She was the quiet philanthropist, an elegant, behind-the-scenes force. He is a music industry legend, the “Black Godfather” with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Early Wednesday morning, at least one suspect with a gun entered the Beverly Hills home of Jacqueline and Clarence Avant. Moments later, Jacqueline lay fatally wounded by a gunshot and Clarence was bereft.
During a brief news conference just a day after he was sworn in, Beverly Hills Police Chief Mark Stainbrook remained tight-lipped. He declined to divulge the number of suspects involved, who — if anyone — witnessed the attack, or whether it was the latest in a string of violent robberies targeting the rich and famous in and around Los Angeles.
“The motives in this case are still unknown, and we’re investigating all possible motives,” Stainbrook told reporters about 12 hours after the attack. “We will not speculate on anything that’s out there, including if this was a robbery attempt or not.”
What was clear, however, was the impact the Avants have had during their long life together, on politics and sports and entertainment, on goals as lofty as civil rights and as humble as getting bikes to disadvantaged children. Tributes flowed — shocked and tender — throughout the day Wednesday.
“When you think about the family, total, as well as Jackie herself, I love them, respect them, hold them in the highest regard because of what they meant as a family, especially in the world and especially in Black America,” Magic Johnson said in an interview. “They are like royalty in a sense, because of what they have been able to do to help other people achieve their goals and dreams.”
Former President Clinton tweeted that the shooting left him and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “heartbroken.” “Jackie Avant was a wonderful woman, a great partner to Clarence and mother to Alex and Nicole, an active citizen & a dear friend to Hillary and me for 30 years,” he wrote. “She inspired admiration, respect & affection in everyone who knew her.”
The elder Avants have deep ties to the Clintons, while their daughter was Southern California finance co-chair for former President Obama during his first White House run. Obama later appointed Nicole as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. She is married to Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-chief executive. Clarence, a 90-year-old entertainment-industry giant, is best-known for working with or advising such stars as Jimmy Smith, Lalo Schifrin, Babyface, Bill Withers, Sixto Rodriguez, the SOS Band and Cherelle.
In a 2007 Times profile, Nicole talked about how her parents moved in rarified political circles, remembering “President Jimmy Carter and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley working the crowds in the family’s living room. [Future California Gov.] Gray Davis, just starting his own political career, had a small office in the ’70s at her father’s record company. Gov. Jerry Brown was a frequent visitor at the family’s Beverly Hills estate.”
Many headlines Wednesday focused on Jacqueline’s close relationships with famous men, and she said of herself in a 1980 Times profile: “My role in life? Well, every successful man needs a certain kind of woman.”
But Jacqueline was a force in her own right. That same Times story was headlined, “Beverly Hills Hostess for African Dignitaries,” and talked about her plans to meet with a Tanzanian industrialist. She has been a prominent Los Angeles philanthropist over the decades, notably in support of the UCLA International Student Center. She served at one time as the president of the Neighbors of Watts, a support group for the South Central Community Child Care Center, and as entertainment chairman of the NOW benefit auction.
A 55-year resident of Beverly Hills, Jacqueline served on the cultural committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, “at a time when L.A. wasn’t thought of as a cultural center,” said Ken Solomon, president of the Tennis Channel, who has served as co-chair for the Democratic National Committee.
Solomon is also a family friend, and he said Jacqueline “knew everything about culture.” The couple “effortlessly traveled between artists and kings, and Jackie really was like the queen of the people. Everyone felt comfortable around her, everyone wanted to talk to her. She was always the person in the room who people would listen to.”
Beverly Hills police received a call shortly before 2:30 a.m. about a shooting at the Avants’ home on Maytor Place. When officers arrived, they found Jacqueline, 81, with a gunshot wound. A source said she was conscious when paramedics arrived and transported her to the hospital.
She was taken to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where she later died, Stainbrook said.
Clarence and a security guard were also at the home during the incident, he said during the news conference. Stainbrook did not say where they were or whether they saw the shooting, but he said they were not injured.
He also said that it was too soon to classify the attack as a home invasion or a follow-home robbery. “Someone went into the home,” he said. “We just don’t know what the purpose was. … I don’t think it’s a random attack. I can’t speculate on that right now.”
When asked if anything had been taken from the home, he later told The Times, “Nothing to indicate that at this time. Hard to tell when you are processing the scene to know if something is missing or not.”
The shooting comes amid growing concerns over a string of follow-home robberies in affluent neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area.
Stainbrook was asked repeatedly at the news conference if the Avant attack was connected to those earlier incidents. He skirted the questions, giving instead a full-throated defense of safety in a city renowned for its extreme wealth.
“Beverly Hills remains one of the safest cities in the United States, in the nation,” he said. “This type of crime in Beverly Hills is extremely rare, although in this case so unfortunate for someone’s life to be taken who was such a wonderful part of this community and gave so much back to everyone else. It’s horrific.”
In November, a crew of masked robbers tracked actor and former BET host Terrence Jenkins to his Sherman Oaks home and attempted to block his car in with an SUV, but he was able to flee in his car as shots were fired.
The month before, masked robbers made off with as much as $1 million in valuables from the Encino mansion of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Dorit Kemsley.
Last week, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore announced he was setting up a task force to deal with the follow-home robberies, saying the department had not seen violent holdups “like this in decades.”
At least 133 such robberies in areas of Los Angeles including the Sunset Strip, Melrose Avenue, the Jewelry District and Westside shopping areas are currently under investigation, according to the LAPD.
The trend, which has targeted celebrities and upscale restaurants in recent months, turned deadly in the predawn hours Nov. 23 when a man was gunned down during an attempted robbery outside Bossa Nova restaurant in Hollywood.
On Wednesday, yellow police tape blocked off the area around Maytor Place, where mansions in the tony Trousdale Estates are nestled in dense vegetation and set back far from the street behind long driveways. Aerial video of the scene showed a sliding door in the Avant home that appeared to have been shattered.
Vida Ardevilchi, who lives in the neighborhood, said there have been a lot of break-ins recently, but never a killing like this.
She said she would often see Jacqueline and Clarence Avant while they went out for walks.
“Lovely lady. Amazing people,” Ardevilchi said. “I can’t believe this is happening. God bless her soul.”
Times staff writers Meg James, Christie D’Zurilla and Randall Roberts contributed to this report.