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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Robert Durst: Money, Madness and Murder

     Robert Durst, born in 1942 into a wealthy family, grew up in Scarsdale, New York. His father, Seymour Durst, got rich investing in real estate. In 1949, when Robert was seven, he saw his mother fall to her death from the roof of the family mansion. The authorities ruled her death a suicide. Although young Robert received extensive psychological counseling, his doctors worried that this childhood trauma would lead to future mental illness. (Robert's brother Douglas claimed in 2014 that Robert did not witness their mother's death, that the lie was nothing more than a ploy to gain sympathy.)

     After graduating from Scarsdale High School and Lehigh University, Robert Durst started graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. After acquiring a first-class education, Robert entered the family real estate business but hit a roadblock in 1995 when his brother Douglas assumed control of the enterprise. This led to Robert's permanent estrangement from his family.

     In January 1982, Robert Durst's wife Kathleen, a woman he'd married ten years earlier, suddenly disappeared. Robert waited several days before reporting her missing and didn't bother notifying her family. The police suspected foul play but without the body, the homicide investigation hit a dead end.

     In 2000, with Kathleen Durst still missing, the New York State Police re-epened the 18-year-old case as a cold-case murder investigation. Detectives suspected that Robert had murdered his wife and disposed of her body.

     Not long after the renewed police interest in Kathleen Durst's disappearance, someone murdered, execution-style, Susan Berman in her home in Benedict Canyon, California. Because Berman had been Robert's longtime friend and confidant, detectives believed she had knowledge of Kathleen Durst's disappearance. Investigators speculated that she had been eliminated because she was a potential witness against Robert Durst. The Beverly Hills police had been alerted to Berman's murder by the writer of an anonymous, hand-printed note telling them of a "cadaver" in Berman's house. The writer, in addressing the envelope, had misspelled Beverly as "Beverley." Handwriting experts did not have enough document evidence to identify Robert Durst as the writer of the so-called "cadaver note."

     Although interrogated by detectives as a suspect in the Berman murder case, Robert Durst was not charged. The two cases remained unsolved.

     In 2000, Robert moved to Galveston, Texas to get away from the criminal investigations of his missing wife and his murdered friend, Susan Berman. About this time he took up cross-dressing.

     In 2001, the body parts of 71-year-old Morris Black, Robert Durst's apartment complex neighbor, were found floating in Galveston Bay. When questioned by the police, Durst claimed that Mr. Black had entered his apartment, grabbed a gun hidden in the room, and pointed it at him. According to the 60-year-old Durst, the gun went off accidentally when he tried to disarm his neighbor.

     While he denied murdering Mr. Black in cold blood, Durst admitted that after the killing he used a paring knife, two saws and an axe to dismember the victim's corpse before dumping the body parts into Galveston Bay. The authorities booked Durst into the county jail on the charge of murder.

     Free on bail until his murder trial, Durst missed a preliminary court hearing on the case. The judge issued an arrest warrant for the bail-jumper whose whereabouts were unknown. A month or so later, police officers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania took Durst into custody outside a Wegmans supermarket after he had shoplifted a chicken sandwich, Band-Aids, and a newspaper. Durst had $500 in his pocket and $37,000 in cash stashed in his car along with two guns, marijuana, and Morris Black's driver's license.

     At Durst's 2003 murder trial, his three attorneys--the best legal defense team money could buy--argued self defense. Following seven weeks of testimony, the jury shocked everyone by finding Robert Durst not guilty. After this stunning verdict, lead investigator Cody Gozalas told reporters that he'd rarely had a more clear-cut case of murder against a defendant. "I believe," the investigator said, "that Mr. Durst walked up behind Mr. Black and shot him in the back of the head. There was nothing to suggest self defense. Mr. Durst never mentioned self defense until after the defense attorneys took over the case."

     The Durst case jurors, widely criticized for the acquittal, said it had been a difficult verdict for them to arrive at. While they knew the defendant had cut up Mr. Black's body, they weren't convinced he had committed a premeditated murder. The jurors bought the defense theory that Durst suffered from a psychological disorder that caused him to cut up and dispose of Mr. Black's body amid a state of panic.

     At the time of Durst's murder acquittal, the Durst family fortune was valued at more than $2 billion.

