Ear Hustle

Robert A. Durst of HBO’s Documentary “The Jinx” Arrested/Charged With Murder In An Unresolved Case


Since his first wife vanished more than three decades ago, Robert A. 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 states.

They have followed his path from New York City to Los Angeles, where one of his closest friends was found dead in her home in 2000. They have tracked him to Galveston, Tex., 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.

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,” Mr. 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?” Mr. 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 Westchester County, Mr. Durst has bounced in and out of jail for other crimes, cut ties with his family, remarried, and sued his brother for a $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 the Los Angeles friend, Susan Berman.

His arrest on Saturday in a Marriott on Canal Street in New Orleans was in connection with Ms. Berman’s death, though the Westchester authorities said they were still investigating him in his wife’s case. Mr. Durst was walking toward an elevator and mumbling to himself when F.B.I. 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.

Mr. Durst is believed to have left Houston in a Toyota Camry on March 10, headed for New Orleans. Investigators involved in the case said they feared that the renewed attention brought by “The Jinx” would lead him to try to flee the country. Mr. Durst will plead not guilty, said one of his lawyers, Dick DeGuerin, who helped win Mr. Durst’s acquittal in Galveston in 2003 and who said he expected to head Mr. Durst’s defense team in Los Angeles.

“The rumors that have been flying for years will now get tested in court,” Mr. DeGuerin said.

As he watched the documentary 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 Mr. Durst himself who may have set the latest twist in his bizarre saga in motion. Los Angeles prosecutors reopened their investigation into Ms. Berman’s execution-style murder only after Mr. Durst agreed to a series of interviews with the producers of “The Jinx,” Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.

The amount of press coverage Mr. Durst has generated is topped only by the volume of work he has made for his lawyers and police investigators in Westchester, Los Angeles, Galveston and beyond. Yet he had rebuffed overtures from journalists until he saw “All Good Things,” a lightly fictionalized film the producers had previously made of his life in 2010, and approached them to tell his story.

“I will be able to tell it my way,” he said in the second episode of “The Jinx.”


In a more recent interview, he brushed off the possibility that the documentary would whet prosecutors’ appetites, saying: “It’s so long ago. Some D.A. would have to commence a budget-busting investigation. I don’t see that happening.”

By then, a new investigation was already encircling him.

“These two producers did what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years,” said Jeanine F. Pirro, the former Westchester County district attorney, 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 Mr. Durst’s story: his upbringing as the eldest son of a family that controls 11 major skyscrapers in New York; his marriage to Ms. 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 in his wife’s disappearance in 2000, Mr. Durst fled to Galveston, posing as a mute woman to rent a $300-a-month room in the Gulf Coast 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, Pa., where he had shoplifted a sandwich from a Wegmans supermarket.

Mr. Durst convinced a Texas jury that Mr. 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 Mr. Black’s body until he was “swimming in blood.”

But he was still under suspicion in the death of Ms. 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 Mr. Durst was in California when Ms. 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 Ms. Berman was found shot in the head, saying there was a “cadaver” in her home. But a handwriting analysis performed in 2003 was inconclusive.

The makers of “The Jinx” obtained a letter written by Mr. Durst to Ms. 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 Mr. Durst’s handwriting concluded that the tics in the note’s handwriting “are unique to one person and only one person.”

Mr. Jarecki, who was also the show’s director, and Mr. Smerling struggled with whether to bring the letter to law enforcement authorities. If they did so too soon, their lawyers told them, they could be considered law enforcement agents in the event of a prosecution, possibly jeopardizing the material’s admissibility in court, Mr. Jarecki said.

They also wanted to preserve a journalistic privilege not to disclose sources or testify in court. Still, Mr. Smerling said in an interview, “We had a moral obligation and an obligation to the families of the dead to see that justice was done.” They began speaking to Los Angeles investigators in early 2013.

Near the documentary’s end, the filmmakers were packing up their equipment when Mr. 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.

Mr. Durst’s private monologue makes for good television. But 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,” said Daniel J. Castleman, the former chief of investigations in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “The question is: Is it admissible in court?”

But Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is a professor at Columbia University Law School, said the statements could be admitted in court “so long as it can be shown that the tape wasn’t tampered with.”

John Lewin, the lead prosecutor in the investigation into Ms. Berman’s death, declined to comment on Sunday. Mr. Lewin has built a reputation for winning convictions in cold cases, some of them decades old.

Now he faces an opponent who has, time and again, slipped out of law enforcement’s grasp.

Source: NY TIMES

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