Since his first wife vanished more than three decades ago, Robert A. Durst, the eccentric and estranged son of one of New York’s most prominent real estate dynasties, has lived under the suspicious gaze of law enforcement officials in three states.
They have followed his path from New York City to Los Angeles, where one of his closest friends was found dead in her home in 2000. They tracked him to Galveston, where he fled after investigators reopened the case of his wife’s disappearance, and where he posed as a mute woman and shot and dismembered a neighbor in 2001.
Durst was acquitted in the Texas killing, and was never arrested in disappearance of his wife or the death of his friend. But on Saturday, he was in custody once again, arrested on a charge of murder as he walked into the JW Marriott in New Orleans, where he had checked into under a false name.
He was arraigned on Sunday, and later that evening in the final episode of an HBO documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” he seemed to veer toward a confession that could lift the shroud of mystery that surrounds the deaths of three people over three decades.
“What the hell did I do?” Durst whispers to himself in an unguarded moment caught on a microphone he wore during filming. “Killed them all, of course.”
In the years since his wife, Kathleen Durst, disappeared in 1982 after spending the weekend at the couple’s country home in Westchester County, Robert Durst has bounced in and out of jail for other crimes, cut ties with his family, remarried, and sued his brother for a $65 million share of the family fortune. Through it all, he has maintained his innocence in the disappearance of his wife, and denied any role in the 2000 death of the Los Angeles friend, Susan Berman.
His arrest was in connection with Berman’s death, though the Westchester authorities said they are still investigating him in his wife’s case. Durst was walking toward an elevator and mumbling to himself when FBI agents intercepted him at the hotel, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said.
Durst is believed to have left Houston on March 10, headed for New Orleans. Investigators said they feared that the renewed attention brought by “The Jinx” would lead him to try to flee the country. Durst will plead not guilty, said one of his lawyers, Dick DeGuerin, who helped win Durst’s acquittal in Galveston in 2003 and who said he expects to head Durst’s defense team in Los Angeles.
“The rumors that have been flying for years will now get tested in court,” DeGuerin said.
As he watched the documentary Sunday night with the filmmakers, James McCormack, the brother of Kathleen Durst, said, “Closure is near at hand, I feel in my heart.”
Los Angeles prosecutors reopened their investigation into Berman’s execution-style murder only after Durst agreed to a series of interviews with the producers of “The Jinx,” Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.
“These two producers did what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years,” said Jeanine F. Pirro, the former Westchester County district attorney, whose office investigated Kathleen Durst’s disappearance for six years. “Kudos to them. They were meticulous. They were focused.”
The filmmakers spent nearly 10 years researching Robert Durst’s story: his upbringing as the eldest son of a family that controls 11 major skyscrapers in New York; his marriage to Kathleen Durst and its unraveling; his estrangement from his family after his father chose his younger brother, Douglas Durst, to run the business in 1994.
“We are relieved and also grateful to everyone who assisted in the arrest of Robert Durst,” Douglas Durst said in a statement on Sunday. “We hope he will finally be held accountable for all he has done.”
When prosecutors began pursuing new leads in his wife’s disappearance in 2000, Robert Durst fled to Galveston, posing as a mute woman to rent a $300-a-month room. The next year, he was on the run again, with a warrant out for his arrest in the murder of Morris Black, a former merchant seaman who had lived across the hall in Galveston. After a nationwide manhunt, he was found him in Bethlehem, Pa., where he had shoplifted a sandwich from a Wegmans supermarket.
Durst convinced a Texas jury that Black died accidentally when the two men were grappling over a gun that discharged as they fell to the floor. Durst testified that he had carved up Black’s body until he was “swimming in blood.”
But he was still under suspicion in the death of Berman, a friend from graduate school who served as his spokeswoman after his wife’s disappearance.
The police knew Durst was in California when Berman was killed, but could not place him in Los Angeles. They suspected he was the author of an anonymous note sent to the Beverly Hills police on the same day Berman was found shot in the head, saying there was a “cadaver” in her home. But a handwriting analysis performed in 2003 was inconclusive.
The makers of “The Jinx” obtained a letter written by Durst to Berman in which the lettering of the address on the envelope appears identical to that of the “cadaver” note, down to the misspelling of Beverly Hills as “Beverley.”
In the final episode, a forensic document examiner concluded that the tics in the note’s handwriting “are unique to one person and only one person.”
Near the documentary’s end, the filmmakers were packing up when Durst asked to use the bathroom. He did not remove his wireless microphone as he closed the door and began to whisper to himself. More than two years passed before the filmmakers found the audio.
The private monologue makes for good television. But it is unclear whether the recording could be used in court, some legal experts said, since they were made in a bathroom when he was alone and had an expectation of privacy.