Susan Berman was pacing nervously and biting her lip when her friend Miriam Barnes entered her apartment.
“I’m going to tell you something, but I need you not to ask me any questions,” Barnes quoted Berman as saying. “I did something today.”
Berman didn’t explain what she had done, only that it was a favor for a close friend of hers: New York real estate scion Robert Durst.
“If anything ever happens to me, Bobby did it,” Berman said, according to Barnes’ testimony on Tuesday in a Los Angeles courtroom.
The conversation, she said, took place shortly after Durst’s first wife, Kathleen, went missing in New York in 1982. But the chilling significance of Berman’s comments didn’t sink in until nearly two decades later, Barnes said, when she was at Berman’s funeral in Los Angeles.
Barnes’ testimony came during the latest in a series of hearings before the murder trial of Durst, who stands accused of carrying out the execution-style slaying of Berman, a longtime confidante who was shot dead in her Benedict Canyon home in 2000. As Los Angeles prosecutors have sought to build their case, they have tried to prove two key allegations — that Durst killed his first wife, and that he then killed Berman because she knew about it.
Barnes, a longtime friend of Berman who had lived in the same New York apartment complex, was the second witness to suggest Berman knew something damaging about Durst before she was killed. In February, longtime Durst associate Nicholas Chavin testified that the defendant confessed to Berman’s murder outside a New York City restaurant. Chavin also said Berman had previously told him that she knew Durst killed Kathleen.
Berman, a writer and daughter of Las Vegas mob royalty, had served as Durst’s unofficial spokeswoman when Kathleen’s disappearance became tabloid fodder. Before she was killed, authorities had hoped to interview her about the disappearance.
In all, four witnesses are expected to take the stand this week, as prosecutors seek to preserve their testimony for fear the witnesses may die, either of old age or at Durst’s behest, before the murder trial begins. The eccentric millionaire is unlikely to be tried before 2018.
The identity of one of the witnesses scheduled to testify this week has been kept secret — the second time that prosecutors have kept a witness confidential until the last possible moment. Chavin’s identity was withheld from the public until he testified, and only revealed to the defense days before he delivered his bombshell testimony.
It was Kathleen’s disappearance, rather than Berman’s slaying, that took center stage during Tuesday’s proceedings. Retired New York City Police Det. James Varian, who was assigned to canvass the apartment complex shortly after Kathleen vanished, read aloud from a report he wrote at the time about a neighbor telling him that Kathleen was afraid Durst “wanted to kill her.”
The neighbor had told Varian about an incident in which Kathleen Durst crawled out of her bedroom window in her pajamas, then scurried into the neighbor’s apartment because she was terrified of Durst, according to the retired detective. Kathleen claimed Durst had beat her and owned a gun, according to Varian’s report, and she spent two hours sitting in her neighbor’s bathroom.
During cross-examination, Varian said the neighbor’s husband went to see Durst later that same day. Durst denied hitting Kathleen and said that he wasn’t mad and wanted his wife to return home, according to Varian’s report.
An employee at the posh New York City apartment building where the Dursts lived also took the stand, testifying that he manned the elevator Jan. 31, 1982, the day Durst says he last saw his wife after taking her to catch a Manhattan-bound train. Rafael Prado testified that he never saw Kathleen in the building that night and said that a now-deceased co-worker — who told police investigating Kathleen’s disappearance at the time that he had seen her in the building that day — often came to work intoxicated and had a reputation for lying.
He was captured one day before HBO aired the final episode of “The Jinx,” a documentary that examined Durst’s life, Kathleen’s disappearance, Berman’s murder, and the 2001 slaying of Morris Black in Galveston, Texas. Durst admitted to killing Black and chopping up his body, but argued that he’d shot him in self-defense. Lawyers led by Dick DeGuerin, the same Texas attorney leading Durst’s legal team in Los Angeles, won an acquittal in 2003.
During the final episode of “The Jinx,” Durst mutters: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” which some interpreted to be a confession to multiple murders.
Two days after his arrest in New Orleans, prosecutors charged Durst with Berman’s murder, but he didn’t return to Los Angeles until November 2016 after he was sentenced on unrelated federal gun charges.
While still in New Orleans, Durst gave a rambling, videotaped interview to Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin — footage that has now become a hotly contested piece of evidence. In court filings, Durst’s attorneys have accused the veteran prosecutor of misconduct, saying the interrogation of their client was “improper and deceptive.” Durst, his lawyers say, was “frail, afraid and quite disoriented” during the questioning.
Lewin, who repeatedly has condemned the misconduct accusations in filings and in court, again expressed frustration with the defense’s claims Tuesday. The allegations made by Durst’s attorneys are “slanderous,” said Lewin, who also criticized the legal team for failing to provide evidence to back their accusations of impropriety.
“I’ve had it with the allegations,” Lewin said, as his face reddened. “Either put up or shut up.”
The prosecutor then complained that defense attorneys had improperly filed a motion for a delay, adding that “maybe they shouldn’t be practicing” law.
One of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, shook his head.
“This guy’s nuts,” Chesnoff muttered.
A few minutes later, Chesnoff stood to respond to the accusations from Lewin — whom he called loquacious — saying, “Mr. Lewin thinks this case is about him, not Mr. Durst.”
During another back-and-forth later in the hearing, Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham smirked and said, “All right, can’t we all get along?”
7:55 p.m.: This article was updated with testimony from Miriam Barnes, a longtime friend of Susan Berman.
1:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional testimony from the retired detective and with details from an exchange between the prosecution and Durst’s attorneys.
12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with testimony by a retired New York Police Department detective.
This article was originally published at 6 a.m.