Mystery surrounds 'person of interest' in publicist death
LOS ANGELES (AP) — He was named a “person of interest” in the killing of a Hollywood publicist, and he shot himself to death as detectives tried to question him — but police say it’s still not clear if he played any role in the murder.
What is certain about Harold Martin Smith is that he was an armed career criminal possibly looking at another stretch in prison.
Documents obtained Friday by The Associated Press reveal that Smith, who acquaintances say had boasted of killing Ronni Chasen for money, was a convicted, two-strikes felon with a long criminal history.
Smith, 43, had most recently been released from prison in 2007 after a robbery conviction. He was discharged from parole last year and had told neighbors at the seedy Los Angeles apartment building where he lived that he would never return to prison.
WATCH ‘TODAY SHOW’ COVERAGE OF CHASEN MURDER HERE:
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Beverly Hills police detectives, armed with a search warrant, approached him Wednesday in the shabby lobby of the Harvey Apartments, told him to take his hands out of his pockets and said they were there to talk about Chasen’s killing.
Smith pulled a gun from one of those pockets and shot himself in the head.
Police say it’s possible Smith had no connection to the murder.
“At this time, it is unknown if this individual was involved in the Chasen homicide,” Lt. Tony Lee said in a statement Friday.
He reiterated that Smith was a “person of interest” rather than a suspect. He said undercover officers were following a tip from the Fox program “America’s Most Wanted” when they approached him.
However, as a convicted felon with a gun, Smith likely knew he was in trouble no matter what he told police, criminal experts say.
“Here’s Harold talking all this (expletive). Cops are standing there looking at him, he’s thinking, I didn’t kill Ronni but I’m standing here with a gun in my pocket,” speculated private investigator John Nazarian, a former sheriff’s deputy who has investigated homicide cases. “He’s going to go back to prison, for life probably. So he just decided to check out.”
A third felony conviction could have brought a life sentence for Smith under California’s three-strikes law.
Court records show Smith, a transient, was no stranger to Beverly Hills, where Chasen was shot to death on Nov. 16. He was arrested for robberies in that city and neighboring West Hollywood and sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1998.
One of the victims testified in court that he grabbed her in a bear hug and demanded her purse but fled with just her portable music player and headphones when she screamed and struggled.
His criminal record dates back at least 25 years to 1985, when he was convicted of burglary in New York. He moved to California in 1991, was arrested again for burglary and pleaded guilty. Three years later, he was charged in an Oregon robbery but it could not be immediately determined if he was convicted.
He was charged with marijuana possession and loitering last year in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and pleaded guilty to the latter charge. A warrant for his arrest was issued after he failed to return to court in September to pay his $160 fine.
Chasen, 64, was shot multiple times as she drove through Beverly Hills in her Mercedes from a party after attending the premiere of the movie “Burlesque.” She was promoting the film’s soundtrack for an Oscar nomination.
Retired homicide detective Gil Carrillo, who examined a preliminary coroner’s report on Chasen obtained by KTTV, said it revealed that whoever shot Chasen was an expert marksman. That led Nazarian to question how someone such as Smith, living on the margins, could have pulled off such a killing.
“Would somebody in a conspiracy to kill somebody actually want Harold on their team?” he asked. “I mean, come on. It doesn’t make sense.”
As police continued their investigation Friday, a judge approved a petition to appoint special administrators for Chasen’s estate, which court records show has an estimated value of $6.1 million. Attorneys for executors named in Chasen’s 1994 will were asking the judge to appoint them as administrators so they can run her business and try to determine whether the publicist had a newer will.
Martha Smilgis, one of the co-executors, said she did not think Chasen was killed because of anything in her will. A friend of Chasen for more than 30 years, Smilgis said the veteran publicist had not expressed any fear or concern in recent conversations.
“Believe me, this woman expected to live on and on,” Smilgis said.
Associated Press writers Greg Risling and Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.