Robert Durst case: Murder charge filed; new weapons charges arise
Mar 16, 2015 | 8:13 PM
Three people close to Robert Durst, subject of the HBO documentary “The Jinx,” have vanished or been killed: The real estate scion’s first wife, Kathleen, disappeared in 1982; his friend Susan Berman was found dead in 2000; and he admitted to dismembering his neighbor Morris Black in 2001. He was charged with murder in the Black case; a jury found him not guilty.
The Robert Durst case has evolved quite a bit over the course of the day. For further updates, visit The Times' full coverage page. To retrace the day's events and see context and insights from Times staffers, just scroll down.
There are few things as satisfying as justice for dead victims, especially justice of the televised kind, and even more especially of the big-reveal kind, and perhaps even most especially of the kind that comes after we spent so much time believing such justice was elusive. All of this is present in the Robert Durst affair, and it's what made Sunday night's finale of "The Jinx" such gripping television.
But "The Jinx" also raises the sort of moral questions that are not nearly as simple -- questions that go far beyond the guilt or innocence of one person to the modern form of documentary, which more than ever straddles the line between journalism and entertainment. Far from satisfying a sense of bloodlusty righteousness, “The Jinx” might make us pause to question how we achieve it.
Robert Durst has been rebooked in Louisiana on two new weapons-related charges: convicted felon in possession of a firearm and possession of a weapon with a controlled dangerous substance, law enforcement officials announced late Monday.
The substance was a small amount of marijuana, Louisiana State Police spokeswoman Melissa Matey said.
Matey said she did not know whether prosecutors in Louisiana would try to detain Durst on the new charges there before sending him to Los Angeles.
Court officials in New Orleans said there is no record of a new protective order issued for the relatives of Robert Durst, who is facing extradition to California on a murder charge.
The family did not make any request for a protection order, family spokesman Jordan Barowitz said in an email. TMZ reported the existence of an order on Monday, which it said applied to Robert's billionaire brother Douglas Durst; his brother's wife, Susanne Durst; and the couple's children and grandchildren.
For The Record: An earlier version of this story said Barowitz had confirmed via email that a protective order had been issued. Barowitz told The Times only that he had "heard an order of protection was granted."
Although Robert Durst could face the death penalty if convicted in writer Susan Berman's execution-style killing, it's extremely likely he would just languish on California's death row.
More than 850 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, but just 13 have actually been executed in that time. Several judges have called the state's execution system dysfunctional, and last year, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled that the sloth of the state's execution process actually amounted to a constitutional violation.
“As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary,” Carney wrote in his ruling.
The final part of HBO's documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" sparked about 35,000 messages by Twitter users Sunday night, the day after Durst's arrest.
One or more of the 35,000 tweets were seen 11.1 million times, reaching 2.8 million people, according to Nielsen Twitter TV ratings.
In Sunday's installment, director Andrew Jarecki confronts Durst with what seems to be incriminating evidence. Durst denies guilt and leaves to use the bathroom, appearing not to notice that his microphone is still recording as he mutters, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
A big portion of the reaction tweets contained some strongly emotional words.
Los Angeles County prosecutors filed a murder charge Monday against real estate scion Robert Durst in the December 2000 killing of his longtime friend Susan Berman, who was found shot execution-style in her Benedict Canyon home.
Robert Durst's family is part of a tight circle of real estate owners and operators with roots dating to the early 20th century who still dominate Manhattan's prime office market.
“In many ways, they are the kingpins of the private families,” said Peter Slatin, a longtime New York real estate observer who runs the Slatin Group consulting firm.
The patriarch, Joseph, arrived as an immigrant from Poland in 1901. With savings from his job as a tailor, he bought his first commercial property, an office building on 34th Street, in 1915. His grandsons Robert and Douglas, above, eventually joined the company.
Robert Durst will not be extradited to Los Angeles on Monday, according to one of his attorneys.
The 71-year-old waived extradition from New Orleans during a court hearing, but attorney Chip Lewis said Durst could face drug charges in Louisiana, which could delay his return to Los Angeles, where he is expected to face murder charges in the 2000 slaying of Susan Berman.
Lewis confirmed shortly before 6 p.m. local time Monday that Durst would not be leaving New Orleans. Lewis previously said that police had recovered marijuana in Durst's hotel room Saturday.
A spokesman for the Orleans Parish district attorney's office said Durst has not been charged with any crimes in Louisiana, but he declined to comment further.
Los Angeles writer Susan Berman, who was shot execution-style in her Benedict Canyon home in 2000, had been friends with Robert Durst since they attended UCLA together in the 1960s. After his wife, Kathleen, vanished in 1982, Berman acted as Durst's informal spokeswoman, calling to give his side of the story to media outlets and to those who suspected he'd had a role in the disappearance.
Friends knew Berman as a talented writer and as a funny and well-liked, if peculiar, woman with a long list of phobias, including a very severe fear of heights.
She also had been a Las Vegas Mafia princess. Her father was a notorious mob boss who co-owned Vegas' Flamingo Hotel with gangster Bugsy Siegel. As an adult, she mined that background for books and documentaries.
Steps away from the JW Marriott hotel in New Orleans where Robert Durst recently stayed for a week is a coffee shop where he became a regular.
"Every morning he does the same thing: a small coffee and sit at the corner table," facing Canal Street, said PJ's Coffee barista Brittany Harris, 20.
