Picture a neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills surrounded by trees and plenty of wildlife. Not the glamorous, celeb-packed part of the hills but a place where the likes of coyotes, tarantulas, and other wild animals roam freely alongside a stream of cars that speed back and forth around the community’s tight and winding streets.
BALIAN: WHAT’S THE WILDLIFE LIKE IN THE AREA?
SHAW-CUTTER: IT IS ROBUST. WELL, WE PULLED SOME SHRUGS OUT OF OUR YARD AND FOUND A RATTLESNAKE THAT WAS ENORMOUS. WE HAD A MOUNTAIN LION, A LOT OF COYOTES, A LOT OF BUNNIES, RACCOONS, YOU NAME IT. IT’S LIKE A WILD KINGDOM. A COUPLE OF DEER. TARANTULAS.
BALIAN: SOUNDS GOOD. IT SOUNDS LIKE AN ADVENTUROUS NEIGHBORHOOD. BASED ON WHAT YOU KNEW ABOUT THAT STREET, WAS THAT A SAFE PLACE TO LEAVE SMALL CHILDREN UNATTENDED?
SHAW-CUTTER: NO. NO, YOU COULDN’T LEAVE LITTLE KIDS, DOGS, CATS. THEY NEED TO BE IN THE HOUSE. IT WASN’T SAFE BECAUSE THE COYOTES ARE BIG AND PRETTY DARING UP THERE.
These are the words of Kathryn Shaw-Cutter, a resident of Benedict Canyon Drive and a neighbor of Susan Berman. Shaw-Cutter was a newlywed who had just moved into the area with her husband. She and Susan Berman quickly bonded over wearing pajamas late into the day — a result of their day jobs as writers.
The anecdotes Shaw-Cutter tells of Berman aren’t noteworthy. They’re moments, fragments of minor interactions that happened twenty years ago. And, at the time they occurred, Shaw-Cutter probably never expected to mention them again.
Especially in front of a loaded courthouse during a major Los Angeles murder trial.
BALIAN: WHAT WAS THAT NEIGHBORHOOD LIKE?
SHAW-CUTTER: WELL IT’S QUITE SECLUDED I WOULD SAY BECAUSE IT’S REALLY JUST A STREET THERE AND THERE ARE NO STREETS THAT GO UP VERY MUCH. SO, DURING RUSH HOUR IT’S PRETTY TRAFFICKY. BUT WHEN THE TRAFFIC’S QUIET LIKE ON THE WEEKENDS OR AT NIGHT, IT’S INCREDIBLY QUIET.
BALIAN: DID YOU FEEL SAFE LIVING THERE?
SHAW-CUTTER: I REALLY DID. UM, WELL BECAUSE IT’S JUST ONE ROAD. THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY OUT IN EACH DIRECTION, AND YOU KNOW, IF SOMEONE WERE TO LIKE ROB A HOUSE OR SOMETHING, THEY CAN’T REALLY GET AWAY. SO, I ALWAYS FELT EXTREMELY SAFE THERE.
And though Shaw-Cutter believed the area to be safe and “hard to rob,” it became the scene of a horrific crime.
Robert Durst is suspected of committing the crime at hand — shooting Susan Berman in cold blood.
BALIAN: WHAT WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SUSAN?
SHAW-CUTTER: UM, I CHATTED WITH HER A COUPLE OF TIMES. I WAS HOME AND WORKING. SHE SOMETIMES WOULD COME OVER AND ASK FOR HELP. ONE TIME SHE CALLED TO SEE IF MY HUSBAND WOULD GO OVER TO GET A SNAKE IN HER YARD. SHE WANTED HIM TO GET RID OF IT. HE WASN’T HOME, BUT WE CHATTED FOR A LITTLE BIT. SHE WAS A WRITER, AND SHE WOULD COME OVER IN THE MORNING, BUT, YOU KNOW, LIKE 10 OR 11, SHE’D BE IN HER PAJAMAS. I WAS A FREELANCE WRITER. I WAS ALSO WEARING MY PAJAMAS SO WE BONDED OVER WEARING OUR PAJAMAS LATE IN THE DAY. BUT I DIDN’T KNOW HER SUPER WELL.
BALIAN: WHAT WAS SHE LIKE?
