A story for every victim

Susan Beth Leeds, 66

Susan Beth Leeds, a 66-year-old white woman, died Thursday, May 3, after being stabbed in the parking structure of the Promenade on the Peninsula shopping center, 550 Deep Valley Drive, in Rolling Hills Estates, according to Los Angeles County coroner’s records.

Leeds, a retired nurse who lived in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, was found inside her car at 12:22 p.m. with multiple stab wounds, according to Los Angeles County sheriff’s news reports. She was pronounced dead at the scene at 12:36 p.m., according to coroner’s records. 

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department said Leeds’ throat also had been slashed. 

Leeds’ white Mercedes-Benz SUV was parked on the first floor, near the main entrance, and investigators think the attacker’s car was parked nearby.

Investigators released a grainy seven-minute video from a surveillance camera in the parking lot in which cars and pedestrians pass by Leeds’ car around 12:15 p.m., the time investigators think she was killed, Capt. Chris Bergner said during a news conference on May 18. 

“As of today, we do not have an eyewitness to this crime, but we certainly believe there might be one out there,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell said during the news conference.  

Investigators hope the video will prompt anyone who was at the shopping center between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. May 3 to come forward, Bergner said. 

“We believe the motivation was robbery, and we do not believe the suspect knew the victim,” Bergner said. “We believe it was a random crime of opportunity, and at this point, we’re trying to put the pieces together about why this ended as a homicide. Maybe there was a struggle that somebody saw out of the corner of their eye. The community needs to come together and help us out on this.”

Two arrests were made in connection with the attack, but both people were released. A tall, thin homeless man who frequented the shopping center was identified as a person of interest by investigators after surveillance photos put him near Leeds’ car.

Jeffrey Leyson, a 62-year-old white man, was arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance on May 4, according to jail records.

But investigators did not have sufficient evidence to arrest him in connection with Leeds’ death, Lt. Rodney Moore said during a Facebook Live discussion about the stabbing on May 8.

Two weeks after Leeds’ death, Cherie Townsend, a 39-year-old black woman, was arrested on suspicion of murder. Townsend lives in Inglewood, according to jail records, but she was arrested in Victorville. 

Investigators had linked a gold 2008 Chevrolet Malibu to the attack, but they refused to release further details about Townsend’s May 17 arrest. The car “is in our custody,” Moore said, but he wouldn’t comment on its connection to Townsend, who was released from jail on May 22 after the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file charges against her. 

“We have asked law enforcement to conduct further investigation,” the D.A.’s spokeswoman, Sarah Ardalani, said in an email. “We haven’t outright rejected the case. We’ve just asked for further investigation.” 

The Sheriff’s Department released a short statement confirming Townsend’s release: “The focus of our investigation has absolutely not changed. The investigation has progressed. It is not unusual for prosecutors to request additional information and we are confident this homicide case is moving forward.”

The statement also said investigators think the fatal stabbing “remains an isolated incident in a historically safe community,” but as a “measure of reassurance ... the LASD has increased visibility of their deputies in Rolling Hills Estates and remains in close contact with the city on further developments in this case.” 

Leeds’ killing is the first homicide in Rolling Hills Estates since 2009.

Moore said Leeds had visited “several businesses” in the mall, but he would not comment on whether investigators think she was targeted in the mall or the parking lot. He also said investigators don’t know whether more than one person was involved in the attack. 

Townsend “has not been cleared as a suspect,” he said, “but this investigation is very fluid, and we haven’t taken anything off the table.”

Brothers Fred Leeds and Ben Leeds, two of Leeds’ six adult stepchildren, spoke at a May 18 news conference, imploring people to contact investigators with information.

Fred Leeds, the eldest, said he knew his stepmother for 28 years. “She was very kind, very sweet, very loving. ... My father wanted to convey that he loved her very much, and she’s greatly missed by our family.”

Ben Leeds said his stepmother was a Type 1 diabetic for 65 years and she had worked for decades at Kaiser Medical Center helping people who had the disease.

“She saved many lives with her knowledge,” he said. “To see such a sweet, innocent woman go through such a horrific death is certainly beyond words.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at (323) 890-5500. Those wishing to remain anonymous should call Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.  

Contact the Homicide Report. Follow @latimeshomicide on Twitter.

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