Real estate heir Robert Durst pleaded not guilty to a federal gun charge Tuesday in New Orleans, leading one friend and employee to believe Durst will never be extradited to face a murder charge in California.
Durst, who turned 72 behind bars on Sunday, is being held without bond in the medical unit of a Louisiana prison after indictments on federal and state gun charges stemming from his arrest last month. The subject of the recent HBO docu-series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” was charged after FBI agents who stopped him at a New Orleans hotel found a .38 revolver and marijuana in his room.
The agents had stopped Durst based on a Los Angeles murder warrant issued by police in connection with the 2000 shooting of his longtime friend Susan Berman at her Benedict Canyon home. Berman had served as a spokeswoman for Durst after the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie, in New York.
Durst waived extradition to California weeks ago, but Louisiana officials have so far refused to release him.
His arraignment on the California arrest warrant was postponed Monday and transferred to the same court that will handle his next hearing on the state gun charges May 7. His federal trial date has been set for June 22.
The New York millionaire pleaded not guilty to those charges -- possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of a firearm with a controlled substance -- last Thursday.
Durst was acquitted of murdering his Galveston neighbor by a Texas jury in 2003, but skipped bail during the trial and later pleaded guilty to being a fugitive from justice and transporting a weapon across state lines while under felony indictment.
If convicted of the state charges now as a first-time offender, he could be sentenced to up to 10 and 20 years on each charge. If convicted of the federal charge of possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, Durst faces a possible 10-year prison term and $250,000 fine.
Durst's lead attorney, Houston-based Dick DeGuerin, said Tuesday that "no plea agreement is in the works."
Durst's extradition expired last week, but DeGuerin said a misdemeanor fugitive charge filed against Durst in state court last week "will keep the extradition alive" while his state and federal cases are pending.
Federal and state prosecutors will be meeting soon to confer about who will prosecute Durst first, DeGeurin said, adding that: “We’re making progress.”
Durst was not able to see a rabbi during Passover, but is expected to meet with one on Wednesday, DeGuerin said.
Joshua Bullard, 39, befriended Durst after meeting him at a Houston Starbucks in 2006, after Durst was released from prison after his plea agreement for bail skipping during the Galveston trial.
One of Durst’s attorneys, Houston-based Chip Lewis, verified that Bullard knew Durst. He is convinced of Durst’s innocence.
“I don’t think this case ever goes to trial in L.A. I think you’ll see it get kicked out,” he said, but, “I’m concerned that there was a pistol found in his hotel. I’d never seen him with a pistol before. I’d never seen him with marijuana before -- if he did smoke marijuana, he never shared that side with me.”
Bullard said that when they first met, he recognized Durst immediately from news reports about the Galveston trial.
“He walked in and had a backpack on and tennis shoes. He looked like a hiker,” Bullard told the Los Angeles Times. “He took his coat off and I said, ‘Man, you’re Robert Durst!’ He said, ‘Everyone just calls me Bob’.”
He went on to work for Durst, as a jury consultant during a New York trespassing case brought by Durst’s estranged brother, and managing Houston publicity surrounding “The Jinx.”
Durst never talked about Berman, Bullard said. But at one point, he said, Durst “calls me on the phone and he’s like ‘You’ve got to help me, the New York Post is calling me a cross-dressing killer!’ If you know him, you know he’s not a killer.”
Durst suffered a variety of ailments in recent years, Bullard said, but in recent months, “it seemed like his health had improved. I mean, he was in bad shape in November and December -- I mean, his balance was off. You have to remember Bob Durst is a very small guy. ... He doesn’t weigh much at all. I saw lots of imbalance issues, as if he was almost kind of falling over but catching his balance.”
Durst shared medical records with Bullard detailing his recent surgeries to remove esophageal cancer and install a shunt to drain fluid from his brain.
More recently, Bullard said, “it looked like he was getting a bit better. His hair had grown back” from the shunt surgery, and although he was still “talking to himself, mumbling -- that’s been going on for years,” Bullard said.
He described Durst as "very compartmental," separating different areas of his life.
“In the last two or three months, I got the feeling he wasn’t traveling as much. He was in his condo more often,” Bullard said.
Bullard shared with The Times the envelopes Durst left his checks in and emails allegedly from Durst. In one of the emails, Durst said he moved to Texas, “since you guys have all the oil r/e banking crash of 1986,” and, “Except for lawyers, nobody seems to know I live in Houston.”
Last summer, after Durst was charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief for urinating on candy at a local CVS, he argued that his recent surgeries had left him incontinent and was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor.
“Bob and I had lengthy, personal discussions about that,” Bullard said. “He was experiencing some type of disruption and he peed on the candy to get out of view of the people in the line” at the cash register.
Bullard said he last spoke with Durst early last month, after the airing of the fourth of six episodes of “The Jinx.” He said Durst didn’t seem upset, and arranged for Bullard to pick up a check at his Houston condo complex a few days later, on March 1.
Durst wasn’t there -- he had left the check with the concierge, as usual, Bullard said.
“The concierge was a little bit concerned. She just says 'We’re all watching "The Jinx".'"
“I said, ‘Yeah, good. This is going to be great!” Bullard recalled, “I just assured her, ‘Hey man, this is all Hollywood. It’s all Los Angeles. It’s all movies. None of this is going to be real life.'”
Then the fifth and sixth episodes of “The Jinx” aired, implicating Durst in Berman’s murder, and he disappeared.
“That was the last time I heard from him,” Bullard said, “I just wish I could have talked to him after Episode 5. ... I don’t think he had a clue the FBI was coming in real life. I didn’t. I think he just wanted to get away from the media coming to his condo. That would be very embarrassing for him. It makes perfect sense that he left.”
But initially, he had no idea where Durst had gone.
“I thought he was in the hospital,” Bullard said.
He kept calling Durst, “desperately trying to get a hold of him.”
When news broke that Durst had been arrested, Bullard said he was “emotionally devastated."
A few days later, he called Durst’s second wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, a real estate developer in New York who has yet to comment publicly about the case and did not participate in the HBO series.
Bullard had never spoken to Charatan before, but said he was able to reach her and ask about Durst. She sounded “like a businesswoman,” he said but also, “seemed really emotionally shocked, just not believing.”
“She said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, we’re all in shock and I’m doing the best I can’,” Bullard told The Times. “I said, ‘If you can let Bob know that I’d like him to contact me -- I mean, I just can’t call down to the jail.”
Bullard later sent Durst a birthday card, but never received a response.
As of Tuesday, Bullard had yet to hear from Durst. But Lewis, Durst’s attorney, called him last week.
“He just said Bob had expressly wanted me to contact you to let you know he has received your letters and he’s grateful for your friendship and your work and it was good to hear from you when he was first arrested and all alone and we’ll keep you posted,” Bullard said.