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Suspect arrested in fatal stabbing of woman, 66, in parking garage at Rolling Hills Estates mall

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Ben Leeds, left, speaks about his stepmother Susan Leeds, who was stabbed to death at a mall in Rancho Palaos Verdes on May 3, at a news conference on Friday. He is surrounded by other family members and Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A suspect was booked on suspicion of murder in connection with the fatal stabbing of a 66-year-old woman in the parking garage of a mall in Rolling Hills Estates, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said Friday.

Cherie Townsend, 39, was taken into custody Thursday in Victorville, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said at a news conference. She will be charged with murder and is being held on $1-million bail, he said.

“This was a crime that shocked the community,” McDonnell said, calling it a “brutal murder.” The city had not reported a homicide since 2009.

On May 3, deputies found Susan Leeds with stab wounds to her upper torso inside her SUV parked at the Promenade on the Peninsula mall, authorities said. The crime is believed to have occurred around 12:10 p.m. on the first floor of the parking structure.

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Items taken from the scene led authorities to believe the motive of the crime was a robbery. Investigators believe Leeds was randomly chosen and did not know the suspect, McDonnell said.

Authorities have not ruled out the potential involvement of other suspects and urged anyone who was in the parking structure to come forward. A video at the news conference showed cars and foot traffic on the first floor when the crime occurred.

“It’s a very violent, personal crime,” said Capt. Chris Bergner of the sheriff’s homicide bureau. “I ask you to imagine that this was your brother, your sister, your mother, your relative, and would you want somebody to step out and come forward and help? … The community needs to come together and help out with this.”

Leeds’ stepchildren, who attended the news conference, described her as “very kind, very sweet, very loving.”

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“I spoke to my father this morning … and he wanted to convey that he loved her very much and that she’s missed, she’s greatly missed by our family,” said Fred Leeds, the oldest of six stepchildren.

Ben Leeds said his stepmother, who had Type 1 diabetes, worked for decades assisting other people with the condition.

“To see such a sweet, great, innocent woman go through such a horrific death is certainly beyond words,” he said. “She’ll be missed by the community and certainly missed by the family.”

Authorities initially identified a man as a person of interest, but forensic evidence and video surveillance indicated that he was not involved in the crime.

Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Britt Huff said the community is reeling from the killing.

“Obviously this was a very traumatic experience for a city that is known for being one of the safest in California — to have this violent crime take place in midday,” she said.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

Twitter: @Brittny_Mejia

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