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Newly Released Documents Cast Doubt On Investigation Into Hollywood Publicist's 2010 Murder

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The death of well-known and well-liked Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen remains one of Beverly Hills' most beguiling mysteries. According to the Beverly Hills Police Department, the case was closed when forensics determined that the gun that former convict Harold Smith used to kill himself two weeks after Chasen's death was the same that shot Chasen four times. However, police documents uncovered by The Hollywood Reporter's Gary Baum suggest that the investigation is far from complete.While not a household name, Chasen was well-known in Hollywood circles as a publicist that worked Oscar campaigns. Her clients have netted 150 total nominations, including seven Best Picture wins. At 12:28 a.m. on the morning of November 16, 2010, Chasen was on her way home after a premiere afterparty at the W Hollywood hotel.

Chasen's Mercedes-Benz was making a left turn onto Whittier Drive from Sunset Boulevard when she was shot four times through the front passenger window of her car. Her car continued down Whittier Drive before it crashed into a light pole on the residential street. Two weeks later, BHPD officers, acting on an anonymous tip, confronted Smith in the lobby of the building he had just been evicted from days before. Smith pulled out a revolver and shot himself in the head in front of the officers.

Seven months later the BHPD considered the case closed and concluded Smith acted alone in what was an attempted robbery gone wrong. That announcement did nothing to stem wild speculation that it was an incident of road rage, a professional hit job for money, or even a crime of passion. Two friends and colleagues of Chasen's, Harold Matzner and Michael Levine, offered a reward of $125,000 for information on her killer. One person that was intrigued was documentary filmmaker Ryan Katzenbach, who, in 2013, sued the BHPD for the files relating to the murder investigation. He got a portion of them in November of 2015.

Katzenbach shared these files with The Hollywood Reporter, and after consulting with crime experts uncovered some holes in the investigation, including:

  • The ballistics analysis that supposedly matched the gun that Smith shot himself with did not conclusively match the gun that shot Chasen. According to the files, it "offered no comparison value."
  • Investigators never dusted Chasen's car for fingerprints on the passenger's side, the side from which the shots were fired. "Why would you only do a portion of it?" asked one expert.
  • Investigators never obtained any security footage from nearby homes that would pin Smith to the scene of the crime. "There has to be some security cameras in that neighborhood that would've caught him," a retired LAPD homicide detective told The Hollywood Reporter.
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The Hollywood Reporter story also revealed the identity of and spoke to the anonymous tipster who called America's Most Wanted. It turns out it was Laramie Beckay, who lived in the same Hollywood apartment building as Smith and said Smith was behaving suspiciously shortly after Chasen's death.

Matzner and Levine refused to pay out the reward, contending the case remain unsolved. Beckay later sued and they settled for an undisclosed amount. Beckay also dropped out of working with Katzenbach on his forthcoming film about Chase's death, calling the filmmaker "diabolical."

While Katzenbach and The Hollywood Reporter story cast doubts on the official narrative from the Beverly Hills Police Department, Beckay writes on his personal website, "I had hoped and prayed that it was not Harold, but it was."

He goes on to write that he turned in Smith because he was looking out for the safety of the greater Los Angeles area and says, "Anyone he killed after Ronni would have been on me."