Today is the 39th anniversary of the disappearance of Kathie Durst. She was last seen on January 31, 1982. Los Angeles prosecutors have alleged that her husband at the time, Robert Durst, killed Kathie and enlisted his friend Susy Berman in helping him cover up his crime. They also allege that Susy’s knowledge of his guilt and the prospect of her speaking with the police motivated him to murder Susy 19 years later. Last month, we serialized an exclusive 4 part essay by Charlie Bagli called Susy Berman’s Greatest Unfinished Story. Today we publish that essay in its entirety.
You can find links to all of CRIME STORY’S coverage of the Robert Durst trial here.
It had all the elements of a classic Susan Berman article or screenplay: Celebrities, the scion of a New York real estate family, tightly held secrets, an anonymous note alerting police to the location of a “cadaver,” and a bi-coastal mystery.
Only this time, the victim was Berman herself, the funny, manipulative, raconteuse with an exotic past who could talk as fast and as long as she could write. Berman, with her trademark dark, shoulder-length hair and bangs drawn across her eyes like window shades, was well known at gathering spots for the cognoscenti, be it Elaine’s in Manhattan or Nate ‘n Al’s deli in Beverly Hills.
It was her body that police found on Christmas Eve 20 years ago today lying in a pool of blood in the back bedroom of a barren bungalow at the edge of Beverly Hills. The paws of her three, wire fox terriers had tracked through her blood by the time the police found her.
There was no shortage of drama or suspects: The gun-toting landlady who had repeatedly sought to evict Berman from the bungalow in Benedict Canyon. The personal manager to whom she owed thousands of dollars. Decrepit gangsters from Las Vegas, the kind of shadowy guys who hung around with her father in the 1940’s and 50’s as they transformed that sleepy desert town into a gambling and entertainment mecca.
“The irony of it is so striking,” said Julie Smith, a journalist, mystery writer and close friend of Berman. “Susan would’ve written about it if it had happened to a friend. Susan drew from her own life. She talked a lot about ‘secrets’ and she conveyed a sense of a person in the know.
“You never knew what she would say or do,” Smith added. “She had a fascinating background. She was an extremely ambitious, very talented, intelligent, but an extremely damaged person.”
LAPD detectives eventually focused their investigation on an entirely different suspect, a man to whom she was so close and so loyal that she considered him a brother, New Yorker Robert A. Durst. If Berman had grown up as a mob princess in Las Vegas, Durst was the princeling of a powerful family whose many skyscrapers helped form the glittering Manhattan skyline.
The deep bond between the two had been forged at U.C.L.A., where they both attended classes in the 1960s. Durst, who insists he did not murder Berman, still describes her as his “best friend.” When she was in financial straits, Susan could count on “Bobby” to throw her a gilded life preserver, including $50,000 not long before her death.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin contends that as close as he was to Berman, Durst would act in his own mortal interest when he felt cornered. Berman’s murder, he says, was part of a web of misdeeds spanning two decades and three deaths. Durst’s trial for the execution style murder of Berman started in March, 2020, but it was suspended after only two days of testimony because of the pandemic. The trial is scheduled to resume in April.
Susy, her friends say, was intelligent, funny, imperious, a mash-up of confidence and heart-breaking vulnerability. She idolized her father, who was known to his friends, associates and the F.B.I. as Davie “The Jew” Berman, left an indelible stamp on his daughter.
He was the suave, master of ceremonies at the Flamingo and Riviera hotels who knew everyone and just who should get the best room in the hotel, or the best table at a nightclub. His word was law. He fawned over his daughter, hanging her photograph next to the reservations desk at the Flamingo and giving the six-year-old the run of the casino.
Those traits showed up in Susy, who carefully cultivated a network of friends that extended from Hollywood to Manhattan. She could be generous and entertaining, doling out gifts and enthralling her friends with her stories over lunch. At the same time, she would grill waiters mercilessly about a dish, or order a friend take a new pair of boots out to the garbage because she had “decided” they were scuffed. She could also be unforgiving, abruptly cutting off a friend who failed to attend her wedding.
Most of all, Susy absorbed her father’s sense of loyalty, or what some might call “omerta.” And she was most loyal to her friend Durst. “She fought hard not to be the mob girl,” said Smith, “but she had a whole lot of mob values.”
