Robert Durst

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Robert Durst
Born Robert Alan Durst
(1943-04-12) April 12, 1943 (age 72)
New York City, New York, United States[1]
Other names Bobby Durst
Education Scarsdale High School
Alma mater Lehigh University (B.A. Economics, 1965)
Spouse(s) Kathie Durst (Kathleen McCormack) (m. 1973–90)
Debrah Lee Charatan (m. 2000)
Parent(s) Seymour Durst

Robert Alan Durst (born April 12, 1943)[1] is a son of New York City real estate mogul Seymour Durst and a brother of commercial developer Douglas Durst. He came to media attention in the 1980s when his wife disappeared, and again in the early 2000s when he was the subject of a multi-state manhunt and acquittal of murder.

On March 14, 2015, Durst was rearrested in New Orleans, Louisiana, on a first-degree murder warrant signed by a Los Angeles judge. If convicted in California for the murder of Susan Berman, Durst could face the death penalty for "special circumstances of murder of a witness and lying in wait".[2] Durst, who is being held in a prison mental-health unit outside of New Orleans, also faces both federal and Louisiana weapons charges, to which has pleaded not guilty.[3][4][5][6]

Early life[edit]

One of four children, Durst grew up in Scarsdale, New York. He is the son of real estate investor Seymour Durst and his wife Bernice Herstein. His siblings are Douglas, Thomas, and Wendy. Durst's paternal grandfather, Joseph Durst, a penniless Jewish tailor when he immigrated from Austria-Hungary in 1902, eventually became a very successful real estate manager and developer, founding the Durst Organization in 1927. His father, Seymour, became head of the family business in 1974 upon Joseph's death.[7] Durst claimed that at the age of seven his father walked him to a window where he saw his mother on the roof of the family's Scarsdale home prior to her death, which resulted when she fell or jumped. In a 2015 HBO documentary, his brother Douglas denied this.[8] As children, Durst and his brother Douglas underwent counseling for sibling rivalry;[9] a 1953 psychiatrist's report on ten-year-old Robert Durst mentioned "personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia".[10] Durst attended Scarsdale High School, where classmates described him as a loner.[11]

He earned a bachelor's degree in Economics in 1965 from Lehigh University, where he was a member of the varsity lacrosse team and the business manager of The Brown and White student newspaper.[12][13] He enrolled in a doctoral program at UCLA later that year, but eventually withdrew from the school and returned to New York in 1969.[11][14] Durst went on to become a real estate developer in his father's business; however, it was his brother Douglas who was later appointed to run the family business. The appointment in the 1990s caused a rift between Robert and his family, estranging him from them.[15]

Confirmed linked crimes[edit]

Disappearance of Kathleen McCormack Durst[edit]

In the fall of 1971, Durst met Kathleen "Kathie" McCormack, a dental hygienist. After two dates, Durst invited McCormack to share his home in Vermont, where Durst had opened a health food store; she moved there in January 1972.[16] However, Durst's father pressured him to move back to New York to work in the family real estate business.[17] Durst and McCormack moved back to Manhattan, where they married in 1973.[16]

Kathie Durst was last seen alive the evening of January 31, 1982, at a friend's party in Newtown, Connecticut; she left for South Salem, New York, after a call from her husband.[18][19] Durst maintained that he put his wife on a train to New York City, had a drink with a neighbor, and spoke to his wife by telephone later that evening.[20] "That's what I told police," Durst later told documentary filmmakers. "I was hoping that would just make everything go away."[20]

Kathie Durst had been treated at a Bronx hospital for facial bruises three weeks before, telling a friend Durst beat her;[18] she had asked Durst for a $250,000 divorce settlement.[21] Durst had cancelled his wife's credit card, removed her name from a joint bank account, and refused to pay her medical school tuition;[22] she was in her final year at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and intended to become a pediatrician.[19] At the time she went missing, Robert Durst had been dating Prudence Farrow for three years and living in a separate apartment.[16][21][23] Durst initially offered $100,000 for his wife's return, then reduced the reward to $15,000. Not long afterwards, Durst was seen discarding his wife's possessions.[24]

In 2000, New York State Police re-opened the criminal investigation into Kathie Durst's disappearance.[18]

Death of Susan Berman[edit]

On December 24, 2000, Durst's longtime friend, Susan Berman, who had facilitated Durst's public alibi after Kathie's disappearance and who had recently received $50,000 from Durst,[18][25] was found murdered execution-style in her Benedict Canyon house in California. Durst is known to have been in Northern California days before Berman's body was discovered.[26] Although Durst confirmed to the Los Angeles Police Department that he had recently sent Berman $25,000, and faxed investigators a copy of Berman's 1982 deposition regarding his missing wife, he declined to be further questioned about Berman's murder.[27]

