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"I’m a professional liar," key witness against Robert Durst once told prosecutors in recorded call

A day after a longtime friend of Robert Durst testified that the multimillionaire confessed to a years-old Los Angeles murder, Durst’s legal team played a recording that could haunt one of the prosecution’s key witnesses if the case goes to trial.

On the call, prosecutors confronted Nick Chavin about conflicting accounts he had given about whether Durst had confessed.

“I’m a liar, I’m a professional liar … I work in advertising,” Chavin, 72, said in the 2015 interview.

Chavin told the court this week that Durst admitted a few years ago in New York City to the 2000 killing of his longtime confidant, Susan Berman. Chavin also claimed Durst told Berman he had killed his first wife, Kathleen, who vanished in New York in 1982.

Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, seized on a number of recorded phone calls between Chavin and Los Angeles prosecutors in court Friday, dismissing Chavin’s testimony as a “story.” DeGuerin pointed to instances where Chavin told prosecutors that Durst had not confessed. The attorney even hinted that by testifying against the real estate heir, Chavin might be trying to curry favor with Durst’s brother, Douglas, as the two siblings openly despise one another.

Chavin appeared irked by DeGuerin’s suggestions, insisting that he hid the truth during earlier interviews with prosecutors, in part, because of his long friendship with Durst.

“Everything I’m saying is based on my wanting to cover up the truth at that time…. I didn’t want to admit it,” Chavin said when pressed about the calls.

Durst, 73, is charged with murder in the execution-style slaying of Berman, who was shot in the back of the head inside her Benedict Canyon home in December 2000. Prosecutors allege that Durst targeted Berman because he was afraid she would talk to investigators about what had happened to his missing wife.

Berman, a Las Vegas-born writer whose father was a mob boss, had acted as an informal spokeswoman for Durst, fielding media inquiries that followed Kathleen’s disappearance.

Even though a trial in Durst’s case likely wouldn’t take place until 2018 at the earliest, Chavin was questioned in court this week because of fears raised by the prosecution that he might die or be killed before the case reaches a jury. 

The 72-year-old advertising executive was hustled into the Los Angeles Airport Courthouse on Wednesday as a “secret witness,” whose identity was withheld from the defense for several weeks and from the public until the moment he took the stand. As he arrived in the courtroom, Chavin was flanked by LAPD officers, who have kept an eye on him from the courtroom’s jury box.

Durst has stared ahead, expressionless, during much of the testimony, only occasionally whispering to his attorneys.

A preliminary hearing for Durst is scheduled for October, and both sides will return to court in April to litigate several issues and question four more witnesses. The identity of one of those witnesses is also being withheld. 

Chavin, who said Durst was one of his best friends, told the court on Thursday that Durst asked him to meet for dinner in 2014 to discuss Berman and Kathleen Durst. The topic didn’t come up, however, until the two men exited the restaurant, he testified.

“You wanted to talk about Susan?” Chavin recalled asking Durst as the men left. The question, he said, prompted a chilling reply.

“I had to. It was her or me,” Durst said, according to Chavin’s testimony. “I had no choice.”

But DeGuerin — who successfully defended Durst in a 2003 murder trial in Texas and has repeatedly said Durst had nothing to do with Berman’s killing — pointed to another recorded 2015 interview with prosecutors in which Chavin said the confession didn’t happen.

“We were out on the sidewalk saying goodbye,” Chavin said in the interview. “I reminded him that he wanted to talk to me about it ... and he said, ‘Next time.’ ” 

DeGuerin harped on the differing accounts given by Chavin, who initially insisted he hadn’t lied to prosecutors but was simply dodging their questions because he wasn’t under oath at the time. 

During the afternoon session, however, Chavin said he had initially lied to prosecutors when he denied that Durst had confessed to him.

“I was lying,” he said. “I was covering up…. I just didn’t want to tell the truth.”

Durst’s attorneys then played a recording from one of the 2015 interviews in which Chavin — responding to prosecutors’ questions about why his wife had told them that Durst had confessed to Chavin — said he had lied to his wife. In that recording, Chavin described himself as a “professional liar,” referring to his work in advertising. The remark drew a smile from one of Durst’s attorneys as the recording was played in court.

On the call, Chavin later told prosecutors he was being facetious.

DeGuerin also grilled Chavin over comments he made during interviews with prosecutors in which he appeared to suggest that testifying against Durst would help his business relationship with the defendant’s brother, Douglas. The two siblings are estranged and openly hostile to each other. Douglas now controls the Durst Organization, a premier Manhattan real-estate group that Chavin has done work for.

“I’m in the middle of a really big pitch, for one of the big — biggest jobs in the city for Douglas Durst,” he told prosecutors during the interview. “Douglas is, you know, scared to death of Bob and certainly wants to see Bob put away. It could only help me.”

DeGuerin asked Chavin if he had meant that saying something incriminating about Robert Durst would be beneficial to his business interests. Chavin denied that interpretation but didn’t offer an alternative one.

In another call with prosecutors, Chavin said of Robert Durst, “My business depends upon goodwill with his brother, who hates him. I want to do everything in my power to … have Douglas Durst feel the best about me.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin followed up during the phone interview, asking, “If that were true, then, you would have — then, you would have been telling us, from day one, ‘Oh yeah, Bob confessed to me,’ … because according to your theory, that would put you in good graces with Doug Durst.”

“It sure would,” Chavin responded. “But, it would make me a liar.”

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow us on Twitter: @marisagerber and @JamesQueallyLAT

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UPDATES:

7:50 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details from the court hearing.

3:40 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details from the court hearing.

This story was originally published at 3:00 p.m.

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