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  • Writer's pictureThe True Crime Edition

The Murder of Ronni Chasen

The celebrity publicist was shot in her car on the way home from a party.

On the 10th November 2010, Ronni Chasen was driving home from the premiere of Burlesque at the W Hollywood hotel when she was shot through the front passenger window. Ten years later, the truth is still unclear as to why this successful publicist was murdered.

Born Veronica Cohen in 1946, Ronni Chasen was a high-profile publicist who lived in Los Angeles, California. Brought up on the other side of the United States, in the Bronx and Washington Heights, she began her career as a publicist for film director, Larry Cohen, her brother.

Her clients included stars such as Michael Douglas, Hans Zimmer and Diane Warren, to name a few. In additional, she managed the publicity for American International Pictures and was known as a businesswoman who got what she wanted.

Ronni Chasen via Hollywood Reporter

Ronni quickly made a name for herself in Hollywood, working on the Wall Street film franchise and in 1989 won her first Academy Award campaign when Driving Miss Daisy received the Oscar for Best Picture.

“The Driving Miss Daisy campaign — all Ronni. That’s why I thanked her twice at the Oscars.” — Lili Fini Zanuck, producer.

Her home in the Regency Wilshire building near Westwood was adorned with priceless art, loaned from her gallery owner friends. The neighbourhood wasn’t the up-and-coming area expected of the publicist, but it had one specific advantage; it had a doorman. Ronni was single and lived alone, preferring to spend her evenings with clients and at prestigious events.

Despite being worth $6.1 million, Ronni was known to ask waiters to bag up her award’s dinner, much to the distaste of onlookers;

“She was misunderstood…She wasn’t eating it. She was bringing it to her mother, who lived up the street and whom she’d visit at the end of the night to tell her about what happened. She wanted her mother to experience the evening with her.” — Vivian Mayer-Siskind, MGM/UA publicist.

By 2010, Ronni’s clients had 150 Oscar nominations between them. Seven of these had won Best Picture, including Hurt Locker and Slumdog Millionaire. She was a powerhouse in Hollywood and deserved the respect she had gained over the years.

On a seemingly average Wednesday night in November, Ronni was heading home from an evening with Cher and Christina Aguilera. She was representing Diane Warren, whose song You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me, was used in the movie Burlesque. Ronni was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, a part of town where there hadn’t been a homicide in five years, when she stopped at a red light on the corner of Whittier Drive.

At 12.30am, shots were fired into her stationery vehicle, where two bullets hit Ronni in the chest, one hit her in the right arm, and the fourth hit her right shoulder and found her heart. There were no shell casings, rounds or weapons left at the scene.

Despite her injuries, the 64-year-old managed to guide her car a quarter of a mile further down the road, until it crashed and the airbags deployed. The police arrived at the scene fast as many of the residents quickly reported gunfire in the vicinity — an unusual noise for that part of town.

Ronni was found crumpled against the deflating airbag, bloody and dying. She was taken to Cedars-Sinai hospital but was pronounced dead just after 1.00 am.

Meanwhile, 43-year-old Harold Smith had walked into his home at Harvey Apartments on Santa Monica Boulevard, asking his neighbour, Laramie Beckay, if anything had been reported on the news about the killing. He then told his neighbour that he needed to collect his bicycle, which he had left in Beverly Hills, over 16 miles away.

Four days after her death, Ronni’s story appeared on America’s Most Wanted, which Beckay was watching. He called a tip into the show, explaining his neighbour’s odd behaviour on the night of Ronni Chasen’s death and his presence in the area of the murder.

Harold Smith via Jackson County, Oregon Jail

On the 1st of December, Beverly Hills Police Department visited Smith at his apartment to question him about his whereabouts on the night of Ronni’s murder. Upon opening the door to the police, Harold Smith shot himself in the head before they could question him.

A week later, the Beverly Hills Police Department promptly closed Ronni Chasen’s case, calling it solved now that Smith was dead and that it was a robbery gone wrong. Police Chief Snowden told the media;

“The firearm that was used to commit suicide in Harold Martin Smith was the same firearm that was used to kill Ronni Chasen.” — Police Chief David Snowden.

The press conference was held just three weeks after Ronni’s murder, before her phone records and bank statements had been procured. The investigators would not obtain this evidence until March 2011, almost four months after the murder.

There were issues with the case, and the lack of homicide experience in the police force was evident. The investigative team had not been called on to deal with a homicide case in over five years.

Ballistics tests on Smith’s gun indicated that it may have been the same weapon used to kill Ronni, but there was no forensic value and the evidence was insufficient. There was also no evidence that placed Smith at the scene of the crime.

“There has to be some security cameras in that neighborhood that would’ve caught him. I mean, Beverly Hills? Give me a break. You have a black man, supposedly on a bike, in the middle of the night. He’d be stopped 15 times. He would’ve stood out like a sore thumb.”  T.T. Williams Jr., retired LAPD homicide detective.

Ronni Chasen’s Prada handbag was left on the passenger seat when she was shot. The window was already broken from the gunshots, all the killer had to do was reach in and take the purse. Smith, who had been in prison for robbery, was living off of food stamps which he shared with his neighbour who turned him in.

Rumours quickly spread that Ronni had gambling debts or that she was involved with dodgy art dealers. Some believed it was a Russian mob hit, linked to an unhappy film investor. Others theorised that it was jealousy over her success at the Academy Awards, but friends were quick to dismiss the hearsay;

“She had no enemies and I have no theories on why anyone would want to hurt her.” —Martha Smilgis, friend and coexecutor of Ronni’s estate.

With the police investigation firmly closed and a lack of other suspects, the memories of Ronni Chasen are what her friends cherish, but feel that more should have been done;

“Nobody asked any hard questions. She’d [Ronni] be surprised that there hasn’t been more curiosity. She spent her life supporting a community of imagination, and there’s been little imagination here.” — Lili Fini Zanuck.

Further reading


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