Skip to main content

'Person of interest' in Hollywood publicist's death identified

By Alan Duke, CNN
Click to play
Who killed Ronni Chasen?
  • Publicist's estate valued at more than $6 million
  • Harold Martin Smith served prison time for two robberies
  • Police say they still don't know if he was connected to Ronni Chasen's death
  • Smith shot himself as Beverly Hills detectives approached him for questioning, police say

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Investigators still don't know if a man who killed himself when they tried to question him Wednesday was involved in the Beverly Hills shooting death of publicist Ronni Chasen, police said Friday.

The man, who Beverly Hills Police have identified only as a "person of interest," was 43-year-old Harold Martin Smith, a source close to the investigation said. The source asked not to be identified because of department policy.

Chasen, 64, died from gunshots fired into her Mercedes-Benz as she turned off Sunset Boulevard on her way home from a star-studded premiere celebration for the movie "Burlesque" in the early morning of November 16.

A probate judge appointed Chasen's brother, television and movie producer Lawrence Cohen, as special administrator of her estate Friday. The court filing indicated her estate was valued at more than $6 million.

The mysterious murder in a posh Beverly Hills neighborhood not only stunned Chasen's friends, but also sent fear through the exclusive community.

Smith served at least two prison terms in California, including for two second-degree robbery convictions in 1998, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.

The California Department of Corrections declined a CNN request for information about Smith's prison record, citing a "security hold" request by the Beverly Hills Police.

A tip passed on by the "America's Most Wanted" television show led two Beverly Hills detectives to Smith at a Hollywood apartment building Wednesday, Beverly Hills Police Lt. Tony Lee said Friday.

Smith pulled a handgun and fatally shot himself when the detectives approached him in the lobby of the Harvey Apartments, police said.

"At this time, it is unknown if this individual was involved in the Chasen homicide," Lee said.

Investigators have been silent on their theories, calling it a "wide open case." There is no prevailing theory on whether the attack was road rage or a planned hit, a police official said.

"The Beverly Hills Police Department is actively investigating the Ronni Chasen homicide with detectives dedicated to this case around the clock," Lee said. "Their goal is to capture the suspect(s) and resolve this horrific crime."

Chasen's killer fired at least four shots into her car, including at least one hollow-point bullet, according to a leaked coroner's report.

Although the three-page report has not been made public, Los Angeles County coroner spokesman Brian Elias confirmed to CNN that a document shown in a Los Angeles television station KTTV newscast appeared to be authentic.

The document was written by investigators on the first day of the investigation to help the doctor who would perform the autopsy the next day, Elias said. The full autopsy report is being withheld under a "security hold" placed by Beverly Hills Police, he said.

Hollow-point bullets are controversial because the slug is designed to expand after it enters a body, causing greater damage to tissue than a solid bullet.

The report included details previously disclosed by police, including the belief Chasen was shot while she was stopped at a red light at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Whittier Drive. "An unknown vehicle pulled up and someone fired approximately four rounds into her vehicle," it said.

"After being struck by gunfire ... she then made a left turn and drove for approximately a quarter mile before she crashed her car into a pole," the report said.

Chasen was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai hospital 45 minutes after the shooting, the report said.

The initial examination, apparently done at the hospital soon after Chasen's death, revealed three gunshot wounds to her chest area, the report said.

The lack of official information about the investigation has spurred speculation by residents and reporters about the killing.

Beverly Hills Police Chief David Snowden asked journalists to keep "erroneous information, theories or speculation" out of their stories. The chief assured residents that it was "a rare, isolated incident and that the Beverly Hills community remains one of the safest in the nation."

Beverly Hills detectives scanned Chasen's computers and phone logs for leads and went door to door for video clues from residential security cameras, a police spokesman said.

Chasen had been on the red carpet at Grauman's Chinese Theatre just hours earlier, walking with songwriter Diane Warren as she and "Burlesque" star Cher were interviewed about the music in the film.

Chasen's work for three decades earned her a reputation as a publicist who could help create Oscar buzz for clients, which many times ended with Academy Awards.

CNN's Stan Wilson contributed to this report.