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In the fall of 1971, Bob, 28, was staying in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, contemplating a move to Vermont, when he met a smart, slender, beautiful 19-year-old named Kathie McCormack. According to Bob, he fell hopelessly in love.
In a sense, Kathie was from a different world than Durst. The youngest of five children, she grew up in a close-knit, working class family in New Hyde Park, on Long Island. Her father, James, a sales rep for the phone company, died in 1966 when Kathie was 14. Her mother also went to work for the phone company when social security payments failed to cover the family bills.
After high school, Kathie got a job working for a dentist with her friend, Cheryl Catranbone. They moved into “the city” — a short-hand reference for Manhattan — where they rented a second floor apartment in a walk-up at East 52nd St and Second Avenue. Working as dental hygienists, Catranbone told me, they could barely eke by. But they were “free and independent,” living in the city, which was simultaneously scary and exciting.
Kathie was a confident young woman, her friend said. She was popular in high school, dating the captain of the football team. She would buy material after admiring a dress in Vogue magazine, and make a copy of it for herself without using a pattern.
Catranbone bumped into their downstairs neighbor, Stewart Altman, who invited her to a party at the apartment of his friend, Bob Durst, about a block away. Kathie soon joined them. “When they met, the stars collided,” she said. “The energy was really strong. He was talking about accounting and all this other stuff, which didn’t interest me one iota. But you could see, she was smitten and so was he.”
It was the beginning of what Kathie’s brother, Jim McCormack, called a “storybook romance.” After two dates, Bob asked Kathie to move with him to Middlebury, VT, where he was opening a health food store called “All Good Things.” Kathie agreed, eventually managing the store. Bob had a hard time sticking to a work schedule, just as he had a hard time with grad school classes, or with work at the Durst Organization.
The couple’s Vermont sojourn ended in late 1972. All Good Things had not done well. Early the next year, they toured the South in a van and when they returned to New York in late March, “The question of marriage came up,” Kathie would later tell her divorce lawyer. “He said, ‘Yes, I will marry you but if it doesn’t work out in three years or so, we will get a divorce.’”
They were married in a wooded grove in Bedford, NY, on April 12, 1973, in a ceremony attended only by Kathie’s mother Ann, Bob’s father Seymour, a priest and a rabbi. “It was sort of a hippie thing,” Bob said. Afterwards, there was a dinner for four — Bob, Kathie, Ann and Seymour — at an Italian restaurant, where Ann, not Seymour, picked up the tab.
For a honeymoon, the couple piled into a Dodge van and went on a six-month tour of the United States, staying in inexpensive motels or camping. Bob confided to Kathie that he had lied to his father and others about getting a doctorate at UCLA. He never completed the work, he said, asking her to not to tell anyone.
“I had always been comfortable telling stories, little white lies,” Bob wrote in his 2001 chronological narrative, The BD Story. “But now I started routinely lying about my career and family.”
Bob, who never wanted for money, could also be cheap. It rankled Kathie that Bob insisted on getting food stamps, which began during his time with VISTA. “She thought we shouldn’t be doing it,” Bob explained in The Jinx. “She didn’t think we should be using food stamps when there’s so little money available for the low-income programs. We don’t need food stamps, why are you doing it? I think she felt embarrassed at the supermarket with our food stamps.”
Once again, Bob and Kathie returned to New York. They lived in Seymour’s mansion in Katonah, NY, with Douglas and his family. Bob worked at the Durst Organization. Kathie enjoyed her new life, taking trips to Venezuela, Hong Kong, Cancun and Turkey, eating out several times a week and driving their red Mercedes.
On the anniversary of his mother’s death, Seymour would take Bob to the cemetery where Bernice was buried. Bob told The Jinx that his father would point to his mother’s grave, saying “Please don’t make me end up here with you having never gone into the business.”
In the fall of 1974, Kathie sought her own more independent path, enrolling in the new nursing program at Western Connecticut State University. Two years later, the couple bought a 1,200 square foot cottage overlooking Lake Truesdale in South Salem, NY, about 15 miles from school. Kathie laid a Mexican red tile floor in the renovated kitchen and made plans to remodel the bathroom.
After two years of marriage, tensions began surfacing in their relationship. Kathie no longer appreciated Bob ordering her meal without asking her preferences. He was carrying on a string of affairs. Prior to Kathie’s disappearance, Bob was having a relationship with Prudence Farrow, sister of actor Mia Farrow and the woman who inspired the Beatles to write the song, “Dear Prudence.” Bob’s pals, Nick Chavin and Doug Oliver, say they both double dated with Bob and Prudence. Chavin never asked, he just assumed that Bob and Kathie had an “open marriage.”
