Real-life Hollywood whodunit surrounds publicist's death

Los Angeles Police Department detectives stand outside the Harvey Apartments on Dec. 1, 2010 in Los Angeles. According to reports, a suspect thought to be connected with the murder of publicist Ronni Chasen, fatally shot himself in this Hollywood hotel.
Los Angeles Police Department detectives stand outside the Harvey Apartments on Dec. 1, 2010 in Los Angeles. According to reports, a suspect thought to be connected with the murder of publicist Ronni Chasen, fatally shot himself in this Hollywood hotel.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

There is no glitz or glamour at the Harvey Apartments. Just questions. Detectives rolled up to the brick and beige building, just after the sun set on this dingy corner of Hollywood. Armed with a search warrant, they wanted to talk to a man there. Something about Ronni Chasen, the publicist for the stars, gunned down in ritzy Beverly Hills just miles - and a world - away.

As officers closed in, the man shot himself in the head. Blood sprayed a stairwell in the lobby.

By Thursday morning, the blood, the crime scene tape and flashing police cruisers were gone, but reporters and television news crews lingered on the sidewalk outside the 1930s art deco-style building on Santa Monica Boulevard.

They wanted answers to this real-life Hollywood whodunit.

Who was the mystery man, and why did the police want him? Was he a suspect? A hit man? Why would he kill himself?

All detectives would say was that he was a "person of interest."

The people who knew him at the dreary four-story apartment building called him "Harold."

The building is the kind of place where ex-convicts, recovering addicts and just about anyone else can go for a cheap place to live. The rents are month to month and start in the $600s, a resident said.

The man moved in sometime this year and was friendly and well-known in the building, said resident Robin Lyle, 44, who lived next door to him. "He always told me how much he liked me," he said.

Lyle said the man had been in prison and was concerned about how hard it would be to find work. He told him about a lawsuit that he filed against his former employer and the settlement he was expecting for wrongful termination.

"I'm waiting on this money, and then you're not going to see me anymore," Lyle remembered him saying.

The money ended up being less than he expected, Lyle said. The man told Lyle he had spent it all.

Lyle said the man, who was in the process of being evicted from the 177-unit building, stopped by on Saturday to say that the eviction had gone through and that he was going to leave.

Others painted a rougher picture of the man.

Terri Gilpin, 46, said the man always seemed paranoid, would ask if police were looking for him, and "had a screw loose." She said she once called police on him because he wandered into her apartment.

She said she heard him bragging about Chasen's killing and talking about how he was going to be paid $10,000 and was waiting on the money. She said he told her, "You know that lady on TV, that publicist? I did it, I did it."

Chasen, 64, was shot multiple times last month as she drove home in her Mercedes from a party after attending the premiere of the movie "Burlesque," whose soundtrack she was promoting for an Oscar nomination.

Asked why she didn't call police after hearing his comments, Gilpin said she and her husband didn't believe him.

Sammy Zamorano, who works in a nearby music studio, was in the building shortly after the suicide. He said the body was slumped against a wall with arms on either side. He said he did not see a gun. Another resident said blood was in the stairwell.

Zamorano said the man spent hours each day hanging around outside the building, always had a bicycle and usually wore gloves. "To me he was mental, criminal, but not so sophisticated. He had very bad vibes," Zamorano said.

Zamorano said he did not believe the man could have carried out a seemingly professional hit.

Since Chasen's killing, speculation has reigned about who could have killed her and why. Police have said they were considering all possibilities, including that someone ordered her killed.

On Thursday, detectives refused to release any details about their "person of interest," the case's progress or if they had settled on a motive.

The dead man had been identified, but his name was not being released because relatives had not been notified, the coroner's office said. He was a black male in his 40s, and his last known place of residence had not been established.

Beverly Hills police Chief David Snowden told The Associated Press in an e-mail that the man "was a person of interest only." Police released a basic narrative of the shooting.

Police spokesman Tony Lee emphasized at a news conference that the murder investigation was not over.

The Los Angeles Times, citing law enforcement sources, reported the police were reviewing surveillance footage of the lobby.

Court documents show Chasen had an estimated worth of $6.1 million. The Tuesday filing in Los Angeles County Superior Court said the figure included an estimated $4.7 million in personal property. There was no indication of substantial debts.

The documents were first reported Thursday by celebrity website TMZ.

The latest turn in the mystery left Chasen's friends wondering who the man at the hotel was and if, indeed, he was a hit man.

"A lot of people think it's a hit. A lot," said singer-songwriter Carol Connors, a friend of Chasen for more than 35 years. "It's really bizarre that he shot himself unless he really knew something."

Associated Press writers John Rogers, Greg Risling, Anthony McCartney and Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press.