Ronni Chasen Documentary Director on Autopsy Revelations, Unanswered Questions (Q&A)
The L.A. County coroner's office released the autopsy of Ronni Chasen Thursday, more than three years after the movie publicist was gunned down while driving through Beverly Hills. The document was finally made public to settle part of a lawsuit filed by filmmaker Ryan Katzenbach, who's investigating the killing for a documentary called 6:38: The Death of Ronni Chasen. (An Indiegogo financing campaign is currently underway.) Katzenbach spoke to The Hollywood Reporter Friday about his public records victory, the revelations within the document and the unanswered questions surrounding Chasen's death and the man police said committed the crime, Harold Martin Smith.
How does it feel to have won the release of this document? What does it mean for your film going forward?
It feels good to have won round one. But I'm yet a little leery of feeling too jovial about it because we've got a pretty good battle in front of us about the most important parts of the case, the investigation file. It's one small victory and another battle to be fought.
What has the reaction been so far?
So far the feedback has been really good. People have been emailing me, saying we saw it, good for you. It's support toward continuing forward with this. Whether it's Harold committed the crime solely or there's more to it.
Why do you think the Beverly Hills police department placed a security hold on the file? What was sensational about the contents?
I frankly don't understand why the police department was sitting on it. There was nothing illicit going on in the car, such as drugs or alcohol. So I don't know why they were specifically protecting this family in the way they did. It doesn't make much sense to me.
The coroner's report does mention Beverly Hills police seeking a "second vehicle." It's something an early morning L.A. Times report focused on, for instance. Is that detail important?
Let's walk through this beat by beat. First off, the autopsy isn't chartered with the task of finding out who killed an individual, only how a person died. So you can't put too much credence into what a preliminary statement said when they were still processing the body. And at the time that this autopsy was being prepared, which was just hours later, they had not even finished processing the crime scene at this point. So the idea that this second vehicle pulled up may mean everything or it may mean nothing. So it's completely reasonable for the Beverly Hills police to have come up with this scenario, to have made such an assumption. But unless and until we know from the investigation file, we have no way of gauging that revelation. We won't know until we see the file, if ever.
In the course of reporting your documentary, have you come up with any other evidence for a second vehicle?
The America's Most Wanted tipster told me that the detectives were initially looking for a white SUV. But without having access to a witness statement, we have no idea if there's any significant credibility to that or not. The investigation file becomes more and more important now. We need to see the ballistics report of overlap between Ronni's bullets and Harold's gun. I've got to keep the momentum going and force them into a corner.
What do you think the police should do now?
I do think it's smart of them to release the file for their own public transparency. It's a relatively simple situation. Ronni Chasen is dead. Harold Smith is dead. It would behoove the Beverly Hills police department to do this. It's just good PR for the police department, frankly.
But your lawsuit is actually constructed around your belief that, in the specific case of the Chasen investigation, the police department in fact has already made it public in the past, by allowing a department officer access to the material for a 2012 book he co-wrote, Beverly Hills Confidential. What's your legal reasoning, in a nutshell?
When you cooperate with another author for a commercial creative endeavor and you grant a person access from which they can draw conclusions, you have to create parity for everyone.
Do you think the department has something to hide?
No police department wants a third party looking over their shoulders. They are human beings and they make mistakes and they don’t want some dips--t documentarian pointing out something they missed or make some discovery and it ends up on the news. It’s a reflexive response, and it’s understandable. But they’re a public agency. So it may not be pleasant, but they have to deal with it.
On Friday, the Beverly Hills police department released the following statement to The Hollywood Reporter:
"The Beverly Hills Police Department is proud of its investigation of the Ronni Chasen homicide and we stand by our final conclusions. The police department has always been sensitive and protective as to the privacy and feelings of the Chasen family and others who have been victims of such a tragedy. We have great respect for the friends and family of Ms. Chasen. We are hopeful that others will continue to respect their privacy."