LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — A 39-year-old woman who was arrested and later released in connection with the murder of a retired nurse in Rolling Hills Estates back in May has filed a series of defamation complaints against Los Angeles County claiming the arrest was racially motivated.
In a news conference Tuesday, Cherie Townsend and her attorneys announced they have filed several complaints against L.A. County, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Rancho Palos Verdes alleging defamation, emotional distress, negligence, false imprisonment and a violation of civil rights. Four separate complaints have been filed, which is the first step towards filing a lawsuit.
On the afternoon of May 3, 66-year-old Susan Leeds of Rancho Palos Verdes was found with her throat cut and several stab wounds in a Mercedes SUV in the garage of the Promenade of the Peninsula mall.
On May 4, a homeless man initially identified as a person of interest in the case was detained. However, he was later released from custody after being ruled out as a suspect.
Then, on May 16, Townsend was arrested by deputies in Victorville on murder charges in Leeds’ killing. Authorities said her car was parked on the same floor at around the same time as Leeds’ SUV.
At a news conference announcing Townsend’s arrest on May 18, LASD officials said they believed that Townsend had killed Leeds during the commission of a robbery. Officials said the two women did not know each other.
“We don’t believe she was specifically targeted,” Homicide Bureau Capt. Chris Bergner said back in May. “We believe it was a crime of opportunity.”
However, on May 22, about one week following her arrest, Townsend was suddenly released from jail. When asked about her release at the time, Sheriff Jim McDonnell claimed Townsend was still a suspect.
“It’s a case where, like so many cases, you make an arrest to be able to gather additional information, statements, evidence, and then you will continue to work it,” McDonnell told CBS2 at the time.
When reached by CBS2 Monday, a sheriff’s department spokesperson would not confirm whether Townsend was still considered a suspect.
“On May 22, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department presented their case to county prosecutors who declined to press charges because there wasn’t enough evidence,” Townsend’s attorney, Nazareth Haysbert, told reporters Monday at his law firm in downtown L.A. “Miss Townsend was then released without restriction. And over five months later Miss Townsend is sitting right next to me, a free woman.”
An emotional Townsend told reporters that on the morning of the murder, she had dropped her daughter off at a friend’s house, about 15 minutes from the mall, and then driven to the mall to purchase some items.
“After that, I went on with life as normal,” Townsend said. “Several weeks later, as I’m driving down the freeway to visit a friend, I noticed that I’m being followed by a car… And I was later pulled over by a Highway Patrol officer. But by the time I looked up in my rearview mirror, there were about seven or eight police cars. And they drew their guns and ordered me out the car.”
Townsend then described being questioned by investigators.
“They questioned me about how I’m able to provide certain things for my children, and what I was doing in an area like this,” Townsend said Monday. “Or the fact that, on Mother’s Day, I was on Rodeo Drive with my kids, like I don’t belong there.”
Townsend told CBS2 she lost her phone on the day of the murder. Authorities said it was later found in the area of the mall.
Since Townsend’s release, no arrests have been made and no other suspects identified in the case.
Following Townsend’s release, when asked if holding a news conference to announce her arrest had been a mistake, Sheriff McDonnell responded:
“No, I thought it was what we needed to do to be able to let the community know where we were on the case. There was a lot of interest in that case, certainly, and a lot of anxiety, and to the degree that we were able to provide some closure, some comfort to that community, we wanted to do that.”
LASD provided CBS2 with the following statement following Monday’s news conference.
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Homicide Bureau continues to investigate the murder of Susan Leeds which occurred on May 3, 2018, in the city of Rolling Hills Estates. This has proven to be a very complex, yet active investigation. Investigators are still receiving tips from the public and are diligently following up on each and every lead. With the lack of eyewitnesses in this case, the physical and forensic evidence collected is being continually re-evaluated. Additionally, Investigators are coordinating their efforts in the furtherance of this investigation with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office Major Crimes Unit.”