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.