Before ‘The Jinx’: A Gripping 2002 Account of Robert Durst’s Link to 3 Grisly Murders
Almost 13 years ago, Reader's Digest published a gripping story about Robert Durst, son of a New York real estate mogul, and his connection to three gruesome murders. Now an HBO miniseries called 'The Jinx' is reigniting national interest in the topic. Here, our original investigation that ran in the May 2002 issue of Reader's Digest.
Once, Bobby Durst was on top of the world. At 35, he was the first-in-line heir to one of the great real-estate fortunes in New York. With holdings of around $2 billion, the Dursts stood alongside the Trumps and Helmsleys as the city’s premier owners of apartment and office buildings. It seemed only a matter of time until Bobby would take over the business, and by the late 1970s he was already acting like a mogul. He and his wife, Kathie, nearly ten years his junior, were hot on the Manhattan social scene, frequenting cool spots like Elaine’s and Studio 54, and, friends say, fueling their nights with liberal helpings of drugs. He was living fast and hard, but Bobby Durst looked like a winner.
And so if by some quirk of the universe a little voice had whispered in Bobby’s ear predicting that by the new millennium he would find himself in a Pennsylvania police station trying to explain why he’d shoplifted a chicken-salad sandwich, he would have laughed like crazy. And if the voice then told Durst he would find himself charged with one murder and investigated in connection with two others, he might have wondered what he had taken to induce such a weird nightmare.
But the voice would have been dead right.
By November 30, 2001, Durst was no longer a strutting jet-setter. He had turned into a mumbling, beady-eyed little man of 58 with a shaved head and eyebrows. Sitting in a police station in Bath, Pa., he kept telling officer Dean Benner, “I can’t believe how stupid I am.”
Durst had $500 in his pockets when Benner arrested him at a Wegmans supermarket, which meant he was no ordinary hard-luck case. But Durst’s explanation—that he had a lifelong shoplifting addiction—didn’t ring true. Benner ran a computer check on Durst’s Social Security number. What popped up on the screen made him glad his prisoner was securely manacled.
“When was the last time you were in Texas?” Benner asked, wheeling to face Durst.
Bobby Durst’s eyes widened. His dazed expression was replaced by a hardened stare. “I want a lawyer.”
Several lawyers would have been more like it. Officer Benner discovered that Durst had been the subject of a nationwide manhunt for over a month. Police in Galveston, Texas, had charged Durst with the gruesome murder of his 71-year-old neighbor, Morris Black, and Durst had skipped out on a $300,000 bond. Black had been dismembered, his headless torso found in Galveston Bay, his limbs in garbage bags floating nearby.
Benner phoned the Texas police. He expected his counterparts would be glad to hear from him, but never imagined his call to Galveston would also trigger urgent inquiries from California and New York.
The New York State Police were looking into the disappearance of Durst’s wife, Kathie, then 29, who vanished in 1982. And the Los Angeles police wanted to chat with Durst about the 2000 gangland-style murder of his close friend, author Susan Berman, 55. Berman had been killed just as New York authorities were preparing to question her in the Kathie Durst case.
Durst was arraigned—no bail this time—and locked away in the Northampton County Correctional Facility in Easton, Pa. The charges against him were formidable. Less obvious were the circumstances that had led Durst to such a pass.
As a younger, handsomer man, Durst had hobnobbed with the likes of Jackie Onassis and Mia Farrow. He reportedly had an affair with Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, the woman whose fragile beauty inspired the Beatles song “Dear Prudence.” Durst’s high living was financed by the hard work and smart investments of his family, starting with his grandfather Joseph. A Jewish immigrant from Poland, Joseph, after 13 years of working in the garment district, had saved the money to buy a midtown Manhattan office building. That purchase became the cornerstone of the family’s real-estate empire.
Joseph’s eldest son, Seymour, eventually took over the reins of the Durst Organization. Seymour and his wife, Bernice, had four children, but it was the eldest, then seven-year-old Bobby, who witnessed his mother ’s tragic end. One autumn day in 1950, Bernice climbed onto the roof of their suburban Westchester home. While her husband and son looked on, and as a fireman struggled to reach her, Bernice fell. Her death was ruled an accident.
