The Real Estate Scion Suspected of Killing Three People
Robert Durst incriminated himself for murder charges by participating in an HBO documentary
“I don’t think Bob Durst is the kind of man that kills for the thrill of the kill. I don’t think he takes any particular pleasure in killing. But if you back him in a corner, if you threaten his freedom, he’ll kill you.” — Cody Cazalas, homicide investigator
I first heard of Robert “Bobby” Durst through Kevin Hynes, a former New York City prosecutor who investigated the Durst case. Durst is the subject of The Jinx, a popular HBO documentary, and he is an American real estate heir, suspected murderer, and head of the Durst Organization, which is one of the biggest real-estate companies in New York City that is often mentioned in the same breath as the Trump Organization.
Durst is suspected of murdering three people, including his first wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst, Susan Berman, a friend, and Morris Black, a neighbor. What instigated the investigation into Durst was when Black died in 2001. Durst was an immediate suspect after Black’s body parts were found floating in Galveston Bay, Texas. Ultimately, Durst would be acquitted of murder despite admitting to dismembering her body, with the jury determining Durst killed Black in self-defense
This is the story of Robert Durst, a man accused of killing his wife, his best friend, and a neighbor, who incriminated himself by volunteering his files, evidence, and testimony on The Jinx. Now, as a result of new evidence in the documentary, Durst is facing first-degree murder charges with a trial still pending and delayed due to COVID-19.
According to author Marion Collins in Without a Trace, Durst was born in Scarsdale, New York, on April 12, 1943, into a wealthy family. Collins said he was born very privileged, with “not just a silver spoon but the whole canteen of cutlery in his mouth.” He was the oldest child to Seymour Durst, who was a leader in the real estate industry in New York. The Durst family was a rags to riches family that rose from a Jewish immigrant family that came to the country in poverty, and then rose to fame and wealth in Manhattan. His grandfather, Joseph Durst, was the first to come to America.
Robert’s grandfather, Joseph Durst founded the Durst organization in 1928, and then Robert’s father, Seymour Durst inherited the company in 1974. According to Charles Bagli and Kevin Flynn at the New York Times, Seymour Durst built a real estate empire worth billions of dollars and built half a dozen office buildings on Third Avenue. The family would move from Manhattan to the wealthy suburb of Scarsdale in Westchester, New York.
In 1950, Robert Durst’s mother, Bernice, fell off the roof of his family’s home in the rain, and all newspaper accounts said she died after an overdose of asthma medication. Family members acknowledged Bernice’s death was suicide, and Kathleen Durst, Durst’s first wife who later died, told many friends that Robert Durst’s mother’s death deeply affected him. Some say that he witnessed her fall, including Durst himself, and in The Jinx, Durst said his mother’s death was highly traumatic, as was her funeral and burial.
Throughout their childhood, Robert and his brother, Douglas Durst, would have a very contentious relationship. Their sibling rivalry would grow so contentious they were sent to a counselor to resolve their conflict. According to Bagli and Flynn, Durst was a loner throughout high school, and his high school yearbook only had one photo of him. There were no mentions of any extracurricular activities he participated in.
Durst later attended Lehigh University, where he got a degree in economics. He enrolled in a Ph.D. in UCLA — and during that time, Durst met Susan Berman, an aspiring writer who was the daughter of a mobster in Las Vegas, who would be his best friend through much of his life. He withdrew from his Ph.D. program and later went back to New York, where he met Kathleen McCormack, a dental hygienist. She lived in a building owned by the Dursts, and the two went on two dates before he asked her to marry him.
Durst opened a health foods store called All Good Things, but his father disapproved, and Kathleen and Robert Durst moved to Manhattan. They married there, and Robert Durst joined Douglas and Seymour Durst in developing skyscrapers. Robert lived more humbly than the rest of his family. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle, and never wore much jewelry. Kathleen drove a Mercedes and sought a career as a nurse, then a doctor.
Robert Durst grew more possessive of his wife several years later, and his wife constantly complained, according to many friends, that they were “living below their means.” Kathleen Durst hired a divorce lawyer and told family members Robert had abused her, which eventually led to her gaining control of their house and estate.
Robert Durst’s relationship with his family would be strained after Douglas Durst was chosen to lead the Durst organization after his father retired in 1992. The two, to this day, have a very strained relationship. After the HBO series was released Douglas Durst told the New York Post:
“Bob is incapable of telling the truth…He is a true psychopath, beyond any emotions. That’s why he does things, so he can experience the emotions that other people have vicariously. Because he has absolutely none of his own.”
Kathleen McCormack Durst
McCormack at the time was in her final year at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. She was only a couple months short of earning her medical degree, and wanted to become a pediatrician. Soon, however, McCormack disappeared, and she was last seen with a man (not Durst) on the evening of January 31, 1982.