Durst said in a 2005 deposition that Berman called him shortly before her death and said: "The Los Angeles police contacted me. They wanted to talk about Kathie Durst’s disappearance.”[28] A study of case notes by The Guardian cast doubt on whether the Los Angeles police had made such a call, or whether then-Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro had scheduled an interview with Berman at all.[25] According to prosecutors, Durst moved to Galveston, Texas in 2000, lived in a boarding house, and began posing as a mute woman to avoid police inquiries.[29] Durst had been tipped off to the re-opened investigation into his wife's disappearance on October 31, 2000, and immediately began planning for life as a fugitive.[25]

Morris Black death and dismemberment[edit]

On October 9, 2001, Durst was arrested in Galveston shortly after body parts of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in Galveston Bay, but was released on $300,000[30] bail the next day. Durst missed a court hearing on October 16 and a warrant was issued for his arrest on a charge of bail jumping. On November 30, 2001, he was caught in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at a Wegmans supermarket, after trying to shoplift a chicken salad sandwich, Band-Aids (Durst had removed them from a box and placed one under his nose, attracting the attention of store surveillance), and a newspaper, even though he had $500 cash in his pocket.[18][30] A police search of his rented car yielded $37,000 in cash, two guns, marijuana, and Black's driver's license.[31]

Trial[edit]

In 2003, Durst went on trial for the murder of Morris Black. He employed defense attorney Dick DeGuerin and claimed self-defense; DeGuerin conducted two mock trials in preparation for the case.[32] During cross-examination, Durst admitted to using a paring knife, two saws, and an axe to dismember Black's body before bagging and dumping his remains in Galveston Bay.[33] He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which the defense argued explained his behavior.[32][34] Durst claimed he and Black, a cranky and confrontational loner, struggled for control of Durst's .22-caliber target pistol after Black threatened him with it and the pistol discharged, shooting Black in the face. Morris Black's head was never recovered; prosecutors were unable to present sufficient forensic evidence to dispute Durst's account of their struggle.[18] The jury acquitted him of murder.[35]

In 2004, Durst pleaded guilty to two counts of bond jumping and one count of evidence tampering. As part of a plea bargain, he received a sentence of five years and was given credit for time served, requiring him to serve about three years in prison.[36] Durst was paroled in 2005. The rules of his release required him to stay near his home; permission was required to travel.[37] That December, Durst made an unauthorized trip to the boarding house where Black had been killed and to a nearby shopping mall. At the mall, he ran into former Galveston trial judge Susan Criss, who had presided over his trial.[32] Due to this incident, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles determined that Durst had violated the terms of his parole and returned him to jail.[37] He was released again from custody on March 1, 2006.[38]

Asked in March 2015 whether she believed Durst murdered Morris Black, Criss commented: "you could see that this person knew what they were doing and that it was not a first time. The body was cut perfectly like a surgeon who knew how to use this tool on this bone and a certain kind of tool on that muscle. It looked like not a first-time job. That was pretty scary."[32]

Alleged crimes[edit]

Arrest for Berman murder[edit]

A few days after a first-degree murder warrant was signed by a Los Angeles judge, Durst was arrested by FBI agents (who had been investigating Durst since 2012[10]) on March 14, 2015, at the Canal Street Marriott in New Orleans, where he had registered under the false name "Everette Ward".[39][40] Durst, who had been tracked to the hotel after making two calls to check his voicemail,[41] was observed wandering aimlessly in the lobby and mumbling to himself, having driven to New Orleans from Houston four days before.[41][42][43][44] In addition to a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver loaded with four live rounds and one spent shell casing, police recovered five ounces of marijuana, Durst's birth certificate and passport, a map showing Florida and Cuba,[39] a "flesh-toned" latex mask covering the face and neck (with salt-and-pepper hair attached),[41] the fake Texas ID used to check into the hotel, a new cellphone, and $42,631, mostly in $100 bills stuffed into small envelopes.[40][45][46][47] Police discovered a UPS tracking number which led to an additional $117,000 cash, in a package sent to Durst by a woman in New York (not Durst's wife)[28] which was seized after his arrest.[39][40] Bank statements found in one of Durst's Houston condominiums revealed cash withdrawals of $315,000 in little more than a month.[47]

Robert's brother Douglas said he was "relieved" and "grateful" in a statement shortly after his brother's arrest. He added, "We hope he will finally be held accountable for all he has done."[43] Douglas Durst later said he was "not confident" his brother would be convicted in Los Angeles.[48]