Her career started with so much promise. She wrote screenplays, a half dozen books, and many, many articles. Time and again, she returned to her own life for inspiration. But she insisted on writing her own way and, according to friends, she lived her final years in “dire poverty,” while fending off eviction. She “never lost heart,” clinging to the notion that her big break was still coming. “I see now that Susan’s best stories were always those about Susan,” said Carol Pogash, a reporter who worked with Berman at the San Francisco Examiner in the 1970’s. “Her life was the best drama she ever told.”
My own chase of Berman and Durst began in late 2000 when I was at The New York Times, covering real estate moguls and their grip on the streets and politics of New York. Real estate is a blood sport in New York, but it rarely results in an actual murder. But now, a colleague, Kevin Flynn, and I had gotten a tip that the state police were reopening their investigation into the disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathie McCormack Durst. Long-forgotten by all but her family and friends, Kathie Durst was last seen on the night of January 31, 1982, five months before she would have graduated from medical school.
I knew both Durst’s father, Seymour, and his younger brother Douglas, though I had never heard of Robert, who had been estranged from his family since 1994. I never expected his story to follow me through much of my career. Three times, I packed up my files and put them in the attic, only to pull them out when a new chapter opened up.
Early on, Nick Chavin, a close friend of both Durst and Berman, told me I had to talk to “Susy” Berman who knew all of “Bobby’s” secrets. Chavin, at that time, believed that his friend was incapable of violence, let alone killing his wife.
Weeks later, I picked up a New York tabloid with a shocking headline: Berman had been found murdered in her Los Angeles home. Chavin and I flew to LA for her memorial service. Chavin got in. As a member of the press, I was politely turned away. Berman’s friends and family wanted to protect Bobby from being hounded by reporters.
The first thing I learned about Susan was that her father, Davie Berman, was a mobster who ran the Flamingo Hotel with Bugsy Siegel in the 1950s. “He was just my father to me,” Berman wrote in her 1981 memoir, Easy Street; The True Story of a Mob Family, “but to the world he was Davie Berman, one of the founders of the syndicate, a trusted partner of Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Bugsy Siegel.”
Over the course of her writing career, Berman interviewed Vice President Gerald Ford, actress and director Liv Ullman, the former Miss America Bess Meyerson, singer Carly Simon, and San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto. But she would always return to what she knew best: her life and Las Vegas.
Susan Berman burnished her father’s reputation. “By the time I knew him he was a legitimate hotel owner in Las Vegas, as legitimate as he could be,” Berman wrote in her 1996 book, Lady Las Vegas. Famous for his brains, style and skillful diplomacy between rival mob factions, he was known as the ‘Kissinger of Vegas’,” she wrote. Though the description may be on point, it betrays Susan’s penchant for hyperbole, as Kissinger didn’t become a commanding foreign policy figure until the 1960s, long after Davie Berman had died.
Davie was born in 1903 in Odessa, Russia, to a poor rabbinical student and the daughter of a lumber baron. The family arrived at Ellis Island four years later, settling in Ashley, North Dakota. Farming was a hard life, made more difficult by anti-Semitic taunts from neighbors.
Still a boy, her father hopped a train to Chicago, where he made his way up the ranks, from selling newspapers on street corners to running errands for gangsters, bootlegging and operating a shakedown operation. By his 20s, he was a full-time mobster who had done time in Sing Sing and kept his mouth shut.
At 36, Davie married Gladys Evans, a tap dancer from Minneapolis who was half his age, and in 1944 they set off for Las Vegas with the mob’s blessing, after Minneapolis became so inhospitable under the racket-busting mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey.
Davie Berman bought into nightclubs in Las Vegas and worked alongside mobster Bugsy Siegel, who was building a next generation hotel — the Flamingo — with mob money. Way over budget, the hotel opened and quickly closed. Siegel’s colleagues, thinking he was too flamboyant, too independent, had him assassinated in Los Angeles on June 20, 1947.
Within hours of Siegel’s death, according to organized crime historians, Davie Berman strolled into the Flamingo saying, ‘I’m in charge.’
In the years to come, Susan would regale her friends, publishers and studio executives with tales of playing gin rummy with her father’s bodyguards, visiting Fanny’s Dress Shop and Gigi’s Hair Salon at the Flamingo, and watching Elvis and Liberace perform at her birthday parties. All this, of course, made possible by her larger than life father.
Susan’s idyllic childhood came to an end in 1957, when her father died on an operating table during surgery. A year later, her mother killed herself with an overdose of barbiturates. She was 13.