The last time McCormack was seen was at a dinner party of her friend, Gilberte Najamy in Newtown, Connecticut. According to the Charley Project, Kathleen Durst was visibly upset and wearing sweatpants, which was strange because she usually dressed very nicely. Najamy said McCormack was upset after receiving a phone call from her husband, and the two got into an argument. McCormack also said their marriage was deteriorating and told McCormack to investigate in case anything would happen to her, expressing concern that her husband would hurt her.
Robert Durst’s account of McCormack’s disappearance was that he drove her to the train station at 9:15 p.m. to catch a train to Manhattan that same night after she returned to the party. They owned two apartments in Manhattan, and Robert Durst said McCormack drank a whole bottle of wine and caught a train. He never saw his wife again, but said he spoke to her over the phone when she came to Manhattan at 11 p.m. They usually lived apart given their multiple homes.
When Durst spoke with law enforcement, his story changed from his initial account. He told investigators he called Kathleen from a payphone near South Salem while walking his dog. The initial story was that he was calling from the cottage. However, according to the The Charley Project, the closest phone was three miles away on a dirt road, and essentially inaccessible — there was a strong snowstorm later that night. Robert Durst said he stopped at a neighbor’s home for a drink after, but the friends said they never saw him that evening. Those neighbors said they saw a blue light shining from the Dursts’ cottage the night after.
Najamy first started to be worried about McCormack when McCormack failed to meet her for an arrangement in downtown Manhattan. For several days, she wouldn’t be able to locate McCormack, and she contacted authorities. Robert Durst filed a missing persons’ report on February 5, and said he didn’t know she was missing until a dean at Albert Einstein College Of Medicine called Durst to report that she hadn’t gone to class all week. She was only three months away from graduating. However, some expected foul play.
“The dean stated that a woman identifying herself as Kathleen called the college the college on February 1 and said she was ill and could not attend class. No one is certain of the caller’s true identity,” The Charley Project said.
A doorman at Kathleen McCormack’s residence also said he saw her at the residence on February 1, but only saw the woman from behind and couldn’t confirm. The superintendent of the building said he saw Robert Durst throw out his wife’s belongings shortly before she vanished, and said Durst was searching for a new tenant for the apartment. However, Robert Durst denied those allegations.
According to Ned Fuman at Vanity Fair, Kathleen McCormack told Najamy that her husband had brutalized her “physically and psychologically” and that it was an “open secret” among family and friends. Kathleen wanted out of the marriage, and then she just vanished. Durst also had multiple affairs as, according to Fuman, “catnip to the ladies — the strong, silent type, wiry and athletic,” and one of his affairs was with Prudence Farrow, the sister of Mia Farrow. He started drinking more and doing cocaine, and friends urged McCormack to leave the marriage.
She got a lawyer to collect all the documentation she could find. As Durst got more violent and more unpredictable, McCormack told all her friends to look to Durst if anything happens to her, and told them frequently, “don’t let Bobby get away with it.” According to one friend, when McCormack and Durst talked on the phone, McCormack said:
“Bobby wants me home…He’s really upset.”
At some point, according to The Charley Project, McCormack wanted to have kids, but Durst did not. Her friends said he pressured her into having an abortion in the late 1970s, and Durst felt like he was losing control over her. She would graduate from medical school soon and be capable of supporting herself. In January of 1982, according to McCormack’s friends, Robert allegedly abused her, and McCormack suffered head injuries and facial bruising. She refused to press charges on her husband. With regards to the baby, Durst said he didn’t believe the child she aborted was his, and she had had affairs as well.
Najamy and her sister, after McCormack’s disappearance, broke into the Durst cottage in South Salem and called authorities to arrive at the scene of the residence. The investigators didn’t dispatch anyone, and the two found that McCormack had unopened mail tossed into the garbage. Durst said she was wearing suede boots and a cable-knit sweater when he dropped her off at the train station. Instead, her clothes were inside her closet in the cottage.
In the cottage, the two also found trash bags in a closet in the dining room. They got scared and then left the residence.
Investigators looked more into Robert Durst as a suspect, and found that he placed several calls to the Durst Organization from Ship Bottom, New Jersey when his wife disappeared. Durst continuously threw out McCormack’s belongings in the trash, as well as some handmade notes that Najamy found. But authorities never made a comprehensive search into the Durst cottage during Kathleen’s disappearance in the initial 1982 disappearance. They initially believed she had just disappeared to escape a bad marriage, and they didn’t think foul play was involved.