SHAW-CUTTER: SHE LOVED TO TALK, THAT’S FOR SURE. SHE WAS QUITE FRIENDLY TO ME AND SHE WAS FUNNY. SHE GOT A BIG KICK OUT OF OUR MUTUAL PAJAMA WEARING. BUT SHE WAS VERY PRIVATE. SHE DIDN’T LIKE PEOPLE WALKING UP TO HER HOUSE. SOMETIMES WE GOT A PIECE OF HER MAIL AND I’D GO TO PUT IT IN HER MAILBOX. BUT, SHE TOLD ME, IF I’VE FOUND STUFF LIKE THAT, LEAVE IT IN THE MAILBOX, CAUSE SHE DIDN’T ANSWER THE DOOR. SHE DIDN’T LIKE TO ANSWER THE DOOR. THIS IS WHAT SHE TOLD ME.
Shaw-Cutter is in court to testify about her experiences with Berman and to talk about another moment that must have seemed banal at the time: a phone call she made after noticing Berman’s dogs running loose around her yard, despite the area being unsafe for pets due to the speeding cars.
BALIAN: WHEN CARS WERE DRIVING AND THERE WASN’T A LOT OF TRAFFIC. HOW QUICKLY WOULD THEY GO?
SHAW-CUTTER: FAST AND DANGEROUS. I SAW A DOG WHEN I WAS WALKING LULU, I GUESS IT’S GOING TO COME UP SHORTLY. UM, I SAW A DOG GET HIT BY A CAR. IT’S A REAL SHAME. IT’S DANGEROUS.
Shaw-Cutter also discusses how she was able to hear Berman and her dogs from her house.
BALIAN: YOU SAY YOU COULD HEAR HER. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?
SHAW: WE WERE SEPARATED BY ONE TINY LITTLE FENCE AND I COULD HEAR HER. SHE’D SIT OUT WHEN THE WEATHER WAS NICE AND HAVE A COUPLE OF PEOPLE OVER. SHE’D BE SITTING OUT THERE SOMETIMES AND I’D JUST HEAR TALKING AND LAUGHING AND THE DOGS, YOU KNOW, KIND OF RUSTLING AROUND AND BARKING AND JUST, YOU KNOW, SHE WAS OUT THERE. IT’S NOT VERY FAR AWAY.
Both the Defense and the Prosecution have asked Berman’s other neighbors what sort of sounds they could hear from Susan’s home. Obviously, in a case where the victim was murdered by a gunshot, this piece of information could become crucial.
Shaw-Cutter’s story also paints Berman in a vastly different light than the Prosecution and Defense presented in their opening statements. Both Deputy District Attorney John Lewin and Defense counsel Dick DeGuerin and David Chesnoff painted Berman as manipulative and overbearing. Today we see Berman’s vulnerable side.
BALIAN: HOW MANY DOGS DOES SHE HAVE? DO YOU REMEMBER THEIR NAMES?
SHAW-CUTTER: SHE HAD LULU AND TWO PUPPIES, ROMEO AND GOLDA. SO THERE ARE THREE. SHE WAS INCREDIBLY ATTACHED TO THOSE DOGS. SHE LOVED THEM DEARLY.
BALIAN: TELL ME ABOUT THAT.
SHAW-CUTTER: WELL, SHE DIDN’T HAVE ANY KIDS THAT I KNEW OF AND SHE WAS SINGLE AND I THINK SOMETIMES WHEN SHE’D COME OVER AND CHAT WITH ME, I GOT THE IDEA THAT SHE LIKED A LITTLE BIT OF COMPANY AND I REALLY THINK THEY WERE HER COMPANY.
BALIAN: COULD YOU EVER TELL BASED ON OVERHEARING HER AND HER INTERACTIONS WITH HER DOGS?
SHAW-CUTTER: OH, SHE DOTED ON THEM. SHE JUST, NO MATTER WHAT SHE WAS DOING, HALF HER ATTENTION WAS ALWAYS ON THE DOGS AND SHE DOTED ON THEM AND YOU KNOW, YOU COULD JUST HEAR IT IN HER VOICE. SHE’D BE LIKE: “BABY, DON’T MAKE ME SAD. LEAVE MAMA ALONE.” JUST LIKE A MOTHER HEN. SWEET. SO SHE SPOKE TO THEM LIKE HER CHILDREN.
But what Shaw-Cutter remembers much better than her minor, day-to-day interactions with Berman is the Christmas Eve of 2000.
BALIAN: WHAT HAPPENED ON DECEMBER 24TH, 2000?