Susan Berman, 13, was an orphan, albeit it, one with a trust fund who attended elite boarding schools. Her mother had sent her to Chadwick School in Los Angeles, where her classmates included Jann Wenner and Liza Minelli. After her father’s death, she went to live with her father’s younger brother, Charles “Chickie” Berman and his family in Lewiston, Idaho.
At junior high school in Lewiston, Dick Riggs, an English and History teacher, took an interest in the quiet, curious and eager to please adolescent. He was the first to tell her “she had a talent for writing.” It was Riggs, she would later tell him, who inspired her career.
Later, she attended high school at St. Helen’s Hall, an Episcopal boarding school in Portland, Oregon, where she got good grades and was inducted into the National Honor Society.
Her Uncle Chickie, looked after her in between prison stints. Upon graduation, he surprised her with a plane ticket to spend the summer in Israel.
After initially enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, she moved to UCLA, switching her major to education from sociology. In her final year there, she met a graduate student in economics who would become a friend for life, Robert Durst.
Durst recalled their meeting vividly for filmmakers 40 years later, describing how he used to hang out at Dykstra dormitory, on a hill overlooking the campus. There was a pool, he said, where “boys and girls were trying to meet.”
“And I saw this girl who looked very pretty, wearing a white outfit and a white cap and black hair. And I went over and started talking to her. And we went swimming. And that was Susan Berman.
“I spent all my time with her,” he said. “We would have sleepover days, but it was strictly platonic.”
Both their childhoods had been shattered by tragedy — she lost both her parents at a young age, while he had lost his mother at the age of 7, when she either fell or, as Durst tells it, jumped from the roof of their home in a New York City suburb. She attended private boarding schools; he had been brought up by a series of governesses.
“She saw in Bob a fractured soul, like herself,” said Hillary Johnson, a friend of Berman’s and a journalist.
There was also an opposites-attract quality to the relationship between the vivacious Berman and the taciturn Durst, another of Susan’s friends, Sheila Jaffe, told me in 2001. “Bobby adored Susan,” she said. “She was his Holly Go Lightly. Bob was Casper Milquetoast.”
In 1968, Susan was among a class of 30 students in the graduate journalism program at UC Berkeley, a sprawling campus of 27,000. The students were full of ambition to make it big in print journalism. In this rather intimate setting, her classmates soon knew of her background — mother was a showgirl who married a mobster.
Susy liked to stand out, whether it was strolling through the lobby of her father’s casino, motoring across a campus riven by demonstrations, or at the Russian Tea Room. On a campus riven by daily anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in Sproul Plaza, she drove a white Mercedes. In the rain, she’d wear a tan raincoat, cinched at the waist, with a matching tan pith helmet.
“Everybody was talented; everybody was very smart,” said Elizabeth Mehren, a classmate who became an author and a national correspondent for the LA Times. “But Susan had that LA kind of glitter that we didn’t have. She had a lot of self-confidence and she was good at marketing herself. She could tell a great story and could engage at a dinner party.”
She graduated in June 1969 and over the next two years published her first book and landed a staff job at the San Francisco Examiner. She conceived of The Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice, a must-have manual for hip, aspiring college students who wanted to know where to buy the best pot, the best place to score a date and the best professors, as well as average SAT scores. Susan was listed as “editor-in-chief” and her boyfriend at the time, Alan Neckritz, was “editor.”
At the Examiner, Susan had no intention of being relegated to the society or style pages as so many women were in those days. Hard news could be grueling. At one point, Susan was sent out to cover the courts, a dizzying array of civil, criminal, state and federal courtrooms.
“It’s a hard beat; you might have 15 stories a day in different courts,” said Julie Smith, then a veteran reporter for the rival Chronicle. “It’s no place for a newbie. Susan started crying and asked for help. We became fast friends.”
After Mayor Alioto rebuffed her request for an interview, she sat outside his office for days on end, observing the comings and goings for a profile, less an investigative piece than a scene setter. She moved quickly from newspapers to magazines. “Susan was an acquired taste,” said Carol Pogash, a friend who also worked at the Examiner at the time. “In a newsroom full of eccentrics, she managed to stand out. A lot of us were drawn to her excitement and energy.”
In 1975, Susan wrote a cover story for “City” magazine, with the captivating title: “In San Francisco, City of Sin, Why I Can’t Get Laid.” The hilarious story put her on the map and provided a glimpse of her intuitive understanding of what made an attention-grabbing story.
“She was completely unqualified to write that story,” Smith said, laughing. “She’d heard women say it. She knew it was a provocative subject and she could gin it up into a very fun story without doing a lot of reporting. She brought a lot of jazziness, gloss and hipness to her stories.”
