Robert Durst, real estate scion convicted of murder, dies
Robert Durst died early Monday while in custody of the California Department of Corrections.
Real estate scion Robert Durst had dodged justice for nearly four decades.
Long considered the lone suspect in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, in New York in 1982, Durst seemed to flit in and out law enforcement and the public’s attention in the years after she vanished.
In Texas, he avoided prison time in a bizarre murder trial even after admitting to dismembering and dumping his neighbor’s body in the Galveston Bay. And for 15 years, he eluded Los Angeles investigators who suspected he killed his close friend Susan Berman at her Benedict Canyon home in order to stop her from cooperating with a renewed probe into Kathie’s disappearance.
Durst’s good fortune finally ran out in September, when he was convicted of killing Berman. The next month, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a California prison. A few weeks after that, New York prosecutors finally charged him in his wife’s death.
Durst, 78, died of natural causes at 6:44 a.m. Monday at a hospital near Stockton, according to a statement issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Chip Lewis, a longtime member of Durst’s legal team, said the real estate scion’s death was “associated with the litany of medical issues we had repeatedly reported to the court over the last couple of years.”
Durst’s health was an issue throughout his trial. He was briefly hospitalized in June when he collapsed ahead of a court hearing, and his attorneys once sought a mistrial arguing Durst was too sick to testify in his own defense. A physician at Cedars-Sinai who treated Durst had claimed the defendant was “profoundly malnourished” and at risk of “sudden death” from elevated levels of potassium. Shortly after he was sentenced in October, Durst was placed on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19, his lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said.
After a life spent eluding law enforcement, Durst’s death will also serve as one final evasion of justice.
In addition to avoiding a New York trial, it is likely Durst’s conviction in California will be vacated. His legal team filed an appeal of the conviction last year, according to Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin, who led the years-long prosecution of the Manhattan heir.
Since the appeal was pending at the time of Durst’s death, proceedings will be “permanently abated” and the appellate court will have no other legal option but to order the Superior Court to vacate Durst’s conviction, according to Lewin and Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now serves as a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“Whether that conviction legally stands after his death is irrelevant to what all of us know happened,” Lewin said during an interview on Monday.
“I don’t believe that the technicality that results from someone dying before their conviction is final is going to change the legacy of Bob Durst ... he died a person who killed three people. Nothing is going to ever change that,” Lewin continued.
Robert Abrams, a lawyer for the McCormack family, promised Monday to continue pursuing legal action against those who he believes aided in Kathie’s disappearance.
“Although Robert Durst has died, the ongoing investigation into those who helped him cover up her murder continues. On January 31, 2022, the 40th anniversary of Kathie’s murder, we will provide a further update,” he said in a statement. “In the interim, please say a prayer for Kathie and his other victims.”
Abrams did not return a call seeking comment on what additional parties he was referring to. Lewis said Durst’s attorneys would not be responding to additional inquiries about his death.
Westchester County, N.Y., Dist. Atty. Miriam Rocah expressed frustration Monday that the McCormack family would not get a chance to see Durst stand trial for his first wife’s killing.
“After 40 years spent seeking justice for her death, I know how upsetting this news must be for Kathleen Durst’s family,” Rocah said in a statement. “We had hoped to allow them the opportunity to see Mr. Durst finally face charges for Kathleen’s murder because we know that all families never stop wanting closure, justice and accountability.”
Rocah convened a grand jury to weigh evidence against Durst in New York last year, during which several of McCormack’s relatives testified. Rocah said she would make additional information about the case against Durst public in the coming days.
Robert Durst, 78, will spend the rest of his life in a California prison for the fatal shooting of his longtime confidante, Susan Berman, in 2000.
McCormack was a medical student when she vanished in 1982, and her husband became the lead suspect in her possible death and a fixture of New York tabloids.
But the case gradually faded from view, until 2015, when Durst appeared in the six-part HBO documentary series “The Jinx,” which chronicled his strange life and the suspicions surrounding him.
The series finale saw Durst confronted with evidence suggesting he wrote the so-called cadaver note, an anonymous letter that alerted authorities to Berman’s death, which investigators long believed could have been written only by the killer.
Apparently unaware he was still being recorded, Durst went to a bathroom and mumbled a string of phrases to himself that was eventually edited into an iconic and haunting sequence: “What the hell did I do? ... Killed them all, of course.”
Robert Durst was the first son of Seymour Durst, and thus a scion to one of New York’s oldest and wealthiest real estate companies, the Durst Organization.
