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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.” (Word count: 1915)
Robert Durst said he started talking to himself aloud back in elementary school. “After my mother died,” Bob recalled, “I was sent to psychiatrists, lots of them, for two or even three years.”
Bob did not deny, however, that in many respects he was his father’s son. “I don’t get along with people easily,” he would say decades later. “Most people don’t get along with me at all, not out-going, shy. That’s my father.”
Douglas, who like his father and his brother has a dry sense of humor, was also subject to Bob’s wrath. Douglas recalled Bob habitually pounding on him throughout grade school. One of the best days of his life, Douglas said, was when he transferred out of Scarsdale High School and away from Bob. “Imagine that you’re constantly being attacked by someone who’s older and stronger than you are,” Douglas told me. “It wasn’t any fun. Thank God for television. I’d get 15-minute intervals.”
It was only marginally better for Thomas, Bob’s youngest brother. Thomas, who lives in California, does not have a relationship with any of his siblings. At the March 2020 start of Bob’s L.A. murder trial, before the pandemic hiatus, Thomas told the jury “[Bob] treated me … as if I didn’t belong there … There was no warmth.”
As much as he fought with Douglas, Bob usually avoided face-to-face confrontations. Tom described to the L.A. jury a moment as an adult when he was passing through a revolving door into a Durst-owned building. Bob shoved the door behind him, sending Tom sprawling onto the lobby floor while Bob cackled. “I don’t remember Bobby ever raising his voice,” his friend Nick Chavin told me. “He had a long memory. If he had an enemy, he had an infinite amount of patience to wait it out.”
Seymour indulged or ignored Bob’s misbehavior for much of his life, perhaps out of grief or guilt about his wife’s tragic death. Bob’s relationship seemed to run hot and cold with his father. Bob, like his father, was small, with a wiry athleticism. Douglas, who did not play any sports as an adolescent, thought that his brother got far more attention. Seymour coached Bob’s basketball team. “I always thought that Seymour favored Bob over me,” Douglas said. “But I now think that he thought Bob had serious problems.”
Seymour left much of the child-rearing to a succession of governesses, including one the children called “Orky.” Family members said that Orky would lock Bob in his room when he misbehaved. Seymour, who was often lost in thought about the family business, made it home for dinner but afterwards returned to the office or an apartment in Manhattan.
Bob’s grandparents, Joseph and Rose, figured large in Bob’s life. Joseph, who sailed to New York from Poland in 1902 with $3 sewn into his lapel, founded the family-owned real estate company after rising from Lower East Side street peddler to garment factory owner to banker and property investor. The Durst clan—Seymour had a sister and three brothers—would periodically gather Joseph and Rose’s’ sprawling apartment at Fifth Avenue and 96th Street in Manhattan.
Bob was rarely on his best behavior. He would refuse to come to the dinner table or erupt in a screaming fit about one thing or another, one cousin recalled. Another cousin who had her own childhood issues said she still has fond memories of Bob. “It’s not easy having your mother die,” his cousin Nan Cooper said of Bob. “He was the only one who was really difficult when we had family gatherings.”
Every summer, Bob’s family looked forward to a road trip to see Joseph and Rose at their summer home on Lake Placid, which offered spectacular views of the lake and Whiteface Mountain. The heavy-timbered house, with six bedrooms and a large stone fireplace, was built in 1904 by Victor Herbert, the American composer and conductor, with the proceeds from his hit operetta, “Babes in Toyland.”
In the summers, the Durst children spent weeks at a time in Elbaron, NJ, a beach resort north of Asbury Park, where they learned how to swim.
That might sound idyllic to some, but by Bob’s account, “I had a miserable childhood.”
Bob did not leave big footprints in high school or college. He was a classic underachiever, getting middling grades even as his closest friends—Stewart Altman, Nick Chavin and Doug Oliver—described him as “one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet.” Douglas touched on Bob’s high school mindset when he recalled that Bob told his family he was playing a tuba, “or some other big horn,” in the school band, recalled Douglas, but he would ditch the instrument in the woods soon after he left the house.
