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Two Years Later, Black Mother Wrongfully Accused of Murdering White Woman in Rolling Hills Estates Still Fighting to Get Her Name and Car Back
By Special to the Sentinel by Jasmyne A. Cannick
Published April 29, 2020

Cherie Townsend and attorney forced to come out of coronavirus quarantine or have civil rights lawsuit dismissed

Cherie Townsend and attorney Nazareth Haysbert stand outside of the law offices for the County of Los Angeles in Glendale on Apr. 6 after being ordered by a judge to break quarantine to attend a deposition her civil rights lawsuit against the County.

It’s been nearly two years since mother of two, Cherie Townsend, was accosted at gunpoint by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and arrested for the May 3, 2018 murder of Susan Leeds.  At the time, Leed’s death led the local news and made national headlines because she was a white woman who was murdered in a wealthy Los Angeles County suburb.

Then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell wasted no time in trying to pacify the residents of two cities that contracted his department for law enforcement services.  But two years later, Cherie Townsend is still fighting to get the car she was in when she was arrested returned to her and to officially clear her name.

It was May 3, 2018, and Susan Leeds, a retired nurse, was found dead in the front seat of her Mercedes Benz SUV in the parking lot of the Promenade on the Peninsula shopping center in Rolling Hills Estates.

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Investigators described the murder as a robbery gone wrong. Initially, a homeless man was arrested and questioned but then released.

Days later, then-39-year-old Cherie Townsend, a Black single mother of two, was out driving her gold 2008 Chevrolet Malibu when she was pulled over at gunpoint by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and arrested for the murder of Leeds.

“I was driving on the freeway talking on the phone and noticed that a car was following me,” she explained. “I told my friend on the phone that I thought I was being followed.”

Not soon after Townsend says that she was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol and almost immediately she was surrounded by police cars and officers with their guns drawn and pointed at her.

“The next thing I know, I look up at my rearview mirror and there are about seven or eight police cars and they ask me to throw my keys out of the window and to slowly open my door and step out of the car.”

Townsend says detectives told her that a woman was killed in a shopping center and that they found her phone — a phone she says she had lost on May 3.

“They asked me did I see anything and I said no,” explained Townsend. “They asked me why I was there so I told them. Then they started asking me questions like do I have trouble with my finances and how do you pay your bills.”

Townsend said the detectives told her the woman killed had been robbed and that they believed that she knew something.

The soccer mom of two who split her time between driving her son to football practice and her daughter to acting auditions, gymnastics and cheerleading events, says she’s never even been in a fight and completely broke down crying and hyperventilating while the detectives took turns playing good cop bad cop.

Crying, Townsend recounted the detectives telling her that she wasn’t going home and that they were sure they were going to find her fingerprints and DNA.

Barely audible she says, “I told them I was innocent and they weren’t going to find anything.”

But even more troubling than that the single mother says is what the detectives told about why they targeted her for the crime.

“They told me that I didn’t belong at that mall,” a reference she understood to mean because she was Black.

“They had to blame somebody, and I was it. Because like they explained to me in interrogation, they told me I didn’t have any business over there,” she says. “I’m not rich enough to be there, or I didn’t have the right car, or I didn’t look the part.”

Ms. Townsend was jailed for five days during which time Sheriff McDonnell used the opportunity to get some free pre-election media coverage by putting on a dog and pony show to announce a suspect had been caught. At the time of Ms. Townsend’s arrest, McDonnell was fighting to show voters why he should keep his job as sheriff.

But without any physical or circumstantial evidence, Ms. Townsend was eventually released from jail and to this day, has not been charged with any crime connected to Leeds’ murder.

Asked if the announcement had been a mistake, McDonnell said, “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.”

Two years later, Cherie Townsend still doesn’t have her Chevrolet Malibu back and the sheriff’s have not cleared her of being a suspect in the Leeds murder.

To make matters worse, despite the County of Los Angeles’ strict coronavirus quarantine orders for non-essential business, Ms. Townsend was ordered to attend a deposition in her civil rights lawsuit against the County for her wrongful arrest.

While former Sheriff Jim McDonnell and sheriff detectives were given the courtesy to attend the deposition virtually, Townsend and her attorney, Nazareth Haysbert, were ordered to appear in person under the threat of her case being dismissed if they did not.

“We should all be appalled and frightened that the County and the obviously biased Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Chooljian are ordering citizens of Los Angeles County into closed-door depositions at the height of a global pandemic and in spite of executive orders issued by local, state, and national governments warning citizens to stay at home or face fines and arrest if they do not comply,” said Haysbert.

“How many other in-person depositions were ordered during this pandemic? Courts across the country are delaying trials and depositions and continuing discovery and trial deadlines, but L.A. County has refused to do so with the support of the Court putting many lives at risk for non-essential business.  We asked the County for an extension until May 1 for her deposition. They refused.”

On March 27, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order allowing the Judicial Branch to allow for remote depositions in every case (the law had previously required that parties be deposed in person) and electronic service of process.

Townsend is currently suing the County for defamation, emotional distress, negligence, false arrest/imprisonment and violation of her civil rights.

Almost two years later, the murder is still unsolved and the Sheriff’s Department still claims that Ms. Townsend is the lead suspect in the murder, although the County Board of Supervisors has issued a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect.

Ms. Townsend says she is still dealing with the aftermath of being publicly accused of murder by the sheriff. She says that her entire life has changed and the lives of her two children. She lives in hiding and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome or PTSD. Townsend says that she was an active parent involved in all of her children’s activities but that has stopped. She’s scared to be in public because she thinks that everyone looks at her like she’s a murderer and when she sees the police, she gets nervous with fear.

“I’m going to keep fighting. I am fighting to get my name back, but also for my children, who have also been harmed in all of this,” added Ms. Townsend. “I want my name and dignity back and I want my car back. This is far from over.”

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