You can find links to all of Crime Story’s coverage of the Robert Durst trial here.
By the dawn of the 80s, the once-storybook romance between Robert and Kathie Durst had collapsed. In June of 1980, Kathie asked Bob to move out of their apartment at 12 E. 86th St., according to a letter Bob sent to Kathie asking permission to remove his belongings. “You told me you wanted your own space,” he wrote. But with their separation dragging on, he added, “divorce seems the only possibility.”
But it was never that simple. They still saw each other. When Kathie contacted a divorce lawyer, Bob resisted. She tried to focus on school, but Bob refused to fix the air conditioner in the VW she drove to Einstein every day. Later, he would cut off credit cards and refuse to pay tuition, forcing Kathie to obtain loans in order to stay in med school. The physical violence in their marriage seemed to be escalating.
Between the mounting tensions in her marriage and the pressures of medical school, Kathie began using cocaine, which seemed to be everywhere at that time. There was often a glass of red wine on the bedside table before she went to sleep. Kathie also had a discreet series of affairs.
Dr. Alan J. Schreiber, then chief medical resident at Einstein, met Kathie when she was among the students on his ward at Jacobi Hospital. Her first day on the ward, Kathie showed up wearing an obviously expensive outfit that seemed out of place at Jacobi Hospital, one of the busiest hospitals in New York City, where, he said, “everyone was desperately ill.” Initially, Schreiber said, Kathie seemed “overmatched.”
But much to his surprise, she was soon sweating through the long days in her scrubs, “never showering, just focused on patient care.” On Monday nights, when the team headed to a bar to relax, Kathie “was like one of the guys,” he said, engaged in the loud banter and, “cursing up a storm.”
“She went from being a diva to, like the rest of us, saving lives,” Schreiber told me. “She became the best med student on the ward. Most importantly, she really cared about the patients and her performance.”
After she left his service, Schreiber said he and Kathie began an affair that lasted until late 1980, when he moved to Colorado. “As time went on, we became pretty close,” he said. “I really never talked to her about her husband.”
During the Christmas holidays around this time, Bob and Kathie spent the day at her mother’s house on Long Island. During pre-dinner cocktails in the living room, Bob suddenly announced it was time to leave. He went outside to warm up the car, but when he returned Kathie was still talking with her family. Bob then grabbed her, snagging some of her hair as he yanked her off the couch. Kathie assured her stunned family that she was alright. “We all looked at each other,” Jim said. “What was that all about?”
A few months later, Bob’s rage was even more apparent. A large group of friends had gathered at the E. 86th Street apartment. They talked about taking cabs over to Xenon, a disco in a building owned by the Dursts. Bob and some others departed, but Kathie and a small group of friends decided instead to return to the apartment.
When Bob returned, he burst through the door, charging at the only man in the room, Peter Schwartz. He angrily kicked Schwartz in the face, breaking his right orbital bone. Kathie took Schwartz to the hospital and reported the incident to the police. A month later while on vacation in Puerto Rico, Kathie confided to a nursing school friend, Gilberte Najamy, that she wanted a divorce. But, her friends say, she did not want to leave her marriage “empty-handed,” nor did she want to be accused of abandonment, giving Bob leverage in any settlement talks.
The dual pressures of a failed and violent marriage and med school were taking a toll. She repeatedly missed days of her rotations, usually month-long clinics in areas such as radiology, cardiology and emergency medicine. A dean contacted her offering help and urging her to get back on track.
Kathie often called her sister Mary late at night to rant about Bob. Mary would listen as she laid in bed and Kathie’s monologue dragged into the early morning hours.
Meanwhile, Bob had become infatuated with someone he met while walking his dog: Prudence Farrow, sister of actor Mia Farrow and the person who inspired the Beatles to write the song, “Dear Prudence.” Farrow would occasionally call Kathie on the phone “torturing” her, Kathie told her friends.
By the end of 1981, Kathie had made up two of the three rotations and gotten glowing evaluations. But that did not mean the tension had subsided in her marriage. One evening in September, 1981, Ann Anderson-Doyle, was startled to find her neighbor, Kathie Durst, pounding on her terrace window in a driving rain. The Dursts lived in the adjoining penthouse at 37 Riverside Drive.
Kathie, who was in her “little pajamas,” was cowering and sobbing, Anderson-Doyle told the jury in the Durst case. Kathie “was terrified” by her husband, who had been threatening her that night. “They’d had a massive fight,” Anderson-Doyle said. “He wanted her to sign papers saying she wouldn’t get any money. I thought that was another way of saying, if you leave me, you’ll have nothing. You’ll be a nobody.”
