Los Angeles

Woman Accused of Rolling Hills Estates Murder Plans to Sue Sheriff's Department

A mother from Los Angeles who says she was wrongfully arrested for murder plans to sue the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the city of Rolling Hills Estates.

Cherie Townsend said Monday she and her attorney filed a claim for damages alleging defamation and false arrest. A claim is the first legal step required before a lawsuit can be filed against a government agency in state court.

Townsend first told NBC4's I-Team last week she was desperate to clear her name after Sheriff Jim McDonnell in May publicly accused her of killing retired nurse Susan Leeds at a mall in Rolling Hills Estates.

"I was arrested for a murder I didn't commit," she said. "It's important for my story to be out, because I was wrongly accused."

It was May 3 when Leeds body was found in the driver's seat of her Mercedes SUV inside the first level of the parking structure of the Promenade on the Peninsula shopping center.

Detectives said Leeds' throat had been slashed, she'd been stabbed a dozen times, and things had been stolen. The next day, deputies arrested a homeless man who had been seen at the mall, but quickly released him.

Then Sheriff McDonnell announced that Townsend had been booked for murder and was being held on $1 million bail.

"They all had their guns drawn, like I'm a monster," she said. "They asked me to get out, put my hands up, and at this point, my life kinda flashed …"

Townsend confirms she was at the mall that day, shopping and passing time after dropping her daughter off at a friend's house in nearby Lomita. She says she knows nothing about the murder, and didn't see anything unusual while walking through the parking structure.

She drove out, her car was recorded by a security camera, but Townsend says she didn't realize she'd left something behind until later that day.

"At some point I dropped my phone and my phone was found in the parking lot."

Townsend says that phone is the only thing that connects her with the murder scene, and it's how detectives tracked her down days later.

"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."

Townsend was booked, her car seized. Investigators even searched the home of a friend she'd been visiting. She sat in jail for four days. Then prosecutors reviewed the evidence and decided no murder charge could be filed. Cherie was released.

"It was a relief, but a nightmare."

Months have now passed. She says if there was any evidence that connected her with the crime she knows she'd have been charged.

"Like I already knew, I'm innocent, what I said from day one."

Townsend says her daily routine of being immersed in her kids' school and athletic lives ended with the arrest and accusation. She says she's been afraid to be out in public, and can panic when she sees a police car. 

"It's fear, fear that I'm going to unjustly be taken from my children."

She says she used to work for the LA County Probation Department and planned to resume working full-time once her kids were in college.

"I still have this dark cloud over my head ... from the moment I was released, they still went on TV and said we think we have the right person. That's damaging to me, my family."

The Sheriff's Department detectives on the case declined to be interviewed. The department would not say if it still considers Townsend a suspect, but her name is not mentioned in a new written statement.

In that statement the department says the case "has proved to be a very complex, active investigation," and says "with the lack of eyewitnesses, the physical and forensic evidence collected is continually being re-evaluated."

"Investigators are still receiving tips from the public and are diligently following up on each and every lead," the statement says.

Susan Leeds' family says it has full confidence in the homicide detectives to find the person responsible for the crime. "We know that the Sheriff's Department is doing its best," Leeds' adult stepson Fred said Thursday. "We believe in the job they are doing, and we believe they're doing everything humanly possible."

"I knew Susie Leeds for 28 years," he said. "She never had a mean word to say to anyone. She showed kindness to everyone, We greatly miss her, especially my father."

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