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Nov. 16 was the 12th anniversary of the murder of renowned film awards publicist Ronni Chasen. Hardly anyone has spoken publicly of it in years, but at the time it was national news. Just about everyone in Hollywood, whether they knew her or not, was vested in what happened — in part because it seemed so inexplicable. She was gunned down in her car while waiting at a traffic light in a quiet stretch of Beverly Hills, on her way home from the premiere of Burlesque, a project on which several clients had been involved.
A frenzy of speculation broke out: road rage or random drive-by; connections to shady film finance and bad art deals and gambling debts. The Beverly Hills Police Department, under an uncommon media spotlight, eventually declared it found its culprit in Harold Smith, a poor Black man with a criminal record who detectives had found at his Hollywood flophouse, the encounter soon ending with him dead on the floor.
The BHPD claimed, without proof, that Smith had made his way to Beverly Hills by bicycle the night of the killing and had acted alone in a robbery attempt gone wrong. Yet as I learned when I examined the case six years ago, there’s no hard evidence placing Smith at the scene or otherwise associating him with Chasen at all. In fact, what feeble circumstantial material the agency had ever mustered in its limited probe — which barely canvassed for witnesses, let alone other suspects — was never tested in court. There’s no more defenseless suspect, unable to tell their story or clear their name, than a corpse.
Criminology experts have roundly criticized BHPD’s handling of the case. The agency rarely deals in homicide, but when it does, they are often easy to solve murders, involving straightforward intimate-partner violence. Small-jurisdiction cops typically know when it’s time to hand a challenging murder inquiry over to a more-experienced, better-resourced force. The BHPD, then under a chief, David Snowden, who later left the department following a corruption scandal, apparently had too much hubris to do that.
There are unanswered questions, too, about the death of Smith. BHPD detectives claim they were unable to apprehend him before he committed suicide in front of them. Yet little substantive information about that event has been released, despite years-long efforts.
Few at the time debated the circumstances of Smith’s still-opaque end, nor how he may perhaps have become a convenient patsy. But more than a decade on, after there’s been due attention focused on dubious patterns in law enforcement profiling and killing of Black suspects, Smith deserves his own consideration.
The BHPD was sued in 2021 for disproportionately arresting Black pedestrians the previous year, following the George Floyd protests. Meanwhile, Chief Snowden’s successor, Sandra Spagnoli, retired in 2020 after facing a series of lawsuits, including allegations of racist remarks, which prompted the City of Beverly Hills to pay out millions.
Spagnoli’s replacement, Mark Stainbrook, was installed in December 2021. He shouldn’t just reopen the Chasen investigation. For the sake of justice, he should refer it out to another agency to start fresh on a now cold case — and, separately, allow an independent probe of his department’s involvement in Smith’s death.
It’s an insult not just to Chasen and Smith but anyone with a sense of indignation that neither received a truly rigorous inquest. It’s striking that, in an age of endless crime podcasts, justice-minded docuseries and other assorted true-stories IP, this situation — occurring at the heart of the entertainment business — has vanished through its memory hole.
Members of this industry, those living in Beverly Hills alone, have the influence to make this Topic A once again. When I spoke to those closest to Chasen six years ago, they noted the tragic irony that their brassy, assertive friend, never afraid to make her voice known in life, can’t raise a ruckus about her death. “Ronni would want justice,” actress Candy Clark told me.
As producer Lili Fini Zanuck put it, “Nobody asked any hard questions. 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.”
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