LOS ANGELES -- A man who killed himself as he was confronted by detectives investigating the slaying of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen talked about serving time in prison, expressed fear that police were looking for him and vowed to die rather than return to custody, according to neighbors.
Beverly Hills police declined to provide any details Thursday about the case, including what role the man might have played in Chasen's killing and what led detectives to execute a search warrant at the Hollywood apartment building where he was living.
Several law enforcement officials and a neighbor identified the man as Harold Smith.
John Walsh, host of the television show "America's Most Wanted," said he believed detectives started to focus on Smith after the show's staff passed along a tip from the public. At the request of Beverly Hills police and people in the entertainment industry, the show recently featured Chasen's slaying and asked viewers for information that would help the homicide investigation, Walsh said.
"We have been working closely with Beverly Hills," Walsh said in a brief interview Thursday. He said his staff passed along the tip and that he has been traveling and was unaware of its details.
Law enforcement sources, who did not have permission to discuss the case publicly, confirmed that Beverly Hills detectives were led to Smith through a tip from the show.
Smith killed himself Wednesday evening, pulling a pistol from his pocket and shooting himself in the lobby of the Harvey Apartments building on Santa Monica Boulevard as detectives attempted to serve a search warrant.
Several law enforcement sources said Beverly Hills detectives privately described Smith as a suspect in the case. However, the Police Department has publicly described him only as a "person of interest."
The suicide was captured on a security surveillance tape and was witnessed by several residents, according to law enforcement officials. They said Smith's apartment had been under surveillance for at least a few days.
Some residents of Harvey Apartments, a weathered four-story brick building, said Smith was a disconcerting presence who told conflicting stories and had a quick temper. He arrived at the apartment building about three months ago but was evicted for not paying rent, they said. Nevertheless, he continued to live there.
Terri Gilpin, 46, said she had contacted the police about Smith in the past, not in relation to the Chasen slaying. She said Smith once entered her apartment without permission and had to be chased off by her husband, Brandon Harrison.
Harrison said Smith described himself to other tenants as an ex-convict who had served two stints in state prison, the most recent for firearms and drug-related convictions. After his eviction, Smith would ask other residents whether police had come looking for him, the neighbor said.
Smith said he owned a gun and vowed that he would never go back to prison, Harrison said.
"He told me several times, 'If it ever came back down to me going to prison, I would die first,' " Harrison said.
He said Smith told him that he was supposed to be getting $10,000, at one point saying it was for a job he did and on another occasion saying it was from a lawsuit.
Harrison said he had no way of corroborating Smith's claims. "I don't even know if he ever was in prison, or if anything he told me was true," Harrison said. "The man was very strange."
Gilpin told reporters Thursday that she'd overheard Smith brag to her husband that he had killed Chasen but ignored the comment because Smith often told inconsistent or questionable tales.
But neither Gilpin nor her husband had mentioned Smith making such a claim in previous interviews with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday evening. Harrison could not be reached Thursday to confirm his wife's account.
Building resident Robin Lyle, 44, also recalled Smith talking about a coming windfall -- supposedly from a lawsuit -- and his plan to leave the state.
"He said, 'I'm working on this money, and then you're not going to see me anymore,' " Lyle said. Smith told him he finally got the money a couple of weeks ago, but it was far less than he'd expected.
Lyle said he frequently saw Smith carrying a tall can of malt liquor and described him as a loner who would occasionally drop by Lyle's apartment.
Chasen was shot to death early Nov. 16 while driving her Mercedes-Benz near the intersection of Whittier Drive and Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
She was on her way home from a party after the premiere of the movie "Burlesque." Chasen is believed to have left the event about midnight and been traveling west on Sunset. Friends believe she planned to head south to her condominium on Wilshire Boulevard.
Several residents dialed 911 at the time of the attack, saying they heard gunshots. Moments later, another resident called police to report hearing the car crash into a light pole.
People living on Whittier Drive who heard the crash ran to the scene and found Chasen slumped over the steering wheel, bleeding.
(Times staff writers Richard Winton, Jack Leonard and Martha Groves contributed to this report.)
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