Robert Durst, heir to a New York real estate fortune whose life read like the twisted plots of true-crime stories and was convicted of murder, has died. He was 78.
He died on Monday of cardiac arrest at a hospital in Stockton, California, the New York Times reported, citing his lawyer. Durst was serving a life sentence at the California Health Care Facility.
Sick with Covid-19, he had been placed on a ventilator days after he was sentenced in October, his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said at the time.
Durst, whose family manages about 15 million square feet of premier office and retail space in New York City and co-developed One World Trade Center, was found guilty in September of killing his longtime confidante Susan Berman two decades years ago in California.
Prosecutors said Durst shot and killed Berman at her Beverly Hills home just before Christmas in 2000, because she helped him cover up the murder of his first wife Kathleen McCormack Durst almost four decades ago, and he feared Berman might expose him to authorities. The killing occurred days before New York investigators were to talk to Berman about the disappearance of Kathie Durst.
Kathie Durst, a medical student, disappeared one January night in 1982 after she left the couple’s mansion in Westchester County, north of New York. She later was declared dead although her body was never found. Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2015 after the release of a documentary film that presented evidence linking Durst to Berman’s death and included his apparent confession.
Prosecutors reopened the cold case, and in November, Robert Durst was indicted for Kathie’s murder.
Durst became the subject of a Hollywood movie and the widely seen HBO documentary series, “The Jinx: the Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” He was arrested for murdering Berman on the eve of the film’s final episode in 2015, which concluded with him appearing to admit off-camera that he “killed them all, of course.”
It wasn’t the first time Durst faced murder charges. In 2003 he was acquitted in Texas of killing neighbor Morris Black before dismembering him and tossing his remains into Galveston Bay.
Two pieces of evidence in Jinx were particularly damning to Durst’s consistent assertions that he had no involvement in the deaths of his wife or Berman.
Andrew Jarecki, the director of the documentary, showed Durst an unsigned letter sent to local police, alerting them a day before Berman’s body was discovered that there was a “cadaver” at her address. Jarecki then showed him a letter Durst had written to Berman. A handwriting expert told Jarecki the letters had been written by the same person, who had misspelled “Beverly Hills” the same way in both instances. Durst told Jarecki that the letter to police could only have been written by Berman’s murderer but denied he had sent it.
After Jarecki’s interviews concluded, but while still wearing the body microphone used to record the session, Durst went to a bathroom and is heard to say to himself: “There it is. You’re caught…..What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” (At a 2018 hearing, it was noted that in the raw audio those statements were in a different order than heard in the documentary, although it wasn’t clear if that made them less damning.)
Using DeGuerin, the same lawyer whose team had secured a not-guilty verdict for Durst in the Black case, Durst pleaded not guilty to murdering Berman and denied again he had killed his first wife.
DeGuerin’s team had astounded prosecutors at the Texas trial by persuading a Galveston jury that Durst had struggled with Black to get possession of a pistol Black had pointed at him. Durst testified the gun had accidentally gone off, killing Black. Fearful he would not be believed that the killing was unintentional, Durst said he cut up his neighbor’s body with a bow saw and tossed the parts into the nearby bay.
Durst testified he had gone to Galveston, Texas, to avoid the constant attention of the New York media about his missing wife. To evade detection, he dressed as a woman and pretended to be mute while renting an apartment next to Black’s.
Estranged from his family since the mid-1990s, Durst cut ties with his relatives in 2004, and received $60 million to settle a lawsuit he’d filed against the family’s trustees. Given his resources, he had no trouble making bail or hiring top legal talent to defend himself from various charges, which included illegal weapons possession.
Robert Durst was born April 12, 1943, in Scarsdale, New York, to Seymour and Bernice Durst. He attended Scarsdale High School and received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Lehigh University. He met Kathleen McCormack in 1971 and married her two years later.
He worked for the family’s New York-based business, the Durst Organization, which began acquiring and developing real estate in the early 1900s and was run by his father Seymour Durst, who died in 1995. Durst’s younger brother Douglas Durst was chosen to run the firm.
In 1990, Robert Durst formally divorced his first wife and in 2000 married Debrah Lee Charatan.