’t have a car. In July of 2011, police closed the case, officially naming Smith as the killer.

But not everyone was satisfied with the conclusion. It just seemed too easy, and too quick. On the one hand, the fact that Smith shot himself as police approached him certainly seems to indicate he was guilty of something. But on the other, he was a convicted felon with a gun in his pocket — he would likely have faced yet another prison sentence even if he hadn’t been involved in Chasen’s murder.

It just didn’t feel like an open and shut case — especially after the Los Angeles Coroner’s office released Chasen’s autopsy report in 2013, which seemed to contradict the BHPD’s account of what happened. According to a section of the report titled “Informant/Witness Statements,” Chasen was shot by someone in an “unknown vehicle” that “pulled up” as Chasen was stopped at a red light. Police had said they believed Smith was on his bike or on foot when he shot her. But a spokesperson for the coroner’s office told The Wrap that it shouldn’t be interpreted as a contradiction, but rather, that the report of the vehicle was based on an early assessment of a detective — there are no known eyewitnesses to the crime.

Perhaps some of the resistance to the police narrative was due to the difficulty Chasen’s Hollywood friends and colleagues might have had accepting that their vibrant, glamorous friend with such a storied life could have lost it all in such a senseless, random act of violence. Whatever the reasons, questions persist all these years later.

In November 2016, The Hollywood Reporter published the most extensive journalistic inquiry to date into Chasen’s murder investigation, which was prompted in part by a documentary filmmaker who had also been examining the case. Arguably, the most damning finding came from interviews with forensic experts who expressed serious doubts about ballistics that matched Smith’s suicide weapon to the gun that killed Chasen.  “There wasn’t enough to say it came from the same source,” former FBI agent Mark Songer told The Hollywood Reporter.

The report also found that the police only swept for fingerprints on the driver’s side of Chasen’s car, though the shots came through the passenger side, and cast doubt on the witness account that led police to apprehend Smith for questioning — and presumably, help convince them in the absence of substantial physical evidence that Smith was the lone culprit, driven by financial desperation, but who did not appear to have stolen anything from his victim’s Mercedes or her Prada purse. The Hollywood Reporter tried and failed to get the Beverly Hills Police Department or management of Harvey Apartments, where Smith died, to release surveillance footage of fatal encounter between the suspect and the police.

“The community has a right to a full investigation,” Myrl Stebens, an instructor at California’s Police Science Institute, who reviewed the case files, told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I’m not saying Mr. Smith didn’t do this. I’m just saying there’s nothing sufficient here that he was in fact the perpetrator.

But the case remains closed, and there’s no indication it will ever be re-opened. This is troubling on more than one level to some of Chasen’s friends who were interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter.

“Nobody asked any hard questions,” producer and close friend Lili Fini Zanuck said. “She’d be surprised that there hasn’t been more curiosity. She spent her life supporting a community of imagination, and there’s been little imagination here.”
Photo: Associated Press