Eighteen years after the trail grew cold, police investigators have begun to track new leads in the baffling disappearance of Kathleen A. Durst, the wife of a scion of one of New York’s wealthiest real estate families.
Mrs. Durst was 29 when she vanished in the winter of 1982, after spending a weekend at the country home in Westchester County she shared with her husband, Robert, whose family owns 10 of New York’s most prominent skyscrapers.
During the police manhunt that followed, detectives found three people who said they believed they had either seen Mrs. Durst, or spoken to her by phone, after she returned to Manhattan from Westchester. But her whereabouts remained a mystery as the months stretched into years and investigators working the case either retired or were reassigned.
Now state police investigators working with New York City police officers say they are pursuing new information that may provide fresh insight into what happened to Mrs. Durst, who was a medical student when she vanished, just four months short of earning her degree.
In the past few months, investigators have reinterviewed dozens of people associated with the case, including friends and neighbors of the couple, and a retired detective, Michael Struk, who handled the original inquiry. Last spring, they used dogs to scour the Dursts’ former Westchester retreat, a stone cottage in South Salem overlooking Lake Truesdale, according to people with direct knowledge of the investigation. At the same time, they said, state police divers were called in to explore a section of the lake.
Investigators will not describe what, if anything, they have found or where they think the investigation is heading. But Joseph C. Becerra, a state police investigator in Westchester and a member of the team taking a new look at the case, said the information they were pursuing arose from an unrelated investigation in the county back in the fall of 1999.
Mrs. Durst’s disappearance was front-page news in 1982, her beauty and status making her story a particularly compelling missing persons case. A former dental hygienist, she had earned her nursing degree from Western Connecticut State College and enrolled in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where she was a fourth-year student.
She had met Robert Durst, to whom she was later married for nine years, when she lived in one of the buildings owned by the Durst Organization, the real estate empire founded by his grandfather in 1927. Under the direction of Robert’s father, Seymour, the company began building skyscrapers, and today its holdings include seven million square feet of office space, including the Conde Nast Building at 4 Times Square, and 20 residential buildings with more than 200 apartments.
Robert, 57, the eldest of Seymour Durst’s three sons, spent 20 years working for the firm, but left in 1994 when it became clear that his younger brother, Douglas, would succeed his father as the head of the company, according to family members.
Robert Durst, who has homes in northern California and Manhattan, reconciled with his family about a year ago and now invests in his own real estate ventures. He could not be reached for comment.
In addition to their country home, Robert and Kathleen Durst owned two apartments in New York, including a penthouse on Riverside Drive at 76th Street. The couple, who had no children, were fans of New York’s night life, often visiting clubs like Studio 54 and Xenon, friends said. But they also endured their share of marital problems, and Mrs. Durst had talked to a lawyer before her disappearance, friends and relatives said.
When she vanished, investigators said they could not be sure whether Mrs. Durst had become the victim of violence or had chosen to flee a failing marriage. But her friends said Mrs. Durst would not have run away.
”I maintain that Kathy would not have left prior to graduation,” said Gilberta Najamy, a close friend. ”She was determined to finish medical school and planned to open a children’s clinic.”
Mr. Durst, who put up a reward for information about his wife’s disappearance and hired a private investigator to help find her, has never been identified by the police as a suspect in the case.
But Mrs. Durst’s relatives have long said they believe Mr. Durst knew more about the circumstances of his wife’s disappearance than he said. They formally made the allegation in a 1983 court proceeding in which Mrs. Durst’s mother asked a Surrogate Court judge to appoint her the temporary administrator of her daughter’s estate.
Mr. Durst’s lawyers at the time described the allegation as unfounded. Yesterday, in response to inquiries, Mr. Durst’s brother, Douglas, issued a statement denying that his brother played any part in Mrs. Durst’s disappearance.
”Robert Durst continues to maintain his innocence,” the statement said.
Mrs. Durst’s brother, James McCormack, would not describe his family’s feelings toward Mr. Durst. But he said the family was looking forward to anything that might resolve the case.
”We are hopeful that after 18 years this thing can be brought to a resolution,” he said. ”It’s been very painful and much of the pain has been suppressed, but it does not go away.”
Mr. McCormack said that investigators had called him several months ago to alert him that there were potential new leads in the case, but he would not comment further.
According to accounts given at the time, Mrs. Durst had attended a dinner party at the home of Ms. Najamy, a friend from college, in Newtown, Conn., on Sunday, Jan. 31, 1982, leaving in the evening to drive her maroon Mercedes home to the Durst weekend retreat in South Salem.
Mr. Durst told the police that after arriving in South Salem, his wife decided to travel home to Manhattan because she had classes the next day. He drove her to the Katonah train station, where she boarded the 9:17 p.m. train to New York, according to his account.
Mr. Durst told the police that he never saw her again, but that he had called their Riverside Drive apartment later that night and spoke to her as she watched television. He did not report her missing until five days later, he said, because she often stayed with friends for days at a time.
As part of their investigation, detectives interviewed an elevator operator who thought he had seen Mrs. Durst in the building late on Sunday night and had later ushered a well-dressed man to her penthouse apartment, investigative sources said. The police later circulated a composite sketch of the man, who has never been found. A second building worker told the police he saw a woman that he thought was Mrs. Durst outside the building on West 76th Street the next morning, Monday, Feb. 1, but he said he saw her only from behind.
A dean at the medical school received a call that morning from a woman he believed to be Mrs. Durst, who told him she felt too ill to attend classes that day, the dean later told the police.
The people with knowledge of the newly invigorated investigation said that investigators were re-examining each of these accounts to determine whether the woman seen or spoken to was really Mrs. Durst.
The investigators have also interviewed several of the Dursts’ former neighbors in South Salem, where memories of Mrs. Durst as a sandy-haired medical student still linger.
”It’s not the kind of thing you get over,” said Ruth C. Mayor, who lived next door to the Dursts. ”She was gorgeous, smart and very sweet. Everybody loved her on the block.”
By Kevin Flynn & Charles V. Bagli (NY Times)