You can read part one of The Many Lives of Robert Durst here, parts two and three here, and parts four and five here.
You can find links to all of CRIME STORY’S coverage of the Robert Durst trial here.
In October 2000, Bob Durst learned that the authorities had opened a new investigation into the disappearance and possible murder of his wife Kathie. It freaked him out.
A young New York State Police investigator by the name of Joe Becerra had gotten a tip in late 1999 about the 1982 Kathie Durst case. The tip did not pan out but Becerra’s interest was piqued. He pulled the State Police file on Kathie Durst and got ahold of the NYPD’s file. Now he was interviewing witnesses: Mike Struk, the now retired detective who caught the case in 1982; Jim McCormack and Mary McCormack Hughes, Kathie’s brother and sister; Gilberte Najamy, friend of Kathie’s; a doorman at the Riverside Drive apartment house where the couple once lived; and Liz Jones, the woman who cleaned the Durst’s house in South Salem.
Eventually, investigators sent divers into the lake behind the Durst’s South Salem cottage and dug around and underneath the house looking for Kathie’s remains or clues to her whereabouts. Nothing turned up.
A lot had happened in Bob’s life since Kathie vanished. He had eventually gone back to work at the Durst Organization. He, like his brother Douglas, was a vice president. But if Douglas was devoted to the business, Bob had a more lackadaisical approach. He could not be mistaken for a buttoned-down executive. He missed appointments; he belched loudly in the meetings he did make.
“By 1984 or so, I was arriving in the early afternoon and not showing up at all some days,” he said years later. “It was apparent to me and everybody else who either worked for us, or did a deal with us, that I really wasn’t capable of working in that type of business, much less running the organization when my father retired.”
No matter how much Bob later played down his interest in the family business, his pals — Nick Chavin and Doug Oliver — considered Bob to be an astute real estate analyst. Bob catapulted Chavin into a real estate advertising career when he assigned Chavin and his firm to do work on the family’s next skyscraper. “Bobby was the smartest Durst,” Chavin told me the first time we spoke in 2000. “His future and lot in life was to run the Durst Organization.”
Oliver met Bob in the late 1970’s when he brought a deal to Seymour, who asked him to talk to his son about it. Bob and Oliver hit it off, investing together in a couple of Brooklyn tenements. They also vacationed together in the South of France with their respective girlfriends. Like Chavin, he put up with Bob’s peculiarities without questioning him.
“Once, in St. Tropez,” Oliver told me, “he took the car for the whole day, leaving me with my date and his. Bobby came back at the end of the day and picked us up. That was the way he was.”
Bob got his friends, Chavin, Berman and Altman, beyond the velvet rope at Studio 54, where he was friendly with co-founder Steve Rubell. When a friend could not get into the exclusive Le Bernardin restaurant, Bob got him a table with a quick phone call. He took Susan Berman to Elaine’s, an after-hours watering hole for celebrities, actors, politicians and newspaper columnists.
During the mid 1980’s, Bob’s relationship with his father seemed — to Nick Chavin — to be in a good place. Chavin recalled how proud Bob was of his intimate Sunday morning breakfasts with Seymour — no siblings, no other executives.
But by the late 1980’s, Bob was losing ground as the heir apparent. His behavior at work was increasingly erratic. His relationship with Douglas was icy. Bob kept a heavy plumber’s wrench on his desk. Just in case, Douglas said he placed a length of pipe on his own desk. After hours, Bob would sometimes wander into Douglas’ office and pee in the garbage can. Their father largely ignored the tension, until Bob took it a step further, urinating into his Uncle David’s trash bin.
“My uncles didn’t frown on it as long as it was my wastebasket,” Douglas told me. “When it was their wastebasket it became an issue.”
Around that same time, in 1988, it was Nick Chavin who introduced Bob Durst to Debrah Lee Charatan, a sharp-elbowed real estate broker.
Like Berman, Charatan had a sad family story. She grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “There wasn’t lots of love between her father and mother,” one of Charatan’s friends would tell me. She was estranged from her mother Pauline when she married Bob. I broke the news of the wedding to Pauline in 2001 when I called for an interview.
Bob admired Charatan because she had built her own real estate firm. He helped her financially when her company ran aground and she was engaged in the middle of a bitter divorce and custody battle.
