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Despite police assurances, doubts linger that Ronni Chasen slaying has been solved

The day after Beverly Hills police said they believed Ronni Chasen’s slaying was a botched robbery committed by a petty crook, the movie publicist’s closest friends gathered for dinner at Kate Mantilini, the entertainment industry hangout.

Around the table there were tears, memories and a deep concern that police might have gotten it wrong.

“The consensus was there are still just too many unanswered questions,” said Vivian Mayer Siskind, a longtime friend who got her start as a publicist working for Chasen. “Those unanswered questions led us to really speculate as to whether this crime is solved, and we believe it is not.”

Another of the Hollywood veterans in attendance was more blunt: “It’s ridiculous, just ridiculous. It doesn’t add up and I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks it does,” said New York publicist Kathie Berlin, a friend of Chasen’s for four decades.

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Police have dismissed such doubts and railed against erroneous press reports for fueling conspiracy theories. Investigators say ballistic evidence clearly connects Harold Martin Smith to the gun that killed Chasen.

“I can tell you the scenario our detectives presented is very plausible and very real. I think the media doesn’t want this so-called murder mystery to end this way,” department spokesman Lt. Tony Lee said Friday.

Still, from Chasen’s inner circle to neighborhood bar stools to talk radio phone lines, many people said they could not accept that a stunning Sunset Boulevard homicide that had sparked talk of mob hits and military-trained assassins was the work of small-time criminal on a bicycle who killed himself before police could question him.

“The case took so many twists and turns,” said Ken Chiampou, co-host of the John and Ken Show on KFI-AM 640. "[Listeners] can’t believe it’s that simple and that over. It’s like a novel. We are all waiting for one more twist.”

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The skepticism began before Wednesday’s police news conference had even ended, with reporters shouting increasingly frantic questions about possible conspirators as Chief Dave Snowden and lead investigator Mike Publicker insisted their evidence indicated there were none. Smith, acting alone, biked up to Chasen’s Mercedes while she waited at a traffic light, they said.

Publicker estimated that the investigation was only “60% to 70%" completed, but police indicated they were strongly convinced of Smith’s guilt by interviews suggesting he was becoming increasingly desperate for money and by preliminary ballistic tests showing that the weapon Smith used to shoot himself Dec. 1 — a .38-caliber revolver, according to two law enforcement sources — matched the gun that killed Chasen Nov. 16.

The department has refused to answer many questions about the case. Police will not say whether video surveillance captured Chasen, Smith, his bike or the shooting itself. Or where a bike recovered in Beverly Hills was found. Or if there is evidence that it belonged to Smith. They have remained mum about his activities and location in the days leading up to the shooting. And they have said little about the “America’s Most Wanted” tipster who prompted them to approach the 43-year-old in the lobby of a Hollywood apartment building.

“We’re hoping to close this soon, and we’re asking everyone to remain patient,” Lee said.

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With so little official information, much of the skepticism about Smith’s role appears to be based on press reports. Neighbors in the apartment building told reporters that Smith, who had been evicted, had bragged about an anticipated windfall of $10,000.

“So who was paying him that $10,000 if he acted alone?” Berlin said.

In the days after Smith’s death, several news outlets citing unnamed sources reported that the suicide gun did not match the gun used to kill Chasen, apparently incorrect information that many quickly accepted as fact in the obsessive coverage of the case.

Helen Harlan, a bartender at Lucky Baldwin’s in Pasadena, said she and many regular customers had followed the investigation closely and were confused by the conflicting reports.

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“How could they let that information out if it wasn’t true, if the guns did match?” she said.

Like many skeptical about the official version of the case, she said the scenario painted by police seemed farfetched and even comical.

“A black guy with a gun on a bike in Beverly Hills and somehow he managed to get away? I don’t see that,” she said.

Smith, who had a long rap sheet including a robbery conviction in Beverly Hills, appeared to have few community ties. It took coroner’s officials several days to track down relatives and Smith’s body remained unclaimed at the county morgue late last week.

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Lee declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said, “I can tell you from personal experience that using a bicycle as a mode of transportation is extremely prevalent with criminals. You can’t copy a license plate; they get in and out of traffic; hide into the shadows of the night, through alleyways; and can dump the bike and can jump into a bus. It occurs all the time.”

Police have described the killing as a robbery gone wrong, but some following the case said they did not understand why Smith would shoot out Chasen’s passenger window, but not reach into her car and take her purse.

Those who expressed doubts acknowledged that they had no better theory of the killing. “All the rumors — gambling debts, the art world, etc. — all turned out to be wrong,” Berlin said.

Mayer Siskind, who helped plan Chasen’s funeral, said her friends were grateful for the work the police have done so far, but worried that the investigation hasn’t gone far enough.

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“We were baffled before and we remain baffled,” Mayer Siskind said. “Ronni meant the world to me and we will not rest easy until this crime has been fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Steve Katz, co-executive producer of “America’s Most Wanted,” said random acts of violence were always hard to stomach, but perhaps more so in Chasen’s case given her milieu.

“Hollywood is a town that makes its money on good imagination. If you find it hard to accept that a person you love was taken away in this totally unfair way, you search for answers and you think there has to be some better explanation than, ‘This lowlife killed my friend,’ ” he said.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com


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