Susan had bigger plans and remained undaunted in the face of rejection. The bedroom door of her apartment in Berkeley was covered with rejection letters from magazine editors. “Susan just laughed,” Pogash recalled. “The message was clear: these editors are fools. I’ll show them.”
In 1976, she published “Driver, Give a Soldier A Lift,” a comic novel about a fish-out-of-water woman from Berkeley who hitchhiked across Israel. The book garnered modest acclaim. She soon moved to New York, where she wrote for New York magazine, Cosmopolitan, Us and Family Circle, snagging a cover profile of Bess Meyerson.
At night she could be found at Elaine’s with other journalists and celebrities, or with her old pal, Durst, who was now married and working in the family business. In between, she worked on a memoir that was partly the story of her beloved father and partly the story of her growing up in Las Vegas. She filed a request with the FBI for her father’s criminal records.
James Grady, who was an investigative reporter and author of the book that became the Robert Redford movie “Three Days of the Condor,” recalled meeting Susan after the agent they shared suggested the two of them talk. As they settled into their seats at the Russian Tea Room near Carnegie Hall, Susan quizzed him about Murder Incorporated and the origins of the mob. At one point, a frustrated Grady exclaimed, “You’re supposed to be telling me this stuff, not me telling you.”
Susan’s response was disarming: “Jim, you don’t understand. I was always Daddy’s little girl.”
Grady and Berman became friends and he periodically visited Susy’s apartment on Beekman Place, where there was a large black and white photo of her parents on the wall, a typewriter, a few books and little else. One time, shortly before publication of her memoir, Berman called Grady in a panic. She had just gotten documents from the FBI and the Justice Department describing her father’s leg-breaking and his links to several murders. “Not much of it ever made it into her book,” Grady said.
But the book, “Easy Street; The True Story of a Mob Family” was a success. There was a splashy book party at Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Durst played host to Susan’s wide-ranging friends: Laraine Newman, a cast member of Saturday Night Live; Jerry Rubin, the Yippie turned entrepreneur; Danny Goldberg, a music industry executive; and Linda Obst, a movie producer who had just bought the rights to her book.
Susan collected friends the way some collect Hummels or autographs; they were interesting, or might help her in the future. “She had many layers of friends,” said Hillary Johnson. “Friends in show business, friends in journalism, like everybody. She just had more of them.”
A month later, Susan was helping her old friend Durst out of a jam. His wife Kathie had vanished on Jan. 31, 1982, amid a splintered marriage. Susan managed his contacts with the media and helped spread Durst’s story that Kathie might have run away with a drug dealer. Prosecutors now contend that Berman redirected authorities away from Durst. Durst later admitted he lied to the police concerning his whereabouts, but the investigation soon petered out, much to the frustration of Kathie’s family.
During this time, Susan wrote “Phobic” for New York magazine, an article that outlined her paralyzing fear of crossing bridges and riding in elevators in tall buildings. “Unlike most New Yorkers, I am not afraid of falling objects,” she wrote. “I am afraid of becoming one.”
By 1983, Susan Berman was back in Los Angeles, having embarked on her new career as a screenwriter, and working on the script for “Easy Street.” She rented a house in Beverly Hills and bought a Chrysler LeBaron convertible. “It was very important to her to maintain an image,” said television writer Carol Mendelsohn, who worked with Berman during the last year of her life.
She and Lynda Obst would spend five years trying to develop a suitable script for Easy Street, with Berman reportedly collecting about $350,000 writing drafts of the screenplay.
Susan’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise….In 1984, she married a writer 13 years her junior, Mister Margolies, whose father had worked for Davie Berman in Las Vegas. After many romantic misfires, Susan was elated. She held a lavish wedding at the Hotel Bel-Air, with ice swans and white skullcaps. Durst walked her down the aisle and legendary producer Robert Evans toasted the couple, “I don’t know Mister but I can tell him Susan is the most seductive woman I’ve ever met.” “She did her best to turn it into a Hollywood event,” recalled Smith.
But when the marriage broke up after only seven months, Susan told her friends that Mister was taking drugs and abusing her. She was still hoping for a reconciliation when he died of an overdose, sending her into an emotional tailspin. The hard working writer could not get out of bed.