Bobby was a quiet kid, and an undistinguished student. He earned a business-administration degree from Lehigh University, then headed to grad school at UCLA. There, in the heyday of the ’60s, he was introduced to marijuana, for which he developed a lifelong passion. He also met Susan Berman. The daughter of Las Vegas hotelier Dave Berman, who counted mob figures Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky as associates, Susan suspected her own mother had died as a result of a gangland hit. Susan was a fast-talking woman with a big personality. Durst was taken with her immediately, and their platonic friendship endured for decades.
After returning to New York, Durst went to work in the family business. Kathie McCormack, a 19-year-old dental hygienist from a working-class Long Island family, was a tenant in one of the Durst’s Manhattan apartment buildings. Dropping off her rent check one day, she met the man who would change her life. Durst was smitten with her fresh-faced innocence; she fell for his wealth and worldly-wise demeanor.
In 1973 they married, and the early years of their relationship were a blur of exotic travel and club-hopping. The couple had two apartments in Manhattan and a rustic cottage 40 miles north of the city in the hamlet of South Salem, N.Y. “She was enthralled with the Dursts and the power,” says Eleanor Schwank, who was one of Kathie’s closest friends. “For Kathie, it was like being a kid in a candy store.”
Things weren’t exactly perfect, though. Unlike his bubbly wife, Durst was by nature more reserved, and drugs added to his gloom. He began to withdraw from the club scene, preferring to spend his free time with Igor, his Norwegian Elkhound, and zone out on marijuana. Kathie began pursuing her own interests. She finished nursing school and was eventually accepted into New York’s Albert Einstein medical college.
By 1981 the marriage was in trouble. Both Durst and Kathie had begun extramarital affairs, and Durst became increasingly sullen. Bobby’s history was at least part of the problem. Kathie told friends that while Bernice Durst’s death had been ruled an accident, Bobby had told her that in fact his mother committed suicide, something that troubled him terribly.
Kathie also discovered that following his mother ’s death, Bobby had been sent for psychiatric counseling after displaying extreme bouts of anger, particularly toward his father, whom he blamed for Bernice’s unhappiness. In a 1953 report, written when Bobby was ten, a doctor delivered the gloomy assessment that his anger was of such intensity that it could result in personality decomposition and, possibly, schizophrenia. Bobby eventually evened out—but his fury began spewing again in the dog days of his marriage.
During a 1980 Christmas gathering with Kathie’s family on Long Island, Durst pulled his wife out of a chair when she ignored his demands to return to Manhattan. “He just grabbed her by her hair and said ‘We’re leaving,’” says Jim McCormack, Kathie’s older brother. “I wanted to punch his lights out, but Kathie said she was okay.”
The following year, Durst was arrested for assaulting photographer Peter Schwartz, a friend of Kathie’s who’d accompanied her home after a night of club-hopping. Schwartz was lying on the floor, innocently talking with Kathie, when Durst burst in, accusing Schwartz of trying to seduce his wife. He kicked the astonished Schwartz in the face, breaking his jaw. Criminal charges were later dropped, and a civil suit was settled out of court.
Before the year was out, Kathie was making plans to file for divorce and told Durst she wanted a lump-sum settlement of several hundred thousand dollars. Instead, Durst cut her off financially, taking away her credit cards and forcing her to borrow money from friends, who advised Kathie to just leave. “We said ‘Kathie, you’re going to be a doctor. You don’t need his money,’” says Eleanor Schwank.
Insistent that she deserved a modest settlement, Kathie began playing a more dangerous game, threatening to publicize what she told friends were Durst’s fraudulent income-tax statements. The plan backfired. On January 6, 1982, Kathie was admitted to a Bronx hospital with bruises on her face and head. She stated that her husband had flown into a rage and beaten her.
