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Suspect in Slaying Is Man of Mystery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the thunderstorms hadn’t cleared, it all might have ended differently.

The dismembered body dumped in the bay might never have been seen again. And Robert Durst’s strange sojourn here might have escaped anyone’s notice.

Instead, the clouds parted Sept. 30, bringing fishermen back to their usual posts. One of them, a 13-year-old boy, discovered the remains of a solitary 71-year-old man lodged against a rock near an isolated pier.

Bodies thrown into Galveston Bay sink, then rise, then sink forever in the course of a few hours, said Galveston Police Lt. Mike Putnal. The chance convergence of clear skies and the young fisherman would soon make the millionaire developer Galveston’s most notorious visitor.

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Durst, 58, son of a New York real estate mogul, is now charged with murder. He is also the focus of invigorated investigations into the 1982 disappearance of his wife in New York, and the December murder of longtime friend Susan Berman, a writer who lived in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon.

Galveston police say Durst, who failed to show up for a bail hearing Tuesday, is connected to the Galveston murder by a wealth of physical evidence.

Among the items recovered is one of particular interest to Los Angeles police detectives: a 9-millimeter pistol, the same caliber as the gun used to kill Berman, the daughter of a long-dead Las Vegas mob kingpin.

Many other mysteries remain. Why was Durst using a slightly shabby Galveston apartment in recent months? Why was he posing as a botanist--or, perhaps, a tastefully dressed mute woman in an ash-blond wig?

And just who was Galveston murder victim Morris Black, the slight, querulous neighbor, who was said to often engage in arguments at daybreak with an unknown visitor?

Durst, wanted by the FBI for interstate flight, represents the third generation of Dursts to have worked in real estate in New York.

His father, Seymour, took over the firm from his father and dotted the Manhattan skyline with skyscrapers.

Robert Durst married Kathleen, the daughter of a postal worker, when she was a 21-year-old dental hygienist, said friend Gilberte Najamy. After nine years, the marriage had deteriorated. In 1982, Kathleen Durst, then a medical student, was seeking a divorce. There were allegations of abuse, which Durst denied. In a case that became a tabloid sensation, she was never seen again after her husband reported that she boarded a train to New York from Westchester County.

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Durst denied responsibility, and over time, the furor faded. He spent subsequent years working at the family company. He left in anger a decade ago after his younger brother, Douglas, was chosen to succeed his father, said family spokesman Mortimer Matz.

In the ensuing years, Matz said, family members have had no contact with him, and didn’t even know he was in Texas.

Police believe that Durst has wandered around the country, staying at properties in New York, Colorado and Northern California and living off an income of about $3 million a year.

An application for a luxury apartment he leased until April in the Dallas area includes apparently erroneous information provided by Durst. He falsely listed himself as a botanist with a doctorate from UCLA, according to the family spokesman. He kept in touch with old friends, however, among them Berman, whom he had known from their college days at UCLA.

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Berman was a writer and producer of documentaries whose subject was often her own upbringing. Her father, David Berman, was once a partner of notorious mobster Bugsy Siegel. Described as eccentric and charming, Berman is said to have lived quietly in her Los Angeles home.

A year and a half ago, Durst’s past resurfaced. A tipster led New York authorities to interview witnesses who had reported seeing Kathleen Durst arrive safely in New York after Durst said he last saw her. Enough doubts were found to reopen the case, said Jeanine Pirro, Westchester County district attorney.

Los Angeles police were planning to interview Berman about Durst’s wife when they found the writer dead in her home, shot in the head. They talked to Durst, and have said he is not a suspect. The case remains unsolved.

What investigators know about Durst’s recent movements comes mainly from working backward from the grisly discovery in Galveston Bay.

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According to police and prosecution accounts, the boy’s discovery of Black’s floating, headless torso led divers to find black and silver garbage bags containing severed arms and legs nearby. No head has been found.

The bags contained other items, including a receipt from a local hardware store listing the purchase of trash bags, a drop cloth and a cover for a bow saw. There was also an address on a newspaper to a vintage, four-unit beige apartment building with gables and a chain-link fence.

Suspicious Items Found in the Trash

A search of the trash there produced an empty box of garbage bags, packaging for a drop cloth and paring knife, a .22-caliber pistol, a spent shell, and a receipt for an eye exam for Durst, whom neighbors identified from a driver’s license photo as the occasional visitor to one of the ground-floor units. A witness said he saw Durst loading black and silver garbage bags into the back of his silver Honda CRV a few days before.