Gradually, she pulled herself together, writing scripts with Paul Kaufman, a financial advisor who also wanted to break into Hollywood. Susan bought a house in Brentwood; Kaufman and his two children, Mella and Sareb, moved in. In the early 1990s, the couple embarked on a quixotic mission to bring a musical about the Dreyfus affair to Broadway. By the time that project collapsed from lack of interest, Susan had drained her trust fund and lost her house to the bank. Kaufman left her. Kaufman’s son Sareb went off to school, while his daughter Mella continued to live with Berman. “It was kind of the first time,” Mella has told investigators, “that I had a really, um, present parent.”
Susan pressed on. She wrote two romantic mysteries — “Fly Away Home” (1996) and “Spiderweb” (1997) — that once again tapped into her life story, and maybe Durst’s as well. At the same time, Susan was the lead writer and co-producer of a two-part, four-hour A&E documentary, “Las Vegas.” She also wrote a companion book, “Lady Las Vegas; The Inside Story Behind the Neon Oasis” (1996), which expanded on some of the same material in “Easy Street.” But none of the books did particularly well.
Never discouraged, Susan worked with comedy writer and theater producer Rich B. Markey on writing sample scripts for the sitcoms “Married with Children” and “Frasier,” with the unrequited hope of getting hired.
By the late 1990s, Susan was in dire straits. She had little money coming in. Her landlady wanted her out of the house in Benedict Canyon and her beloved LeBaron was on its last legs. When friends treated her to lunch, they say, she ate ravenously. So in 1999, she tried to track down her old friend Durst. They had been out of touch since Durst broke with his family in 1994 after his father bypassed him and anointed his younger brother the heir apparent. Embarrassed and ashamed, Chavin said, Durst cut ties to most of his friends. She was nervous about broaching the subject of money with him, but maybe.
Even as Susan Berman struggled to make ends meet, she thought she might be on the verge of a breakthrough. In a letter to her niece, Gracie Berman, dated Nov. 9, 1998, she was bubbling with excitement. She was once again tapping into what had worked for her in the past; she had written the first act of a musical version of her most successful book, “Easy Street,” and a dark tale, “Dreamer Girl,” about a young woman, orphaned at 10, with Susan’s own phobias about tall buildings and crossing bridges.
She was really elated, she wrote, because three days earlier Showtime had “bought” her idea for a TV drama about Las Vegas, called “Sin City,” and asked her to write the script for a two-hour movie. “Fabulous news,” she wrote. “This is the biggest break yet in my career – but it really represents a chance to do really well in the future.”
Still, the project at Showtime did not gel, at least not right away. And Berman’s bills continued to mount, despite her Spartan existence. Berman finally reached her old friend Durst in the year leading up to her murder. He sent a letter postmarked March, 3, 1999 that said simply, “Now and Again I think about old times. Good Luck, Bobby.”
Sareb Kaufman, who regarded Berman as his mother, told authorities that he believed that Durst had enclosed one of two $25,000 checks he would send to Berman. But 20 years later, it is unclear whether the check was in that particular envelope. Weeks before her death, Susan did compile a list of 20 friends from whom she had “borrowed” money, including $50,000 from Durst.
“She had gone from being a wealthy person to being a bag lady,” said Howie Klein, the former president of Reprise Records told me in 2001. “In the last year or so, things perked up for her. She had reason to believe that her hard work would pay off.”
Susan told her friends that she had several projects in the works that seemed promising, although she was not always the most reliable narrator of her own life. “All of her projects have had Las Vegas as a theme,” Nyle Brenner, her manager, told me three weeks after Berman’s murder. “She had a couple of TV series in development, as well as a book she began to do research for.”
There was “Diaries,” a fictional account of the mob in Las Vegas told through current and fictional members of organized crime. She said she was pitching to ABC a sequel to her memoir called “Rich Girl Broke,” an autobiographical tale. Hillary Johnson recalled Susan talking about a similar book proposal called, “Car on Fire,” a reference to her LeBaron’s tendency to break down on her way to studio meetings.
“She was such a machine as a writer,” said Johnson. “She could have three books going at the same time. She’d sit down at that computer at 8 or 9 every morning and literally write for hours and hours, every day. She had a real sense of Zeitgeist; put a finger in the air and an idea would come to her. She took material from her own life.”
But Susan did not always endear herself to studio executives and magazine editors. “Even in New York, she burned every bridge,” recalled Elizabeth Mehren. “There was no continuity. She didn’t get hired on staff at New York magazine.”
Dave Berman, Uncle Chickie’s son, put it another way. “She was kind of demanding,” he said. “It had to be done her way.”