Three weeks later, Kathie showed up at a Connecticut party hosted by her friend Gilberte Najamy. Durst, furious she’d been out so long, phoned from South Salem and demanded she come home. Leaving the party about 7:15 that cold, snowy night, Kathie gave Najamy a warning. “She said, ‘Gilberte, if anything ever hap- pens to me, it was Bobby.’”
Five days later, Durst walked into Manhattan’s 20th Precinct and reported Kathie missing. Kathie’s family and friends immediately pointed the finger at Durst, who posted a $100,000 reward for his wife’s return. He hired a well-connected criminal attorney, Nicholas Scoppetta, now New York City’s Fire Commissioner. Then he clammed up. Susan Berman became his spokesperson, handling queries from the rabid New York press.
With no cooperation from Durst, no solid evidence of foul play, and no probable cause to search the South Salem house, the investigation went cold. “We could never get it beyond a missing-persons case,” says Michael Struk, the now-retired NYPD detective who led the inquiry.
For ten years Durst maintained a low profile. But rumors about his role in Kathie’s disappearance never went away. When Seymour Durst moved aside in 1993, he tapped Bobby’s younger brother, Douglas, to take control of the business. Bobby would be the No. 2 man in the organization. Incensed, Durst walked out of the company’s offices with- out so much as a farewell. Most of the people who worked with him never heard from him again. When Seymour died in 1995, Bobby skipped the funeral.
He dropped out of sight, dabbling in real-estate deals, splitting time among homes in Northern California, Connecticut and New York. He might have remained that way, a high-living drifter, if it hadn’t been for a small stroke of bad luck.
In 1999, veteran New York State Police detective Joe Becerra reopened the Kathie Durst investigation after getting a tip from a petty criminal. The information proved false, but Becerra was intrigued and did something no investigator had before. He got permission from the new owners to search what had been the Durst house in South Salem.
The search uncovered old blood mixed with mud. Investigators, convinced they were onto something, then examined telephone records obtained earlier. They indicated that Durst had been in Ship Bottom, N.J., on February 2, 1982, less than 48 hours after he’d claimed Kathie had gone missing. Durst had told police that he’d spent that week in South Salem, waiting for his wife’s return. The rough, rural southern Jersey area called the Pine Barrens is near Ship Bottom. And the Pine Barrens is a known Mafia graveyard.
Tipped off about the reopened investigation, Durst headed to Galveston. In November 2000, wearing a wig and masquerading as a deaf-mute woman named Dorothy Ciner, a name he pulled out of his Scarsdale High School yearbook, he rented a $300-a-month, two-room apartment in a nondescript neighborhood. The following month, in a private New York ceremony, Durst wed Debrah Lee Charatan, a commercial real-estate agent he’d seen off and on for a dozen years.
Less than two weeks after the wedding, as New York police were preparing to interview Susan Berman, her Los Angeles neighbors spotted her dog wandering the neighborhood. They called police, who found Berman’s door unlocked. Her body was inside, facedown in a pool of blood. There was no sign of forced entry or struggle, suggesting she knew the person who shot her. Police are currently investigating Durst.
Various reports indicate that Durst mailed two checks for $25,000 each to Berman in the months before her death. Although she showed early promise as a writer—in 1981 she published Easy Street, a memoir detailing her life as a “Mafia princess”—Berman had fallen on hard times. More than once she asked Durst for financial help. Some of Berman’s friends theorize the checks were hush money to keep Berman from saying anything incriminating to New York investigators. Others scoff at the notion that Durst would have harmed her. They suggest she was killed by mob figures concerned about the new book Berman planned to write.
Back in Galveston, Durst had inevitably crossed paths with his neighbor, Morris Black. Originally from Massachusetts, Black was down on his luck. He had been arrested in 1997, after threatening to bomb the local phone company during a billing dispute. Before he was killed, Black clearly made someone mad. Says Galveston Police Sgt. Cody Cazalas, “I’m a hunter and could tell whoever did this was either a hunter or had done this before.” Black’s arms were neatly sliced below the shoulder. The legs were pared around the upper thighs, the large femur bones cut straight through. Even the head, yet to be found, was expertly removed from the body.