It was not easy to stand out in the Class of 1961 at Scarsdale High School. Bob’s classmates included his cousin Stephen Durst, who was voted “most likely to succeed;” Robert L. Kuttner, who went on to become the co-founder and editor of The American Prospect, a liberal policy magazine; and John S. Dyson, Chairman of Millbrook Capital Management and a former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Finance in New York City.
Bob pretty much stuck with a trio of friends in high school, which included Altman, a lifelong confidante who would also serve at times as Bob’s lawyer. Bob drove a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air when he first got his driver’s license, but soon got behind the wheel of what would be his pride and joy—a Pontiac GTO muscle car.
Bob’s yearbook pedigree lists projection club, camera club and junior varsity soccer. He was “an introverted non-entity among his peers,” recalled classmate Peter Kinsler, who wrote about sports for the high school newspaper. “He was pretty reserved, although he had a fairly sharp sense of humor. He wasn’t outgoing.”
“He was just a little bit quiet, and a little bit strange,” added Robert M. Greer, a classmate who also lived on Hampton Road, “but nothing you would consider crazy or criminal.”
“I didn’t do much in the way of high school,” Bob said in summing up his own experience to a jury in Galveston in 2003. “I went and left at the end of the day.”
After high school, Bob headed off to Lehigh University, a small private school with a sweeping campus of Gothic buildings in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics. This was a time before long hair and campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Bob appears clean-cut and relaxed in his yearbook photo. Although he did not make any lifelong friends there, Bob did seem to plunge into campus life. In 1964, he was business manager of The Brown and White, the student paper and worked for the Epitome yearbook. He even joined Pi Delta Epsilon, a journalism fraternity, as well as a social fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi.
It is hard to tell how active Bob was at either the frats or the school paper. He did not appear in any yearbook photos of frats, sports teams or the newspaper staff.
A classmate, Martin Pollack, a wrestler, persuaded Bob to join him as a counselor at Camp Lenox, in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts in the summer of 1964. Forty years later, camper Bruce Fleischer recalled Durst as a “popular, funny guy, a bit of a ladies’ man.”
Michael Sigman, the former publisher of LA Weekly, who was one of the six teenagers in Durst’s cabin, described Durst as “cocky” and “kind of conceited.” Another camper in Durst’s cabin, Stanley Weiser, who would later write the screenplays for two films directed by Oliver Stone, Wall Street and W, said Durst was a “very good athlete.” Durst, who wore a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, told campers that he played AA ball for an Orioles farm team.
“He proved it by hitting this long home run,” Weiser recalled. “He was the best baseball player among the counselors.” But, of course, Durst never played for the Orioles organization.
A year after graduating from Lehigh in 1965, Robert Durst enrolled in a graduate program at Claremont Graduate University, a research institution about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. He told his brother Douglas he was studying algebraic topology, a field of mathematics that is applicable to physics, differential geometry and number theory. But according to the Registrar’s Office at Claremont, Bob received a master’s degree in economics in February 1969, something he never mentioned to his friends or family.
Curiously, he began a graduate program in economics at UCLA in the fall of 1967, even as he was still enrolled at Claremont. He told friends that in one class he sat next to another New Yorker then known as Lew Alcindor, UCLA’s star basketball player.
In the end, Bob took a leave of absence from UCLA in June, 1969, never to return. But it was in Los Angeles, that he met a UCLA co-ed who would become his closest friend and confidante: Susan Berman, the woman he is now accused of murdering.
Early on, Bob invited his high school pal Stewart Altman to join him in Los Angeles as he got to know UCLA. It was summertime. The two men strolled over to Dykstra dormitory on a hilltop overlooking the campus, where students could get a buffet lunch for 20 cents, “or whatever.” “They had a great pool,” Bob recalled years after Berman’s death. “Boys and girls trying to meet. And I saw this girl who looked very, 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. And we stayed friends until she died in 2000.”
There was a profound bond between the real estate prince from New York and the mafia princess, Berman, whose father, a Jewish gangster affiliated with Murder Inc., helped create Las Vegas in the 1950’s as a gambling and entertainment mecca. Susan’s father died in 1957 and a year later her mother committed suicide. Susan was her father’s daughter; she had a fierce sense of loyalty, especially for her friend Durst. Years after her death, Bob described her as his best friend.