The one project that had some momentum began in 1999 when CBS executives Ghen Maynard and Nina Tassler put Berman together in 1999 with veteran television writer Carol Mendolsohn to collaborate on a soap opera akin to Dynasty about an “off-Strip casino in Las Vegas, and the family that owned it,” recalled Mendelsohn. “We were going to develop the story together, and then I was gonna write the script.”
Mendolsohn had her own connection to Las Vegas. Her father had been a partner in a law firm with Sydney Korshak, who represented many key figures in the Chicago mob. She had stayed at the Riviera during her father’s business trips to Las Vegas.
“Everything that Susan wrote about the Riv(iera), I could relate to ‘cause I remember being a little girl walking through the casino,” Mendelsohn said. “Reading her book made me think of Eloise at the Plaza.”
Mendelsohn said she found Berman to be “extremely bright, one of the most intelligent women that I’ve ever met.” But not everything Berman said rang true. She once told Mendelsohn that she had gone undercover with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 during the Patty Hearst kidnapping. “But she was a storyteller and, you know, people do embellish things.”
In January 2000, their six-month collaboration ended when they got the news that “our pilot was not going and not getting picked up.” Instead, CBS asked Mendelsohn to write for a new drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
The project may or may not have been dead. Berman told her friends in 2000 that she was working on a similar show with CBS’s Showtime network. Shortly after Berman’s murder, her cousin Raleigh Padveen told me that Berman “had just gotten a contract from Showtime.”
But Berman told other friends that Showtime had passed on the project, although she still hoped it would get picked up elsewhere. “She was depending on getting a TV show on in July,” said Julie Smith. “She had these ambitions. She thoroughly believed that things would turn around for her. She had all her hopes pinned on it.”
Berman, was still living hand to mouth in November, 2000, when she again reached out to Durst asking for help. “We talked probably three times a week throughout the summer,” Johnson said. “Whether to send the letter to Durst. How she should phrase the letter. She feared that she’d destroyed her friendship.”
He sent her a second check, dated Nov. 9, for $25,000. Police later recovered a “Dearest Bobby” letter to Durst on Susan’s computer, thanking him for sending the money. “I don’t want my last request to be the last time we communicate — our friendship means so much to me.” But it is unclear whether Susan ever sent the note.
Two days after Bob wrote the check for Susan, Kevin Flynn and I broke the news in The New York Times that New York State Police investigator Joe Becerra had reopened the investigation into Bob’s missing wife Kathie. The Daily News also had a story and People magazine did their own article a month later, making it a national story.
In a panic, Durst rented a $300 a month apartment in Galveston, Texas, while posing as a mute woman. He felt hounded by the authorities, he would later tell a jury, yet he continued to fly in and out of New York.
Durst later told LA prosecutor John Lewin that he had talked to Berman about the new investigation. “Susan told me that she had been contacted by Los Angeles detectives,” Durst told Lewin during a nearly three-house interrogation in 2015. “And, um, they want to talk to me.”
Lewin’s response seemed to stun Durst. “I’m going to tell you something,” the prosecutor said. “That was not true. They had not contacted her. I think Susan was trying to subtly squeeze you for money. By the way, for what it’s worth Bob, ‘cause I know you care about her, I don’t think Susan ever would have said anything.”
Indeed, Susan had a fierce, mob-inspired loyalty to her friends, especially to Mr. Durst. “She felt very close to him,” Smith said. “There have been times when I thought all kinds of things about Bob. But I never thought she would’ve ratted him out for any reason.”
An excited Berman told her friends that she was expecting Durst to visit her in Los Angeles sometime around the Christmas holidays.
On the last night of her life, Dec. 22, 2000, Susan Berman picked up her friend Richard Markey, and drove her Isuzu —an SUV rebuilt by her mechanic to replace the LeBaron — to dinner at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica. Then, they took in a movie, “Best in Show.” She dropped him off afterward, at about 10:30 pm, Markey said, “and that was the last time I saw her.”
At home in Benedict Canyon, Berman, 55, changed into purple sweatpants and a white t-shirt. At some time during the ensuing hours, her killer — most likely someone she knew because she never opened her door to strangers, or even to friends who hadn’t called ahead — showed up at Susan’s house. The killer followed her inside, put a 9mm pistol close to the back of her head, and pulled the trigger. Berman was dead by the time she hit the floor.
It wasn’t until after neighbors saw that Susan’s terriers were running free — a life threatening event on Benedict Canyon Boulevard where cars often came whipping down the narrow street — that they called police. Berman’s back door was open; the front door unlocked.