However, Kathleen McCormack didn’t turn up for years. In 1990, he sold the South Salem cottage and then divorced Kathleen, claiming spousal abandonment. In 1999, one informant said McCormack was killed in the cottage in South Salem. The New York State Police then reopened their investigation and searched the residence for the first time. Evidence was removed from the house, but that information was never made public. In October of 2000, the investigation became public, and Durst moved to Galveston, Texas, the next year.
Throughout the disappearance of McCormack and the next 18 years of his life, Durst had one confidant: Susan Berman. According to Charles Bagli at LA Magazine, Durst considered Berman his closest friend. Berman helped Durst facilitate his alibi after his wife disappeared.
Berman was the daughter of David Berman, a mobster in the late 1940s who was a pioneer of gambling in Las Vegas, operating the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Morris Black was found killed, execution-style, in her home in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, 2000. Her neighbors called the police to report the door was open and her three dogs were loose.
Bagli notes that Berman never answered the door for strangers, and not even her postman. That makes it likely that the person who killed her was someone she knew. She’d gone to the movies with her friend, and then when she came home, the killer followed her inside, put a 9mm pistol to the back of her head, then shot her.
The Beverly Hills Police Department received an anonymous note on December 23 that alerted the police to a “cadaver” at Berman’s house. The immediate suspect was Berman’s landlady and manager, and Berman’s friends ruled out Durst as a suspect. Authorities then demanded a handwriting sample from Durst to confirm whether he wrote the note. Durst’s handwriting in a 1999 letter to Berman was strikingly similar to the note, with so many similarities that both notes misspelled Beverly as “Beverley.” It was this letter that led authorities to arrest Durst in 2015, when it was revealed in The Jinx.
In December 2014, Durst took a mutual friend, Nick Chavin, to eat at a French bistro called Barawine in New York. He told Chavin:
“I had to…It was her or me. I had no choice.”
Chavin asked her if he was talking about McCormack. Durst then walked away. He waited months due to his “dueling loyalties to his closest friends, Berman and Durst” before telling the Los Angeles County District Attorney. Chavin is now convinced that Durst killed McCormack and Berman after he met him for dinner. Durst’s lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, says there is a lack of any physical evidence, and says there it is preposterous that Durst would have said anything like that to Chavin.
“This is a best friend who admitted killing my other best friend,” Chavin said.
Chavin admitted he was in the middle of two scales, either betraying Susan Berman or Bob Durst. And the feeling he had about Durst was no betrayal, but a sense of grief and sadness.
Days before Berman was killed, Durst was in northern California. The day before her body was discovered, he flew from San Francisco to New York. Investigators had just looked into Kathleen McCoramck’s disappearance again, and they were about to talk to Berman about Durst. Prosecutors later alleged that Durst wanted to silence Berman about the disappearance of McCormack. According to Jonathan Bandler, police suspected the letter “was written by someone who cared for her and wanted her body to be found before it could decompose.” However, detectives were unable to place Durst in Los Angeles, despite Berman telling friends she expected to see him.
For three or four days after December 20, Durst turned his phone off even though he routinely checks his phone. When on camera and pressed about the case in The Jinx, Durst said:
“California’s a big state.”
Apparently, in Durst’s words in a 2005 deposition, Berman called him at one point and said:
“The Los Angeles police contacted me. They wanted to talk about Kathie Durst’s disappearance.”
According to Andrew Gumbel in The Guardian, after the police reopened their investigation into the disappearance of Kathleen McCormack, Durst fled to Galveston to live, and started living in a boarding house. He started posing as a mute woman to avoid police inquiries, and he wanted “to be a fugitive” to escape police questioning.
On October 9, 2001, Robert Durst was arrested after the remains of an elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found in Galveston Bay. Durst was released on $300,000 bail. However, he was deemed a fugitive after he failed to show up for a court hearing the next week. A warrant was issued for his arrest on bail jumping. According to Ron Todt in the Associated Press, Durst was arrested on November 30, 2001, after he was caught shoplifting a sandwich and band-aids.
Durst’s rental car would be found with $37,000 in cash, two guns, marijuana, and Black’s driver’s license. Zeman states the car was rented under the name “Morris Black.” Andrew Peyser of the New York Post also notes that Durst planned to take out his brother, Douglas Durst. Durst said he planned to use his time while evading authorities to, in the words of Peyser, “take care of unfinished business.” In The Jinx, multiple investigators remark about how Durst could have possibly been so stupid to shoplift while a fugitive with that much money, firearms, and drugs in his car, speculating that he might have wanted to get caught.
In tapes between Durst and his wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, Durst blamed Charatan’s nagging for his shoplifting and arrest. When the two of them talked about Douglas Durst, Robert Durst said he paid a visit to Douglas Durst’s home, armed, while he was on the run. Robert said he left the driveway without incident, but in their conversation, Debrah Durst said:
It was code for Douglas knowing Robert Durst had come to his home.