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The dead man was identified through fingerprints as Black, the tenant in the adjacent apartment, and traces of blood were found in the hall between the two units. In the apartment used by Durst, police found a drop cloth as well as a bloody paring knife and boots.

A tip led police to arrest Durst on Oct. 9 while he was driving on a Galveston street. In the car they found a bow saw and the 9-millimeter gun.

Durst’s lawyer in Galveston, Mark Kelly, said shortly after the arrest that his client was innocent, according to wire reports. Kelly did not return phone calls late last week.

Just what brought Durst to Galveston remains unknown, Putnal said. The island city of about 58,000 draws summer visitors to its beaches, but is otherwise less a destination than a lifelong habit. There is a popular term here, “B.O.I.,” short for “born on the island,” which speaks to Galveston’s insular seclusion.

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Durst seems to have arrived here in a central neighborhood about six months ago. But several months earlier, landlord Klaus Dillmann, owner of the apartment building, got an unusual visit from a would-be tenant.

The woman communicated only by writing notes. She had had multiple operations on her voice box, she said. Dillmann felt sorry for her, he said, and rented her the apartment without the usual background checks.

The mysterious woman was about the same shape and size as Durst, Dillmann said, and dressed tastefully, but not expensively, in low heels and a pantsuit of a subdued color closed high on her neck, and topped with a scarf.

Her ash-blond wig had highlights and “fit well with her facial features and the color of her skin,” Dillmann said. “She wore no lipstick, nothing outstanding. Maybe just a light sheen.”

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The woman identified herself as Dorothy Ciner of Oklahoma and said she would need to pay rent ahead because she traveled. However, she said a friend, a botany consultant, would visit now and then. Dillmann later identified this occasional visitor as Durst. He said he never saw the pair together.

Dillmann’s suspicions about the woman’s gender came later. He is still not sure.

“It was just so perfect,” he said. “In her gestures, in her movements, it was a good performance.”

Police are trying to figure out if the woman was Durst in disguise. A long-ago acquaintance of Durst’s named Dorothy Ciner said she knew nothing about the apartment and had never been to Galveston.

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Investigators also are trying to learn more about Black.

Little is known about his background. He once was arrested in North Carolina for making threats, police said, but had told Dillmann he had been in Galveston a long time.

Dillmann called him strange and argumentative. A neighbor in the building, who declined to give her name, described him as a small, neatly dressed man who always wore a fishing cap and had a habit of walking quickly and carrying a brown lunch sack everywhere.

She said that although Black lived alone, he was not a recluse. He would strike up a conversation on the barest pretext, often griping about Dillmann or neighbors.

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Sometimes, in the early morning, she heard him quarreling angrily with someone who responded in a voice so low it was only a murmur, and not distinctly male or female. Often she heard Black scream: “Shut up! I don’t want to hear it!”

Carmen Sedgewick, who works across the street from the building, said she had been under the mistaken impression that Black was Durst. The reason, she said, is that she once saw him open Durst’s silver CRV and put a shopping bag in.

She and other neighbors also recounted incidents of Black’s angry outbursts at barking dogs or neighborhood children.

Police say they believe that Durst and Black bickered--"Just stupid, petty things. Door slamming competitions,” Putnal said--but say they have no clear motive for the crime and know of no previous connection between the two men.

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Neither apartment suggests many answers. They are utilitarian studios with high ceilings and cheap brown carpeting. In Black’s there remained besides a twin bed a broken lamp, canned peaches and chicken broth. Durst’s contained only a futon, television set, alarm clock and a few other items.

Durst Fails to Appear at Hearing

When Durst was arrested this month, however, prosecutors didn’t know much about him--in particular, they didn’t know of his wealth. Bail was set at $300,000 for the murder charge and possession of suspected marijuana found in his car.

Durst made bail, and was out of jail so fast, “he just about beat our detective to the street,” Putnal said.

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His family did not post the bail, spokesman Matz said. Putnal said police are investigating an unconfirmed report that a girlfriend may have wired him the money.

On Tuesday, Durst was scheduled to appear in court for a second bond hearing, and didn’t show up.

Prosecutors say they have a report that he made calls to a Dallas real estate broker, but his whereabouts remain unknown.

New York and Los Angeles police were in Galveston last week to consult about the case. Investigators await the results of blood tests, and will analyze a ballistics test conducted on the 9-millimeter gun to determine whether it can be connected to Berman.

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Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Najamy, the friend of Kathleen Durst, said Durst’s arrest unleashed a flood of grief.

“I guess there was this 5% of me that was still clinging to some hope,” she said. “In the past seven days, as I think about [Kathleen], I’ve been bursting into tears.”


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