Robert Durst, Real Estate Scion Convicted as a Killer, Dies at 78

Robert Durst, Real Estate Scion Convicted as a Killer, Dies at 78 1

He was a suspect in three lurid murders and became a fugitive. In September, he was found guilty in the fatal shooting of a confidante and sentenced to life in prison.

Robert A. Durst, the scion of a New York real estate dynasty whose life dissolved in a calamity of suspicions over the unsolved disappearance of his first wife, the execution-style murder of a longtime confidante and the killing and dismemberment of an elderly neighbor, died early Monday as a prisoner in Stockton, Calif. He was 78.

His lawyer Chip Lewis confirmed his death, at the San Joaquin General Hospital, where Mr. Durst had been taken for testing. He then went into cardiac arrest and could not be revived, Mr. Lewis said. Mr. Durst had been serving a life sentence at the California Health Care Facility in the killing of his longtime confidante Susan Berman.

He was convicted of the murder last September and shortly afterward tested positive for Covid-19 and was briefly put on a ventilator. Mr. Lewis said the virus had worsened a host of already existing medical problems.

In a story made for supermarket tabloids, Mr. Durst, a small, rail-thin man, was a cross-dressing fugitive from justice with $100 million in assets. On the run, he became a vagrant urinating in public, sometimes disguising himself as a mute woman. He beat his wife and, by her family’s account, forced her to have an abortion; beheaded a man he had killed as he sat in a pool of blood, and once wrote a “cadaver note,” telling the Los Angeles police where to find a woman who had been shot in the head. Distraught and alone in a bathroom, he unwittingly confessed to all the killings on a live recording used in a 2015 HBO mini-series about himself.

Over four decades Mr. Durst was suspected of having killed three people: his wife, Kathleen Durst, who vanished on Jan. 31, 1982, after a fight at their home in South Salem, N.Y., and was never seen again; his friend Susan Berman, who was shot in her Benedict Canyon home in Los Angeles in 2000; and Morris Black, a neighbor who was shot in Mr. Durst’s Galveston, Texas, apartment in 2001.

In each death, investigators found circumstances pointing to Mr. Durst as the perpetrator.

There was only one relatively clear-cut case against him. It was the killing of Mr. Black, a 71-year-old cantankerous former merchant seaman who lived across the hall from him in a Galveston rooming house. Mr. Durst lived there in the guise of a sometimes mute woman. One night, the two men argued, Mr. Durst pulled a .22 caliber handgun, and they grappled for the weapon. As Mr. Durst told it, they fell to the floor, the gun went off and the bullet struck Mr. Black in the face, killing him.

G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times

Mr. Durst dismembered the victim and dumped the body parts in Galveston Bay. Arrested on a murder charge, he jumped bail and fled. After a 45-day manhunt, he was caught in a Pennsylvania supermarket stealing a chicken sandwich. In his rented car, the police found two guns, $37,000 in cash, marijuana and Mr. Black’s driver’s license. At his 2003 trial, he claimed he had acted in self-defense and disposed of the body, then fled in panic, fearing that no one would believe his story. He was acquitted.

But in the baffling case that made Mr. Durst a nationally known and deeply distrusted celebrity — the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen, in 1982 — there was for decades insufficient evidence to file charges against him. There were only abundant grounds for suspicion: the couple’s frequent public fights, the bruises for which she was treated, her family’s account of an abortion forced upon her, and the fact that she was months from graduating from medical school when she vanished. Mr. Durst divorced her eight years later, and she was declared legally dead, though her body was never found.

For all the garish headlines that attended his wife’s disappearance and the gruesome killing of Mr. Black, it was the slaying of Ms. Berman that finally wrote an end to one of America’s longest running true-life crime thrillers, the case of a wealthy man who used many aliases in an odyssey that spun off books, films, television dramas and avalanches of online commentaries.

For years, Ms. Berman, a journalist, had been Mr. Durst’s spokeswoman and staunchest defender in confrontations with reporters and his wife’s family and friends after her disappearance. Yet Mr. Durst was belatedly charged with Ms. Berman’s murder in 2015 in a reinvestigation of her killing, which had occurred 15 years earlier.

Prosecutors asserted that Mr. Durst had fatally shot Ms. Berman because she was about to tell investigators that Mrs. Durst’s disappearance had been a hoax — that he had actually killed his wife and disposed of her body.