In 2003, Durst was being charged for murder in the murder of Morris Black. According to CBS News, Durst hired very expensive defense attorneys, Dick DeGuerin, Mike Ramsey, and Chip Lewis. The three of them had a lot of difficulty communicating with Durst, so they hired a psychiatrist to meet with him to get more information. The psychiatrist, Dr. Altschuler, said Durst suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, and that Durst doesn’t know how to deal with emotion or experience happiness.
There was no doubt from the jury, based on the evidence, that Durst dismembered Black’s body. However, the jury also believed that Durst was in a state of panic and killed Black in a case of self-defense. According to Pamela Chelin at Mashable, Durst said he and Black, who was a loner who didn’t get along with many people, struggled for control of Durst’s .22 caliber pistol after Black grabbed it and threatened him. In the struggle, the gunshot Black in the face. Under cross-examination, Durst admitted to using an ax to dismember Black’s body and dump the remains in Galveston Bay.
During the trial, Black’s head was never recovered. Durst’s account of the struggle, then, could not be disputed based on forensic evidence. On November 11, 2003, the jury found Durst innocent of murder. However, the next year, Durst pleaded guilty to two counts of bail jumping and one count of evidence tampering. According to Jessica Su at Court TV, Durst was sentenced to five years in prison and he received credit for his time already served, which gave him only three years in prison.
On July 15, 2004, Durst was paroled. He was required to stay home and could only get permission to travel. The judge who presided over his acquittal, former Galveston County Judge Susan Criss, said she was “very thrilled and relieved” when Durst got arrested in 2015 in New Orleans. Criss did not believe Durst had Asperger’s and said the defense team used the Asperger’s diagnosis to manipulate the jury. While he was on parole, she saw Durst walking in the mall and when he made eye contact and Durst dropped his phone. Criss didn’t know Durst was violating his parole, but Durst also returned to the boarding house where he killed Black. Criss only found out after the parole board contacted her about seeing Durst at the mall, which led to Durst going back to jail in 2006.
To this day, since Criss is no longer a judge, she says she thinks Durst killed Black, Berman, and McCormack — not for the thrill of the kill, but because he felt threatened and crossed him in some way.
“You could see that this person knew what they were doing and that it was not a first time. The body was cut perfectly like a surgeon who knew how to use this tool on this bone and a certain kind of tool on that muscle. It looked like not a first-time job. That was pretty scary,” Criss said.
Legacy and takeaways
In The Jinx, Robert Durst insisted on talking to documentary makers against the advice of his lawyers and Charatan. According to Charlie Bagli in the New York Times, Durst wanted to tell his story in his own way. He talked to the producers of the documentary, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Sterling, in lengthy interviews starting in 2010. He gave him all access to his files, and said no question was out of the realm of possibility.
“I am convinced that there’s no reason I shouldn’t say anything I want to anyone I want,” Mr. Durst explained in a newspaper interview.
At the very end of the documentary, on the sixth episode, Durst was filmed whispering to himself:
“What the hell did I do?…Killed them all, of course.”
Based on information from the filmmakers of The Jinx, the Los Angeles district attorney reopened the Berman case. According to Meredith Blake at the Los Angeles Times, the biggest piece of evidence from the documentary was the March 1999 letter from Durst to Berman which had striking similarity to the “cadaver” letter, which allowed the filing of more murder charges. They feared Durst would flee the country — apparently, Durst checked into the Marriott in New Jersey under the alias of Everette Ward. Authorities later arrested Durst in the hotel, finding a .38 caliber revolver, marijuana, $46,631 in cash, and $100 in small envelopes.
Durst’s trial for the murder of Berman began on March 2, 2020. According to Brian Melley at the Associated Press, Durst’s trial is delayed and going to resume in April of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether the notorious real estate scion suspected of killing three people — his wife, a best friend, and a neighbor, will be found guilty of murder remains to be seen. Alex Diaz at the Daily Mail reports that Durst is has been sick since suffering esophageal cancer in 2007 and has recently been diagnosed with hydrocephalus, the buildup of fluid on the brain.
As for now, the legacy of Robert Durst is that of a man who couldn’t resist incriminating himself on camera — but whose life of privilege and evading consequences led him to believe he could get away with anything. Some psychologists believe Durst’s feeling of invincibility and, in the words of Emily Yahr in the Washington Post, “the chance to become a star” led to his reckless behavior. In 2010, Ryan Gosling played a character based on Durst in a movie called All Good Things. According to Los Angeles Psychologist Carole Lieberman,
“It is Robert Durst’s narcissism that has become his undoing. He offered himself up to be the subject of ‘The Jinx,’…After there had been a drama about his life with actors portraying him, he wanted to get in on the action himself.”