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Slaying of publicist baffles police, Hollywood

The slaying of a prominent movie publicist shortly after she left a film premiere has baffled Hollywood colleagues and residents of this tony community.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's the latest mystery to grip Hollywood. A prominent publicist and woman-about-town is killed, her body slumped in her Mercedes near Sunset Boulevard.

Was it an attempted carjacking? Or something more sinister. Maybe a hit?

As the tabloid press, mainstream newspapers and websites blared with headlines Wednesday about the shooting of Ronni Chasen, tight-lipped detectives roamed this bastion of the ultra-rich, hunting for witnesses — and the killer.

Her friends and colleagues wondered how the life of a woman who had spent her career rushing from red carpet to red carpet to charm the connected for her star clientele could have ended in such a violent way.

It was mind-boggling, they said, that anyone would want to see her dead.

"Just because somebody didn't win an Oscar?" asked Chasen's longtime friend, Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Carol Connors. "I just can't see it being that. It seems so out of the realm.

"I mean, a publicist doesn't make that type of enemies," added Connors, who co-wrote the theme to the film "Rocky."

Police, however, were open to all possible motives, including a random attack, a carjacking gone awry or maybe even a hit.

"It's absolutely possible and it's something we won't discount," police Lt. Tony Lee said of the latter scenario.

Hours after the shooting, detectives seized computers from Chasen's West Hollywood firm, Chasen and Co. They wouldn't immediately say why. They also sought surveillance video and witnesses.

Investigators had yet to identify suspects or determine the motive in the killing.

Chasen, 64, was shot multiple times in the chest as she drove through Beverly Hills around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Neighbors said they heard gunfire and found Chasen's car crashed into a light pole on Whittier Drive, a street of multimillion-dollar homes just south of Sunset Boulevard, and a well-used shortcut to get to her home on the Westside of Los Angeles.

They said they found her struggling to breathe and bleeding from her nose and chest. The front passenger window was shattered. Chasen was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Hours earlier, Chasen was busy, in her usual way: She was attending the Hollywood premiere of "Burlesque," a movie meant to position pop singer Christina Aguilera for a career in films while reigniting the acting career of Cher.

Promoting its soundtrack for an Oscar had been one of Chasen's goals.

So was getting another Oscar nomination for Michael Douglas for "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

Veteran Hollywood reporter Nikki Finke, one of the last to speak to Chasen, said that's why the publicist called her Monday night before leaving for the premiere. The two ended up talking for an hour.

"It wasn't just a flack-reporter relationship; you became friends with her," said Finke, whose website is a must-read for industry types in Tinseltown.

"She'd go, 'We need to get Michael Douglas a nomination for supporting actor. You and I need to do this,'" Finke recalled, laughing. "She didn't pitch you as much as she enlisted you in her army."

Finke and others remembered Chasen as an old-school publicist, one with a distinctive, brassy voice who could be relentlessly pushy and loud. But at the same time, they said, she was never rude and seemed to have no enemies.

"If I died tomorrow there would be people in this town cheering," Finke said. "But this woman was really liked."

More than 75 people attended an impromptu memorial for her Tuesday night at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel, said fellow publicist Alan Nierob, for whom Chasen worked in the 1980s. A similar memorial was scheduled Wednesday in New York.

"She was just a dear soul that everybody in our industry will mourn the loss of," Nierob said.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival, which Chasen worked with for many years, is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of her killer.

Even in the sometimes cutthroat world of fighting for celebrity clients, Chasen stood out for her kindness and willingness to share credit, New York-based publicist Kathie Berlin said.

Berlin recalled a time years ago when the two were promoting the film "Thelma & Louise" and Chasen made sure Berlin shared credit for landing the film's stars, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, on the cover of Time magazine.

"We both worked on it, but truth is she made the call that got the cover," Berlin said.

Unless Chasen was leading some sort of secret life no one knew about, several people said, she'd be the last person they would suspect would be targeted.

She had little time for a secret life, they said, balancing her work with dining out at the trendiest restaurants just about every night and day of the week. She would always be in the company of friends and clients, who were often both.

"She worked all the time," publicist James Bates said. "Her life was going from red carpet to red carpet."


Rogers contributed to this report from Los Angeles.