New York authorities investigating the 1982 disappearance of a medical student were trying to arrange an interview with writer Susan Berman just before she was found shot to death on Christmas Eve in her Los Angeles home.
Why investigators from the Westchester County district attorney’s office wanted to talk to Berman, the 55-year-old daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, was not clear yesterday.
Berman was a close, longtime friend of the missing medical student’s husband.
“(Berman) was someone we certainly wanted to interview, and we were certainly disappointed to learn she was dead,” said Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. She declined to say what information her team hoped Berman could provide.
A year ago, her office reopened the 19-year-old disappearance case of Kathleen Durst.
Durst’s husband, Robert, comes from a prominent New York family that made its fortune in real estate development.
The case caused a big splash in the press in 1982. But leads petered out, and the disappearance became like a lot of other cold cases — almost forgotten until detectives revived it last year.
Word that the New York detectives wanted to interview Berman added a wrinkle to a case already full of them.
At first, Los Angeles police looking into Berman’s slaying turned to her father’s mob roots. Berman grew up in Las Vegas as the daughter of David Berman, a confederate of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. She later wrote extensively about her father and the Las Vegas mob life, although she never was involved in the mob herself.
Los Angeles police also looked into a recent dispute Berman had with her landlady that resulted in evictions and court battles won by Berman.
Police found Berman’s body in her West Los Angeles home on Christmas Eve. She had been killed by a single gunshot to the back of her head.
Los Angeles Detective Brad Roberts said yesterday that police knew New York investigators had wanted to talk to Berman about Kathleen Durst. But they have not yet examined what connection — if any — the Durst case may have with Berman’s death, focusing instead on other leads.
“We haven’t done that yet,” Roberts said. “It’s something we may need to, but hopefully we won’t.” He declined to elaborate.
The death of Berman, who wrote several mysteries, has left detectives with a small, strange set of clues that have so far led nowhere.
During her Las Vegas childhood, her father took great pains to shield her from the reality and dangers of his world. Although Berman later wrote extensively about her father, most of his enemies and associates are long since dead, leading police to downplay any possible link to her death.
She had a drawn-out dispute with her landlord, but police said the two had finally settled the matter with Berman agreeing to pay the rent months in advance and move out in June.
Her weathered home on a winding canyon road showed no signs of forced entry,
no signs of robbery, and friends said Berman never left the door unlocked.
Many who knew her said that perhaps the best detective for this case is the one who was killed.
“Susan could get a wall to talk,” said Susie Harmon, who knew Berman since childhood. “That’s the irony. We keep saying we need Susan here to solve this.”
Much of her life read like fiction or even fantasy. Although her father’s own past included bank robbery and kidnapping, the elder Berman doted on and protected Susan, who later wrote that she knew nothing of his mob ties at the time. The burly men her father kept at the house to guard her and her mother were, Susan thought, just family friends. The abrupt trips to Los Angeles that she would later realize were flights from danger were just vacations, even if they started in the middle of the night.
She would return to that world time and again as a writer. After stints with the San Francisco Examiner and with City magazine in San Francisco and New York magazine, Berman struck out on her own, writing often about Vegas and her father. A 1981 book about her Vegas childhood, “Easy Street,” brought her nationwide attention.
She was still mining those experiences at the time of her death. A few days before she was murdered, Showtime turned down a proposed pilot called “Sin City,” said her manager, Nyle Brenner. But Paramount Pictures, which was developing the project, expressed confidence another network would pick it up, he said. She was also setting up interviews for a book on women in Las Vegas, several friends said.
Both projects could have brought much-needed financial relief. Raised with money, Berman often found herself short on cash in her career as a writer and was sometimes forced to borrow from friends. Once a resident of posh Brentwood,
she had been living in a small house on Benedict Canyon Drive, a steady stream of traffic roaring a few feet past her windows. And it wasn’t in her temperment to take a day job to pay the bills, friends and relatives said.
“She was hamstrung, really, by her upbringing, because anyone else would just go get a job,” said mystery writer Julie Smith, a friend and former Chronicle reporter. “But she had been brought up in a very privileged way, and she wouldn’t do that.”
And yet friends who saw or talked to her in the last weeks of her life said Berman seemed upbeat and optimistic about her professional future.
Rich Markey met her for dinner and a movie on Friday, Dec. 22, the day before police believe she was killed. They caught “Best in Show,” a satire about dog owners, at a theater on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Berman, who lived with three dogs, loved it, Markey said.
As often as he has replayed that night’s conversation in his mind, Markey said he could find no hint that something was amiss in her life, which was all the more surprising because Berman could rarely keep a secret or concern from friends.
“I didn’t detect anything in her to show she was afraid of anything,” said Markey, a writer and producer who had known Berman 12 years. “Was there something, some clue, lying there unrecognized for what it was? I can’t think of one.”
Several friends found out about her death only after she failed to show up to holiday engagements. Cousin Deni Marcus heard the news when she called Berman’s house on Christmas Eve, wondering why she was late for a Hanukkah dinner. A police detective answered.
“We all really thought she was happy, optimistic, and really looking forward to the things that were going to happen to her this year,” Marcus said.
“She said, ‘Stay tuned. Things are going to unfold.’ ”
Kathleen Durst’s disappearance in 1982 presented its own mysteries. She vanished after a weekend at her country home in Westchester County. Robert Durst told investigators at the time that she had taken a train back to Manhattan and that he had talked to her on the phone after she arrived.
Durst could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Robert Durst and Berman had been close for years. And yet, with investigators in both cases saying little about any possible connection, several of Berman’s friends said they didn’t know what to make of it. Not that any possible explanation of her death made much sense.
“Everything sounds like a dead end,” said actress Kim Lankford. “And everything sounds perfectly feasible, on the other side.”
By David R. Baker (SFGate)