Robert Durst, real estate scion convicted as a killer, dies at 78

Robert A Durst, 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 neighbour, died early Monday as a prisoner in Stockton, California. He was 78.

>> Robert D McFaddenThe New York Times
Published : 11 Jan 2022, 06:34 AM
Updated : 11 Jan 2022, 06:34 AM

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

He was convicted of the murder in September.

In a story made for supermarket tabloids, 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 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 miniseries about himself.

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

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

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

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. At his 2003 trial, he claimed he had acted in self-defence 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 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.

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

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

Robert Durst had always denied involvement in his wife’s disappearance and in the murder of Berman.

Robert Alan Durst was born 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.

As a young man, 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.”

A year later, his father insisted that he return to New York and join the family business. Durst and McCormack were married in 1973.

In 1976, the marriage began to disintegrate. Shortly before her disappearance, Kathleen Durst was treated at a hospital for bruises that she said had been inflicted by her husband.

“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.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher