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Ronni Chasen autopsy report fills in timeline of police theories

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An autopsy report released Thursday by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office shows that homicide detectives in Beverly Hills initially thought that veteran Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen had died in a drive-by shooting.

The report offers a look into the investigation of the killing, which police later concluded was a random attack carried out by a transient riding a bike.

Chasen was killed Nov. 16, 2010, as she was driving home from a movie premiere after-party about half an hour after midnight. Witnesses found the 64-year-old publicist slumped over the steering wheel of her black Mercedez-Benz coupe, which had crashed into a light pole.

HOMICIDE REPORT: Track killings in L.A. County

Four hours after the shooting, homicide detectives suspected that Chasen was at a red light at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Whittier Drive when someone drove up next to her and fired four gunshots through her passenger window, the report states.

After being struck by gunfire, she then made a left turn and drove for approximately a quarter-mile before she crashed, according to the report.

Beverly Hills Fire Department paramedics took Chasen to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where doctors attempted to revive her. She was pronounced dead at 1:12 a.m.

The autopsy found that bullets had pierced her heart, a pulmonary vein and other internal organs. Two bullet wounds were also found in her back.

The report was released as part of a settlement with a documentary filmmaker who had sued Los Angeles County for access to the report.

The case stretched from days to weeks as investigators interviewed witnesses that included friends and associates of Chasen. Search warrants were served at her home and workplace in search of a motive and other possible leads.

Three days after the incident, the mayor of Beverly Hills publicly floated the theory that Chasen had been shot from another vehicle. But as the investigation continued, the initial theory shared by police in the coroner's report changed.

Investigators got a break after the story of Chasen’s death was aired on "America’s Most Wanted" on Nov. 20, 2010. A man told an operator that someone he knew was claiming to be involved in the shooting.

The tip led investigators to Harold Martin Smith, a 43-year-old former convict. Smith shot himself in the head when investigators attempted to question him on Dec. 1, 2010. He was suspected of shooting Chasen after his botched attempt to rob her while on his bicycle, although police said they found no indication that he had entered the car.

Smith was subsequently linked to Chasen’s murder after ballistics tests showed that the handgun he used to shoot himself was the same weapon used to kill Chasen.

When Beverly Hills Police Chief Dave Snowden announced the preliminary results of the investigation, they were met with skepticism by some who doubted the crime’s randomness.

But the investigation led by Sgt. Mike Publicker "reviewed in excess of 150,000 emails and texts belonging to the victim and investigated thousands of tips received on the Police Department's hotline," according to the department.

Investigators reviewed thousands of financial documents belonging to Chasen, recovered video and closed-circuit TV footage, and conducted numerous interviews with family, friends, professional contacts and others, officials said.

The Beverly Hills Police Department released a statement Friday, saying it was "proud" of its investigation and that it stood by its final conclusion in the case. The department also called for privacy for the Chasen family.

"The Police Department has always been sensitive and protective as to privacy and feelings of the Chasen family and others who have been victims of such a tragedy," the statement read. "We have great respect for the friends and family of Ms. Chasen; we are hopeful that others will continue to respect their privacy."

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Twitter: @latvives

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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