YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Man who killed himself may not have connection to Ronni Chasen slaying

Beverly Hills police wanted to question Harold Martin Smith because a tipster called "America's Most Wanted" saying that the ex-convict had claimed involvement. But police say it's unclear if that's true.

December 04, 2010|By Harriet Ryan and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

She spent her days with the film industry's glamorous and powerful and owned an art-filled condominium in a posh Westwood high-rise. He was a small-time criminal and drug user who slept in halfway houses and rundown apartments in the part of Hollywood tourists rarely visit.

In the two days since ex-convict Harold Martin Smith committed suicide during a confrontation with detectives investigating the murder of Ronni Chasen, there has been intense speculation about the possible link between the movie publicist and the career criminal, with armchair sleuths and legal pundits spinning plots worthy of "Law & Order."

But on Friday the Beverly Hills Police Department, whose officers were seeking to question Smith when he shot himself, said it was possible there was no connection at all.

"At this time, it is unknown if this individual was involved in the Chasen homicide," department spokesman Lt. Tony Lee said in a statement.

He referred to Smith, 43, as a "person of interest" rather than a suspect and said undercover officers were following a tip from the Fox program "America's Most Wanted" when they approached him in the lobby of a gritty apartment building on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Lee declined further comment and the details of the incident, including whether Smith knew why police wanted to talk to him, were unclear. At the time of his death, there was a warrant for his arrest in connection with a Manhattan Beach misdemeanor charge and, according to neighbors, Smith had vowed to die rather than return to custody. Law enforcement sources said Smith did not comply with orders to raise his hands, instead backing up, pulling out a gun and shooting himself in the head.

John Walsh, the host of "America's Most Wanted," said a man phoned the show's tip hotline three days after a Nov. 20 program that included a segment on Chasen's death. The man told an operator that someone he knew was claiming involvement in the crime.

"He said, 'I think I know this guy. Someone has been bragging about it or talking about it and this is a dangerous guy and I'm afraid,' " Walsh said. He told an operator that he was too frightened to provide Smith's address.

"We begged the guy to call back," Walsh said. A week later, on Tuesday, he phoned again and said Smith was expected to visit the apartment building, where he had once lived, the next evening.

"We gave it to Beverly Hills right away and they rolled on it quite quickly," Walsh said.

Smith had been arrested seven times for crimes ranging from misdemeanor drug possession to felony robbery. The records suggest that 13 years ago Smith had some animus toward police. A note in the minutes of a 1997 proceeding stemming from an arrest for misdemeanor disturbing the peace and possession of drug paraphernalia reads, "Public safety hold. Threaten to kill police officer."

Smith's most serious crime, according to the records, was a 1998 robbery in Beverly Hills in which he was accused of stealing a Sony Walkman and other items from two women. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 11 years in state prison. He was released in 2007. In August 2009, Manhattan Beach police found him loitering outside a woman's home and charged him with misdemeanor prowling and marijuana possession.

He was sentenced to three years' probation and a month in county jail, but in September, after he failed to pay a $100 court fine, a judge in the Torrance courthouse revoked his probation and issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

Parole records obtained by The Times indicate that Smith had worked for a short time as a laborer after his release from prison but was unemployed earlier this year. He had recently been evicted from the Harvey Apartments. However, he spoke about an upcoming $10,000 windfall, one neighbor recalled.

Chasen was shot to death in her Mercedes on Nov. 16 as she drove home from a premiere party for the movie "Burlesque." Investigators initially described the case as wide-open. They have served multiple search warrants in the case but have refused to discuss the status of their investigation.

Walsh said he was "hoping and praying" ballistics tests would show Smith was involved in Chasen's death.

"Lots of people confess to crimes they didn't do for their 15 minutes of fame. I'm hoping this isn't just another nutcase," he said.

He declined to divulge any information about the tipster but said the man remains in telephone contact with the show.

"We talked to him today and he feels he did the right thing," Walsh said.

Times staff writers Martha Groves and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times Articles