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Woman says L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell falsely named her a suspect in Rolling Hills Estates slaying

Woman says L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell falsely named her a suspect in Rolling Hills Estates slaying
Pride Franklin, left, hugs Cherie Townsend after speaking during a news conference Monday. Townsend was accused of murder after visiting the Promenade on the Peninsula shopping center the same day retired nurse Susan Leeds, 66, was found stabbed in her Mercedes in May. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A woman who was arrested in connection with a stabbing death at a Rolling Hills Estates mall — and was later released — says Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and other officials falsely named her as a suspect as part of what she says was a racially charged homicide investigation.

Cherie Townsend said at a news conference Monday that she is filing claims against Los Angeles County, the Sheriff’s Department and the cities of Rancho Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills Estates over her arrest in the killing of 66-year-old Susan Leeds.

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Leeds, a retired nurse from Rancho Palos Verdes, was found stabbed to death inside her Mercedez-Benz SUV parked at the Promenade on the Peninsula shopping center at 12:22 p.m. on May 3.

No charges have been filed in the killing, said Greg Risling, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

At a news conference May 18, McDonnell named Townsend as the murder suspect and said investigators believed Leeds was randomly targeted in an attempted robbery. Townsend said the public statements, along with a quote in a newspaper by Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor Susan Brooks about the arrest, have ruined her reputation and brought her family unfair scrutiny.

“I live my life in hiding, afraid that the police are going to come or that I’m gonna be unjustly targeted like I was before,” Townsend said.

The 40-year-old said she used to work as an L.A. County probation officer but fears she will not be able to return to that job. Townsend’s claim, the precursor to filing a lawsuit, seeks at least $12 million in damages.

Townsend was the second person to be arrested and released in connection to the crime. A 62-year-old homeless man was seen in surveillance photos near Leeds’ SUV and was held on suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance but was later eliminated as a suspect.

The Sheriff’s Department has not made any other arrests.

Townsend said she was pulled over while driving to a friend’s house in Victorville on the night of May 16 and held at gunpoint by several officers who said her Chevy Malibu was suspected of being linked to Leeds’ slaying.

The single mother of two said she was shopping at the mall for her son’s prom after dropping off her daughter at a friend’s house nearby. Her car was parked on the same level as the SUV and her cellphone was found somewhere on the mall’s premises.

She said she has no idea who may have killed Leeds.

Townsend’s attorney, Nazareth Haysbert, said detectives told his client, who is black, that she didn’t have enough money to shop at the mall and didn’t belong in the area. The crime occurred in a largely white, affluent community.

Haysbert said detectives obtained Townsend’s DNA and fingerprints but have yet to return her car and other possessions. Townsend was held in jail for five days and released May 22 after the district attorney’s office declined to file charges against her.

The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that detectives are still receiving tips and following leads in the “very complex, yet active investigation.”

There are no witnesses to the crime, the agency said.

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“This was a very traumatic experience, for a city that’s known for being one of the safest in California, to have this violent crime take place in midday,” Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Britt Huff said at the time about the slaying. In a statement, the city said it had not received Townsend’s claim and could not comment on a sensitive legal matter.

A spokesman for Rancho Palos Verdes said that city also had not received a claim and said the Sheriff’s Department is still investigating the homicide.

Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida did not respond to questions about whether Townsend is still considered a suspect and referred the queries back to the agency’s statement.

Haysbert accused McDonnell of authorizing a hasty arrest in a community served by his deputies in order to boost his image ahead of the June 5 primary election, when the sheriff was pushed into a runoff. He appears on the ballot again on Nov. 6.

“The sheriff never makes any department decisions based on campaigns or elections,” McDonnell’s campaign manager, Steve Barkan, said in an email.

Risling, of the district attorney’s office, said the Sheriff’s Department was asked to do more investigating but has not presented a new case to prosecutors.

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