The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Ronni Chasen: Dark theories over her slaying

December 13, 2010 |  7:02 pm

WireImageHollywood is a notoriously contentious place, where everyone has a different opinion about which movie is the true Oscar favorite or which actor’s career is totally on the downhill slide. But improbably, it seems as if everyone in town agrees on one thing: the Beverly Hills Police Department’s explanation that Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen was killed by a small-time crook in a botched midnight robbery is utter hogwash.

As New York publicist Kathie Berlin, a longtime friend of Chasen’s, told my colleagues Andrew Blankstein and Harriet Ryan in a story on Sunday: “It’s ridiculous, just ridiculous. It doesn’t add up and I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks it does.”

The police have said ballistic evidence clearly shows that Harold Martin Smith shot himself to death on Dec. 1 with the same gun used to kill Chasen on Nov. 16. But that hasn’t brought any closure. Over the weekend, I spoke to a variety of showbiz insiders who cast doubt on the official explanation, proposing a variety of alternative hypotheses about what happened. Hardly anyone believes that Smith acted alone; they are certain that darker, more conspiratorial forces were at work.

Each theory is more outlandish than the last. There’s one about Chasen being in the middle of a case involving a painting sold to a Russian mobster and another that involves alleged gambling debts. At first, I chalked up all this zany speculation to the age we live in, where TV and the Internet are so riddled with tales of questionable veracity that there is rampant skepticism about almost any famous person or event. After all, if millions of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim (he’s not), isn’t it possible people will question anything?

But as I kept reading websites full of breathless questions that claimed to shoot holes in the police explanation (“If this was simply a random crime, then why did Smith shoot Chasen so many times if he didn’t even know her?”), another question kept popping into my head: Wasn’t there another time in American history where everyone scoffed at the lone-gunman theory?

For decades, people have argued that Lee Harvey Oswald was anything but the lone gunman in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, believing that the president was actually the victim of a mob hit, a CIA putsch or some other far-fetched, Oliver Stone-style scenario.

But that’s hardly the first time people scoffed at a simple official explanation for a high-profile death.

Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose of barbiturates, but do you know anyone who buys that? Not when far more provocative theories are available, largely centering on the Kennedy clan, who supposedly needed to keep Monroe quiet after she threatened to reveal that she’d had an affair with Jack or Robert Kennedy — or both, depending on which account you read. As early as 1973, Norman Mailer was on the case, suggesting that Monroe’s death was a murder staged to look like a drug overdose.

In an exchange that was surely a portent of scattershot blogger reporting to come, Mailer told Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” that he couldn’t interview an important possible witness — Monroe’s housemate Eunice Murray — because Murray had died before he started work on his book, prompting Wallace to respond that Murray was actually alive and listed in the Los Angeles phone book.

As a new biography of Sal Mineo points out, when the “Rebel Without a Cause” costar was stabbed to death near his West Hollywood apartment in 1976, the event was treated in much the same way as the Chasen affair. It was said that Mineo, who was gay, was the victim of a jilted lover or a hate crime. Homophobic cops supposedly sabotaged the case. In fact, the assailant had no idea who Mineo was.

But this is clearly not even a modern phenomenon. Stacy Schiff’s new biography of Cleopatra reminds us that ancient historians tried to establish Cleopatra as a central figure in the events leading to the murder of Julius Caesar, claiming she had aroused Caesar’s greed and imperial ambitions. As Schiff writes: “Those assertions made for a better narrative than did the plain fact that Caesar had plenty of enemies for plenty of reasons, few of which had anything to do with either Egyptian queens or the Roman constitution.”

Schiff seems to have hit on an essential truth that clearly applies to speculation surrounding Chasen’s senseless death. We are always looking for a better narrative, a story that would supply a more satisfying explanation for the cruel, often arbitrary events in life. It is human nature for any of us, starting with Chasen’s true friends, to need to imagine that her death wasn’t a matter of chance — because if she was just the victim of a random robbery, we’d all be equally in danger. We’d all feel less safe than if there were some personal reason for her killing, something specific that caused her to end up in the cross hairs.

There are legitimate questions to be raised, since police haven’t fully addressed some key issues. But some of the conjecture has been laughable. One blogger, noting the absence of shell casings at the scene, raised the seemingly compelling question of how a killer could have managed to pick up all the casings without being apprehended. But as Blankstein pointed out, the weapon used was a .38-caliber revolver, a gun whose casings remain in the chamber after the bullets are fired.

People have also scoffed at the notion that Smith, an African American, could have been riding a bicycle at midnight in Beverly Hills without attracting attention. In fact, police say that bicycles are often a much less conspicuous means of transportation for criminals, since a bicyclist is much less likely to be pulled over than a motorist driving a beat-up car with a missing tail light or a bad paint job.

When I spoke to Blankstein on Monday, the veteran crime reporter said he was frustrated by the public’s rampant skepticism about the case. “We came up against an overwhelming doubt,” he said. “At the same time, when you consider the lack of vetting of these rumors before they were put into the public domain, you can see why theories suddenly become fact, especially in a town full of smart people with vivid imaginations.”

I thought of our hyperbolic reaction to Chasen’s death when I saw a clip on TV from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a John Ford western where we discover that the story behind a fabled killing isn’t as straightforward as it had seemed. When a newspaper editor is asked if he plans to reveal the truth, he replies: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

It feels as though after all those years, we still prefer it that way.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Ronni Chasen, in an undated photo, who was shot and killed last month in Beverly Hills. 

Credit: WireImage