Two years after they met, Bob and Debbie moved into Debbie’s dream apartment, on Fifth Avenue. Although she remained his friend, confidante and safe berth in New York, they lived together for less than two years before retreating to separate apartments. When Douglas, who kept a wary eye on Bob, found out that Bob was paying Charatan’s legal bills with Durst funds and giving her stacks of black car service vouchers, he put an end to it.
In October, 1992, Douglas convinced his father and his uncles that Bob should be replaced as the successor trustee of the family trust, giving Douglas control of the family assets in the event of Seymour’s death. It is unclear if Bob was aware of it at the time, but he soon found out. Early in 1994, Seymour was laying out a succession plan that involved putting Douglas in charge, while Bob got a prestigious consolation title, possibly Chairman. That did not placate Bob. In December, 1994, Douglas was named chairman of the Durst Organization and Bob disappeared, never to return to his office at Durst headquarters.
Bob stopped talking to his family and his running buddies, Chavin and Oliver. Despite Bob’s statements years later that he was indifferent to his position as a key executive at the Durst Organization, he was devastated by the “loss of face,” from his demotion, Chavin told me. “Bobby said, ‘It’s over; I lost. I’m cutting all my ties to everyone I know.’”
Seymour was broken-hearted over the falling out with his oldest son. Five months later, Bob’s sister Wendy begged him to come to see his father one last time as he lay dying in the hospital. Bob agreed only after she promised that he would be alone with Seymour. “My father kept holding on until Bob did go,” Douglas recalled. Seymour died the next morning.
Bob was a no-show at the funeral.
Eight days before Seymour died on May 19, 1995, a deputy sheriff in Mendocino, CA, pulled over Bob on suspicion of driving under the influence. According to the police report, “Durst was swaying side to side and spontaneously told me in a slurred speech that he drank a bottle of wine at the Café Beaujolais.” In the trunk of his car, there was an envelope with $3,700 and a baggie containing less than an ounce of marijuana.
As was his custom, Bob behaved as though the rules or the laws applied to him. At a police substation, the report states that Durst told officers: “Money and marijuana is mine and that I have always smoked it, even as a kid. So what’s the big deal?” A year later, the DUI charge was dropped and the marijuana misdemeanors were reduced to infractions.
For the next five years, Bob moved restlessly between New York, Texas and California. In an experiment with “small town life,” Bob bought a blue house with floor to ceiling windows on Galindo Street in Trinidad, CA, with views of the rugged Pacific coast and the redwood forest. He had apartments in Dallas, San Francisco and New York and a house in Connecticut. He invested in property in Texas. But much of the time no one knew exactly where he was, not Douglas, not Altman, not even Charatan, whom he visited whenever he was in New York.
By the time the news broke on Nov. 11, 2000, in The New York Times (in an article written by Kevin Flynn and me) and in the New York Daily News, that investigators had reopened the investigation into the disappearance of Kathie Durst, Bob was already making plans to go underground.
Durst was stockpiling hundreds of thousands of dollars, never withdrawing more than $9,000 at a time from his bank account to avoid reporting requirements. Bob signed a power of attorney, granting Charatan control of his financial affairs. He also asked Charatan to marry him. The couple picked a rabbi out of the phone book and had the wedding on Dec. 11, 2000, in the rabbi’s office in Times Square.
“It was a marriage of convenience,” Bob told his sister Wendy, according to a transcript of his prison phone calls. “I had to have Debrah write my checks.” Their relationship, however, was more than a marriage of convenience. Charatan is the beneficiary of his estate, according to his 2003 “Last Will and Testament.” At the time of his arrest in 2015, the authorities estimated that Durst was worth $100 million.
Just days after his wedding, Durst flew to Dallas and drove to Galveston, TX, an island south of Houston that attracts two types of people: Summertime beachgoers and people looking to get lost or start over. Posing as a mute woman, Durst rented a $300 a month room in a boarding house.
“I was just getting set up to go into hiding,” Durst would tell the jury in his 2003 murder trial, “so that I could never use the name ‘Robert Durst’ again.”
Around that same time, I interviewed Bob’s friend Nick Chavin for the first time. Chavin said he did not believe that Bob could commit violence against anyone, let alone Kathie. He told me that Bob did not know which end of the gun a bullet came out of, although it is now clear that he had a familiarity with guns dating to at least 1979. Chavin told me that I had to interview his friend Susan Berman—Bob’s closest confidante—in Los Angeles. I asked him to make an introduction.