After a wearying weekend in New York, Leslie Michelson was unloading suitcases from a taxi around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday outside his Whittier Drive home in Beverly Hills when he heard what he called "very unusual noises."
They sounded like gunshots but they couldn't be, Michelson figured. Not in the flats of Beverly Hills, the platinum-plated home of magnates and movie stars.
Hours later, Michelson was horrified to learn that he had heard the gunfire that ended the life of 64-year-old Ronni Chasen, a veteran Hollywood publicist. She had been shot multiple times on his street while driving her Mercedes-Benz home from a movie premiere after-party.
"In many ways, this shatters our sense of security and comfort in a neighborhood where this sort of thing isn't expected to happen," said Michelson, chief executive of a healthcare company. "It's extremely frightening for all of us."
Frightened. Stunned. Spooked. Beverly Hills residents have searched for the right words to describe their collective mood in the aftermath of a crime that has seemingly stumped police and fueled wild speculation about whether the shooting was the work of a gang member, a hit man or a sociopathic sniper.
"We are all in shock," said Red Richmond, a longtime Beverly Hills resident who worked with Chasen years ago at the Rogers & Cowan agency. "It has really stunned the community."
Richmond, who lives close to the shooting scene, said the slaying had shaken her composure. When the doorbell rang Thursday evening, she said, she peered out to make sure it was her usual UPS delivery man. "He said everyone is double-checking him," she said. "He, too, is watching the corners and streets. We are all on high alert."
So far, the city's police have not revealed whether they have any leads in the case. But Mayor Jimmy Delshad said police had told him that the shots appeared to have been fired from another vehicle as Chasen was heading west on Sunset Boulevard and waiting to turn left onto Whittier. Glass found at the intersection suggested that the shots shattered the passenger-side window of Chasen's car, he said.
In a news release Friday, Beverly Hills Police Chief David Snowden said detectives were "dedicated to this case around the clock." Seeking to soothe the ruffled community, he added: "I would like to assure the public that this was a rare, isolated incident and that the Beverly Hills community remains one of the safest in the nation."
Amid a greater metropolitan area where hundreds of people meet violent ends every year, Beverly Hills has historically been an oasis of security. Since 2007 the city of multimillion-dollar homes and gated estates has recorded only five homicides, according to coroner's data collected for The Times' interactive Homicide Report. In 2008, the city of about 38,000 residents had two homicides, both gunshot victims found in their homes.
Chasen's was the third Beverly Hills homicide in 2010. Katsutoshi Takazato, the 21-year-old son of a Japanese filmmaker, was stabbed to death in July at a home in Trousdale Estates. Authorities arrested Takazato's former girlfriend and a man she was dating in connection with the killing.
In May, Diane Newlander, 73, was found shot to death in her Beverly Hills home. Authorities said her husband killed her before taking his own life.
Beverly Hills Councilwoman Nancy Krasne said community members were "a little spooked it happened, but really confident the police will solve it."
Still, the shooting has been the talk of the town, and Wednesday morning an open-air Starline Tours van with a bevy of tourists stopped in front of the house where Chasen's car thudded into a light pole.
But for many, life has been proceeding normally.
Thomas Blumenthal, owner of Gearys gift shop and chairman of the Rodeo Drive Committee, said the crime was "of course very concerning." Chasen was a client, he said, and her loss was "very sad" for him personally.
But, he added, "I can honestly tell you it hasn't affected our business. It's been business as usual."