On March 15, 2015, New York State Police investigator Joseph Becerra, long involved with the Kathie Durst case[18] and said to be working closely in recent months with FBI and Los Angeles detectives,[49] removed some sixty file boxes of Durst's personal papers from the home of a Durst friend in Campbell Hall, New York, where they had been sent by Durst's wife three years before for safekeeping.[50]

Firearm charges[edit]

On March 16, 2015, attorney Dick DeGuerin, who also represented Durst during his 2003 trial for the killing of Morris Black, advised court authorities in New Orleans that his client waived extradition and would voluntarily return to California "to get it on".[51] Late the same day, Louisiana State Police filed charges against Durst for being a felon in possession of a firearm and for possession of a firearm with a controlled substance, forestalling his immediate return to California.[52] Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro commented that, in light of prior convictions which could influence Durst's sentencing, "[j]ust for those gun charges here in Louisiana, [Durst] could face up to life in prison".[47]

On March 23, 2015, Durst was denied bail by a Louisiana judge after prosecutors argued he was a flight risk.[39] In an effort to hasten Durst's extradition to California and avoid a protracted Louisiana court battle,[53] DeGuerin raised questions about the validity of the New Orleans arrest and hotel room search, pointing out that a local judge did not issue a warrant until hours after his client was detained.[54][55][56] While communicating with Los Angeles police and conducting an inventory of Durst's hotel room possessions, "[t]he FBI . . . held him there, incommunicado, for almost eight hours”.[54] According to DeGuerin, Durst was questioned extensively, the morning after his arrest, by a Los Angeles prosecutor and detective without a lawyer present.[39][41]

In failing to produce the arresting officers subpoenaed for a probable cause hearing, Louisiana prosecutors engaged in a “misguided attempt to conceal the facts from the court, the defendant, and the public,” wrote Durst's lawyers in an April 3, 2015 court filing.[53][57] Peter Mansfield, an Assistant US Attorney, said that his office instructed the two FBI agents and arresting officer not to appear, arguing that DeGuerin's subpoenas were issued in an attempt to conduct “actions against them in their official capacities for the purpose of obtaining testimony, information and material maintained under color of their official duties.”[4]

On April 8, 2015, a day after the US Attorney filed an independent federal weapons charge,[3] Durst was formally indicted by a Louisiana grand jury for carrying a weapon with a controlled substance and for the illegal possession of a firearm by a felon.[4][5] "Now everyone is just piling on," commented Dick DeGuerin.[58]

On April 16, 2015, Durst's lawyers requested that more than $161,000 seized by authorities during their searches be returned, saying the cash "is not needed as evidence, is not contraband, and is not subject to forfeiture".[59]

DeGuerin confirmed rumors that Durst was in poor health: he suffers from hydrocephalus and had a stent put into his skull two years before, as well as spinal surgery and a cancerous mass removed from his esophagus.[41][60] "I think that the surgery got it all. You never know," said DeGuerin, adding that his client was eager to go to court. "He's not in good health but he's up for the fight."[60]

Other cases[edit]

Days after the Berman murder arrest broke into national headlines, police were reportedly examining connections between Durst and the 1971 disappearance of 18-year-old Lynne Schulze from Middlebury, Vermont,[61] and the 1997 disappearance of 16-year-old Karen Mitchell from Eureka, California.[62][63][64] Investigators are also looking into a possible connection with the disappearance of 18-year-old Kristen Modafferi, last seen in San Francisco in 1997.[65][66]

Lynne Schulze, a Middlebury College freshman, patronized Durst's health food shop, "All Good Things", on December 10, 1971, the day she disappeared,[64] and was last seen that afternoon near a bus stop across from Durst's store.[67] Durst's lawyer Dick DeGuerin characterized the Schulze investigation as "opportunistic" and said he would not permit his client to be questioned by Vermont police.[68]

Karen Mitchell was a volunteer in a homeless shelter which Durst was known to frequent; Durst, dressed in drag,[10] had visited the Eureka, California shoe store owned by Mitchell's aunt.[64][69] Mitchell was last seen walking from her aunt's store and possibly speaking to someone in a stopped car.[69] A witness sketch of Mitchell's presumed abductor resembled Durst;[64] credit card records place Durst in Eureka on November 25, 1997, the day Mitchell vanished.[10][69]

Documentary[edit]

In early 2015, a six-part HBO documentary titled The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst described circumstantial evidence linking Durst to the 2000 slaying of Susan Berman, who was believed to have knowledge of Kathie Durst's 1982 disappearance.[42][70] The documentary detailed the disappearance of Kathie Durst, Berman's subsequent death, and the killing of Durst's neighbor Morris Black. Against the advice of lawyers,[71] Durst cooperated with filmmakers, giving multiple interviews and unrestricted access to his personal records.[50][72]

