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Robert A. Durst, the septuagenarian real estate scion on trial in Los Angeles for murder, never amounted to much.
By his own account, he was a “mediocre” student with little patience or acumen for the family business. He had a “very small” circle of friends. He struggled with bulimia and talked to himself. Although he received a million dollars a year tax free from the family trust, money did not buy him happiness. He was estranged from his family and refused to attend his father’s funeral.
Yet, Durst who is 78, frail, and confined to a medical ward at the Los Angeles’ Twin Towers Correctional Facility, was a Zelig of the Boomer Generation. His peripatetic path crossed with the icons of his generation, including John Lennon; Donald J. Trump; Steve Rubell, co-founder of Studio 54, the era-defining New York disco that invented the velvet rope; Laraine Newman, an original member of the Saturday Night Live lineup; Dr. Arthur Janov, who created primal scream therapy; and Kinky Friedman, who fronted the 1970’s band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys and placed fourth in the 2006 race for governor of Texas.
Despite his profound lack of accomplishment, Durst was the subject of at least five books, a feature film, an Emmy-award winning documentary, NBC Dateline, Court TV and CNN specials, and newspaper articles worldwide. Comedian Fred Armison did a hilarious send-up of the diminutive Durst on Saturday Night Live and perfected his impersonation in the television sitcom “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
All the while, a dark cloud of suspicion hung over him, with investigators in three states suspecting him of three deaths—his beautiful wife, his best friend and a cranky drifter.
After a 14-month delay because of the pandemic, Durst’s trial resumes today with a recap of opening statements by both parties and will continue with a full airing of his life story. Durst, who became a national sensation with the 2015 HBO documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” will be back in the media-saturated limelight where two starkly different versions of himself will be presented. So far, the jury has only heard from a handful of what will ultimately be more than 100 witnesses.
Los Angeles prosecutor John Lewin contends that a ruthless Durst secretly made his way to the Benedict Canyon home of his confidante, Susan Berman, shortly before Christmas 2000. Durst feared, prosecutors say, that Berman was about to tell investigators what she knew about the all but forgotten disappearance and murder of his wife Kathie. “He waited for Susan to turn her back on her best friend, someone she loved and trusted, and he executed her at point blank range,” Mr. Lewin said during his opening statement.
Durst is only charged with Berman’s death, but the prosecutor argues that the wealthy man’s violent path begins with the murder of his first wife, Kathie McCormack Durst in 1982 and includes the death and dismemberment of a drifter he befriended in Texas, where he was hiding as a mute woman. He was afraid that the drifter might tell investigators his true identity, according to prosecutors.
In Los Angeles, Durst insisted that he did not kill Berman and does not know who did.
His $10 million legal team, led by Texas lawyer Dick DeGuerin told the jury that there is no physical evidence—DNA, fingerprints, fibers, or gun—tying him to her death. Further, DeGuerin told the jury that Mr. Durst has never in 39 years been charged with anything relating to his wife’s disappearance or murder, despite several investigations. And, they say, a jury acquitted Durst of killing his neighbor in Galveston, Texas, despite his grisly testimony about how he cut up the man’s body and threw the parts in Galveston Bay.
Yet after 20 years of vociferously denying that he was even in Los Angeles at the time of Berman’s death, Durst and his lawyers now acknowledge that Bob had entered Berman’s home, found her body lying in a pool of blood and fled, fearing that no one would believe his innocence.
“He’s run away his whole life,” DeGuerin told the jury.
He described Durst as suffering from a mild form of autism characterized by social awkwardness, a flat affect and no outward signs of emotion. “Bob doesn’t make good decisions,” DeGuerin said. “It’s part of his makeup.”
So, who is Bob Durst? A sometimes charming but misunderstood eccentric who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time, twice? Or, a well-heeled triple murderer and lifelong liar with a sense of entitlement?
Despite all his notoriety, Durst, small and wiry, is not an easy man to decipher. His once low rumble of a voice with a cutting sense of humor has given way in a recent court appearance to a high, squeak that seems out of breath before he finishes a sentence. No one has ever described him as loquacious. He is often cryptic, casually dropping hints about his dark past. He can be dismissive, “Nobody tells the whole truth,” he once declared.
Indeed, he has always lied, whether it was telling his family he played in the high school band, or earned a doctorate at UCLA, or when he described his whereabouts to New York police after his first wife vanished four months before she would have graduated from medical school.
I say that because he said so. He has left a thick trail of breadcrumbs, with four days of testimony in the Texas murder case, hundreds of recorded prison phone calls, a nearly three-hour interrogation by the prosecutor, 20 hours of interviews with the producers of the “The Jinx” and in conversations he had with me.