In “The Jinx,” Durst said his life was forever marred at age 7 when his mother, Bernice, fatally fell from the roof of the family’s home. While the death was labeled an accident, he depicted it as a suicide. After that, he said he ran away from school repeatedly and felt like a perpetual outsider, unable to relate to most people.
Attending UCLA, he met and became fast friends with Berman, a free spirit and daughter of a Las Vegas mob boss. Durst grew his hair long, did drugs and chafed against the stuffy corporate world of his father. But he moved back to New York and met McCormack, a dental hygienist from Long Island a year out of high school. They fell in love, got married and ran a health food store in Vermont for two years, before returning to the city.
Durst joined the family business under pressure from his father, who would be featured in New York magazine, with Donald Trump, as one of “The Men who Own New York.” Durst has repeatedly said he hated working in real estate.
In the 1970s, Durst and his wife lived a fast and glitzy life, partying at exclusive Manhattan clubs such as Studio 54 and Xenon. But Kathleen’s mother never liked Durst.
According to “The Jinx,” Durst said he couldn’t bear to talk to her about “canning” or New England lifestyle articles she read in Yankee magazine.
“Those experiences with her family were kind of Bob meets the average American family,” Andrew Jarecki, the director of “The Jinx,” suggested to him in one of the documentary interviews.
“More than ‘meets,’” Durst replied. “Bob is forced to spend time with the average American family. Bob is supposed to be polite and cooperative and pleasant and engage in the same conversations as they are. And I just can’t do that.”
Kathleen was in her fourth year at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx in January 1982 as their marriage was falling apart. On Jan. 31, Durst said Kathleen ate dinner at their South Salem, N.Y., home and then got on the train to Manhattan to sleep at the couple’s city apartment before class the next day.
Kathleen was never seen again. New York investigators suspect she never got on that train.
Durst originally told police he dropped her off at the train station and left to have drinks with neighbors, but those neighbors later said Durst was lying, according to the testimony of the original New York City police detective assigned to the case.
On the witness stand last August, Durst admitted that he lied when he told NYPD investigators that he spoke to his wife by phone to confirm she had reached their Manhattan apartment.
It was one of many acts of deceit that helped push the case toward conviction.
Prosecutors also homed in on a phone call to the medical school from someone claiming to be Kathleen on the morning she disappeared. The woman reached out to a medical school dean to say she was sick and would miss class. At trial, Lewin argued that Berman made that call to obscure the time of Kathleen’s disappearance — and thus knew Durst was involved in her vanishing.
Prosecutors believe Durst used the time afforded to him by Berman’s phone call to dispose of his wife’s body. Investigators found a so-called dig note in Durst’s trash, a list of words including “town dump,” “bridge” and “shovel,” which may have referred to ways to get rid of his wife’s remains. Durst also made a phone call from Ship Bottom, N.J. — close to the Pine Barrens forest, where prosecutors have said the woman’s body could have been buried — the same day Berman made the phone call to the medical school.
While Durst was long considered a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance, the case hung in limbo until November 2000, when then-Westchester County Dist. Atty. Jeanine Pirro reopened the probe. Around the same time, Durst said he received a troubling phone call from Berman, whose writing career had begun to flounder.
“The Los Angeles police contacted me,” she said, according to comments Durst made in “The Jinx.” “They want to talk about Kathie Durst’s disappearance.”
Durst was out of the family business by then, splitting his time between homes in New York and on the north coast of California.
He would later testify that he had been helping pay Berman’s living expenses and partially financed her failed bid to launch a Broadway musical. The week Berman was killed, Durst said the two had planned a Christmas “staycation” in Los Angeles, where the pair would “do all the things that tourists do.”
“We were going to go to Catalina Island,” he said. “We were going to go to Disneyland.”
On Christmas Eve in 2000, Berman was found lying facedown in her house, with a gunshot wound to the back of her head. There was no sign of a break-in or robbery.
In his testimony, Durst said he had showed up for his planned visit and found Berman’s body.
“I did a double take. I saw Susan lying on the floor,” he said. “I shouted, ‘Susan!’ a couple of times, then I quickly ran to the bedroom where she was. Her eyes were closed.”
Durst said he checked to see if she had a pulse and tried to lift her off the floor, then ran to another room to call 911 but the phone line was not working. He left the home and tried to contact authorities from a pay phone on Sunset Boulevard, roughly two miles away.