Durst arrived by 6:30 a.m., wore suit pants and a windbreaker over a neatly ironed button-down shirt, carried no bag or briefcase and sat for hours, said Harris and fellow barista Kim Davis, 41.
"He never looked tired or restless," Davis said. "It's so shocking -- he showed no signs" of being a murder suspect.
He took his coffee with cream and sugar. It cost $2.14, and he always paid cash and left a $5 tip.
After a few days, they started to notice idiosyncrasies: The man didn't read or chat, he just stared out at the street. "It was really weird," Harris said. "If somebody else was in here, he wouldn't speak to anyone."
In the fifth episode of the HBO documentary series "The Jinx," investigators said they had always suspected Robert Durst in crime writer Susan Berman's slaying, but could not prove he was in Los Angeles at the time of her death. Durst told filmmakers that he was in California at the time, and records obtained by the filmmakers showed he was in Trinidad, Calif. -- nearly 700 miles north of L.A. -- days before Berman was shot.
A law enforcement source told the Los Angeles Times that during the previous review of the case, police also struggled to connect Durst to the murder weapon. A previous forensic examination of the so-called cadaver note (a piece of paper that contained only Berman's address and the word "cadaver" that was sent to the Beverly Hills Police Department after Berman's death) was also inconclusive.
In the series finale of "The Jinx," a forensic analyst, comparing that note to a piece of mail written on letterhead from Durst's Wall Street offices, said the handwriting styles appeared similar. Both also had a similar spelling error, with the word Beverly written as Beverley.
At his sensational 2003 murder trial, Robert Durst admitted to chopping up a man named Morris Black. So why did the jury acquit?
According to Durst, Black was shot and killed during a struggle over a gun. In court, Durst's high-powered attorneys laid out an elaborate argument of self-defense, followed by panic -- that won over a jury.
At the time of the 2001 killing, the multimillionaire was living in Galveston under an assumed identity as a mute woman in a threadbare apartment that cost $300 a month. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
"You were drunk when you were cutting him up?" Galveston County District Atty. Kurt Sistrunk asked Durst, who had taken the stand.
The bathroom mutterings of Robert Durst, seemingly admitting to killings, would likely be admitted in court if the New York real estate heir were to stand trial on a murder charge in Los Angeles, criminal law experts said.
Peter Aranella, a UCLA law professor and a nationally recognized expert on criminal law, said Durst and his lawyers would have a hard time arguing he had an expectation of privacy because of the broad release he reportedly signed agreeing that his statements could be used in the film.
“I think it's very likely it'll end up before a jury,” said Aranella, who said he'd been following Durst and the documentary series with interest. “Once a jury hears the bathroom comments, if they hear it, that's the death knell for Mr. Durst.”
Although Robert Durst will not be fighting his extradition to California, where he will face a murder charge in the 2000 slaying of crime writer Susan Berman, one of his attorneys said Monday that a potential local criminal charge could delay his return to Los Angeles.
Chip Lewis, one of several defense attorneys who have represented Durst over the years, said Monday that the 71-year-old could face a marijuana possession charge in Louisiana. Drugs may have been recovered during a search of his New Orleans hotel room when he was arrested on Saturday, Lewis said.
Charges have not been filed against Durst in Louisiana, and there are no references to marijuana contained in the arrest warrant filed in New Orleans.
In the months after crime writer Susan Berman's slaying, police officials said they wanted to interview Robert Durst. Four years ago, detectives said Durst remained at the center of the case.
But it wasn't until HBO began broadcasting its documentary series about Durst, "The Jinx," that interest began to build. The documentary uncovered key pieces of evidence likely to play a big role in the prosecution:
The similarities between an envelope from a 1999 letter Durst sent to Berman and an anonymous note sent to Beverly Hills police at the time of the December 2000 killing alerting them they would find “a cadaver” in Berman's house. Both were written in distinctive block handwriting. And in both, the writer made the same mistake, misspelling Beverly as Beverley.
Durst is off-camera, caught on microphone muttering to himself, "Killed them all, of course."
A top Los Angeles Police Department official said revelations about Robert Durst on an HBO series did not play a role in the decision to arrest him in connection with the 2000 slaying of L.A. writer Susan Berman.
LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese rejected the idea that the arrest was somehow tied to the finale of "The Jinx" documentary series.
“We based our actions based on the investigation and the evidence,” Albanese said Monday. “We didn't base anything we did on the HBO series. The arrest was made as a result of the investigative efforts and at a time that we believe it was needed.”
Albanese declined to discuss details of the case, other than to say the LAPD had been actively investigating Berman's murder.
“We're constantly looking at cold cases, this being one of them,” he said.
Just before writer Susan Berman was found shot to death, New York police wanted to speak to her to see what she knew about the 1982 unsolved disappearance of Kathleen Durst, Robert Durst's wife.
Authorities were re-interviewing everyone involved in the case and Berman, who went to UCLA with Robert Durst in the 1960s and remained in touch, was considered a key person for police to talk to.
"I find it hard to believe there's not a connection" between the Durst and Berman cases, said Gilberte Najamy, a Connecticut woman who was a friend of Kathleen and Robert Durst during their marriage and one of the last people to see Kathleen Durst alive.
Berman acted as an "informal spokesman" for Robert Durst, calling the press and people who suspected that he had a role in Kathleen Durst's disappearance to give his side of the story.
There have been several twists, dating to the 1980s, in the life of Robert Durst. From murder investigations to court proceedings, here's a brief timeline of some of some of the highlights in the tragic circumstances of those events.