You can find links to all of CRIME STORY’S coverage of the Robert Durst trial here.
I was waiting in the lobby of a real estate tycoon’s office for an interview on Jan. 5, 2001, when I spotted a small article in the New York Daily News. I nearly jumped out of my skin. The article stated that Bob Durst’s confidante and the woman I had been trying to reach for weeks, Susan Berman, had been murdered at her home in Los Angeles over the Christmas holidays.
The state police investigator who had reopened the investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance, Joe Becerra, and Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro had also hoped to talk to Berman at some point.
Was her death a coincidence? The Durst reinvestigation was already a national story, with articles in People magazine and Vanity Fair.
The police initially focused on a series of suspects in Susan’s murder. There was her landlady, with whom she’d been squabbling over rent. Nyle Brenner, Susan’s manager, was also high up on the list, as well as nameless antique gangsters who had known her father in Las Vegas. In 2001, Susan’s family and many of her friends were like a Greek chorus: Susy loved Bobby; Bobby loved Susy.
The police did get an anonymous note—now referred to as the ‘cadaver note’—alerting them to a cadaver at Berman’s address in Benedict Canyon, near Beverly Hills. Tellingly, ‘Beverley’ was misspelled on the envelope. Investigators from New York urged LAPD to grill Durst. But Bob denied he was even in Los Angeles at the time, let alone that he was at Susan’s house. And, he said, he certainly was not the author of the cadaver note.
The police would eventually discover that Susan, desperate and penniless, had reached out to Bob before her death. Bob sent her two checks for $25,000 each.
Many months would go by before Los Angeles detectives focused on Durst and 20 years would pass before Bob’s lawyers finally admitted on the eve of his trial in Los Angeles that Bob had gone to see Susan around the time of her death and that he had authored the “cadaver note.”
And then, 10 months after Berman’s execution-style murder, the Durst case took another dramatic turn. Bob was arrested on Oct. 9, 2001, outside the office of his optometrist for the murder and dismemberment of Morris Black, 71, who lived across the hallway from Durst at 2213 Avenue K. When word reached us in The New York Times newsroom, I wondered, Could this really be our Bob Durst? (Coincidentally, a different Robert Durst owned a property on the same street in Galveston.)
Durst had sought to escape the renewed inquiry into the disappearance of his first wife by renting a $300 a month room on the island of Galveston while posing as a mute woman. Durst and Black, neither of whom made friends easily, began spending time together: At bars; at the library (which offered Internet access); or target shooting on Pelican Island with Bob’s guns. Most of the time he was in Galveston, Bob dressed as a man, claiming to be a cousin of the tenant. As much as Bob said he was hiding in Galveston, he was still flying in and out of New York. Over time, Black learned of his friend’s true name, Bob Durst.
On Sept. 30, a man and his son fishing on the other side of Galveston island, made a grisly discovery at the shoreline: Human legs, arms and a torso triple-wrapped in plastic garbage bags. The body parts, they later learned, belonged to Morris Black. Inside the bags police discovered a cash receipt from the local hardware store for trash bags, the cover for a $6.99 bow saw and a newspaper with an address label: 2213 Avenue K.
The police did not know that the man living in the $300 a month room on Avenue K was a millionaire from New York City. Durst called his second wife, Debrah Charatan, asking her to send him $250,000 in bail money. He was released the next day. On Oct. 11, Charatan attempted to withdraw $1.8 million from one of Bob’s bank accounts, but the authorities put a hold on his money. A few days later, Bob jumped bail, sparking a 45-day national manhunt.
He was captured after he tried to steal a chicken salad sandwich from a Wegmans supermarket in Bethlehem, Penn., near his old Lehigh University stomping grounds. From there, he was extradited to Galveston.
At his Galveston trial in 2003, Durst’s lawyers—including Dick DeGuerin and Chip Lewis, who now represent him in the Los Angeles trial—argued that the death of Black was accidental and an act of self-defense. Durst and Black, who had become friends, had wrestled over Durst’s .22 caliber handgun, which Black was brandishing around the real estate scion’s apartment, his lawyers argued.
As the men fell to the floor, Durst testified, the gun went off in Black’s face, killing him. Drunk and stoned, Durst feared that no one would believe his story, especially with aggressive New York District Attorney Jeanine Pirro re-investigating his wife’s disappearance. In a flat, emotionless voice, Durst told the jury how he sat in a pool of blood severing Black’s arms and legs.
Durst’s lawyers asked the jury to distinguish how Black died from what happened afterward. Or, as Bob told me: “I didn’t carve up the guy; I dismembered a dead corpse.”
