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Robert Durst’s personal attorney recalls ‘strange’ aspect of phone call about wife’s disappearance

LOS ANGELES, CA, JANUARY 6, 2017: New York real estate scion Robert Durst has a lighter moment with
New York real estate mogul Robert Durst, right, in a Los Angeles courtroom earlier this year for a hearing in his murder case.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A high school classmate turned personal attorney of Robert Durst said Wednesday that the New York real estate mogul hadn’t seemed concerned years earlier when he’d called him to say his wife had disappeared.

Stewart Altman testified during a Los Angeles court hearing that his friend’s demeanor on the phone seemed strange, but said he did not suspect that Durst had killed his wife.

Altman testified that he recalled getting a phone call from Durst in 1982 saying that his wife had gone missing. The witness said he did not offer to call the police or call around to hospitals, because he “didn’t think it would help.”

“Because you knew she was dead?” the prosecutor shot back.

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“No,” Altman said, drawing out his denial for emphasis.

“Did he sound concerned?” the prosecutor asked of Durst’s phone call.

“No,” Altman responded.

“Did that seem strange to you?”

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“Yes.”

Durst has lived under suspicion since his wife, Kathleen, disappeared in 1982. Prosecutors contend that Durst killed her.

But it is because of the 2000 slaying of his confidante Susan Berman that Durst now awaits trial in Los Angeles on a first-degree murder charge. Prosecutors argue that the killing was meant to silence Berman for what she knew about Kathleen Durst’s disappearance.

The 74-year-old millionaire has pleaded not guilty and told a judge he did not kill Berman. The sensational case is not scheduled to go to trial until at least 2018. In the meantime, a judge has allowed prosecutors and defense attorneys to question Altman and his wife, Emily, as well as other elderly witnesses to preserve their testimony.

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At one point, a prosecutor displayed a photocopy of an anonymous note sent to police around the time of Berman’s death alerting them to a “cadaver” inside her home. It read: “1527 BENEDICT CANYON CADAVER.”

Asked if the handwriting looked like Durst’s, the witness said, “It’s possible.” When a prosecutor pressed the question, Stewart Altman said it looked “similar” to Durst’s handwriting.

His testimony mirrored that of Emily Altman, who testified at a hearing last month that the handwriting looked like that of Durst.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Stewart Altman testified that Durst is an intelligent, witty person, who struggles to relate to others and show emotion. Durst listened to the exchange through voice-amplifaction earphones and stared expressionless, occasionally cleaning his fingernails.

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“Have you known Bob to lie when it’s to his advantage?” the prosecutor asked. “Yes,” Stewart Altman said, noting that overall he considers Durst an honest person.

The prosecution’s decision to compel testimony from Stewart Altman — who went to high school with Durst in Scarsdale, N.Y., and represented him in various legal battles over the years — has led to contentious courtroom clashes. Durst’s attorneys said it was a blatant violation of attorney-client privilege. But prosecutors argued that Stewart Altman’s knowledge of many events was learned as Durst’s friend, not as his attorney. The judge ruled that Stewart Altman must testify, but that his attorneys could object to specific questions.

On the stand, Stewart Altman, 74, sometimes expressed reservations about answering the prosecutor’s questions, at one point looking to the judge and saying, “Is he asking me about what’s in my legal file? I think he is.”

He also acknowledged that he weighed his responses to questions, mindful of their influence in determining Durst’s guilt or innocence. During testimony Tuesday, the judge referred to him as a “hostile” witness, clarifying that the term didn’t imply any ill will, but rather that the witness is “associated with the defendant.”

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While tensions between veteran prosecutors and Durst’s high-powered legal defense team have been on display at most hearings, the strain burst into an argument Wednesday. The attorneys could be heard yelling in the hallway during a break. Later during the hearing, the judge reminded everyone in the courtroom to be “mindful of decorum.”

Stewart Altman is expected to be on the stand again Thursday.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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

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