Since his first wife vanished more than three decades ago, Robert Durst, the eccentric and estranged son of one of New York’s most prominent real-estate dynasties, has lived under the suspicious gaze of law enforcement officials in three US states.
They have followed his path from New York to Los Angeles, where one of his closest friends was found dead in her home in 2000. They have tracked him to Galveston, Texas, where he fled after investigators reopened the case of his wife’s disappearance, and where he posed as a mute woman and shot and dismembered a neighbor in 2001.
Durst was acquitted in the Texas killing, and was never arrested in the disappearance of his wife or the death of his friend. However, on Saturday he found himself in custody once again, arrested on a charge of murder as he walked into a New Orleans hotel he had checked into under a false name.
On Sunday night, in the final moments of the final episode of a six-part HBO documentary about him, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Durst seemed to veer toward a confession that could lift the shroud of mystery that surrounds the deaths of three people over the course of three decades.
“What the hell did I do?” Durst whispers to himself in an unguarded moment caught on a microphone he wore during filming. “Killed them all, of course.”
In the years since his wife, Kathleen Durst, disappeared in 1982 after spending the weekend at the couple’s country home in the US’ Westchester County, Robert Durst has bounced in and out of jail for other crimes, cut ties with his family, remarried, and sued his brother for a US$65 million share of the family fortune. Through it all, he has maintained his innocence in the disappearance of his wife, while also denying any role in the 2000 death of friend Susan Berman.
His arrest on Saturday in a Marriott hotel on Canal Street in New Orleans was in connection with Berman’s death, though the Westchester authorities said they were still investigating him in his wife’s case. Durst was walking toward an elevator and mumbling to himself when FBI agents intercepted him at the hotel, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said. He had checked in under the name Everett Ward, not the first time he had used an alias.
Durst is believed to have left Houston in a Toyota Camry on Tuesday last week, headed for New Orleans. Investigators involved in the case said they feared that the renewed attention brought by the HBO documentary would lead him to try to flee the US. Durst plans to plead not guilty, one of his lawyers, Dick DeGuerin said, who helped win Durst’s 2003 acquittal in Galveston and who said he expected to head Durst’s defense team in Los Angeles.
“The rumors that have been flying for years will now get tested in court,” DeGuerin said.
As he watched the documentary on Sunday night with the filmmakers, James McCormack, the brother of Kathleen Durst, said: “Closure is near at hand; I feel in my heart.”
It was Robert Durst himself who might have set the latest twist in his bizarre saga in motion. Los Angeles prosecutors reopened their investigation into Berman’s execution-style murder only after Durst agreed to a series of interviews with the producers of the documentary Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.
“These two producers did what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years,” said former Westchester County district attorney Jeanine Pirro, whose office investigated Kathleen Durst’s disappearance for six years. “Kudos to them. They were meticulous. They were focused. They were clear.”
The filmmakers spent nearly 10 years researching Robert Durst’s story — his upbringing as the eldest son of a family that controls 11 major skyscrapers in New York; his marriage to Kathleen Durst, a medical student who lived in one of his family’s buildings and its unraveling; his estrangement from his family after his father chose his younger brother, Douglas Durst, to run the business in 1994.
“We are relieved and also grateful to everyone who assisted in the arrest of Robert Durst,” Douglas Durst said in a statement on Sunday. “We hope he will finally be held accountable for all he has done.”
When prosecutors began pursuing new leads on his wife’s disappearance in 2000, Robert Durst fled to Galveston, posing as a mute woman to rent a US$300 a month room in the city. The next year, he was on the run again, with a warrant out for his arrest in the murder of Morris Black, a former merchant seaman who had lived across the hall in Galveston. After a nationwide manhunt, he was found in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he had shoplifted a sandwich from a Wegmans supermarket.
Durst convinced a Texas jury that Black had died accidentally when the two men were grappling over a gun that discharged as they fell to the floor. He testified that he had carved up Black’s body until he was “swimming in blood.”
However, he was still under suspicion in the death of Berman, a friend from graduate school with whom he had become so close that he walked her down the aisle at her wedding. She served as his spokeswoman after his wife’s disappearance, and investigators have long suspected that she knew his secrets.
The police had always known Durst was in California when Berman was killed, but could not place him in Los Angeles. They suspected he was the author of a short anonymous note sent to the Beverly Hills police on the same day Berman was found shot in the head, saying there was a “cadaver” in her home. However, a handwriting analysis performed in 2003 was inconclusive.
The documentary makers obtained a letter written by Durst to Berman in which the lettering of the address on the envelope appears identical to that of the “cadaver” note, down to the misspelling of Beverly Hills as “Beverley.”
In the final episode, a forensic document examiner the filmmakers asked to analyze Durst’s handwriting concluded that the tics in the note’s handwriting “are unique to one person and only one person.”
Near the documentary’s end, the filmmakers were packing up their equipment when Durst asked to use the bathroom. He did not remove his wireless microphone as he closed the door, however, and began to whisper to himself.
More than two years passed after the interview before the filmmakers found the audio.
Durst’s private monologue makes for good television. However, it is unclear whether the recording of his comments could be used in court, some legal experts said, since they were made in a bathroom when he was alone and had an expectation of privacy.
“That’s pretty damning stuff,” Manhattan district attorney’s office former chief of investigations Daniel Castleman said. “The question is: Is it admissible in court?”
However, Columbia University Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman said the statements could be admitted in court “so long as it can be shown that the tape wasn’t tampered with.”
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