Woman Accused Then Released in Rolling Hills Estates Homicide Files Federal Lawsuit Alleging False Arrest

Months after her arrest and release from jail, a woman accused of stabbing a retired nurse in Rolling Hills Estates filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday against Sheriff Jim McDonnell and others, alleging false arrest and imprisonment, defamation, emotional distress, negligence and a violation of her civil rights.

Cherie Townsend, 40, was accused of fatally stabbing and slashing the throat of Susan Leeds, 60, in a parking garage at the Peninsula mall on May 3. She was arrested May 16 and released five days later when the case against her was rejected by prosecutors due to insufficient evidence. Charges were never filed.

During the five days Townsend was in jail, Los Angeles County Sheriff McDonnell held a news conference, naming Townsend as the suspect in the killing, a rare homicide in an affluent Palos Verdes community.

“They had to blame somebody, and I was it,” Townsend said in a news release announcing the lawsuit on Friday. “Because like they explained to me in interrogation, they told me I didn’t have any business over there. … I’m not rich enough to be there, or I didn’t have the right car, or I didn’t look the part.”

Attorneys also filed a motion to force the Sheriff’s Department to return all of Cherie Townsend’s belongings to her, including her car, before McDonnell leaves office.

The lawsuit also named the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the Rolling Hills Estates mayor and Rancho Palos Verdes as defendants.

“They took her DNA, collected all the evidence they could find from the car, yet my client is still here with me – so that should tell us something. My client is right here sitting next to me; where is the murderer of Susan Leeds?” Townsend’s attorney, Nazareth Haysbert, said at a news conference in October. “When asked if they regretted making the announcement of Miss Townsend’s arrest so early, Sheriff McDonnell said, and I quote, ‘No.'”

Townsend’s team believes that this was an incident of racial profiling. Townsend is black.

“Our client fully intends to try and repair the damage done to her and her family by being wrongly accused of murder by Sheriff McDonnell and send a message to the Sheriff’s Department that racial profiling is illegal and must be stopped,” said Haysbert.

No other suspects have been named in the fatal stabbing of Susan Leeds.

“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,” the Sheriff’s Department said in an Oct. 1 statement.

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