Robert Durst, a wealthy New York real estate heir and failed fugitive who was suspected for decades in the disappearances and killings of those around him before being found guilty of killing his best friend and condemned to life in prison, has died. He was 78 years old at the time.
Durst died in a state prison hospital in Stockton, according to his attorney Chip Lewis. He claimed it was due to natural causes as a result of a variety of health conditions.
In September, Durst was found guilty of shooting Susan Berman at point-blank range in her Los Angeles home in 2000. On Oct. 14, he was given a life sentence. His trial counsel, Dick DeGuerin, stated he was hospitalized with COVID-19 two days later.
Durst had long been suspected of murdering his wife, Kathie, who had gone missing in 1982 and had been formally declared dead. In November, he was charged with second-degree murder in her death.
The cases against him have taken unexpected turns.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles presented evidence that Durst silenced Berman because she was set to talk to investigators and had helped him cover up Kathie’s murder. They also said he murdered a Texas guy who realized his true identity while hiding in Galveston after Berman’s murder. In 2003, Durst was acquitted of murder after testifying that he shot him in self-defense.
In the six-part HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” Durst examined the cases and made several incriminating admissions, including a surprising confession during an unguarded moment.
His name became recognized to a new generation as a result of the performance, which drew renewed scrutiny and suspicion from authorities. He was arrested the night before the last episode for Berman’s murder, and the episode ended with him murmuring to himself in a restroom while still wearing the 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 – which was done with Durst’s cooperation against his lawyer’s and friends’ advice – unearthed new evidence, including an envelope linking Durst to the scene of Berman’s murder and incriminating statements he made.
Police had received a note with simply the word “CADAVER” written in block letters leading them to Berman’s residence.
Durst informed the makers of “The Jinx” in interviews between 2010 and 2015 that he didn’t write the note, but that whoever did had killed her.
Durst explained, “You’re writing a note to the cops that only the killer could have written.”
Durst’s defense counsel admitted that he wrote the memo in the run-up to trial, and prosecutors believed it amounted to a confession.
How the Trial Played Out
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 John 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, Morris Black, began washing up in Galveston Bay.
Durst jumped bail after being arrested for the murder. Six weeks later, he was caught for shoplifting a sandwich in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he had attended college. In his car, police discovered $37,000 in cash and two handg@ns.
He would testify that Black had drawn a gun on him and died as a result of the firearm going off during a scuffle. He detailed how he purchased tools and dismembered and disposed of Black’s body before jurors. He was found not guilty of murder. He admitted to breaking his bond and tampering with evidence in the dismemberment case. He was imprisoned for three years.
Durst’s health problems
Durst was suffering from bladder cancer, and his condition worsened during the Berman trial. Because his counsel claimed he was unable to change into a suit, he was escorted into court in a wheelchair wearing prison attire each day. However, following a 14-month hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, the judge turned down any more delays.
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 approached the courtroom with a vacant look in his eyes. Durst coughed heavily and then appeared to battle to breathe near the end of the hearing, as Berman’s loved ones told the judge how her loss had turned their lives upside down. He drew his mask down below his mouth and gulped for oxygen as his chest heaved.
The heir’s upbringing
Robert Durst was born on April 12, 1943, in Scarsdale, New York, to real estate magnate Seymour Durst. He would subsequently claim that he witnessed his mother’s death in a fall from their home when he was seven years old.
In 1965, he earned an economics degree from Lehigh University, where he also played lacrosse. In 1969, he enrolled in a PhD program at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he met Berman, but dropped out and moved back to New York.
In 1992, his father passed him over to make his younger brother, and rival, Douglas the leader of the Durst Organization.
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.
He would divorce her eight years later, claiming spousal abandonment, and in 2017, at her family’s request, she was declared legally dead.
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.
Lewis said an appeal was filed for Durst.