An Anti-Climactic Close to Hollywood Murder Investigation

The official word that entertainment publicist Ronni Chasen's murder last November was the result of a botched robbery came as an anti-climax to a mysterious case that has riveted and unsettled the tight-knit Hollywood community.

The popular publicist, who had run dozens of Academy Award campaigns and represented such notables as Michael Douglas, was on her way home from the glitzy Hollywood premier of the film Burlesque when she was shot through the window of her Mercedes Benz along a heavily traveled stretch of Sunset Boulevard.

Because Chasen, 64, was felled by multiple gunshots, no shell casings were found and nothing was missing, her killing prompted widespread speculation that the shooting had been premeditated. Perhaps it was a mob hit or vengeance from a business deal gone bad.

But after nearly four decades covering and editing hundreds of crime stories, this murder struck me as the kind of random violence that often strikes after dark in many parts of Los Angeles. Those streets, by contrast, are not lined with mansions hidden behind high walls or routinely traveled by Bentleys and Porsches.

Yet there was something more cinematic in the way events played out on that winter day in what is known by realtors here as "the flats" of Beverly Hills: The chief suspect was fingered by the television show, America's Most Wanted. In a dramatic climax, he committed suicide as police were closing in. The crime scene was just down the block from the home where legendary mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was murdered in 1947. And the mayor of Beverly Hills had been quoted in a television report shortly after the murder as saying Chasen had been "targeted."

This week, the investigation's end brought only passing notice and little comment from those who had been most vocal about possible conspiracies. Instead, the too-often indulged Hollywood crowd was left with the sinking feeling that many of us carry every day -- this kind of tragedy could happen to anyone.

"This really had nothing to do with Ronnie," said veteran entertainment publicist Jim Yeager, who, like most in the industry, knew Chasen. "It's really no different from any high profile murder. This happened in a supposedly very safe part of town and it happened following an activity that so many people here participate in... And when anyone dies you look for answers."

He added: "Sometimes people in the entertainment business get caught up in the notion that life is an imitation of art...There might have been some imagination running wild."

Lt. Tony Lee of the Beverly Hills Police Department said his office was inundated by hundreds of media inquiries after the shooting. But following release of the final report, interest waned. "We got just 12 to 14 calls," he said. "People just wanted to move on."

Despite what sounded like a plausible plot for a feature movie, those who knew Chasen said they could see nothing in her background that would have given rise to conspiratorial theories.

I had drinks with her and her long time business associate Jeff Sanderson about a month before the tragic events.

She was in a talkative mood as she greeted colleagues at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. While she could be tough -- and what veteran publicist could survive without a certain toughness -- she was focused on her clients that afternoon, not all of them well known celebrities. In this particular case, it was the Ghent music festival, a favorite cause of hers, which annually presents the World Soundtrack Awards to film composers in Belgium.

Thinking back on her case brought to mind another infamous Hollywood homicide -- the killings more than four decades ago of actress Sharon Tate and group of her notable friends at her rented home on Cielo Drive by a deranged Charles Manson.

The mass murder prompted immediate speculation that the crime was part of a drug deal gone wrong. As the investigation progressed, celebrities and others rushed to rid themselves of illegal drugs. One unidentified film personality famously told a Life reporter, "Toilets are flushing all over Beverly Hills; the entire Los Angeles sewer system is stoned."

In the end, the evidence showed that drugs had nothing to do with the case. Manson had targeted the house on Cielo Drive merely because it once housed Doris Day's son Terry Melcher, with whom Manson had quarreled.

In the aftermath of the Manson killings, celebrities began hiring personal bodyguards in much larger numbers and many started packing guns themselves. I stopped hitchhiking after the murders, especially when my last ride came from two teens who brandished a pistol that one said he had stolen from his father.

Following the Chasen killing, most feel helpless to do anything to guard against an act that seemed so arbitrary.

Like many in the entertainment business, fellow publicist Howard Bragman is resigned to the notion that there is nothing to be done. "I know and believe the story the police are saying," said Bragman, who has represented dozens of celebrities through Fifteen Minutes, the agency he founded.

"I think the community is feeling like what a tragic loss and just plain sadness at the randomness and senselessness of it all."

Police Lt. Lee noted that there hadn't been a murder in Beverly Hills for many years before or after the Chasen shooting. "It was just one of those random acts," he said.

"There was so much media scrutiny and everyone came up with their theories, their hunches and their speculation. But so many stories were completely untrue... It was like everyone wanted it to be like a movie. But as much as they wanted us to manufacture a story, our job was only to gather the facts."

Lee said the Beverly Hills investigation was thorough. "We looked at everyone, at possible organized crime,' he said. "Every stone had to be turned over, which is why it took so long."

As to premeditation, "It was a personal fantasy."

In Hollywood there is a fine line between fantasy and the lives industry types purport to lead.

Among the many films Chasen promoted, undoubtedly there were a number that feature the popular character of the day -- superheroes who have amazing powers over their lives and the lives of those around them.

Chasen's death reminds us that life really is fragile and control is really seldom in our hands.