Who Killed Ronni Chasen?

UPDATED 12/20/2010 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/20/2010 at 01:00 AM EST

She hadn't rented a place yet, but high-powered Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen already had her anticipated Paris sojourn firmly under control. With an eye toward spending May and June in a particular apartment on the Left Bank, she befriended the concierge of a swank nearby hotel-then talked him into receiving faxes and packages for her. "She wasn't even staying there!" says her friend Kathie Berlin, a veteran publicist. "That's Ronni in a nutshell." Just as characteristic, Chasen, 64, wanted her close friends to come stay and play with her. "She said, 'What two weeks do you want?'" says Berlin. As the workaholic Chasen talked about finally taking time off to enjoy life-a summer course at Oxford University and an archaeological dig in Turkey!-none of those close friends detected any anxiety. "She expressed no fear of anything to me," says longtime friend Martha Smilgis (a former Los Angeles bureau chief for PEOPLE). "She was planning for the future."

In the weeks since that future was brutally cut short on Nov. 16 by a spray of bullets at a residential intersection in Beverly Hills, Hollywood speculation has gone wild. Was Chasen the victim of gambling debts? A feud? An art deal gone sour? Working on a tip from America's Most Wanted, Beverly Hills police tried on Dec. 1 to question an ex-convict named Harold Martin Smith, 43, whom they regarded as a "person of interest," not a suspect. Smith's response-he pulled out a gun and fatally shot himself in the head-was a bizarre twist in the ongoing investigation, which authorities are describing as "still wide-open" with "no motive established, no suspects arrested." Still, after FOX TV leaked details of the coroner's report, which identified a cluster of right-side gunshot wounds to her chest, shoulder and upper back, speculation escalated that Chasen had been the target of an expert hit. That, however, quickly gave way to new rumors that there had been two similar incidents in the days surrounding Chasen's death.

All of this has deepened the public's fascination with a Hollywood publicist who, until her death, had been a well-connected, behind-the-scenes player known for her hard-driving devotion to her clients, who have included actress Kate Jackson and composer Danny Elfman. Few in Hollywood knew about her lower-middle-class roots in New York City; the death of her father when she was young; her strong attachment to her now-deceased mother; her days at Sarah Lawrence. For them, the story began when she took a turn as a soap actress and found she didn't like acting. "She wanted to control things more," says Smilgis. "That was her comfort zone: controlling things." Married briefly in her early 20s, the single Chasen treated her clients like family. "She was involved in every facet of her clients' lives," says Hollywood manager Sandy Littman. "She knew all the secrets. But she never told."

Only those closest knew the details of her personal life. "Ronni liked men who were powerful and who were wealthy," says Smilgis, a named executor of Chasen's estate. Hollywood producer David Chasman says that for about 20 years Chasen "had a long-running, off-and-on relationship" with a famous Hollywood composer. Friends also point to an involvement with a Lehman Brothers executive and a good friendship with Dale Lang, a former publisher of McCall's, who denies any romantic attachment.

According to court documents, Chasen's estate is valued at $6.1 million. "I'm shocked she left so much money," says Littman, one of several friends to express surprise at the extent of her wealth. Chasen, whose 2,500-sq.-ft., two-bedroom condo in a well-situated West Los Angeles high-rise boasted an expansive view of the Santa Monica Mountains, "lived well, but not lavishly," says Lang. Actress Candy Clark describes the interior as "lots of white furniture on white carpet," and says that Chasen had "lithographs and some signed prints."

One thing she did spend money on-like many of her peers-was her appearance. "She was obsessed about people not knowing her age," says Berlin. Indeed, her 1994 will specifies that when her death is announced, "no mention be made of my age." Chasen, who sat for a haircut and highlights every three weeks, "was very into Arnold Klein," says Littman, referring to Michael Jackson's dermatologist. "That's why there were no wrinkles on her face. She'd had two hip replacements. She took care of herself."

And in more ways than one. "This was not a girl who was shy or tentative," says Berlin. "She would have had the FBI on it if she thought someone was following her." Frustrated friends have wracked their brains trying to imagine who might want Ronni dead and why. "There's nothing. Nothing," says Clark. And yet, says Lang, "Obviously somebody had it in for Ronni-but I have no idea who that could be."

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