But when an operator answered his call from the pay phone, Durst said, he started to have reservations.
“I decided I did not want to give them my name,” he said. “I was aware that my voice is very recognizable even without a name.”
Durst said he instead decided to write what has come to be known as the cadaver note — a scrap of paper containing only Berman’s address on Benedict Canyon Drive and the word “cadaver” — and mailed it to the Beverly Hills Police Department. He misspelled the city name as “Beverley Hills.”
Durst had repeatedly denied that he had written the note, but in 2012 Berman’s adopted son found an earlier letter Durst had written, with the same misspelling and lettering. He provided it to Marc Smerling, the cinematographer of “The Jinx,” setting a trap Durst could not escape.
Under questioning at trial from his lead defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, Durst could only admit he had lied about it over the years.
“It’s a very difficult thing to believe,” he testified. “I mean, I have difficulty believing it myself, that I would write the letter if I had not killed Susan Berman.”
Durst had denied writing the note for decades. His defense team signaled it would change tactics and admit he did so in late 2019, but legal experts have said they believe the move was self-destructive for Durst and submarined the credibility of nearly all his 15 days on the witness stand.
Much of Durst’s two weeks on the stand saw him verbally spar with Lewin, the pugnacious lead prosecutor who again and again hammered the scion about the repeated falsehoods he uttered during a relentless cross-examination that ended in a crushing exchange.
“Did you kill Susan Berman?” Lewin asked.
“No,” Durst replied.
“But if you did, you would lie about it, correct?” the prosecutor asked.
“Correct,” Durst replied.
At Durst’s sentencing hearing last October, Lewin said he did not believer Berman willingly aided Durst in covering up his first wife’s vanishing.
“Susan Berman did not cover up what was described to her as a murder ... Robert Durst likely said to her that this was some kind of accident and Susan Berman, loving Bob … and wanting to believe and trust him, decided to help,” Lewin said. “In the end, she made the mistake that many other people did in Robert Durst’s life ... she believed in him.”
Fearing a media fracas in the wake of Berman’s murder and the reinvigorated investigation of his first wife’s disappearance, Durst fled to Texas. He rented a run-down $300-a-month apartment in Galveston in the name of Dorothy Ciner, his high school girlfriend, presenting himself as a mute woman so he didn’t have to try to fake a female voice.
He befriended his neighbor across the hall, Morris Black, 71 — a drifter known for his grumpiness — and dropped his disguise.
Black’s severed body parts were found in September 2001 in trash bags floating in Galveston Bay. Investigators searched Durst’s apartment, spotting small cuts in the linoleum floor and blood stains they would match to Black.
Durst was arrested for murder, released on $250,000 bail and never showed up for his arraignment. He was caught 45 days later in Pennsylvania, shoplifting Band-Aids and a hoagie even though he had $38,000 in cash in his trunk.
At trial in Texas, he testified that Black died after Durst came home to find his neighbor wielding Durst’s .22-caliber handgun and threatening him. In an ensuing scuffle, Durst said, the gun went off accidentally and shot Black in the head.
Durst said that he felt no one would believe he was trying to defend himself, so he bought a bow saw, took Black’s ax and another saw, drank a large quantity of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and hacked the body into pieces. He dumped the bags in the bay at night, only to return in the morning to find them floating and drifting onto shore.
When crime scene investigators arrived, they noted that one of the bags had been ripped open. Prosecutors alleged Durst had retrieved the head, without which they had no solid physical evidence to dispute his account about the gunshot.
“I did not kill my best friend,” Durst testified. “I did dismember him.”
Jurors believed Durst, finding him weird but strangely honest. He was acquitted, and New York tabloids were outraged.
That might have been Durst’s final brush with police, had he not agreed to cooperate with Jarecki and Smerling in making “The Jinx” for HBO, which catapulted him back into the public eye in 2015.
In the docuseries’ finale, Durst struggled to explain why the cadaver note had the exact same script and misspelling as the note he had written to Berman. Growing visibly nervous, he burped bizarrely, briefly pinched his earlobe and covered his face.
When the interview was over, Durst went to the bathroom with his microphone still live, muttering the lines that would haunt him the rest of his life:
“I don’t know what you expected to get. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. Killed them all, of course. [Unintelligible] I want to do something new. There’s nothing new about that. ... He was right. I was wrong. The burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do?”
The documentary crew edited this to end more menacingly, concluding the series with the final words: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
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