Mr. Durst had always denied involvement in his wife’s disappearance and in the murder of Ms. Berman. After his arrest in the Berman case, he was not brought to trial for nearly six years. Held in custody at a medical facility of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, he underwent surgeries for esophageal cancer and fluid on the brain.

The long-delayed trial finally began in Los Angeles in early 2020, but after the selection of a jury and opening statements, it was postponed again in March, this time because of the coronavirus pandemic. The trial resumed in May 2021, and like almost everything else in the Durst saga, it was bizarre, with jurors spread across the courtroom gallery, prosecutors occupying the jury box and everyone, including the judge, wearing masks as a precaution against Covid-19.

During the trial, Mr. Durst’s brother Douglas, who oversaw the family’s $8 billion real estate empire, and Nick Chavin, a longtime friend of Mr. Durst’s, were both witnesses for the prosecution. Mr. Chavin testified that in a 2014 sidewalk conversation in New York, Mr. Durst admitted that he had killed Ms. Berman, saying: “It was her or me. I had no choice.”

Prosecutors called 80 witnesses and introduced nearly 300 exhibits. But the most damaging evidence came from Mr. Durst’s own mouth, as the jury heard him make a series of recorded acknowledgments — in an interview with John Lewin, a deputy prosecutor, after his arrest in 2015; in hundreds of jailhouse phone calls; and in 20 hours of interviews with a producer of a documentary on Mr. Durst.

The documentary became a six-part HBO mini-series in 2015, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” by Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.

(Earlier, Ryan Gosling had portrayed a character based on Mr. Durst in a 2010 movie, “All Good Things,” about a man suspected of killing his wife, played by Kirsten Dunst.)

While he had never cooperated with journalists or filmmakers, Mr. Durst sat with Mr. Jarecki for 20 hours of recorded interviews and professed admiration for “The Jinx,” although he was arrested in Ms. Berman’s killing the day before the finale aired.

In the last interview, Mr. Jarecki confronted Mr. Durst with two envelopes, each with block-letter handwriting — one sent by Mr. Durst to Ms. Berman in 1999, the other sent anonymously to the L.A.P.D. telling detectives where to find her body. A handwriting expert said both were written by one person. Both misspelled “Beverly Hills” — with “Beverley” — seemingly conclusive evidence that he had killed Ms. Berman.

After the interview, a shaken Mr. Durst went into a bathroom, unaware that his wireless microphone was still on, and made a rambling off-camera confession, ending with: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” His lawyers later conceded that he wrote the “cadaver note,” but insisted that it proved only that he knew of the killing, not that he had committed it.

In his summation to the jury, one of the prosecutors, Habib A. Balian, repeated Mr. Durst’s words: “It was her or me. I had no choice.” Mr. Balian added, “That says it all.”

After seven and a half hours of deliberations, the jury on Sept. 17 found Mr. Durst guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced in October to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Two days after the sentencing, a New York State Police investigator, Joseph C. Becerra, filed a criminal complaint in Lewisboro, N.Y., accusing Mr. Durst of second-degree murder in the long-unsolved disappearance of his wife, Kathie McCormack Durst. It was the first inkling of a break in a mystery that had tormented her family and friends and fascinated investigators since she vanished in 1982.

A criminal complaint often precedes a formal murder charge, and it seemed to presage further developments in a case that, after 40 years without movement, was widely regarded as all but moribund. Mr. Becerra had been involved in investigating Ms. Durst’s disappearance for more than 20 years. The case was being pursued by the Westchester County district attorney, Miriam E. Rocah.

The murder complaint came as Mr. Durst’s survival appeared to be in question. Frail and 78 years old, he had been in custody in the medical ward of Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles for five years and was put on a ventilator after testing positive for Covid-19.

Mike Segar/Reuters

Robert Alan Durst was born on April 12, 1943, in Manhattan, the oldest of four children of Seymour B. and Bernice (Herstein) Durst. His father was the patriarch of a Manhattan office and apartment building empire founded in 1927 by Robert’s grandfather, Joseph Durst, an Austrian emigrant.

Robert and his siblings, Douglas, Thomas and Wendy, grew up in the Westchester suburb of Scarsdale, but their comfortable childhood was punctured in 1950 by the death of their mother, who fell or jumped from the roof of their home. The family was devastated, and 7-year-old Robert, who may have witnessed her plunge, was shattered.

