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Witness in Robert Durst murder case describes ‘bloodcurdling moment’ while watching ‘The Jinx’

LOS ANGELES, CA, JANUARY 6, 2017: New York real estate scion Robert Durst appears in the Los Angeles
New York real estate tycoon Robert Durst, pictured here at an earlier hearing, appeared in court Thursday for a pretrial hearing in his murder case.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles County judge gave prosecutors the go-ahead on Thursday to begin searching dozens of boxes of documents belonging to Robert Durst — a boon for the district attorney’s office as it builds its murder case against the eccentric New York multimillionaire.

The 74-year-old real estate tycoon is accused of shooting his best friend, Susan Berman, in the back of the head inside her Benedict Canyon home in 2000, in what prosecutors say was a move to silence her because she knew too much about the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen.

Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham’s ruling Thursday came at the end of a three-day pretrial hearing, which included sensational witness testimony that could prove crucial when Durst goes to trial.

Movie producer Lynda Obst testified that Berman, her longtime friend, once told her that as a favor to Durst she had called Albert Einstein College of Medicine pretending to be Kathleen. There’s proof, prosecutors say, that Kathleen, who was attending the medical school at the time she vanished, was already dead when a doctor at the school says he received a call from someone identifying herself as Kathleen. The doctor testified earlier this year, saying he was unsure of whom he actually spoke to that day.

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Obst testified that she hadn’t known the significance of the years-old comment until after watching an episode of “The Jinx,” an HBO documentary examining Durst’s life, and realizing that others didn’t know that Berman claimed she made the call.

During cross-examination Thursday, Durst’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, questioned Obst’s motivation for testifying. He noted that in a taped interview with prosecutors and investigators, Obst — while speaking of Durst — said, “Let’s get the guy behind bars.” Obst said she is scared of Durst, but that her main motivation for testifying was to get justice for Berman.

DeGuerin also highlighted inconsistencies in Obst’s statements. He pointed to a March 2015 interview in which Obst tells authorities that it was reading a magazine story — not watching the documentary — that jogged her memory about Berman’s comment.

On the stand Thursday, Obst said she was mistaken then, but is now certain that the realization happened after the documentary’s premiere. The confusion, she said, was the result of being “traumatized” by the documentary interview.

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When DeGuerin played a clip from the documentary that focused on the medical school doctor receiving the phone call, Obst shook her head.

“I find it very scary,” she said. “I didn’t know the Albert Einstein piece until this moment, and it was bloodcurdling for me.”

Toward the end of Thursday’s hearing, Windham ruled on the roughly 60 boxes belonging to Durst that were seized from the New York home of his friend, Susan Giordano.

Because Durst admitted to previously having given “The Jinx” crew permission to look though the materials, the judge said that any claim of attorney-client privilege had been waived for evidence in those boxes.

But that wasn’t the case, the judge ruled, for boxes seized from Durst’s Houston home or from his room at the New Orleans hotel where he was arrested in 2015. Windham said prosecutors can’t search those boxes until he, or someone else appointed by the court, goes through the materials to ensure there’s nothing protected by attorney-client privilege.

Durst will return to court July 24, when lawyers will question several more witnesses. The defense will call former NYPD Det. Michael Struk, who led the 1982 investigation into Kathleen’s disappearance. Prosecutors plan to gather testimony from Paul Kaufman, who dated Berman; Richard Markey, one of the last known people to see her alive; and Stewart and Emily Altman, longtime friends of Durst.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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