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False starts dogged the LAPD's murder case against Robert Durst

Robert Durst case: After false starts, experts concur on a key piece of handwriting evidence

Robert Durst was told to write.

It was the last day of April 2002 and Durst, the millionaire scion of a New York real estate family, was awaiting trial for the slaying of his elderly neighbor in Galveston, Texas.

But on that day, the focus was on a different homicide: the execution-style shooting of Los Angeles writer Susan Berman two years earlier.

Los Angeles Police Det. Paul Coulter and a handwriting expert from the LAPD's crime lab had traveled to the port city with hopes of tying Durst to the killing of Berman, a friend and confidant.

Under orders from a judge, Durst took pen to paper. In all capital letters he wrote "BEVERLEY HILLS POLICE," "1527 BENEDICT CANYON" and "CADAVER."

It was not a random choice of words.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Robert Durst case: In the March 19 Section A, an article about the murder case against Robert Durst said that an HBO documentary aired on the day of Durst's arrest. It aired March 15, the day after his arrest.
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About the time Berman was killed, Beverly Hills police had received a mysterious letter. On the envelope, the writer had misspelled "Beverly." The letter contained only Berman's Benedict Canyon address and the word "cadaver." As best as investigators could tell, the letter had been postmarked on the same day, or the day after, Berman was killed.

The hand that wrote the letter, they surmised, was probably the same hand that pulled the trigger.

A search warrant released Wednesday from Houston offers a detailed narrative of how police over the last 14 years tried to identify the author of the letter.

The Galveston trip was a turning point in a disjointed odyssey by Los Angeles police to determine whether Durst did or didn't put pen to paper. It was an endeavor beset by false starts, shoddy oversight in the LAPD's laboratory and, ultimately, a consensus among experts and police that Durst had written the letter.

The search for answers came to a dramatic climax Saturday when authorities in New Orleans arrested Durst at the behest of Los Angeles police. Prosecutors have now formally charged him with Berman's murder and are awaiting his extradition from New Orleans.

Whenever it happens, Durst's murder trial is certain to feature a legal battle over the letter and the imperfect work police did over the years to match Durst to it. While prosecutors try to convince a jury that Durst was the author, his lawyers will fight to poke holes in what one of them, Richard DeGuerin, said Wednesday is the "junk science" of handwriting analysis.

Coulter, who retired in 2012, has declined repeated requests to be interviewed.

"We are not going to discuss the details of this case until we have the opportunity to present it in court," LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.

The attempt to make sense of the letter began in late February 2001, a year before Coulter's trip to Galveston.

At the time, the warrant affidavit shows, detectives had focused on a different potential suspect, Berman's manager Nyle Brenner. Comparing writing samples from Brenner to the letter, LAPD handwriting analyst William Leaver concluded in a report that it was "highly probable" Brenner was the letter's author, according to the affidavit.

By October, however, attention had turned to Durst. Investigators brought Leaver a few examples of the man's writing. Leaver found "similarities" between Durst's writings and the letter, but said more samples were needed, the affidavit said.

That led Coulter and Leaver's supervisor, Karen Chiarodit, to Texas. Leaver found that "it is probable that the questioned writing on the envelope and note was written by" Durst, the warrant states.

Faced with conflicting reports that fingered two people as the likely culprit, Leaver quickly followed his analysis of Durst's writing with a conclusion that it was now "highly probable" that Brenner had not written the note to police. A specialist in the state's Department of Justice reviewed the work and agreed there was no reason to suspect Brenner, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The tentative conclusion that Durst, not Brenner, was behind the letter was apparently not enough to make a case. Durst acknowledged to Los Angeles police that he was in California around the time of the murder, but insisted he had not been in Los Angeles. Coulter and other detectives could find no evidence proving otherwise.

Durst was a compelling suspect. Shortly before Berman was killed, New York authorities reopened their investigation into the disappearance of Durst's wife — another case in which he was suspected. When Berman was found with a bullet in her head, investigators were preparing to speak with her to learn what Durst might have told her about his wife.

But with little other than the writing analysis to go on, the search for Berman's killer went cold.

More than a decade later, new life was breathed into the case. In September 2014, with Coulter and Leaver retired, another detective from the LAPD's elite Robbery-Homicide Division interviewed Chiarodit, Leaver's lab supervisor.

Under questioning, Chiarodit acknowledged that she had not reviewed Leaver's work that had initially linked the letter to Brenner and "basically 'rubber stamped'" his report, the warrant affidavit said.

Chiarodit, who is still assigned to the department's lab, could not be reached. In a brief phone call, Leaver declined to discuss any details of the analysis he did on the case, citing the ongoing investigation and upcoming trial. He attempted to downplay his role, saying, "It was all the detectives' work, not mine. It will all come out at trial."

Following Chiarodit's admission, the affidavit shows the detectives went in search of experts outside the department's own lab. They took letter and writing samples from Durst and Brenner to Lloyd Cunningham, a forensic document examiner in Alamo, Calif.

At a meeting in November with detectives and prosecutors from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, Cunningham "identified" Durst as the author of the letter and eliminated Brenner's handwriting as a possible match, the affidavit said. A second outside expert concurred.

It is not known what Durst writing sample was given to Cunningham. In a multi-part HBO documentary on Durst that concluded day after Durst's arrest, Berman's stepson is seen discovering a 1999 letter Durst wrote to Berman.

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For the Record

March 18, 8:05 p.m. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the HBO documentary aired on the day of Robert Durst's arrest. It aired the day after his arrest.

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In the address on the envelope, Durst misspelled "Beverly" the same way it was misspelled in the letter to police. And the handwriting appears to be similar.

The film's director, Andrew Jarecki, has said in recent interviews that he had been in contact with enforcement officials in Los Angeles about his work for the last two years and indicated he alerted them about the discovered letter. After the most recent expert opinions, the LAPD formed a task force for the case, working closely with federal agents who were monitoring Durst's activities. Within months he was in custody.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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