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Robert Durst, real estate heir convicted of murder, dies

Jan 10, 2022, 2:47 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 3:42 pm
Robert Durst (R), seated with defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, is sentenced on October 14, 2021 in L...
Robert Durst (R), seated with defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, is sentenced on October 14, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Durst was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the 2000 murder of Susan Berman. (Photo by Myung J. Chun-Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Myung J. Chun-Pool/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Durst, the wealthy New York real estate heir and failed fugitive dogged for decades with suspicion in the disappearance and deaths of those around him before he was convicted last year of killing his best friend, has died. He was 78.

Durst died of natural causes Monday in a hospital outside the California prison where he was serving a life sentence, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Durst had been held in a hospital lockup in Stockton due to a litany of ailments.

Durst was convicted in September of shooting Susan Berman at point-blank range at her Los Angeles home in 2000. He was sentenced Oct. 14 to life in prison without parole.

Durst had long been suspected of killing his wife, Kathie, who went missing in New York in 1982 and was declared legally dead decades later.

But only after Los Angeles prosecutors proved he silenced Berman before she could tell police she helped him cover up Kathie’s killing was Durst indicted by a New York grand jury in November for second-degree murder in his wife’s death.

Westchester County prosecutors, who had been trying to get Durst transferred there to face the charge, said they planned to reveal new details about the case in coming days.

“After 40 years spent seeking justice for her death, I know how upsetting this news must be for Kathleen Durst’s family,” District Attorney Miriam Rocah said in a statement. “We had hoped to allow them the opportunity to see Mr. Durst finally face charges for Kathleen’s murder because we know that all families never stop wanting closure, justice and accountability.”

Los Angeles prosecutors also told jurors Durst got away with murder in Texas after shooting a man who discovered his identity when he was hiding out in Galveston after Berman’s killing. Durst was acquitted of murder in that case in 2003, after testifying he shot the man as they struggled for a gun.

Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said jurors told him after the verdict that they believed Durst had killed his wife and murdered Morris Black in Texas.

Durst discussed the cases and made several damning statements including a stunning confession during an unguarded moment in the six-part HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”

The show made his name known to a new generation and brought renewed scrutiny and suspicion from authorities.

The night before the final episode aired, Durst was arrested in Berman’s killing while hiding out under an alias in a New Orleans hotel, where he was caught with a gun, more than $40,000 cash, and a head-to-shoulders latex mask.

The finale’s climax came with him mumbling to himself in a bathroom while still wearing a hot mic saying: “You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

The quotes were later revealed to have been manipulated for dramatic effect but the production — done with Durst’s cooperation against the advice from his lawyer and friends — dredged up new evidence including an envelope that connected Durst to the scene of Berman’s killing as well as incriminating statements he made.

Police had received a note directing them to Berman’s home with only the word “CADAVER” written in block letters.

In interviews given between 2010 and 2015, Durst told the makers of the “The Jinx” that he didn’t write the note, but whoever did had killed her.

“You’re writing a note to the police that only the killer could have written,” Durst said.

His defense lawyers conceded in the run-up to trial that Durst had written the note, and prosecutors said it amounted to a confession.

Clips from “The Jinx,” and from the 2010 movie “All Good Things” in which Ryan Gosling played a fictionalized version of Durst, had starring roles at trial.

As did Durst himself. His attorneys again took the risk of putting him on the stand for what turned out to be about three weeks of testimony. It didn’t work as it had in Texas.

Under devastating cross-examination by prosecutor Lewin, Durst admitted he lied under oath in the past and would do it again to get out of trouble.

“‘Did you kill Susan Berman?’ is strictly a hypothetical,” Durst said from the stand. “I did not kill Susan Berman. But if I had, I would lie about it.”

The jury promptly returned a guilty verdict.

It long appeared he would avoid any such convictions.

Durst went on the run in late 2000 after New York authorities reopened an investigation into his wife’s disappearance, renting a modest apartment in Galveston and disguising himself as a mute woman.

In 2001, the body parts of a neighbor, Black, began washing up in Galveston Bay.

Arrested in the killing, Durst jumped bail. He was arrested for shoplifting a sandwich six weeks later in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he had gone to college. Police found $37,000 cash and two handguns in his car.

He would testify that Black had pulled a gun on him and died when the weapon went off during a struggle. He told jurors in detail how he bought tools and dismembered and disposed of Black’s body. While he was cleared of murder, he pleaded guilty to violating his bail, and to evidence tampering for the dismemberment. He served three years in prison.

Durst had bladder cancer and his health deteriorated during the Berman trial. He was escorted into court in a wheelchair wearing prison attire each day because his attorneys said he was unable to change into a suit. But the judge declined further delays after a 14-month pause during the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorney Dick DeGuerin said Durst was “very, very sick” at his sentencing hearing and it was the worst he looked in the 20 years he spent representing him.

Durst entered the courtroom with a wide-eyed vacant stare. Near the end of the hearing after Berman’s loved ones told the judge that her death upended their lives, Durst coughed hard and appeared to struggle to breathe. His chest heaved and he pulled his mask down below his mouth and began to gulp for air.

He was hospitalized two days later with COVID-19 and DeGuerin said he was on a ventilator. But Durst apparently recovered and was transferred to state prison where mug shots showed no sign of a ventilator.

The son of real estate magnate Seymour Durst, Robert Durst was born April 12, 1943, and grew up in Scarsdale, New York. He would later say that at age 7, he witnessed his mother’s death in a fall from their home.

He graduated with an economics degree in 1965 from Lehigh University, where he played lacrosse. He entered a doctoral program at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he met Berman, but dropped out and returned to New York in 1969.

He became a developer in the family business, but his father passed him over to make his younger brother, and rival, Douglas the head of the Durst Organization in 1992.

Douglas Durst testified at trial that he feared his brother wanted to kill him.

“Bob lived a sad, painful and tragic life,” he said in a statement Monday. “We hope his death brings some closure to those he hurt.”

In 1971, Robert Durst met Kathie McCormack, and the two married on his 30th birthday in 1973.

In January 1982, his wife was a student in her final year at medical school when she disappeared. She had shown up unexpectedly at a friend’s dinner party in Newtown, Connecticut, then left after a call from her husband to return to their home in South Salem, New York.

Robert Durst told police he last saw her when he put her on a train to stay at their apartment in Manhattan because she had classes the next day.

Prosecutors said Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, posed as Kathie Durst to call Albert Einstein College of Medicine the next morning to say she was sick and wouldn’t be at her hospital rotation. The call provided an alibi for Robert Durst because it made it appear his wife made it safely to Manhattan after he saw her.

He would divorce her eight years later, claiming spousal abandonment, and in 2017, at her family’s request, she was declared legally dead.

Kathie McCormack Durst’s family said they plan to provide an update on Jan. 31 — the 40th anniversary of her disappearance — into an investigation of others who helped cover up her killing, attorney Robert Abrams said.

Robert Durst is survived by his second wife Debrah Charatan, whom he married in 2000. He had no children.

Under California law, a conviction is vacated if a defendant dies while the case is under appeal, said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School.

Attorney Chip Lewis said Durst had appealed.

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Robert Durst, real estate heir convicted of murder, dies