Patrol officers found Berman lying flat on her back on the floor of a bedroom, her head and hair resting in a pool of blood. There was no forced entry. Her purse was on the kitchen table, containing credit cards and a small amount of cash.
Suspicion initially fell on Susan’s landlady — whom Berman told friends, had once threatened her with a gun over back rent — and Berman’s manager, Nyle Brenner, who had climbed in a window of the bungalow, which had apparently not been sealed off after the police left. Eventually, they were both cleared and detectives focused on Mr. Durst.
In the days after her death, many of Susan’s friends and family members recoiled at the idea that Durst killed Berman, saying “Bobby loved Susy; Susy loved Bobby.” “I don’t believe that anything that happened to Susy, has to do with Robert Durst,” Berman’s cousin Deni Marcus told me.
The murder of Susan Berman was not the first bit of star-crossed mayhem in Benedict Canyon. About 12 houses down from Susan’s bungalow, actor George Reeves, best known as Superman, was found dead of a gunshot wound on June 16, 1959. Police ruled his death a suicide, but Reeve’s mother, actor Alan Ladd and others suspected murder, possibly by the mob. And less than half a mile from Susan’s bungalow, the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate and four others at 10050 Cielo Drive on Aug. 9, 1969.
A close friend of Berman’s since childhood, Susie Harmon told the San Francisco Chronicle after her death, “Susan could get a wall to talk. That’s the irony We keep saying we need Susan here to solve this.”
With Berman’s memorial set for Feb. 1, 2001 in Beverly Hills, Durst arrived in California, booking a room at the Hotel Shangri La in Santa Monica. He planned to attend the service, but his lawyers prevailed on him to avoid the event, which was bound to attract reporters. “Bobby was there in Santa Monica,” said Kim Lankford, who briefly dated Durst. “He said he didn’t come because when you’re paying millions for legal advice, you pay attention to it. I thought it was a bad choice if he was indeed innocent.”
LAPD eventually cleared Berman’s landlady, after determining that the dusty gun the woman owned was not the murder weapon. Her manager was also ruled out as the killer.
Over the ensuing weeks, Durst went on what one of Berman’s friends called a “good will tour,” commiserating with Berman’s friend over her death. He met with Kim Lankford and Markey at Guelaguetza, a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles and with Johnson in New York. He told Johnson that he had been “touched and moved” by Berman’s last letter, thanking him for the money he sent.
Detectives, meanwhile, were trying to figure out who wrote an anonymous note, alerting police to the location of a “cadaver” at Berman’s bungalow. It was postmarked on the same day Berman was killed. Durst vehemently denied that he killed her, insisting he was not even in Los Angeles at the time, nor had he written what became known as the “cadaver” note.
Over the next three years, the LAPD investigation seemed to stall, eventually becoming a cold case.
Durst, in turn, had his own problems. Ten months after Berman’s death, Durst was arrested for the murder and dismemberment of the man who lived across the hall from him in Galveston, Morris Black. The two men had become friendly and Black had eventually learned of Durst’s true identity. Durst would later tell a jury that Black, a cantankerous man, had grabbed Durst’s handgun from the oven in his apartment. They struggled over the gun, he said, and as they fell to the ground, the gun went off, killing Black.
Durst testified that he had sat in a pool of blood as he carved up Black’s body and then dropped the parts in Galveston Bay, thinking that no one would believe his claim of self-defense. In the end, the jury believed his story and acquitted him at trial in 2003.
The cold case files for both Berman’s death and Kathie Durst’s disappearance would have continued gathering dust if Durst had not decided in 2010 to start talking, and talking, and talking. After 10 years of trying, I got my first interview with him. More importantly, he agreed to what became more than 20 hours of interviews with filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling. He gave them unfettered access to his private papers, legal files, family photos and credit card and phone bills. Those encounters resulted in the six-part HBO documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”
I talked to Durst briefly after each episode aired, trying to gauge his reaction. After the fifth episode, Durst seemed to know that he had gotten himself into trouble and rushed me off the phone. A few days later, a friend of Durst’s told me he was hiding at the J.W. Marriott hotel in New Orleans, under an alias. I thought, “He’s going to run.” The next day Durst was arrested on a murder warrant.
Even before the film’s 2015 broadcast, the filmmakers, who had turned up a piece of new evidence, brought their work to Lewin in Los Angeles. Lewin, who specializes in cold cases, especially murders without a body, and the LAPD reopened the case and ultimately arrested him in New Orleans, hours before the airing of the final episode of the Jinx.
