BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. (AP) - With no witnesses, no motive and almost no leads, the investigation into the slaying of a prominent Hollywood publicist appeared to be at a dead end. So Ronni Chasen’s friends went the Hollywood route and sought help from a popular TV show.
The tactic paid off handsomely. Within days of “America’s Most Wanted” airing a segment, a tipster called in information that cracked the case, which police now believe was an attempted robbery by a desperate ex-con, not a murder by a hit man, as initially speculated.
“America’s Most Wanted” usually focuses on older crimes that for years have proven impossible to solve. But co-executive producer Steve Katz said several Hollywood players, as well as Beverly Hills police, lobbied for the Chasen whodunit to be featured as soon as possible.
“They said, ‘We all knew Ronni. This is what your show was made for. Can you do something?’” Katz said Thursday. “So many people in the entertainment industry knew Ronni Chasen and loved her and wanted to get justice.”
Friends quickly pulled together a reward fund of up to $125,000, the bulk of it coming from the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which Chasen worked with for many years. Police said their investigation was ongoing but noted that the tipster could eventually get the reward money.
With some 11th-hour editing, the show’s creators were able to put out a broadcast on Nov. 20, just four days after Chasen was shot to death as she drove through Beverly Hills on her way home from a premiere and party for the film “Burlesque.”
Three days after the show aired, a tipster called to say he thought detectives should check out Harold Martin Smith, a sometimes-violent, 43-year-old man with a decades-long criminal record. He been living in a low-rent Hollywood apartment building.
A week later, when detectives arrived to ask him what he knew about the Chasen killing, he pulled a revolver from his pocket and shot himself in the head. Preliminary tests revealed it was the same gun used to shoot Chasen multiple times in the chest.
Police said Wednesday that they believe Smith killed her as part of a robbery attempt when she stopped her late-model Mercedez-Benz at an intersection. He apparently did not take anything and fled on a bicycle before anyone could see him in the early morning darkness.
Although police had said earlier they were looking into the possibility Chasen was targeted by a hit man, they have since discounted that idea and now believe the killer acted alone.
Some of Chasen’s friends had trouble accepting that, noting Smith’s neighbors have said he boasted of killing the wealthy publicist for $10,000, money he was still supposedly waiting to receive.
“If it was random like that and a purse snatcher or whatever, why was he bragging to people about the $10,000?” asked singer-songwriter Carol Connors, a friend of Chasen since the publicist worked successfully to secure her an Oscar nomination for the theme song to the movie “Rocky.”
Still, she was willing to accept that police had the right person, even if they never completely resolve why he did it.
“Dead men don’t talk, but ballistics tests don’t lie,” she said. “If that’s the gun, then that’s the gun.”
Chasen’s family would not comment, the publicist’s sister-in-law, Cynthia Costas Cohen, said in a message left on the family’s voice mail.
Fellow publicist Kathie Berlin, a friend of more than 40 years, flatly rejected the idea that Smith was simply a bumbling, would-be robber. She is certain, she says, he was hired by somebody.
“I don’t believe it for one minute and not one person I’ve talked to believes it,” she said of Smith trying to rob Chasen. “You’re going to shoot someone in the heart five times from a bicycle and then just ride off?” she asked. “It sounds like fiction.”
She did have praise, however, for the tipster who contacted “America’s Most Wanted.”
“That was really amazing and just wonderful,” she said of the person’s call to the show.
Katz said it was a tip that almost didn’t happen.
The tipster, whose name has not been released, had tried to call several times and could not get through. He didn’t even know of the reward and was about ready to give up.
“My family, close friends and even my doctor said I was making something out of nothing and that I should just stay out of it,” he later told the show.
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