Homicide detectives say they have made significant progress in the murder case of a retired nurse, who was stabbed to death outside a mall in Rolling Hills Estates over a year ago.
Several law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation told NBC4 the recent offer of a $25,000 reward was part of an expansive effort to find information that could answer key questions in the killing of 66-year-old Susan Leeds.
She was found dead in the front seat of her SUV in the parking lot of the Promenade on the Peninsula shopping center on May 3, 2018. Investigators described the murder as a robbery gone wrong.
On Wednesday, the woman initially accused in the Leeds case made another appeal to ask the LA County Sheriff's Department to publicly declare her innocent, and she announced another legal filing in an effort to retrieve her car and other belongings that have been held as potential evidence.
Cherie Townsend was arrested shortly after the killing but was released from jail after prosecutors declined to file charges.
"I'm in fear constantly of the police," Townsend said of the year since her release. "I'm angry, I'm disgusted, about how the County is able to get away with what they're doing to me."
Townsend has filed legal actions against the County in state and federal court, and has appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals a federal judge's decision to delay that case until the murder is solved.
"We believe that they're [the 9th Circuit] going to do the right thing," said Townsend's attorney Nazareth Haysbert.
Townsend first discussed her arrest with NBC4 last fall, when she said she felt she had no other option than to share her story in public.
"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."
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," she said.
More than a year has passed since the arrest, and Townsend 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 last fall and the department declined to say if it still considers Townsend a suspect, but her name is not mentioned in the most recent written statement on the case.
In those remarks 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.
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," said Leeds' stepson Fred. "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."