Suspicion has shadowed Robert Durst at every odd, bloody turn.
Three times people close to the eccentric – some have said mentally ill – New York real estate scion have vanished or been killed. He has played the role of suspect, person of interest or defendant, each time confounding authorities as they have tried and failed and tried again to build murder cases against him.
Now, once again, police think they have the goods on him.
Durst, 71, was arrested by FBI agents Saturday afternoon in a New Orleans hotel at the behest of Los Angeles officials, who claim they have uncovered new evidence linking him to the 2000 slaying of his friend, writer Susan Berman.
The arrest came a day before HBO aired the last episode of a documentary series about Durst.
In Sunday evening’s episode, Durst left his final interview to use the bathroom, appearing not to notice that his microphone was still recording as he muttered to himself, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
“There it is, you’re caught,” he said at another moment. “What a disaster.”
Durst had agreed to lengthy interviews for the series and spoke about Berman, who was shot execution-style in her Benedict Canyon home just as New York authorities were preparing to interview her about the 1982 disappearance of Durst’s first wife.
Police and prosecutors would not comment on what led them to accuse Durst now. But one source involved in the recent deliberations, who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said the documentary had played a role.
“As a result of investigative leads and additional evidence that has come to light in the past year, investigators have identified Robert Durst as the person responsible for Ms. Berman’s death,” the LAPD said in a statement issued Sunday.
Durst, accompanied by two attorneys, appeared briefly Sunday before a judge in a New Orleans courtroom. The judge ordered him held without bail and set a hearing for Monday morning to address Durst’s extradition to Los Angeles.
Dick DeGuerin, a renowned criminal attorney who defended Durst in a previous murder case and said he would mount his defense again, lashed out at the arrest, saying he believed it was timed to correspond with the last installment Sunday night of HBO’s documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”
“Do I think this is a coincidence? Hell, no,” DeGuerin told The Times as he prepared to board a plane for New Orleans. “There has been rumor, innuendo and speculation for a number of years, and now we’re going to get our day in court on this.”
On Christmas Eve 2000, Berman’s body was found in her Benedict Canyon home with a single gunshot wound to the head. Police suspected that she had been killed a day or a few days before, but they could not pinpoint the timing. Nothing appeared to be missing from the house, and there were no signs of a struggle or forced entry.
Investigators looked into Durst as a possible suspect. But, although Durst acknowledged he was in California at the time of the killing, detectives could not find proof he was in Los Angeles around that time and were unable to tie him to the slaying. Years passed and the case grew dormant.
The final episode of the HBO documentary revolved around similarities between an envelope from a letter Durst sent to Berman in 1999 and an anonymous note sent to Beverly Hills police at the time of her killing alerting them that they would find “a cadaver” in Berman’s house.
Both included Berman’s address written in distinctive block handwriting. And in both the writer made the same mistake, misspelling the word “Beverley.”
In the documentary, Durst admitted that he wrote the envelope but denied writing the note to police.
“The writing looks similar and the spelling is the same, so I can see the conclusion the cops would draw,” Durst said.
Director Andrew Jarecki held up enlarged versions of the misspelled city from each and asked, “Can you tell me which one you didn’t write?”
“No,” Durst responded.
People who knew Berman and Durst’s own family expressed relief over Saturday’s arrest. Producer Lynda Obst, a close friend of Berman’s, said she was “incredibly gratified by the arrest.”
Durst’s younger brother, Douglas, said in a written statement that the family was “relieved and also grateful to everyone who assisted in the arrest of Robert Durst. We hope he will finally be held accountable for all he has done.”
The arrest marked the latest surreal event in Durst’s bizarre life. According to law enforcement officials, he had checked in to the J.W. Marriott in New Orleans’ French Quarter under an assumed name using fake identification, and was observed by agents mumbling to himself and wandering aimlessly around the lobby for several minutes before being taken into custody.
Born into a family that owned one of New York City’s most prominent real estate empires, Durst experienced trauma as a young child when he watched his mother fall to her death in an apparent suicide. Later in life, he chafed under pressure from his father, who was trying to groom him to take over the family business.
Durst went on to marry. In 1982, after nine years of marriage, Kathleen Durst vanished. She had been fighting with her husband the night she disappeared, according to a good friend, and had recently told him that she wanted a divorce.
Berman and Durst had met when they were students at UCLA in the 1960s and remained friends. After Durst’s wife vanished, Berman acted as an “informal spokesman” for Durst, calling to give his side of the story to media outlets and people who suspected that he had a role in his wife’s disappearance.
Durst told investigators his wife had boarded a train from the suburban town where they lived heading for New York City and never returned. He denied having anything to do with her disappearance, and her body was never found.
The New York case went cold until late 2000, when investigators reopened it and began trying to arrange an interview with Berman to discuss what she might know, said Jeanine Pirro, who at the time was the district attorney in New York’s Westchester County investigating Durst.
Pirro, host of Fox’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine,” credited the HBO documentary with breathing new life into the investigation. The handwriting in the anonymous note sent to Beverly Hills police was analyzed at the time of the killing, but investigators failed to conclusively match it to Durst, she said.
The envelope uncovered with the help of the documentary team, she said, was a major break. “I am quite sure, as a former prosecutor and judge, that is some hard evidence for a jury,” Pirro said in an interview with The Times on Sunday.
In 2001, with New York authorities continuing to probe, Durst ended up in Galveston, Texas. Wearing an ash-blond wig and pretending to be a botanist, he posed as a woman who could not talk because of an injury to her vocal cords and rented a cheap apartment.
Less than a year after Berman died, garbage bags with dismembered body parts of Durst’s neighbor were found floating in the water off Galveston. A receipt in one of bags and a bloody trail leading to his apartment led to Durst being charged with murder.
Durst quickly posted bail and went on the lam. He was arrested soon after in a Pennsylvania grocery store, where police said he was caught shoplifting a chicken sandwich and a Band-Aid, despite having $500 with him. Durst was returned to Texas, where he admitted to shooting and dismembering Morris Black, but claimed he inadvertently shot Black while struggling to wrestle a gun away from the man.
The 2003 trial was a spectacle in which his attorneys argued that after the killing a previously undiagnosed mental condition had propelled Durst into a traumatized state similar to an out-of-body experience. The trial was capped by four days of testimony by Durst in which he claimed he had no memory of cutting up Black’s body.
The jury acquitted Durst.
Times staff writers Matt Hamilton and Meredith Blake contributed to this report.