Mystery surrounds man in publicist killing

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - He was named a “person of interest” in the killing of a Hollywood publicist, and he shot himself to death as detectives tried to question him _ but police say it’s still not clear if he played any role in the murder.

What is certain about Harold Martin Smith is that he was an armed career criminal possibly looking at another stretch in prison.

Documents obtained Friday by The Associated Press reveal that Smith, who acquaintances say had boasted of killing Ronni Chasen for money, was a convicted, two-strikes felon with a long criminal history.

Smith, 43, had most recently been released from prison in 2007 after a robbery conviction. He was discharged from parole last year and had told neighbors at the seedy Los Angeles apartment building where he lived that he would never return to prison.

Beverly Hills police detectives, armed with a search warrant, approached him Wednesday in the shabby lobby of the Harvey Apartments, told him to take his hands out of his pockets and said they were there to talk about Chasen’s killing.

Smith pulled a gun from one of those pockets and shot himself in the head.

Police say it’s possible Smith had no connection to the murder.

“At this time, it is unknown if this individual was involved in the Chasen homicide,” Lt. Tony Lee said in a statement Friday.

He reiterated that Smith was a “person of interest” rather than a suspect. He said undercover officers were following a tip from the Fox program “America’s Most Wanted” when they approached him.

However, as a convicted felon with a gun, Smith likely knew he was in trouble no matter what he told police, criminal experts say.

“Here’s Harold talking all this (expletive). Cops are standing there looking at him, he’s thinking, I didn’t kill Ronni but I’m standing here with a gun in my pocket,” speculated private investigator John Nazarian, a former sheriff’s deputy who has investigated homicide cases. “He’s going to go back to prison, for life probably. So he just decided to check out.”

A third felony conviction could have brought a life sentence for Smith under California’s three-strikes law.

Court records show Smith, a transient, was no stranger to Beverly Hills, where Chasen was shot to death on Nov. 20. He was arrested for robberies in that city and neighboring West Hollywood and sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1998.

One of the victims testified in court that he grabbed her in a bear hug and demanded her purse but fled with just her portable music player and headphones when she screamed and struggled.

His criminal record dates back at least 25 years to 1985, when he was convicted of burglary in New York. He moved to California in 1991, was arrested again for burglary and pleaded guilty. Three years later, he was charged in an Oregon robbery but it could not be immediately determined if he was convicted.

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