INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Robert Durst’s long, bizarre and deadly run from the law ended when a Los Angeles County jury convicted him in the murder of his best friend more than 20 years ago.
The 78-year-old New York real estate heir, who was long suspected but never charged in the disappearance of his wife in New York in 1982 and acquitted of murder in the 2001 killing of a neighbor in Texas, was found guilty Friday of the first-degree murder of Susan Berman.
“Bob Durst has been around a lot of years, and he’s been able to commit a lot of horrific crimes,” Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said outside the Inglewood Courthouse. “Considering what he’s done, he got a lot more of a life than he was entitled to.”
Durst, who is sick and frail and sat throughout the trial in a wheelchair, was not present when the verdict was read. He was in isolation at a jail because he was exposed to someone with coronavirus, an odd twist on the jury's final day.
The global pandemic significantly altered the course of the trial, suspending it in March 2020 after only two days of testimony. After a 14-month break, possibly the longest in the U.S. legal system, the case resumed in May for four more months of testimony.
Durst faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole when sentenced Oct. 18.
The jury found Durst ambushed Berman and killed her because she was a witness to a crime, which prosecutors said was the suspected killing of Kathie Durst, who has never been found. Berman was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head in her Los Angeles home in December 2000.
Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, was Durst’s longtime confidante who, at the time of her death, was prepared to tell police she provided a phony alibi for him after his wife vanished.
Prosecutors painted a portrait of a rich narcissist who didn’t think the laws applied to him and ruthlessly disposed of people who stood in his way. They interlaced evidence of Berman’s killing, Kathie Durst’s disappearance and the 2001 killing of Morris Black, a tenant in a Texas flophouse where Robert Durst holed up while on the run from New York authorities.
“He killed his wife and then he had to keep killing to cover it up,” Lewin said.
Lewin, who met with jurors after the verdict, said they believed prosecutors proved Durst killed Kathie Durst and murdered Berman and Black.
The defense said they believed there was “substantial reasonable doubt” and were disappointed in the verdict, attorney David Chesnoff said. He said Durst would pursue all avenues of appeal.
In many ways, Durst had only himself to blame for an investigation that took on new life after he rejected the advice of lawyers and everyone he knew to participate in an incriminating documentary about his apparent bad luck of having people close to him go missing or get knocked off.
Durst was arrested in 2015 while hiding out in a New Orleans hotel on the eve of the airing of the final episode of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” in which he was confronted with incriminating evidence and made what prosecutors said was a confession.
Durst could be heard muttering to himself on a live microphone in a bathroom: “There it is. You’re caught.”
Lewin credited filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling with getting the case rolling.
“Without them having conducted the interviews we wouldn't be where we are,” Lewin said. “That was the starting point, no question.”
The verdict gives “some justice” to the family of Kathie Durst, Jarecki said in a statement, "as Kathie’s murder will now likely also be prosecuted.”
Durst’s decision to testify in his own defense — hoping for a repeat of his acquittal in the Texas killing — backfired as he was forced to admit lying under oath, made damning admissions and had his credibility destroyed when questioned for nine days by Lewin.
“There has never been a defendant that I'm aware of that has perjured himself so may times about so many different things in such a short period of time,” Lewin said. “It was absolutely shocking.”
The story of Durst, the estranged scion of a New York real estate developer, has been fodder for New York tabloids since his wife vanished. He provided plot twists so numerous that Hollywood couldn’t resist making a feature film about his life that eventually led to the documentary and discovery of new evidence in Berman’s slaying.
Durst ran from the law multiple times, disguised as a mute woman in Texas and staying under an alias at a New Orleans hotel with a shoulders-to-head latex mask for a presumed getaway. He jumped bail in Texas and was arrested after shoplifting a chicken sandwich in Pennsylvania, despite having $37,000 in cash — along with two handguns — in his rental car.
He later quipped he was “the worst fugitive the world has ever met.”
Durst escaped close scrutiny from investigators when his wife disappeared. But his troubles resurfaced in late 2000 when New York authorities reopened the case and his lawyer told him to be prepared to be charged in the case.
He fled a life of luxury to Galveston, Texas, where he rented a cheap apartment as “Dorothy Ciner,” a woman he pretended couldn’t speak. He eventually dropped the disguise after mishaps that included igniting his wig at a bar while lighting a cigarette.
Just before Christmas, he traveled to LA to visit Berman for a “staycation” with plans to see some of the tourist sites, Durst testified. He found Berman dead on a bedroom floor when he arrived.
Berman, a writer who had been friends with Durst since they were students at the University of California, Los Angeles, had serious financial problems at the time. Durst had given her $50,000, and prosecutors suggested she was trying to leverage more money from him by telling him she was going to speak with the cops.
Nine months after her death, Durst killed Black. Durst said he came home to find Black, a friend, in his apartment holding Durst’s .22-caliber pistol.
Durst was acquitted after testifying the 71-year-old was killed in a struggle for the gun. Durst then chopped up Black’s body and tossed it out to sea. He was convicted of destroying evidence for discarding the body parts.
After the trial and the ghastly evidence of the dismemberment, Durst said he became a pariah. Despite an estimated $100 million fortune, he was turned away by multiple condominium associations and said the Los Angeles County Museum of Art wouldn’t take his money unless he donated anonymously.
Durst thought a 2010 feature film Jarecki made based on his life, “All Good Things,” starring Ryan Gosling as him and Kirsten Dunst as Kathie, had been largely accurate and painted a sympathetic portrait, despite implicating him in three killings. He only objected that he was depicted killing his dog — something he would never do.
He reached out to the filmmaker and agreed to sit for lengthy interviews for a documentary. He encouraged his friends to do the same and gave the filmmakers access to boxes of his records.
He came to deeply regret his decision after “The Jinx” aired on HBO in 2015, calling it a “very, very, very big mistake.”
The documentary filmmakers discovered a crucial piece of evidence that connected him to an anonymous note sent to police directing them to Berman’s lifeless body.
Durst, who was so confident he couldn’t be connected to the note, told filmmakers “only the killer could have written” the note.
When filmmakers confronted him with a letter he sent Berman a year earlier — with identical handwriting and Beverly Hills misspelled as “Beverley” on both — he couldn’t tell them apart.
The gotcha moment provided the climax of the movie as Durst stepped off camera and muttered to himself on a live microphone in the bathroom: “Killed them all, of course.”
During 14 days of testimony that was so punishing Judge Mark Windham called it “devastating,” Durst denied killing his wife and Berman, though he said he would lie if he did.
He was forced to admit for the first time that he had written the note and had been in LA around the time of Berman's death.
Lewin said jurors told him they didn't believe Durst's explanations for the note or the apparent confession during an unguarded moment.
Durst claimed the hot mic didn’t catch his full thought, which he said was: “They’ll all think I killed them all, of course.”
That's exactly what the jury concluded, Lewin said.