New Police Reports Shed Light on Ronni Chasen Murder Case

Ronni Chasen - 2009 Annual ICG Publicist Awards - Getty - P 2017
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More than six years after the publicist’s shocking murder, 200 pages of documents recently released by the Beverly Hills Police Department highlight details of the circumstantial case against Harold Smith, a list of other initial persons of interest and the limited scope of the controversial investigation.

The Beverly Hills Police Department has released a revealing new tranche of materials pertaining to its investigation into the November 2010 murder of prominent film publicist Ronni Chasen. Exactly 200 pages of semi-redacted witness reports, evidence logs and financial documents offer a window into the scope and tenor of the inquiry, which critics have contended was deficient. It also provides fresh details into the circumstances surrounding the destitute alleged killer, Harold Smith, who died when law enforcement confronted him about the homicide.

In its final report composed seven months after Chasen’s death (and a month prior to publicly closing the case), BHPD detective Eric Hyon acknowledged that “there has been no evidence to directly place Smith at the scene of the murder,” yet explained “there is a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence which implicates” him. Separately, alluding to rumors that the murder — which took place after she left the Burlesque premiere party at the W Hotel in Hollywood — may have been a hit, he explained “there has been no evidence showing that someone may have hired Smith to kill Chasen.”

The cache, which includes video of the crime scene and searches of Chasen’s office and home, were provided to independent documentarian Ryan Katzenbach, who’s waged a years-long campaign to retrieve them (including an unsuccessful civil suit) as he pursues a project concerning the murder. He shared the material with The Hollywood Reporter.

While focusing on Smith, the records indicate the department spoke to several other individuals close to Chasen who had drawn suspicion. One was her close friend and rumored boyfriend Jonathan Novak, an art dealer and pallbearer at her funeral. (He sought out the BHPD to clarify they hadn’t been dating and were generally less involved than her social circle had gossiped.)

Another was Chasen’s brother Larry Cohen, to discuss a “rumored gambling problem” whose debts may have ensnared her. He vociferously denied it, enlisting both his current and former wives to attest. (They did.) The third was Cohen’s daughter, Jill Gatsby, who received only $10 in her will, while Jill’s sister Melissa — the favored niece — inherited nearly all of her $6.1 million estate. Gatsby, according to the documentation, stated that she “has no hard feelings and feels terrible that Ronni is no longer alive.”

The totality of the BHPD materials, along with a smaller batch of documents previously made available, appear to show a limited investigation. Employees of Chasen’s boutique PR firm, as well as a few friends, were interviewed. (They generally depicted her as an at times difficult personality, particularly toward subordinates, although nowhere near unpleasant enough to trigger murder.) Still, the vast majority of her wide, overlapping professional and social circle in Hollywood wasn’t summoned.

Meanwhile, several residents of Whittier Dr. in Beverly Hills, where Chasen crashed after being shot seconds earlier at the nearby corner of Sunset Blvd., reached out to police, yet the released documents indicate that a thorough, proactive check of other immediate neighbors didn’t take place. And only token surveillance footage was pulled from a handful of business and residential security cameras, none of which showed Smith in the area.

The thrust of the BHPD’s probe centered on fleshing out Smith’s potential motive. The department determined he’d been obsessed with finally collecting on a $15,000 settlement from a hit-and-run accident Smith was involved in while bicycling near his dingy apartment building the previous spring, and he’d been left “desperate” for additional money after being disappointed by its ultimate payout — following medical and legal fees, just exceeding $5,000.

The department, which notes in its materials that Smith had been arrested multiple times for burglary (including a conviction for purse-snatching in 1998 involving a woman outside her Beverly Hills apartment on Doheny Drive), compiled multiple reports of individuals who knew him. They claimed he’d made comments to them in the days following the murder that included “I messed up” and “Have the cops been around?”

Still, regardless of the circumstantial case the BHPD was assembling (Smith had sought and obtained a gun in the preceding months, and the department had received calls after the murder about a suspicious African-American male lurking in the vicinity that night — including one from a 42West publicist describing a “creepy looking” man with “protruding lips”), the agency never conclusively determined if Smith killed Chasen. Perhaps just as important, assuming he did, whether it was simply a robbery — skeptics have long raised questions about the practicality and likelihood of such a scenario — or if he was put up to it by one or more individuals who wanted her dead for their own reasons and found in Smith someone who’d become known as indisputably “desperate” for, as he’d allegedly put it to one friend, “fast money.”

Hyon, in his final report, disputed the notion, criticizing incorrect early media reports — which appear to have emanated from a single New York Post story, of the number of shots fired (there were four, not six) and ammunition used (there were .38 caliber bullets, not 9mm rounds, which can be employed by semi-automatic weapons) — as feeding into a “more sinister” contract-killing narrative. He went on, deriding as unsubstantiated speculation that Chasen ran afoul of the Russian mob in an art deal gone wrong (records indicate she didn’t own any piece of art that exceeded an appraised value of $30,000) and that Cohen owed $500,000 in a gambling debt. (“I don’t play poker. I don’t gamble. My two daughters don’t gamble,” he told Showbiz411 shortly after the murder. “Someone writes something on the Internet and it’s everywhere, whether it’s true or not.”)

“Was it potentially a random crime of opportunity?” Katzenbach says. “Possibly. But I certainly don’t think we can rule out that it was a hit based on the evidence in the file.”

Katzenbach explains that he made a new request for the documentation after THR published a November 2016 examination of the BHPD’s conduct in the case. Chief Sandra Spagnoli agreed in short order, a departure from the stonewalling stance of her predecessor, David Snowden, who had been in charge at the time of Chasen’s death. (Snowden retired amid a financial ethics scandal in June 2015; Spagnoli was hired the following March.) “We reviewed the request at the time and released the documents accordingly,” she wrote THR by e-mail.

While Katzenbach pronounces himself “very pleased” with the BHPD’s newly open approach, he is seeking other still-withheld materials, including surveillance video footage of Smith’s interactions with officers immediately before his shooting death in his apartment lobby, Smith’s Sprint cell phone records and raw interview footage with various witnesses.

Myrl Stebens, a California-based Police Science Institute instructor and former police investigator who specializes in crime-scene processing and has 45 years of homicide experience, also reviewed the newly released materials. He took issue with the BHPD’s probe generally and Hyon’s conclusion specifically. “It only raises questions; it doesn’t answer them — he engages in pure conjecture,” says Stebens. “The department was never able to prove that Smith had his gun on the night of the murder, or place him at the scene.” He adds, “Why didn’t these investigators leave this open as a cold case and keep working it instead of succumbing to apparent pressure to close it? It looks to have been expedient.”

In November, Spagnoli told THR, “my understanding is that this [case] was investigated with care and diligence by our staff,” going on to state that “it was convincing and conclusive.” Asked last week whether, in light of the newly disclosed material — including Hyon’s admission that no evidence directly placed Smith at the scene — she stood by the position, Spagnoli declined to respond. She also would not assert whether it’s still prudent for the BHPD to classify the case as closed.