SHAW-CUTTER: WELL MY HUSBAND AND I WERE HANGING AROUND IN THE MORNING AND SOME NEIGHBORS KNOCKED ON THE DOOR AND I HAD THIS DOG ON A LEASH, AND THEY SAID THAT THEY’D FOUND HER LOOSE IN THE STREET, AND THEY’D TAKEN HER HOME, BUT THEY WERE LEAVING FOR THE HOLIDAY AND GOING OUT OF TOWN. SO THEY SAID THAT THEY’D LEFT SOME MESSAGES AT THE NUMBER ON THE DOGS TAG. BUT THEY HADN’T HEARD ANYTHING BACK. SO THEY ASKED IF WE’D MIND TO HOLD ONTO THE DOG UNTIL THE OWNER GOT HOME AND THAT OWNER WAS SUSAN. I RECOGNIZED THE PHONE NUMBER AND THE ADDRESS. SO WE TOOK THE DOG.
BALIAN: I’M SORRY, YOUR INTENTION WAS TO KEEP THE DOG AND STAY WITH THEM UNTIL SUSAN GOT HOME?
BALIAN: WERE YOU EVER ABLE TO GIVE THAT DOG BACK TO SUSAN?
SHAW-CUTTER: NO. WE HAD THE DOG FOR A LITTLE WHILE AND I HAD TAKEN HER OUT TO SEE IF SHE NEEDED TO GO TO THE BATHROOM OR ANYTHING AND JUST TO LET HER BE OUTSIDE CAUSE WE DIDN’T HAVE ANYTHING SET UP FOR A DOG, SO I TOOK HER OUTSIDE AND I COULD HEAR THE OTHER DOGS RUNNING AROUND IN THE YARD.
BALIAN: WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
SHAW-CUTTER: SO I WALKED UP TO THAT LANDING A LITTLE WAY SO I COULD SEE DOWN INTO HER BACKYARD A LITTLE BIT. AND I SAW THAT HER BACK DOOR WAS OPEN, WHICH I THOUGHT WAS STRANGE. IF SHE WEREN’T HOME, SHE WOULDN’T HAVE LEFT THE DOOR OPEN LIKE THAT. AND THE DOGS, I COULD HEAR THEM RUNNING AROUND LOOSE, WHICH I WAS NOT A FAMILIAR SOUND CAUSE THEY WERE PRETTY MUCH ALWAYS RIGHT NEXT TO HER. SO I TOLD MY HUSBAND THAT MAYBE SUSAN HAD GOTTEN HOME AND TO GO KNOCK ON THE DOOR AND HE DID AND CAME BACK AND SAID THAT NOBODY HAD ANSWERED THE DOOR. SO I DIDN’T REALLY KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT RIGHT AWAY. BUT THE MORE I THOUGHT ABOUT IT, THE STRANGER IT SEEMED, SO I TOLD HIM I WAS GOING TO CALL THE POLICE. SO I DID.
And that was the context of this phone-call that Shaw-Cutter made to the police:
SHAW-CUTTER: YES. HI. MY NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR, ONE OF OUR OTHER NEIGHBORS FOUND HER DOG OUTSIDE YESTERDAY AND-
911 OPERATOR: WAS IT DEAD?
SHAW-CUTTER: THE PROBLEM IS WE HAVE THE DOG AND WE WENT OVER NEXT DOOR TO SEE IF SUSAN WAS HOME AND HER CAR WAS IN THE DRIVEWAY AND HER MAIL WAS ON HER DOORSTEP. SHE DIDN’T ANSWER HER PHONE. HER DOOR IS WIDE OPEN, SO I DON’T KNOW. AND WE HEAR ANOTHER DOG IN HER YARD AND NO BARKING, NOT OFTEN. OUR AREA HERE, THERE’S A LOT OF ANIMALS BUT NOBODY LEAVES HER DOG OUT OVERNIGHT, SO IT’S VERY WEIRD.
911 OPERATOR: OKAY. WHERE DOES SHE LIVE?
SHAW-CUTTER: SHE’S NEXT DOOR. SHE LIVES BY HERSELF AND I HATE TO SAY IF SHE FELL IN HER BATH OR WHAT, BUT YOU NEVER KNOW.
After Balian finishes up, Chip Lewis begins his cross-examination.
LEWIS: DID YOU HEAR ANYTHING AT ALL COMING FROM THE BERMAN HOUSE THAT WOULD’VE SOUNDED LIKE A STRUGGLE?