When Bob decided he no longer liked living in the suburbs, he forced Kathie to transfer to NYU and move to Manhattan, according to statements Kathie made to her lawyer. His unilateral decision depressed her. She did very well at school, but ultimately demanded that they return to the suburbs.
In February 1976, Kathie learned she was pregnant. At Bob’s behest, she had agreed early on in their relationship that she would have an abortion if she ever got pregnant. But faced with the reality of carrying a child, Kathie wanted to give birth. Still, Bob pressured her into the abortion in March. “Much trust had left our marriage by this time,” Kathie told her divorce lawyer, “but we still maintained a façade of a ‘loving couple.’”
Bob would later tell a private investigator that this was the beginning of the end for their storybook marriage. “I did not want to have a family and when Kathie became pregnant, she had it terminated at my insistence,” Bob told the investigator, Ed Wright, who was working for Bob’s lawyer. “This may have been part of the cause of our problems.”
Bob, like his younger brother Douglas, was a vice president at the Durst Organization. Bob did not keep normal hours. He usually came to work in the late morning or early afternoon. He could not be counted to show up at a meeting. And, Douglas Durst, who is expected to testify for the prosecution in Los Angeles, has told me that his brother was siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars in company funds. Bob tried to enlist his brother in the scheme. Instead, Douglas told his father what he had discovered, putting an end to it.
In August of 1976, Douglas Durst and his wife Suzanne told Kathie what Bob was up to, Kathie told her divorce lawyer. Kathie, in turn, confronted Bob, who denied it. But she found checks that Bob planned to deposit into his own account. Some of Kathie’s friends say that she had also told them that Bob was engaged in embezzlement with Durst funds. A month before she vanished, Kathie also told Douglas that she had a file documenting Bob’s improprieties.
By 1978, Susan Berman, Bob’s close friend from UCLA, had moved to New York, where she was writing for New York and other magazines. Susan, or “Susy,” as Bob called her, introduced him to a friend from California, Nick Chavin, who had also moved to New York. Their evenings were often a whirlwind of dinners, concerts, or visits to Xenon or Studio 54 discotheques. It was a drug drenched time; both Bob and Kathie used recreational drugs, including cocaine, although Bob always preferred weed.
Susan, a worldly raconteuse, would regale her friends with stories, never afraid to edit or embroider her accounts to make them more interesting. Sometimes, Kathie sat at the edge of the group looking in. “Susan’s much more sophisticated, and all of that, than Kathie was,” Durst told The Jinx.
To Berman, Kathie just did not measure up. “She didn’t think highly of Kathie,” Berman’s friend, Hillary Johnson, told me. “She was portrayed as this Cinderella figure.”
In the late 70s and early 80s, Bob remained very close to Susan. He even threw a book party for Susan in late 1981 when she published her book, “Easy Street; The true story of a mob family” (See my piece for crimestory.com Susy Berman’s Greatest Unfinished Story (and the Trial of Robert Durst) — The Complete Series).
Around this same time — as Bob and Susan were spending a lot of time together — Kathie graduated from nursing school. In September of 1978, Kathie started medical school at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. “She was excited to be a medical student,” recalled classmate Dr. Alicia Landman-Reiner. “She worked hard. She always took a seat in the front row and took notes.”
As their bickering escalated, Bob did not make it easy for Kathie, who had begun her own series of affairs. He put her on a tight budget and cancelled her credit cards after she talked to a divorce lawyer. The couple had an apartment on Manhattan’s East Side, which made it easier to get to Albert Einstein, and the penthouse on Riverside Drive, as well as the cottage in South Salem. At one point, Kathie asked Bob to move out of the East Side apartment.
By the end of the 1970’s, Bob was physically violent towards Kathie during their arguments. One Christmas at the McCormack family home, Bob dragged Kathie out of the house by her hair when she did not move quickly enough to leave the holiday gathering. On another occasion, a neighbor testified about how Kathie fled her penthouse apartment in her pajamas on a rainy winter night, frantically knocking on the neighbor’s window, fearing that Bob was about to hurt her.
“The hair pulling wasn’t even the worst,” Bob said decades later. By 1981, he said, their relationship was “half arguments, fighting, slapping, pushing, wrestling.”
Looking back, Bob said, “In the beginning, we shared everything. I was the dominant person in the marriage… I had the money. I was nine years older. I had the education.” He acknowledged, “I was very, very controlling.”
The affairs, the abuse, the animosity, were all a lead up to events that would mark Durst’s life for the coming decades. On Sunday, Jan. 31, 1982, Bob and Kathie were at the South Salem cottage for the weekend. In the afternoon, Kathie went to a friend’s family dinner in Newtown, CT, about 40 minutes away. Angry, Durst called her that evening, demanding that she return to South Salem. “He’s really pissed; I have to go,” Kathie told Fadwa Najamy before leaving the party.