Durst’s $10 million defense team spent the next five years arguing Durst did not write the so-called cadaver note. They also unsuccessfully opposed the prosecution’s use of handwriting analysts to tie Durst to the note.
In his opening statement on March 9, Lewin said that Durst “waited for Susan to turn her back on her best friend, someone she loved and trusted, and he executed her at point blank range.” He contends that the murder of Berman, and the death of Black, are tied to the 1982 disappearance and murder of Kathie Durst. Durst killed Berman, he said, to prevent her from telling investigators what she knew about Kathie Durst’s death. She had a dual role, as Durst’s accomplice in 1982, and as Durst’s victim 18 years later.
On the 19th anniversary of Berman’s killing, shortly before the trial started, Durst’s lawyers suddenly conceded for the first time that Durst was in Los Angeles at the time of her death. And after two decades of emphatically denying that he had anything to do with the “cadaver” note, his lawyers also stipulated that Durst was in fact its author. Durst’s new account of his actions jibed with a story I had heard five years earlier from a member of Durst’s small circle of friends. It seemed so improbable.
Dick DeGuerin, who leads Durst’s legal team just as he had in Galveston, said in his opening statement weeks later, that Durst “did not kill Susan Berman and does not know who did.” Yes, he said, Durst had told Berman that he was coming to visit her during the Christmas holidays, as he had done in previous years. DeGuerin said Durst used his own key to get into Berman’s bungalow. “Bob showed up and found her dead and he panicked. He wrote the anonymous letter so her body would be found, and he ran. He’s run away his whole life.”
In a follow-up to DeGuerin, defense lawyer David Chesnoff emphasized that there were no fingerprints, fibers, DNA or other evidence linking Durst to Berman’s death. “No evidence is evidence,” Chesnoff told the jury.
While there is no direct evidence tying Durst to the shooting, there is plenty of other evidence. Besides their concession that Durst was at the crime scene before Berman’s body was discovered by the police, and that he wrote the “cadaver note,” the defense lawyers have not explained why Durst drove an oddly circuitous route to Los Angeles — flying to San Francisco and then up to Eureka, CA, picking up his Ford Explorer near a home he kept in Trinidad, CA; driving south to LA on December 20; showing up at Berman’s home at some time either late on December 22 or early on the 23rd; and dropping the “cadaver note” in a Marina del Rey mailbox at some time on December 23 — before flying out of San Francisco on Christmas Eve. It was a grueling 1,000-mile journey taken over just a few days.
When the trial resumes, the defense will also have to contend with testimony from Nick Chavin, a longtime defender of Durst and a close friend of both Durst and Berman. The first time I interviewed him in November 2000 he urged me to speak to her. He told me that Berman had told him that Bob “did it,” a statement that shocked me. But in the next breath, he said he didn’t believe her. She was a storyteller, he said, and Bob was not capable of violence.
But years after Berman’s killing and Durst’s acquittal in Texas, Chavin was forced to choose between his loyalty to Durst and his loyalty to Berman. Durst had contacted him in late 2014, offering a renewed friendship and a key to his townhouse in Harlem. Chavin told me at the time that Durst had invited him to dinner that December, where he wanted to talk about “Susy and Kathie.” The prosecution subsequently featured Chavin at a pre-trial hearing as a “mystery witness.”
But before Chavin took the stand, Durst’s defense team asked Judge Mark Windham to sequester me so that I could not hear his testimony. Lawyer David Chesnoff argued that I had “spent a career investigating Durst and circumstances surrounding Mr. Durst’s entanglements.” The defense hoped that I would impeach Chavin’s testimony by referring to my interviews with him 17 years earlier.
A New York Times lawyer argued that the defense motion was a violation of the first amendment and would penalize a reporter for doing a good job. Judge Winham quickly dismissed the defense motion and Chavin took the stand.
Chavin testified that he and Durst had dinner at Barawine, a bistro near Durst’s townhouse. As the two men were leaving the restaurant, Chavin asked Durst what he wanted to say about Berman. Durst was quiet for a moment, Chavin said, before three sentences rumbled from his mouth: “I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice.”
A full 20 years after her execution style murder, Susan Berman’s final and most tragic story remains incomplete.
Charlie Bagli has been covering the Robert Durst mystery for two decades, mostly for The New York Times, but also for Los Angeles Magazine and Town & Country magazine.