LEWIS: NOTHING THAT WOULD’VE SOUNDED LIKE A GUNSHOT?
SHAW-CUTTER: NO, NOT A THING.
LEWIS: NO SOUNDS WE WOULD ASSOCIATE WITH BREAKING IN, ETC?
During his questioning, Lewis continually reminds Shaw-Cutter about past events and frequently references “being fair” to her due to the amount of time which has passed between these events and the present day, which gets a few chuckles from her.
Notably, there is a lightness and a lack of intensity to Shaw-Cutter’s tone. She is very clear and concise in her answers in a way that suggests she has detached herself from the murder, as if it happened in an alternative reality.
Lewis later brings up two people who were acquaintances of Berman’s, and who had access to her house around the time of the murder: a woman named Dee Baskin, who was Berman‘s landlady, (and to whom Shaw-Cutter had referred as a “weirdo”) and a man who showed up on Shaw-Cutter’s doorstep on Christmas day: Nyle Brenner. Brenner was a friend of Berman’s who had come to visit her and encountered crime-scene tape at her residence. Brenner then walked over to Shaw-Cutter’s home and asked her if the police had told her what had happened.
SHAW-CUTTER: I KNEW THAT SUSAN HAD DIED BUT THE POLICE HAD NOT TOLD ME AT ALL IN WHAT MANNER.
LEWIS: SO YOU DIDN’T KNOW THAT SHE WAS MURDERED AT THAT POINT IN TIME?
SHAW-CUTTER: NO, NO.
LEWIS: DID HE ASK YOU ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED?
SHAW-CUTTER: HE ASKED WHERE SUSAN WAS AND I TOLD HIM THAT SHE UNFORTUNATELY HAD DIED AND HE WAS, YOU KNOW, QUITE STRICKEN. AND IT WAS IN FRONT OF MY CHRISTMAS GUESTS SO IT WAS A REALLY TOUGH MOMENT FOR HIM AND ME TOO.
LEWIS: AND MR. BRENNER, IN HIS QUESTIONS TO YOU AFTER YOU TOLD HIM THIS, DID HE ASK YOU WHAT THE POLICE HAD TO SAY?
SHAW-CUTTER: WELL HE ASKED WHAT HAPPENED TO HER. AND I REALLY DIDN’T HAVE A LOT TO TELL HIM EXCEPT THAT SHE HAD DIED.
LEWIS: WHEN DETECTIVES CAME OUT TO SEE YOU, DID THEY ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT NYLE BRENNER?
LEWIS: IN YOUR CONVERSATION WITH NYLE BRENNER, DID HE EVER INFORM YOU THAT HE HAD ACTUALLY BROKEN INTO SUSAN’S HOUSE?
LEWIS: THANK YOU VERY MUCH, NOTHING FURTHER YOUR HONOR.
Balian then begins a short line of questioning.
BALIAN: TRY TO ELABORATE, TO THE BEST YOU CAN, NYLE’S DEMEANOR WHEN YOU TOLD HIM THAT.
SHAW-CUTTER: HE WAS STRICKEN. HE HAD TO SIT DOWN. HE WAS REALLY, JUST, IN SHOCK. HE HAD TO SIT FOR TEN OR FIFTEEN MINUTES AND JUST, HE ASKED ME WHAT HAPPENED AND I TOLD HIM I DIDN’T REALLY KNOW. HE WAS JUST ASTONISHED.
BALIAN: THANK YOU. NOTHING ELSE.
Shaw-Cutter delivered all of her testimony in virtually the same perky affable tone that she might have had during one of her casual backyard conversations with Susan Berman. Berman was murdered nearly two decades ago, and the ocean of time seems to have washed away any trauma Shaw-Cutter may have experienced in learning that her next-door neighbor was shot within feet of her own home. But the absence of pathos in Shaw-Cutter’s testimony does not linger in the listener’s consciousness. What really registers with the gallery and the jury is what Shaw-Cutter did after the murder.
BALIAN: LET’S CUT TO THE PUNCHLINE, DID YOU EVENTUALLY END UP WITH LULU?
SHAW-CUTTER: WE ADOPTED LULU, YES.
Lulu, whom Shaw-Cutter referred to affectionately as a “sweet little lamb,” lived with her for the rest of the small dog’s life.
You can find all of CRIME STORY’S reporting on the Durst trial here.