“Both of her parents died when she was young, and I had one parent die when I was young,” Bob told the producers of The Jinx. “She was raised by various” prep schools. “I was raised by governesses. Neither of us got a chance to meet our parents hardly at all.”
The two of them became like brother and sister, sharing each other’s secrets. “Bobby adored Susan,” said Berman’s friend, Sheila Jaffe, shortly after Susy’s death. “She was his Holly Golightly; Bobby was Casper Milquetoast. Anything ever said to Susan was going with her to her grave.”
Soon, Susan left Los Angeles to attend the graduate program in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, although they kept in touch regularly. Bob took graduate classes in economics, but his focus seemed to be more on his life outside the classroom.
He and Altman made a foray south to Tijuana, for what would become a lifelong obsession: marijuana. Naturally, they got arrested. A couple hours in jail left Bob jumpy. “My friend was able to handle it a lot better than I,” Bob said. “My teeth chattered and I shivered the whole six hours” I was in jail. “I was there until we could bail ourselves out with my watch.”
In Altman’s version of the story, the watch got Bob out of jail that night. Stewart had to wait until the next morning for Bob to return with money for bail.
Bob finally abandoned the academic life altogether in June 1969, when he took a leave of absence from UCLA, according to school records. Around the same time, he said he signed up with the anti-poverty program, Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA. The original idea for the program came from President John F. Kennedy and his idealistic call to national service: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
However, making the world a better place was not on Bob’s to do list. Years later, he would say that “VISTA made zero demands on my life.” Instead, Bob drew his own unique lessons from a program that emphasized educational programs and vocational training in impoverished communities.
“We would help people get food stamps and like that,” Bob told the producers of The Jinx. “If they can get em’ why can’t I get ‘em? All you have to do is show them a bank account with zilch in it and sign a bunch of papers saying, you know, got nothing, and I would get food stamps. And I got a big kick out of using food stamps. I’m getting away with this; I’m beating the government.”
Before he left Los Angeles for good, Bob got involved with Arthur Janov, a psychologist who created a form of psychotherapy called primal scream. Janov, who argued that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma, had developed a following among celebrities.
However, Bob’s decision to go into therapy in the spring of 1969 was prompted less by a yearning to exorcise his demons than by a desire to placate his girlfriend at the time, Nancy Gold. Gold was “unhappy with our relationship,” he explained, and she insisted he go into therapy. Since her brother, Steve Gold, was involved with Janov, Bob tried primal scream therapy.
It was in the group sessions with Janov, where participants were asked to unpack their anger over events from their childhood, that Bob noticed a quiet couple off to one side of the room: John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “I was flabbergasted,” Bob told the author Albert Goldman, who was doing research for a biography, “The Lives of John Lennon.”
“Everyone tried to listen to John’s primals,” Durst said, and Yoko seemed “very spiritual.”
John Lennon endorsed primal scream therapy in a Rolling Stone interview in late 1970. Its influence on his songwriting is evident on his solo album John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band, especially the song, “Mother.”
Mother, you had me but I never had you
I wanted you,
You didn’t want me
So I, I just got to tell you
Bob was not so enthusiastic. He said the therapists considered him a “failure.” “I got to the point where I was yelling, but in terms of crying and rolling around etc., etc., I didn’t deliver. I did not scream about Mommy.”
Bob Durst was back in New York for Labor Day.
Bob left UCLA behind and returned to New York in late 1969, but not to the family business. Real estate was in the dumps. His father Seymour had just completed a massive 45-story office tower at 1133 Avenue of the Americas, between 43rd and 44th Streets, but the city was in the midst of both a recession and a fiscal crisis. Tenants were scarce and vacant space was plentiful.
Bob, who proudly told his family he got a PhD. in economics, spent the summer tooling around New England. He wore his hair longer and he was a dedicated pothead. Some hippies were talking about moving to the country. Bob hatched the idea of opening a health food store in Middlebury, Vermont. He headed back to New York to firm up his plans. (Word Count 1177)
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 1967 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.
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 Durstto 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.
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.”