On January 6, 1982, Kathie checked into the emergency room at Jacobi Hospital with contusions on the left side of her face and head. Dr. Leslie Hain, who treated Kathie that night, testified that the black eye and bruises were consistent with being punched or slapped in the face, although Kathie did not say at the time who had hit her.
By then, some of Kathie’s classmates surmised that Kathie was in trouble. Dr. Helen Bloch, who described Kathie as a “very bright, very nice person,” saw Kathie in the school cafeteria wearing large, dark sunglasses. “She took them off,” said Bloch, who had been a rape counselor in college. “She had a huge black eye. It was a big cue something was wrong.”
The students at the table were concerned. “We all said, ‘Don’t go back to him,’” Bloch testified. “She said she’s not staying with her husband; she’s in a safe place.”
Another classmate, Dr. Peter Halperin, who did not know Kathie very well, also noticed something amiss. They were among 10 students who met with the attending physician in a radiology clinic in late December 1981. Kathie, looking “extremely anxious and frightened,” failed to answer a question from the supervisor. Kathie shrugged him off when Halperin asked her if anything was wrong.
But that night, Kathie made a call to him that Halperin would later describe as “disturbing.” Kathie said that she was very frightened because she thought that her husband might hurt her. She said that there were problems in the marriage and things had escalated to the point that she felt unsafe.
Dr. Halperin, now a psychiatrist, offered to let her stay with him and his wife. But, he testified, “She said that she felt that she would be jeopardizing a settlement financially in divorce hearings if she were to leave.”
Despite her myriad problems, Kathie was busily applying to a dozen different residency programs and preparing for graduation in June 1982. She was also clearly scared. She told several of her friends, including Gilberte Najamy, that if anything were to happen to her, “don’t let Bob get away with it.”
On Jan. 25, 1982, Kathie contacted Karen Minutello, the property manager at 12 E. 86th St., asking if there were other apartments available in the building. “She was hesitant to come out and say why,” Minutello recalled at trial. “Then, she said, ‘to get away from [Bob].’ She was frightened.”
On the last weekend in January, Kathie accompanied Bob on the 50-mile drive north to their stone cottage on Lake Truesdale in South Salem, NY. They woke Sunday morning, Jan. 31, to a frigidly cold day. Their neighbor, Ruth Mayer, brought over a wool ski cap for Kathie. An old friend, Janet Fink-Shaw, called to cancel plans to get together because the roads were icy.
In the afternoon, Kathie went to see her friend from nursing school, Gilberte Najamy, in Newtown, CT, 27 miles away. Gilberte, her sister Fadwa, their parents and another couple were getting ready to sit down to dinner when Kathie showed up unexpectedly. Kathie and Gilberte — who has since died — went into the kitchen to talk, annoying her father who expected dinner on the table at 5 PM.
“Gilberte was trying to calm her down,” Fadwa testified. Kathie “was talking fast, at a loss for what she should do. Something had happened between her and her husband.”
Later, Kathie spoke on the phone to Peter Schwartz, the man who Bob had kicked in the face, breaking his orbital bone. Kathie learned that the criminal case against Bob for the incident had been dropped. As they talked, Kathie’s speech accelerated as her agitation grew. Schwartz added that he had settled his civil lawsuit. Kathie lamented that Schwartz’s decision to drop the charges against Bob may have scuttled any hope of her using the criminal and civil matters as leverage in her potential divorce proceedings.
A short time later, Kathie was back on the kitchen phone talking to Bob. He wanted her to come home. “I could only hear what Kathie said,” Fadwa testified. “I hear her tell him she was on her way home in a pleasant voice and that she loved him.”
Prosecutor Habib Bailian asked Fadwa, who now counsels prison inmates, if she found it surprising given her background that Kathie said she loved him, after having been so agitated about Bob earlier. “No,” she responded. “That’s what victims of domestic violence have to do. It’s a coping mechanism.”
Kathie drove back to South Salem that night. There was a “pushing, shoving argument,” Bob has since acknowledged. Bob later told police that Kathie wanted the car so she could return to Manhattan that night because she had a clinic rotation the next day. But that would have left Bob, who was staying in South Salem, without a car. He refused. Five days later, Bob reported Kathie missing at a police precinct in Manhattan. He told NYPD Det. Mike Struk that he had driven Kathie to the train station in Katonah that evening and then returned to the cottage.
The 29-year-old soon-to-be doctor was never seen again.