Los Angeles prosecutor John Lewin repeatedly told the jury during his opening statement last year, “much of the most damaging evidence is going to come directly from Mr. Durst himself, out of his own mouth.”
Navigating the many twists and turns in his story requires a GPS app. As a man of wealth and privilege, he has said he was not used to being grilled, and at times, he had a hard time keeping his story straight. In short, he is not always a reliable narrator. But he has talked, and talked, and talked, much to his lawyers’ chagrin.
I started chasing Durst in 2000. He was already 57 years old. I was a reporter at The New York Times. I knew his father Seymour and the brother he’s hated his whole life, Douglas, from my reporting on New York’s powerful real estate titans. But I was unfamiliar with Bob until my colleague Kevin Flynn and I got a tip that a young New York State Police investigator by the name of Joe Becerra had reopened an 18-year-old cold case: the disappearance of Bob’s first wife, Kathie.
I quickly learned that there was only one degree of separation between my own life and that of Durst. One of my closest friends, Bruce Fleischer, had gone to Camp Lenox in the Berkshires during the summer of 1964, when Bob Durst was a camp counselor in Bunk 3. In the course of my reporting, I learned that a real estate investor I knew, Doug Oliver, had been one of Bob’s two running buddies in the 1980’s.
And as it turned out, my wife’s aunt and her partner, a New York real estate executive, had had dinner several times with Durst and his second wife, Debrah Lee Charatan.
(In just one more twist to the sensational Durst story, Bob married Charatan in 2000, long after their romantic relationship ended. During her marriage to Durst, Debrah was romantically involved and lived with a prominent real estate lawyer who occasionally worked for Bob.)
As much as I can, I will use Bob’s own words to chronicle his life, supplemented by interviews with family members, his friends, filmmakers, members of Kathie Durst’s family and friends, as well as Berman’s friends.
Robert A. Durst’s story begins about 25 miles north of Manhattan in one of the nation’s wealthiest communities, Scarsdale, NY. The quiet, tree-shaded streets of Scarsdale were an incubator for many of New York’s real estate royalty, including the Tisches, the Milsteins and the Pickets.
Bob’s father Seymour was the driving force behind the Durst Organization, which he ran with his brothers David and Royal. They were building what has become a $5 billion-plus empire that includes a dozen massive skyscrapers, residential complexes and land.
But if Donald J. Trump is your idea of a New York developer, the Dursts are the opposite. They tended to be understated, not loud and brassy. Despite their enormous wealth and power, they were not part of the jet set, or high society. Seymour walked to the office, no limousine, no yacht, no jet. He played tennis; he didn’t own a football team. He passed those traits to his children. Even during his first marriage, Bob drove a yellow VW bug; Kathie drove the red Mercedes. He often flew coach.
That does not mean that the Dursts were powerless, or that they lived in a hovel. The Durst home at 27 Hampton Rd. was a Tudor mansion with seven bedrooms, a wood-paneled library, five fireplaces and a maid’s quarters. The marble staircase came from the original Waldorf-Astoria at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, which was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building.
A pivotal moment in Bob’s life came in November, 1950, when his mother Bernice, 32, either slipped or jumped off the roof of their home. Bob was seven, the oldest of four siblings—Douglas, Wendy and Thomas, who was just nine months old at the time of his mother’s death. The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper described Bernice’s fall as a suicide, while the local newspaper labelled her death “accidental,” the result of a bad reaction to her asthma medicine.
Bob would confide to his closest friends about how he witnessed his mother’s death. He told some friends that he tried to leap onto her coffin at the funeral. That was probably not true. His brother Douglas, eighteen months younger, told me that the children had been sent to the nearby home of their aunt and uncle, Roy and Aunt Shirley Durst, before anything happened, and that none of them were at the funeral.
Decades later, Bob recalled his mother fondly. “My mother loved to have parties,” he told producers of The Jinx. “She always had people over. There’d be a big table someplace with drinks and stuff on it. My mother always wanted to go out; my father always wanted to stay home.”
Whether his mother slipped or jumped, Bob blamed his father, saying that his mother should have been hospitalized because of her acute asthma attacks. “I felt that he was partly responsible” for her death, Bob said.
He argued constantly with his father, insisting to no avail, that they move out of the house on Hampton Road. He beat up his brother Douglas, and acted out. Three years after Bernice’s death, Bob’s relationship with both his father and his brother was so toxic that he was sent to a psychiatrist, although the encounter appears to have been kept from his siblings.
After two sessions with a psychiatrist, Bob refused to cooperate further. According to a letter from the family physician dated Oct. 28, 1953, the psychiatrist found that, “Robert’s hostility toward his father and his younger brother was of such intensity that it might constitute a destructive psychodynamic force sufficient to produce a personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia.”