Missing: Kathleen McCormack Durst
” DISAPPEARS ! Looking for a beautiful developer wife, ”the New York Post headline screamed. That developer was Robert A. Durst, heir to a real estate empire whose towers helped shape the Manhattan skyline. His wife, a 29-year-old medical student, was missing on the night of Jan.31, Mr Durst told the newspaper (in an interview arranged by his friend and publicist, Susan Berman), and he desperately wanted to find her.
Married in 1973, the couple partied at Studio 54, sailed the Mediterranean and traveled to Thailand. They divide their time between a lakeside cottage 50 miles north of Manhattan and a penthouse apartment on Riverside Drive. But their relationship became strained, friends would later say, after Mr Durst urged his wife to have an abortion.
Five days after his disappearance, Mr. Durst entered a police station to report his disappearance. Family and friends immediately suspected him. “I think he killed her,” recalls Mrs Durst’s sister, Mary McCormack Hughes, telling her husband after Mr Durst called to tell him she was missing. His body has never been found and Mr Durst insists he does not know what happened to him.
A fault in the family
The Durst family owned an extensive collection of office towers and other properties in Manhattan, and as the eldest son Robert was heir apparent. But in the 1990s, his behavior – irregular hours, siphoning off company money, urinating in his brother’s trash – caused him to fall out of favor with his father, Seymour, who chose the younger brother. Mr. Durst to take over the company in 1994.
The two brothers, just 18 months apart, had never gotten along, especially after their mother, Bernice, fell or jumped off the roof of the family home in 1950, when Robert was 7 years old. Devastated by his father’s choice, Mr. Durst cut himself away from the family and began flying between homes in New York, Texas and California. He did not attend his father’s funeral in 1995.
Reopening of the file
Mr Durst told police detectives that the last time he saw his wife was when he put her on a train to Manhattan after dinner at their cottage in South Salem, NY. The initial search for her in the 1980s had focused on their Manhattan penthouse.
But in 1999, a state police investigator got a tip – a bad one, it turns out, but it got him to start investigating the cold 17-year-old case. He looked at old police records and re-interviewed witnesses, then took the case to the Westchester County District Attorney.
The new investigation made headlines in November 2000. Mr. Durst quickly married a second time, gave his new wife control of her financial affairs and rented a room for $ 300 a month in Galveston, in Texas, while posing as a dumb woman. He didn’t want to be Robert Durst anymore, he later told a prosecutor.
He also heard from Susan Berman, his former publicist. She was in dire financial straits and asked for help. Mr. Durst sent him two checks for $ 25,000.
Death of an old friend
On Christmas Eve, not far from where Charles Manson supporters murdered Sharon Tate in 1969, residents of Benedict Canyon Drive saw two dogs running free. They belonged to Mrs. Berman.
The police were called and they found her back door open. Inside the house, Mrs. Berman lay dead, a bullet to the back of her neck, the paw prints of her burrows traced in the pool of blood. There was no sign of the break-in and her purse remained intact.
There were other suspects in Ms. Berman’s death: her manager, the landlady. But at the top of the list was the one who wrote a note, stamped on December 23, to the Beverly Hills police (misspelled “Beverley”). On a sheet of spiral notebook paper, Ms. Berman’s address was printed in large type, with one word: “corpse.”
On trial in Texas
On September 28, 2001, a man fishing with his children found a torso floating in the waters of Galveston Bay. During a search, a police officer discovered the arms and legs of a man in the middle of plastic garbage bags nearby. The head has never been found.
The bags contained a cover for a bow saw, a receipt from a local hardware store, drop cloth and a journal with the delivery address of a building in Galveston. The victim, Morris Black, lived there. So investigators would find out, Mr. Durst said, disguised as a woman.
At the trial two years later, Mr Durst spoke up and said the two had been friendly. But one evening, he returned to his apartment to find Mr. Black, 71, brandishing his gun. They struggled and fell. The gun exploded. Fearing that no one would believe him because of his wife’s disappearance a long time ago, Mr Durst said, he sat in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, slicing up the body.
