Hollywood on edge with real-life murder mystery

LOS ANGELES, Michael Thurston- Three weeks after the shock killing of a top Hollywood PR agent, police are still struggling to piece together who shot her, leaving the star-studded city on edge, facing a real-life murder mystery.
In a story which could come straight from the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel, detectives probing PR agent Ronni Chasen's shooting faced a new death this week, when a man they wanted to question killed himself as they closed in.

Hollywood on edge with real-life murder mystery
But while one neighbor claimed the dead man had bragged about having shot Chasen, police insisted he was not formally a suspect, and remained tight-lipped about whether he was a key lead in their investigation.
"At this time, it is unknown if this individual was involved in the Chasen homicide," said Beverly Hills police spokesman Tony Lee.
In another plot twist worthy of Chandler's stories about famous LA detective Philip Marlowe, it emerged that Chasen's will snubbed one of her nieces, leaving her only 10 dollars from a 6.1 million dollar fortune.
Chasen was shot five times in the chest shortly after midnight on November 16, hours after attending the glittering premiere of the film "Burlesque" starring Christina Aguilera and Cher.
The 64-year-old, who publicized films like "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," was found in her Mercedes which had crashed into a light pole just off Sunset Boulevard.
In the two weeks following the killing Beverly Hills police appeared to make little progress into finding out whether Chasen was the victim of a random road rage incident, or something more sinister.
A coroner's report confirmed that she had been struck from close range -- and leaked details said that at least one of the bullets was hollow-pointed, fueling speculation of a professional hit.
But then on Wednesday evening, as officers went to question a "person of interest" in the case at an apartment block on Santa Monica Boulevard, the man reacted by turning his gun on himself.
"Undercover officers attempted to contact a 'person of interest' when he pulled a gun and took his own life," said the Beverly Hills police spokesman.
Although commentators said the man -- named in media reports as Harold Martin Smith, 43 -- hardly fitted the profile of a professional killer, the LA Times quoted sources saying he was indeed a suspect in Chasen's death.
And a former neighbor, Terri Gilpin, said the man recently boasted that he had killed Chasen. "He bragged all the time that he was the one who killed the publicist," she told a local TV station.
Others however suggested the suicide may be entirely unconnected -- local resident Brandon Harrison told the Times that Smith was an ex-convict, who had been jailed twice and did not want to go back behind bars.
"He told me several times, 'If it ever came back down to me going to prison, I would die first'," he said.
Then on Saturday police said the gun used by Smith was not a match for the bullets which killed Chasen, raising further questions about whether he could have committed the murder.
In another perplexing development, celebrity website TMZ published a copy of Chasen's will, in which she left the bulk of her fortune to her mother and to charity -- while one niece, Jill Cohen, did not fare so well.
"I have intentionally and with full knowledge of the consequences omitted to provide for my niece, Jill Cohen ... except for the gift of 10 dollars" Chasen wrote in the 1994 will.
There has been no suggestion of a family feud -- on the contrary, TMZ put a video on its website showing her snubbed niece singing a heartfelt song, apparently for her aunt.
"That's for you Ronni," she says at the end of the song, which she accompanies on guitar.
On Friday it emerged that Wednesday's police raid on Santa Monica Boulevard was triggered by a tip received by producers of a hit TV show about wanted criminals, "America's Most Wanted."
As the probe heads into a fourth week, police are hoping for more tips to try to resolve the mystery hanging over the well-heeled celebrity playgrounds of Beverly Hills and Hollywood.

Sunday, December 5th 2010
Michael Thurston

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