He and Douglas had fist fights, and Robert was sent for psychiatric counseling. At Scarsdale High School, he was a loner. The 1961 yearbook had only one picture of him and mentioned no extracurricular activities.

Mr. Durst graduated from Lehigh University in 1965 with a degree in economics, but dropped out of postgraduate studies at U.C.L.A., where he met Susan Berman, an aspiring writer and the daughter of a reputed Las Vegas mobster.

As a young man, Mr. Durst’s conduct often seemed merely impulsive and eccentric. After two dates, he invited Kathleen McCormack, a medical student living in a Durst building, to move with him to Vermont, where he had opened a health-food store, “All Good Things.” They lived frugally, settled into a hippie pad and drove a Volkswagen Beetle.

A year later, his father insisted that he return to New York and join the family business. Mr. Durst and Ms. McCormack were married in 1973. She was 19; he was nine years older. The couple partied at Studio 54, the celebrity disco in Manhattan, sailed in the Mediterranean and went to Thailand.

In 1976, the marriage began to disintegrate. They quarreled about having a child. She wanted one, he did not. Her family said he forced her to have an abortion. Seeking independence, Ms. McCormack studied nursing, then medicine at Albert Einstein Medical College in the Bronx. In 1981, she hired a divorce lawyer. Shortly before her disappearance, she was treated at a hospital for bruises that she said had been inflicted by her husband.

John Orris/The New York Times

“Mrs. Durst told her sister, her friends and virtually anyone who would listen, ‘If anything happens to me, don’t let Bob get away with it,’” The New York Times wrote in 2017.

Mr. Durst, who reported his wife’s disappearance to the police after five days, claimed he had driven her to the Katonah, N.Y., station and saw her board a train for Manhattan, where she had a medical school appointment the next day. He said he went back to South Salem, had a drink with neighbors and later reached his wife by phone at their penthouse on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.

Phone records showed no calls from the South Salem home to their penthouse that night. Mr. Durst said he had called from a pay phone while walking his dog. But the nearest pay phone was several miles away, and the night was rainy and cold. Neighbors said they could not recall having had a drink with Mr. Durst that night.

But the evidence was inconclusive. Leads dwindled. The case languished for 16 years. Mr. Durst divorced his missing wife in 1990, and left his family’s business when Douglas was put in charge in 1994. For years he drifted around the country. In 2000, he married a Manhattan real estate broker, Debrah Lee Charatan, calling it a platonic “marriage of convenience.”

In 1998, a tip from a suspect in an unrelated case revived interest in Mrs. Durst’s disappearance. Confidential financial records that Mrs. Durst had given two friends for safekeeping before she vanished had been stolen from them in burglaries. And there were questions about Susan Berman’s role as something more than a spokeswoman for Mr. Durst. Mr. Becerra, the state investigator, and the Westchester district attorney, Jeanine F. Pirro, revived the 1982 inquiry.

In 2000, investigators in Los Angeles decided to question Susan Berman. But shortly before their scheduled interview, they received an anonymous letter handwritten in block letters. It cited a “cadaver” and an address. Ms. Berman was found there, shot dead. Mr. Durst denied involvement, and no one was arrested.

Pool photo by Jae C. Hong

In 2006, he cut the last ties to his family and his stake in 10 Manhattan skyscrapers in return for a $65 million payout to settle a longstanding lawsuit against the Durst family. Besides additional assets estimated at $100 million, he had a trust fund that paid him $2 million annually. But his legal problems were hardly over.

In 2014, Mr. Durst was arrested in Houston for urinating on a rack of candy in a CVS pharmacy. He paid a $500 fine, and a lawyer representing him called it “an unfortunate medical mishap.”

After his 2015 arrest on the charge of killing Ms. Berman, Mr. Durst remained in custody in Los Angeles for years, fighting medical problems while his legal team, led by the Texas lawyer Dick DeGuerin, honed a defense strategy.

In 2019 they filed a court brief conceding that Mr. Durst had written the “cadaver note,” but added: “What the note demonstrates is that the person who mailed it was aware that there was a body at the house, not that the individual murdered Susan Berman.”

Charles V. Bagli contributed reporting.