The jury acquitted Durst, shocking investigators in New York, California and Galveston. The New York City’s tabloids had a field day. The Daily News headline the next day read: “Millionaire cross-dresser Durst shot a man, chopped up his body—and beat the wrap.” The Post was more succinct: “Run For Your Lives.”
Years later, I asked Bob what happened to Morris Black’s head, which investigators thought might tell a different story than the one told by Bob.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he told me in 2015. “I put it in one of those garbage bags …I threw the garbage bags off the pier. I could barely lift them. I expected them to sink.”
The blood-drenched incident in Galveston shook Nick Chavin, Bob’s long-time friend and defender. Bob and Kinky Friedman, the musician, mystery writer and Texas gadfly, had been the best men at Chavin’s wedding. Several years later, Chavin would become one of the prosecution’s most important witnesses against Durst.
After Bob’s acquittal in Texas in 2003, the investigation into Berman’s murder and the second investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance lost momentum. They would have remained dusty cold case files but for Bob’s fateful decision in 2010 to start talking to me and, more significantly, to filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.
Why did he decide to talk, and talk, and talk? “I am convinced that there’s no reason I shouldn’t say anything I want to, to anyone I want,” Bob told me February 6, 2015, two days before the premiere of the HBO documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. “It’s so long ago. Some D.A. would have to commence a major, budget-busting investigation. I don’t see that happening,” Durst said.
As it turned out, Bob was very, very wrong.
It all started with All Good Things, a fictionalized account of Bob’s life that was about to have its premiere in late 2010. Durst had read that his brother Douglas was threatening to sue the filmmakers over what they claimed were inaccuracies in the family history. That sounded like an endorsement to Bob, who called filmmaker Andrew Jarecki and arranged for a private viewing. Although the movie implicates Durst in three murders, Bob found the movie “likable, at least.” “It’s not entirely accurate, but it’s more accurate than” anything else written or televised about him.
Against the advice of friends and lawyers, Bob suggested a collaboration which grew into more than 20 hours of interviews over several years with Jarecki and Smerling and unfettered access to 64 cartons of his private papers, photographs, phone bills, credit card statements and legal papers. “I said they could ask me anything,” Bob told me.
Durst, in fact, did have one condition: The filmmakers were to leave his second wife, Debrah Charatan, alone.
From that collaboration, emerged the six-part documentary, The Jinx, which aired over six weeks in February and March of 2015. Two years before the film aired on HBO, the filmmakers had taken their findings to LAPD and Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, a specialist in cold cases. The filmmakers told the prosecutor they had discovered a new piece of evidence, a previously unknown letter Bob had written to his friend, Susy. The lettering on the envelope looked remarkably similar to the “cadaver note” and the address had the same misspelling of ‘Beverley.’
Lewin was hooked. He began personally interviewing what would become 200 witnesses, reviewing case files and devising a strategy for initiating a “major, budget-busting investigation.”
Five days before the sixth and final episode of The Jinx, The FBI contacted LAPD, telling them that Durst, much as he had done in Galveston, had been stockpiling cash and was now in a car driving east from his home in Houston. At some point near Beaumont, Texas, the FBI had lost his signal. Bob had turned off his phone. LAPD got a probable cause murder warrant for Durst. But where was he?
On Friday night, March 13, a friend of Bob’s called me to say Durst was in New Orleans, booked into a room at the JW Marriott under an alias. Bob, not bothering to stick to his plan to remain under the radar, turned on his phone the next day to retrieve his messages.
Hours later, FBI agents arrived at the JW Marriott. At the reception desk, they asked if the hotel had a guest named Robert Durst. No, they were told. The agents then asked about 10 other names, aliases Bob had used in the past. Each time, the clerk said, No. As they turned away from the desk, who walked through the revolving doors? Bob.
With Durst in custody, Lewin immediately flew to New Orleans. Hours before his court appearance the next morning, Bob agreed to what became a nearly three-hour interview with Lewin. Lewin suspected Bob had killed Berman to prevent her from telling the authorities Bob’s secrets about the disappearance of Kathie. Bob said that he had sent money to Susan who was in dire need. He told The Jinx that Susan had told him she was going to talk to the detectives. And he told Lewin: “Susan told me that she had been contacted by Los Angeles detectives and New York detectives” and “they want to come talk to me.”
“I’m going to tell you something,” Lewin responded. “That wasn’t true. They had not contacted her.”
“I think that Susan was trying to subtly squeeze you for money,” Lewin added. “For what it’s worth, Bob — ‘cause I know you cared for her — I don’t think Susan ever would have said anything.”
On the videotape of the encounter, Bob looked stunned. Finally, he mumbled, “I don’t think so either.”