The Associated Press reported that a March 1999 letter from Durst to Berman, discovered by Berman's stepson and turned over to filmmakers during their research,[73] provided "key new evidence" leading to the filing of murder charges.[74]

Personal life[edit]

In 1973, Durst married Kathleen McCormack. He divorced her in 1990, eight years after her disappearance.[75] On December 11, 2000,[25] shortly before Susan Berman was murdered in Los Angeles, Durst married Debrah Lee Charatan.[76][77][78] According to The New York Times, the couple briefly shared a Fifth Avenue apartment in 1990 but "have never lived together as husband and wife."[50][76] Durst once told his sister that it was "a marriage of convenience";[25] "I wanted Debbie to be able to receive my inheritance, and I intended to kill myself", Durst said in a 2005 deposition.[28] Charatan currently lives with one of Durst's lawyers, Steven I. Holm.[28]

Durst traveled and lived under "dozens" of aliases over the years,[79] using different identities to buy cars, rent apartments, and open credit card accounts.[80] “He had a scanner, copier and a laminating machine,” a former office employee of Durst told Newsweek. “What I didn’t realize is that I unwittingly saw what would have allowed Robert Durst to make a fake driver’s license.”[79] Durst was also a "prolific" user of private mailboxes, and apparently conducted business under a number of canine-themed names: Woofing LLC, WoofWoof LLC, and Igor-Fayette Inc.[80]

In the early 1980s, Robert Durst owned a series of seven Alaskan Malamutes named "Igor", which according to Durst's brother, Douglas, died under mysterious circumstances. In December 2014, prior to the airing of The Jinx, his brother Douglas told an interviewer for The New York Times, "In retrospect, I now believe he was practicing killing and disposing his wife with those dogs."[80][81] Durst was once recorded saying he wanted to "Igor" his brother Douglas.[82] Robert, however, has disputed the notion that he owned seven dogs named "Igor"; he only owned three, he said, one that was run over and another that died in surgery after eating an apple core, "before the Igor that lasted forever".[22]

Financial status and residence[edit]

In the summer of 2002, Durst signed over a power of attorney to his wife, a real estate investor,[76] and it is believed their holdings remain closely intermingled.[83] In 2006, Durst gave Charatan around $20 million of his $65 million trust settlement.[50]

In 2011, Durst purchased a $1.75 million townhouse on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City, and his family confirmed that he was living there at least some of the time.[80][84][85] Durst also owns three condominiums in a multi-story complex in Houston.[27] At the time of Susan Berman's murder in Los Angeles, Durst owned a home in Trinidad, California.[26]

Media have variously reported Durst's financial status as "real estate baron",[84] "rich scion",[84] "millionaire",[35] "multimillionaire",[86] and "billionaire".[37] The Durst family's real estate holdings are worth more than $4 billion, but his brother Douglas was in control of the company beginning in 1994, shortly before their father's death.[84] From about 1994 to 2006, Robert Durst waged a legal campaign to gain greater control of the trust and family fortune. During that time he received $2 million a year from the family trust. In 2006 the case was settled, with Robert Durst giving up any interest in the Durst family properties and trusts in exchange for a one-time payment of about $65 million.[87] It is unknown how much of that went to legal fees and taxes.[84] Durst was still active in real estate; he reportedly sold two properties in 2014 for $21.15 million after purchasing them in 2011 for $8.65 million.[88] At the time of his 2015 arrest in New Orleans, the FBI estimated Durst's net worth at approximately $100 million;[40][45] The New York Times estimated his net worth at $110 million.[3]

Legal issues[edit]

In 2012 and 2013, his family members had restraining orders taken out against him, claiming they were afraid of him. Durst was charged with trespassing in New York for walking in front of townhouses owned by his brother Douglas and other family members. He went on trial and was acquitted in December 2014. The judge also vacated the thirteen orders of protection his family members had taken out on him.[89][90][91]

In July 2014, Durst was arrested after turning himself in to police following an incident at a Houston CVS drugstore in which he allegedly exposed himself without provocation and urinated on a rack of candy. He then left the store and casually walked down the street. Durst was charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief.[92][93] In December 2014, he pleaded "no contest" and was fined $500. His lawyer described the incident as an "unfortunate medical mishap".[94][95]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The events surrounding Durst inspired the 2010 film All Good Things, the title of which is a reference to a health store of the same name set up by Durst and his wife in the 1970s. David Marks, the character based on Durst, was portrayed by Ryan Gosling.[96][97]
  • Two Law & Order episodes gave different takes on the murders: season 14, episode 17 of Law & Order, "Hands Free"; and season 1, episode 19 of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, "Maledictus".

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]