Kathie got back to South Salem at about 7 pm. Their bickering resumed, eventually descending into what Bob described years later as a “pushing, shoving argument.”
Bob opposed Kathie’s plan to drive back to their Riverside Drive penthouse so she could attend her pediatric clinic the next day at Bronx Memorial Hospital. Bob said he needed the car. He would tell police that he dropped her off at the train station in nearby Katonah and later spoke with Kathie by phone, after she had gotten back to Manhattan.
It was not until five days later, on Friday, that Bob walked into the 20th Precinct on Manhattan’s West Side to report Kathie “missing.” Bob told Detective Michael Struk, who was working alone in the squad room, that he and his wife were often apart for days at a time. He told the detective that his marriage was “not so bad.” Later, he would tell the detective that Kathie used cocaine and might have run away with a drug dealer.
Twenty-eight years later, Bob told The Jinx’s filmmakers that his account to police was riddled with lies, some of them easily disproved. He had told police, for instance, that he had drinks that Sunday night with his South Salem neighbors, the Mayers. Ruth Mayer, who lent Kathie a wool ski hat that Sunday morning, told me that she did not see Bob for several days after Kathie vanished.
Why lie? “I was hoping that it would make everything go away,” he said. He acknowledged that there had been some pushing and shoving. It “did not go through my mind that police would ask oodles and oodles of questions and go here and there and everywhere. Just wasn’t used to that. I was never – I was not used to somebody questioning my motive.”
A private investigator hired by Bob’s lawyer in 1982, Ed Wright, quickly uncovered a series of discrepancies in Bob’s account of events. When the police asked if Bob would agree to sit for a polygraph test, Wright told me he grilled Durst to see how he would do. Wright got fired for his troubles. Bob did not take the test.
Meanwhile, Bob was throwing away Kathie’s books and belongings within days of her disappearance, according to the South Salem cleaning woman and the manager of the couple’s East Side apartment building.
But the police in 1982 were puzzled. The Monday after Kathie vanished, a woman called a dean at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine identifying herself as Kathie Durst. She said she was unable to attend the pediatric clinic that day because she was ill.
Investigators now believe that it was Bob’s confidante, Susan Berman, not Kathie Durst, who phoned the dean. A number of Berman’s friends have testified in Los Angeles that Susan had confided her role in getting the police off Bob’s back.
Berman served as her friend’s media adviser, stage managing his interviews with reporters at the New York Post after Kathie disappeared. Berman, who surprised Kathie’s family by claiming to be one of Kathie’s best friends, echoed Bob’s statements, telling police that Kathie was a coke addict and that her disappearance was related to drugs.
The call to the dean critically affected the investigation, Los Angeles prosecutor John Lewin has said. It “not only made it appear as if Kathie was still among the living, but, as importantly, it redirected the investigation away from the jurisdiction where the actual killing occurred in South Salem, and away from (Durst), the person who killed her.”
“That’s what aided Durst the most and gave us the impression that the true venue was in Manhattan,” Det. Struk, now retired, told me. “We now know that whatever he did, it was up there” in South Salem.
Durst’s defense team dismisses the notion that Berman made the call to med school. There are no phone records of a call from Bob to Susan, or a call from Susan to the med school, they say. But neither is there a record of Bob calling the Riverside Drive apartment and talking to Kathie, as he told police he had.
There were collect calls made to the Durst Organization, a couple days after Kathie disappeared, from the Jersey shore. Bob was practically the only person who dared to call collect. “I would call the office collect all the time,” Durst has said. “I didn’t want to pay for it. Let Seymour pay for it.”
His trip to the shore prompted investigators to speculate that Kathie’s body might be buried in the nearby pine barrens.
Unhappy with the pace and seriousness of the police investigation, three separate groups of Kathie’s friends and family became amateur sleuths as they frantically tried to dig up new clues about Kathie. They could not believe that their friend would abandon her dream of becoming a doctor only months before she would have graduated.
Kathie’s sister, Mary McCormack Hughes, who from the beginning suspected Durst of killing Kathie, became obsessed. She and her husband Tom found the so-called “dig note” in a wastebasket at the South Salem house. The note is more of a to-do list: “town dump, bridge, dig, boat, other, shovel, or, check car or truck rentals.” Only recently have Durst’s lawyers admitted that Bob was its author. They insist, however, that Bob did not kill Kathie.
Much to the dismay of Kathie’s family and friends, the case, which had garnered so many tabloid headlines early in 1982, soon faded away, becoming just another missing woman cold case. Kathie’s family wondered whether Bob’s powerful father had put the kibosh on the investigation.