For nearly 20 years, Robert A. Durst, a scion of one of the city’s richest and most influential real estate families, has been dogged by the circumstances involving the mysterious disappearance of his young wife. Kathleen Durst had disappeared in 1982, her case unsolved, her family openly accusing Mr. Durst of having played a role in her vanishing.
Indeed, within the past two years, a new criminal investigation had been opened into Kathleen Durst’s disappearance, and law enforcement officials had again expressed an interest in talking with Mr. Durst, now 58, about his account of the night his wife was last seen.
This week, Mr. Durst was arrested and charged with murder, although the case had nothing to do with his missing wife. In a startling twist, Mr. Durst, who had grown estranged from the New York members of his powerful family, was jailed in Galveston, Tex., on charges that he was guilty of a horrific murder in the gritty Gulf Coast city: the dismemberment and beheading of a 71-year-old man who had lived in the apartment next door to him.
”This is an extremely brutal crime,” said Joel Bennett, an assistant criminal district attorney in Galveston County. ”Durst allegedly dismembered the body and dumped it in the bay. We don’t have a precise motive at this point.”
Mark J. Kelly, a lawyer for Mr. Durst, who was initially unaware that his client was a member of the New York real estate family, insisted that Mr. Durst was innocent. Mr. Durst, he said, had been freed on $250,000 bond.
Mr. Durst’s family members in New York would not offer much public comment. Douglas Durst, the chief executive of the family corporation, which owns nearly nearly a dozen of the city’s most prominent skyscrapers, referred questions to his spokesman, Mortimer Matz.
”The Durst Organization and family members have had no contact with Robert Durst immediately before or following his arrest,” Mr. Matz said. ”We were made aware of his arrest by the media. Mr. Durst had not been involved with the Durst Organization for more than eight years.”
The details of the murder Mr. Durst is charged with committing are spelled out in an affidavit seeking his arrest. The police said that a man and his son notified the police on Sept. 28 that they had found a man’s torso floating in the water off Channelview Road in Galveston. The document states that the investigating officer found the arms and legs of a man they later determined to be Morris Black amid plastic garbage bags lying nearby. His head was not found.
The bags also contained a cover for a bow saw, a receipt from a local hardware store for the bags, a drop cloth and a newspaper with the delivery address of the four-family wood-frame house where Mr. Black and Mr. Durst lived in Galveston.
The police later searched the building on Avenue K where Mr. Black and Mr. Durst lived across the hallway from each other on the first floor. They found blood, a drop cloth spread across the floor and boxes of garbage bags, as well as indications that someone had mopped blood off the floor in the hallway.
”Both apartments were extremely clean,” one investigator said. ”There wasn’t a fingerprint in either one.”
In a trash can behind the apartments, the police said they also found a .22-caliber pistol and several clips of ammunition, as well as a spent shell casing.
In an interview yesterday, the landlord for the building, Rene Klaus Dillman, said that he had rented an apartment to a woman named Dorothy Ciner, who frequently traveled and had arranged for Mr. Durst to visit the apartment at his discretion. He said Ms. Ciner paid her rent by money order two months in advance. But Mr. Dillman said he had not seen Ms. Ciner for several months.
According to the affidavit, another tenant, Maria De Hernandez, told the police that Mr. Durst had been living in the apartment for about six months. She said she had seen Mr. Durst loading plastic bags into what she described as a silver station wagon on Sunday, Sept. 30.
After the police received a tip about his location, Mr. Durst was stopped by the police on Tuesday in Galveston while driving his silver Honda CRV and arrested.
The Westchester County district attorney, Jeanine F. Pirro, who had reopened an investigation into Kathleen Durst’s disappearance, said she was sending investigators from her office to Galveston.
The case of Kathleen Durst captivated the city 19 years ago, and its enduring mystery has frustrated investigators and her family ever since. Bright, beautiful and on the verge of gaining a medical degree, Mrs. Durst, then 29, was last seen on Jan. 31, 1982, when Mr. Durst said he put her on a 9:15 train from Katonah, N.Y., back toward their apartment in Manhattan.
No sign of her after that was ever found. Mr. Durst, after taking five days to report his wife missing, stopped speaking with investigators on the advice of his lawyer. Mrs. Durst’s family accused Mr. Durst in court papers of having been an abusive husband and suggested that he had played a role in her disappearance.
Late last year, investigators received a tip that moved them to again investigate Mrs. Durst’s disappearance. And when the state police and Mrs. Pirro opened a formal criminal investigation, she said she wished to again examine Mr. Durst’s account of the disappearance.
But last December, that investigation took its own strange turn when a female friend of Mr. Durst, whom investigators wanted to talk to about Mrs. Durst’s disappearance, was found shot dead in her home in Los Angeles. Investigators in Los Angeles have not termed Mr. Durst a suspect in that killing.
Mrs. Pirro, who has been reviewing the Durst case for nearly two years, would not say yesterday how much progress she had made in the Kathleen Durst case.
”Over the last few months, there have been a few developments that I am not at liberty to disclose,” Mrs. Pirro said.
Family and friends of Kathleen Durst said they were encouraged by the report of Mr. Durst’s arrest, in part because it bolstered their contention that Mr. Durst is prone to violence.
”I’m hopeful that this will lead to some progress, as well as add to the body of information that has accumulated since the investigation was reopened two years ago,” said James McCormack, Mrs. Durst’s brother.
Friends and family said they were also concerned, however, that the bail set in Texas, where Mr. Durst was released after posting $25,000 cash on bond of $250,000, was too low. Gilberta Najamy, a friend of Kathleen Durst, said she had asked New York officials for help in petitioning Texas officials to set a higher bail.
Much about how Mr. Durst came to live in Galveston is unclear. The police said neighbors told them Mr. Durst had moved into the apartment next to Mr. Black’s roughly six months ago. The building sits in the historic Silk Stocking section, lined with oak trees and middle class homes. According to property records, Mr. Durst bought a house in May on the same street that appears to be under renovation.
Although he has for close to a decade had little to do with his brothers and sister, Robert Durst did show up at a family wedding on Sept. 20 in Houston. He told friends and family members that he was staying with a friend in Galveston, 45 miles to the southeast. But he made no mention of actually living there.
Kim Lankford, an actress who lives in Los Angeles and is a friend of Mr. Durst, said yesterday that she had expected to see him on Wednesday night at a restaurant in Los Angeles, where she was performing with her cowboy blues band, the Tall Dark Strangers.
”I don’t believe this,” she said yesterday. ”I knew he was down there. He was supposed to be here last night for my show.”
According to friends and family members, Mr. Durst has led a peripatetic life since the early 1990’s, when he broke with his family after learning that his younger brother, Douglas, would become the head of the family company. He invested in a variety of ventures and moved frequently between homes in SoHo, Ridgefield, Conn., Northern California, San Francisco and Texas.
Police officials in Galveston said they had almost no personal information on Mr. Black, and that no family members had been reached.
Police officials said they had determined that Mr. Black had been arrested in 1997 in North Charleston, S.C., and accused of using the telephone to make a threat and threatening the use of an incendiary device. Mr. Dillman, the landlord, said Mr. Black had trouble getting along with others. Mr. Dillman said that he had not seen any fights between Mr. Durst and Mr. Black, but that one of the upstairs tenants had reported a loud argument between the two several weeks ago.
Investigators also said they had not been able to find Dorothy Ciner and were beginning to question whether the name was an alias.
Among the leads the detectives are following is a receipt found on Mr. Durst for a dry cleaning store in New Orleans where he had brought a blanket to be cleaned about the approximate time of the murder.
By Charles V. Bagli and Kevin Flynn (NY Times)