Police were led to Black’s apartment after discovering a newspaper address label inside one of the garbage bags floating in the bay. The place had been cleaned, but forensics experts discovered a blood trail leading across the hall to Durst’s apartment. Inside, they found blood stains in the bathroom, on the walls, on the kitchen floor and on a paring knife. They later discovered that for some reason Durst had paid Black’s $300 October rent, and that Black, who’d held only a series of menial jobs his entire life, had $137,000 in a bank account.
Durst was charged with murdering Black on October 9, 2001, but was immediately freed on bail, when his wife, Charatan, wired the money. Then he became a fugitive until his shoplifting arrest weeks later. In his car, Pennsylvania police found two .38-caliber handguns, $38,000 in cash, a rental receipt in the name of Morris Black, and a stash of marijuana.
In February, Durst was extradited to Texas. He pled not guilty to the murder. “The best we could tell they had a strained neighbor relationship—a lot of petty bickering,” says Sergeant Cazalas, acknowledging that investigators have yet to uncover a clear motive in the Black killing. Durst himself suggested one on March 27 when his attorney suddenly indicated he would enter a revised plea—not guilty by reason of self-defense and accident.
After she learned of Durst’s arrest in Texas, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, who is overseeing the investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance, offered a cryptic comparison. “I see even at this point some striking similarities with what allegedly happened in Texas and what happened in Westchester County.”
Kathie’s Durst’s survivors say all these events have given them new hope. “Our family always felt this guy was prone to violence, and we believe the last two years of increased pressure tilted his psyche and brought on more irrational behavior,” says Jim McCormack. “We’re anxious to see a painful ordeal coming to a resolution.” Sadly, many others have now joined the McCormacks in their wish.
The Road to Perdition
Bobby Durst’s downward spiral is remarkable if only for its high highs and low lows. By his mid-30s, Durst appeared to have it all. He stood to inherit a family business worth millions, had a beautiful wife and enjoyed a social life almost any jet setter would have envied. A little more than two decades later, he’d lost virtually everything, and stood charged with one murder and was suspect in two others.
April 12, 1973
The handsome prince of Park Avenue marries Kathie McCormack. She plans to go on to medical school and specialize in pediatrics.
January 31, 1982
Kathie is last seen by friends leaving a party in Connecticut. Durst waits five days to tell police that she was missing. Kathie’s body is never found.
After quitting the family business, Durst drifts between homes in California, Connecticut and New York.
Galveston, November 2000
Durst, masquerading as a woman, moves into a low-rent apartment in this Texas beach town.
Los Angeles, December 24, 2000
Susan Berman, a close confidant of Durst’s, is found dead in her home, a bullet in the back of her head. The timing of her murder raises suspicions. Berman, who had known Durst since they were students at UCLA, was supposed to talk to New York police regarding Kathie Durst’s disappearance. The daughter of one of gangster Bugsy Siegel’s lieutenants, Berman had also begun to research a book about the mob.
September 30, 2001
A boy fishing in Galveston Bay finds the body of 71-year-old Morris Black, who rented the apartment across the hall from Durst. At the time, Durst was passing himself off as a deaf-mute named Dorothy Ciner.
October 9, 2001
Durst is arrested and charged with Black’s murder. Police were led to him after finding an address label in a garbage bag containing Black’s limbs. A search of Durst’s apartment uncovered blood on the floors, walls and on a knife.
October 10, 2001
Durst’s new wife, real-estate agent Debrah Lee Charatan, wires bail money to Galveston. Durst skips town.
October 16, 2001
Durst fails to appear at his Galveston arraignment for the Black murder. He is deemed a fugitive.
Bath, Pa., November 2001
Caught trying to steal a chicken-salad sandwich, Durst is taken into police custody. A check of his Social Security number shows he is wanted for a murder in Texas, and is being sought for questioning about murders in New York and California.
March 27, 2002
In Galveston, an attorney for Durst unexpectedly announced that his client would change his initial plea to not guilty by reason of self-defense and accident. A new trial date was set for September.