Kathleen Durst's former medical school classmate testified Monday that during a phone conversation in 1981 she told him she felt unsafe around her husband, New York real estate tycoon Robert Durst, who she said was “capable of violence.”
“Her voice was shaking,” the classmate recalled. “She was very frightened.”
Kathleen vanished in 1982. Though many of her family members, as well as prosecutors, say they believe her husband murdered her, no one has ever been charged in New York in connection with her disappearance. But the mogul faces a murder charge in Los Angeles stemming from the 2000 slaying of his best friend.
Durst, 75, is accused of shooting Susan Berman, an author and the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, in the back of the head inside her Benedict Canyon home a few days before Christmas in 2000.
Prosecutors contend that he killed Berman, 55, his close friend since their time as students at UCLA, to keep her from telling police what she knew about his wife’s disappearance decades earlier. During hearings in the Berman case, they have sought to introduce evidence that Kathleen Durst feared her husband.
The classmate’s testimony Monday in a Los Angeles courtroom came during a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to hold Durst over for trial in Berman’s slaying. The millionaire has denied killing either woman.
Durst was arrested on March 14, 2015, at a New Orleans hotel in connection with Berman’s slaying, the day before the finale of a six-part HBO series about the mogul’s life aired.
In the final episode of the series, “The Jinx,” Durst is caught muttering to himself on a hot microphone during a bathroom break: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” he says.
Some viewers interpreted the mumbled comment to be a stunning admission to three slayings: those of Berman, Kathleen and Morris Black, a neighbor in Galveston, Texas, whom Durst admitted killing and dismembering in 2001.
During a murder trial in Texas, Durst’s lawyers — some of whom are representing him again in the Los Angeles case — argued that the real estate scion shot Black in self-defense while trying to defend himself in a struggle and was in a traumatized state when he chopped up the body. Durst was acquitted.
His lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, has said he believes his client was unjustly arrested in connection with Berman’s slaying because of hype surrounding “The Jinx.”
“It’s not based on facts,” he said. “It’s based on ratings.”
As Durst shuffled into court Monday, he held his loose khaki pants at the waist, as if to keep them from falling from his frail frame. Surrounded by members of his legal team, Durst sat silently at the defense table, listening to the proceedings through sound-amplifying earphones.
The hearing then began with a technicality.
Judge Mark E. Windham told prosecutors and defense attorneys that he had received letters from elementary school students in Massachusetts offering advice on how he should handle the Durst matter. The judge, who said he was required to disclose any ex-parte communication about the case, said he had not read the letters.
Prosecutors then called Kathleen Durst’s former classmate, Dr. Peter Halperin, to the stand. The 66-year-old psychiatrist testified that sometime in December 1981 — while both he and Kathleen were students at Albert Einstein College of Medicine — she had appeared extremely anxious and petrified during a routine question-and-answer session. He followed up with her after class, he said, asking if she was OK.
She brushed him off, Halperin said, but called him at home that evening to explain that problems in her marriage had escalated.
“She thought that her husband might hurt her,” Halperin testified, adding that Kathleen was an acquaintance, not a close friend. When he urged her to leave her husband, Halperin said that Kathleen refused, saying she feared leaving him would mean jeopardizing money in a divorce settlement.
Halperin said that he asked her if she wanted to stay with him and his wife that night. She declined the offer, he said. The doctor testified that he didn’t tell police about the phone call in the years after the disappearance, because he believed there were people closer to Kathleen who would know more and because he thought coming forward would put himself at “personal risk.”
“Are you still afraid of Mr. Durst?” a prosecutor asked Halperin.
The doctor glanced over at Durst and shrugged.
“Less than I was in 1982,” Halperin said.
Halperin’s wife, Martha, testified a few minute later, saying she recalled overhearing her husband on the phone that evening in 1981. She said she still remembers what she thought after learning about Kathleen’s disappearance in the news weeks later: “Oh no, it happened. What she was afraid of, it happened.”
Later in the hearing, prosecutors played a recording of a phone interview with Anne Doyle, who lived in a penthouse next to the Dursts’ in New York in the 1980s. Doyle said that Kathleen Durst sometimes ran along an outside terrace shared by the two penthouses and knocked on Doyle’s bedroom window looking disheveled and scared. The women often shared a cigarette or a glass of wine, as Kathleen cried about fights with her husband, Doyle recalled.
“She would be really upset and hysterical,” Doyle said in the recording. “She was scared of him.”
The latest court proceeding, which will probably stretch into next week, is a continuation of a preliminary hearing from earlier in the year. Prosecutors plan to gather testimony from several witnesses, including a reporter who covered Durst in the past.