     Prosecutors, having lost the murder case, charged Durst with two offenses related to Mr. Black's murder--bail jumping and evidence tampering. To avoid going through another trial, Durst pleaded guilty to the lesser charges. The judge sentenced him to five years. He served one year of that sentence. Pursuant to the terms of Durst's 2005 parole, he had to obtain official permission to travel any significant distance from his home.

     In December 2005, Durst made an unauthorized trip to a shopping mall near the apartment complex where he had killed Morris Black. In the mall, he had the bad luck to run into the judge who had presided over his murder trial. The judge, suspecting a parole violation, notified the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. Corrections authorities sent Durst back to prison on the parole violation. He remained behind bars until March 2006.

     In 2011, Robert Durst purchased a townhouse in Harlem, New York. Three years later, in Houston, Texas, Durst exposed himself at a CVS drugstore then urinated on a rack of candy. A Harris County prosecutor charged him with criminal mischief and indecent exposure.

     In February 2015, the HBO television network aired the first episode of a six-part series about Robert Durst and his connection to his wife's disappearance and the two murders called "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." In making the documentary, New York City producers Marc Smerling and Andrew Jarecki spent 25 hours interviewing Durst on camera.

     In the course of their research, the producers acquired from Susan Berman's stepson a hand-printed letter Durst had sent to her a year before her murder. On the envelope Durst had misspelled Beverly as "Beverley."

     Believing that the identical misspellings in the Berman letter and the cadaver note indicated that Durst had hand-printed the note sent to the Beverly HIlls Police Department, the TV producers asked New York City forensic document examiner John Osborn to analyze the handwriting evidence. After comparing the cadaver note to the Berman letter and 40 specimens of Durst's known hand-printing, Mr. Osborn concluded that Durst was the writer of the cadaver document. The producers notified the authorities in Los Angeles.

     In Louisiana at eleven at night on Saturday March 14, 2015, the day before the airing of the final episode of "The Jinx," deputies with the Orleans Parish arrested Robert Durst in his room at the J. W. Marriott Hotel. A prosecutor in Los Angeles had charged Mr. Durst with the first-degree murder of Susan Berman.  Durst had been preparing to fly to Cuba.

     The next evening, when the final episode of "The Jinx" aired, Robert Durst was seen being confronted by producer Jarecki with the two pieces of hand-printing featuring the identical misspellings of Beverly. Durst admitted writing the Berman letter, but in obvious distress, denied writing the cadaver letter to the Beverly Hills Police Department.

     At the conclusion of the filmed interview of Durst in the New York City offices of producers Smerling and Jarecki, Durst asked to use their restroom. With his microphone still hot, he began talking to himself. "There it is," he said. "You're caught. What a disaster. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

     On March 17, 2015, the authorities in Orleans Parish announced that Robert Durst had been charged in Louisiana with possession of a firearm by a felon, a felony that carried a maximum ten year sentence. It was not clear how this charge would affect the progress of the murder case in Los Angeles.

     While Durst sat in a Louisiana jail cell, police officers and FBI agents, on March 17, searched his apartment in a 17-story condominium in a posh Houston, Texas neighborhood. His attorney, Dick DeGuerin, called the search a publicity stunt orchestrated by the Berman case prosecutor in Los Angeles.

     In January 2016, Durst pleaded guilty to the federal gun charge. The judge in Louisiana sentenced him to 85 months to be served at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

     On November 7, 2016, the 73-year-old was arraigned in the Los Angeles Superior Court for the 2000 murder of Susan Berman. At that hearing, Deputy District Attorney John Levin announced that the state would not seek the death penalty in the case. Durst, who pleaded not guilty, sat in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace. The Durst crime saga continued.

     As of December 2017, Durst has not gone to trial for Susan Berman's murder.



  1. Good overview of a complex nut case---good job, Jim

  2. The Durst acquittal in the murder of Morris Black has to be one of the worst travesties of justice in recent history! It boggles the mind how a group of twelve people could fall for the bull that his defense team put out there. Being from Westchester County, NY, folks around here are hoping that there might be something that could be negotiated so that Durst could give some peace to the family of Kathleen Durst. Her mother is still alive at 101 yrs old. He is going down for the murder of Susan Berman in my opinion. I believe he will spend the rest of his days in prison. If a more cushy prison could be arranged might that force him to be more forthcoming with the details of his wife's death? Just wondering what could be done.

  3. I suppose the next thing he'll get away with will be based on an "AFFLUENZA" defense!