The jury acquitted him of the murder.
A documentary and a new clue?
Los Angeles Police suspected Mr. Durst in the murder of Ms. Berman. In 2002, while he was awaiting trial in Galveston, they obtained a sample of his handwriting to compare to the “cadaver” note. But they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him. As with the disappearance of his wife, the matter turned cold.
Mr. Durst did not remain silent, however. He spoke to the producers of a 2010 feature film, “All Good Things,” which featured a lightly fictionalized version of his life, and then agreed to sit with them for more than 20 hours of interviews. He also gave them access to over 60 boxes of his private papers, family memories, credit card receipts, phone bills and legal papers.
The filmmakers turned it all into a six-part HBO documentary that aired in 2015: “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”
Mr. Durst admitted to being abusive towards his first wife. He admitted to lying to investigators. And most striking, perhaps, was a 1999 letter that filmmakers found Mr. Durst had written to Ms. Berman in Beverly Hills.
As on the corpse’s note, the address was printed in big capital letters.
As on the corpse note, “Beverley” was misspelled.
Under arrest, again
In the closing moments of the latest episode of “The Jinx,” which airs on March 15, Mr. Durst is filmed walking towards the bathroom with a microphone still strapped to his shirt.
” What did I do ? We hear him say. “Killed them all, of course.”
His lawyers maintain that it was not a confession; the producers took two sentences he said in different places in the bathroom and stuck them together. But by the time those words were released, Mr Durst was already in custody.
Twenty-four hours before the final broadcast, FBI agents detained Mr. Durst on a murder warrant in New Orleans, where he had booked a hotel room under a pseudonym. Authorities said they believed he was about to flee the country.
John Lewin, an assistant district attorney from Los Angeles, flew to New Orleans and questioned Mr. Durst the next morning. In a three hour review of his life story, Mr Durst complained that his brother wanted to “take my birthright”. He conceded that he was “very, very, very, very controlling” his first wife. He described Ms. Berman as his “best friend”. And he had a vivid interpretation of the corpse note.
“Whoever wrote this note,” he said, “must have been involved in Susan’s death.”
A surprise entry
Nineteen years to the day after Ms Berman’s body was discovered, Mr Durst’s lawyers made an astonishing concession in a court case on Christmas Eve: after denying for nearly two decades that he wrote the note on the corpse, Mr. Durst has now admitted.
It was the first time that Mr. Durst or his attorneys were willing to admit that he was at Ms. Berman’s home, or even in Los Angeles, at the time of the murder. But despite the admission, Dick DeGuerin, lead counsel for Mr Durst, said the defense results remained unchanged.
“Bob didn’t kill Susan Berman,” he said, “and he doesn’t know who did.”
A trial divided by a pandemic
Opening statements began during Mr Durst’s trial for the murder of Ms Berman in March 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic put an end to lives across America.
When testimony was due to resume in May, defense attorneys called the longest 14-month adjournment with the same jury in U.S. history, and argued jurors may have overlooked details or having escaped their obligations not to read or watch the reports on the case. during the long break.
But the judge, after questioning the members of the jury, ordered the trial to continue. Although Mr Durst has only been charged with one murder, the prosecution argued that the millionaire killed Ms Berman because he feared she would reveal what she knew about his wife’s disappearance .
After weeks of testimony, during which prosecutors called 80 witnesses and presented nearly 300 exhibits, the jury deliberated for about seven and a half hours before finding Mr Durst guilty. In his first degree murder conviction, set for October 14, he faces a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Mr. Durst was not in the courtroom for the jury’s verdict; he was in isolation, officials said, after being exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.
After the verdict, his wife’s family released a statement calling on authorities to pursue the case of his death as well. “Kathie,” the family wrote, “is still waiting for justice.”