When Robert A. Durst returned to South Salem in Westchester County last spring, a neighbor noticed him seemingly lost in thought on a dock at Lake Truesdale, behind the tree-shrouded stone cottage he once shared with his wife, Kathleen.

It was his birthday and their wedding anniversary, though she had vanished 19 years earlier. A small man with a wiry frame, he had been moving restlessly through California, Connecticut, Texas and Manhattan since he broke with his wealthy New York real estate family a decade ago. His friends regarded him as a brilliant man with an eccentric sense of humor, while others who knew him described a darker figure, given to fits of rage.

The state police and the Westchester district attorney had been seeking him for a year to go over his account of his last night with his wife, the night she vanished. Investigators had also wanted to interview one of his closest friends and confidantes, Susan Berman. But she had been found murdered in her Benedict Canyon home in Los Angeles last Christmas Eve, shot in the back of the head.

Mr. Durst’s reverie on the dock suddenly ended when a neighbor strolled down to the lakefront. He quickly jumped into his blue Saab and drove away. He soon after told his sister, Wendy, the only family member he really spoke with, that he was going to disappear for a while; he would not be picking up phone messages or his mail.

Disappear he did, until last week when he surfaced in Galveston, Tex., at the center of a murder case more gruesome than anything the most vehement accusers from his past could have imagined. It soon became apparent that Mr. Durst had adopted a series of disguises and false identities in that brawny port city before, the Galveston Police Department said, he killed a 71-year-old neighbor, carving up the body and dropping it into Galveston Bay.

Having failed to show up for a bail hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Durst is now a fugitive from the law, and with it a tortured life that was collapsing around him. The Galveston police have begun a nationwide manhunt, but Mr. Durst may still have access to bank accounts containing millions of dollars.

Even many of those in the close circle of friends who had long defended the enigmatic Mr. Durst were stunned, wondering whether all the accusations about their friend were true. A few have held fast.

Emily Altman was one of Mr. Durst’s longtime friends, and asked him to be her son’s godfather. Her husband, Stewart Altman, grew up with Mr. Durst in Scarsdale. She said that Mr. Durst was incapable of committing a heinous act.

”He’s the most kindhearted person I’ve ever met in my life,” Ms. Altman said. ”He’s a sweet person.”

But there is little doubt that the questions and accusations that have swirled about Mr. Durst for two decades have gained a sudden and disturbing momentum.

Detectives from New York and Los Angeles flew to Galveston to interview him and examine a gun found in his car. The gun was the same caliber as the weapon used to kill Ms. Berman.

Mr. Durst, 58, is the oldest child of Seymour B. Durst, patriarch of a family real estate empire worth billions. The elder Durst, who died in 1995, built a half-dozen office buildings on Third Avenue after World War II. As the family prospered, Seymour moved his family, which now included Robert, his brothers Douglas and Thomas and his sister, Wendy, to the wealthy Westchester suburb of Scarsdale. But Robert’s comfortable childhood was punctuated by sadness.

In 1950, his mother, Bernice, fell from a rain-slick roof of the family’s home and died. Newspaper accounts at the time stated that Bernice, 32, had become disoriented by an overdose of medication for asthma. Privately, family members acknowledged that Bernice had committed suicide.

Kathleen Durst confided to several friends that Robert was deeply disturbed by his mother’s death and may have witnessed her fall. In any event, Robert’s childhood battles with Douglas prompted their father to send both boys to a counselor. Robert, said a family member, friends and classmates, was a loner. The 1961 Scarsdale High School yearbook has a single photograph of Mr. Durst and no mention of extracurricular activities.

Four years later, Mr. Durst graduated from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania with a degree in economics and headed off to California, where he enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of California in Los Angeles. It was there that he met Susan Berman, an aspiring writer who was the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster.

Mr. Durst also met John Lennon, the Beatle, while they both underwent primal therapy, according to his friends and a family member. More than a decade later, Mr. Durst was dating Prudence Farrow, the subject of the Beatles song ”Dear Prudence,” when his wife disappeared. Ms. Farrow, the actress Mia Farrow’s sister, would not comment.

Mr. Durst ultimately withdrew from U.C.L.A. in 1969 and returned to New York, where in the fall of 1971 he met a young dental hygienist, Kathleen McCormack, who lived in a building owned by the Durst family. He had opened a health food store called All Good Things in Vermont, and after the two had gone on two dates, he asked her to live with him. In January 1972, she did.

”They went through their hippie years in the early 1970’s,” said Eleanor Joy Schwank, a friend of Mrs. Durst.

Seymour Durst disapproved of his son’s life as a shopkeeper and in 1973 the couple returned to Manhattan, where they married. Robert joined his father and brother Douglas in developing some of the most successful skyscrapers on the Avenue of the Americas.

At Robert’s insistence, the couple lived frugally. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle and never wore the stereotypical gold jewelry and expensive suits of a real estate baron. She, however, drove a Mercedes and sought a career, first as a nurse, and later as a doctor. Mr. Durst did enjoy using his connections to get his friends into the best restaurants, Broadway plays and nightclubs, although they often expected him to pick up the tab.

”They were earthy, downright regular people,” Gilberta Najamy said. ”I thought he was a caring, loving husband. I know Kathy was in love with him.”

But by 1980, Robert had grown increasingly possessive of Kathleen’s time, many of her friends said, while she complained ”that they were living below their means.”

She hired a divorce lawyer and confided to friends and family members that Robert had physically abused her, according to court records at a subsequent proceeding over control of her estate.

In 1982, Mrs. Durst disappeared. Mr. Durst told the police that he had put her on a train in Katonah, N.Y., after they spent a weekend together at their nearby cottage. He said he spoke to her by telephone later that night in Manhattan but had not heard from her since. Investigators traced leads, developed suspicions and questioned Mr. Durst, but nothing solid developed. Years later, the New York City police continued to list the disappearance as a missing persons case, not a murder.

During the clamor over Kathleen’s disappearance, Mr. Durst stopped going to work, and had his loyal confidante, Ms. Berman, tell his friends that he was distraught and would not be returning calls for a while. ”Bobby was like that,” said Doug Oliver, when interviewed last February. ”He retreated into himself.”

By the end of 1983, Mr. Durst was back working at the Durst Organization. He sought real estate deals for the company, as well as for himself. In 1989, he and his siblings sold a property at Broadway and 55th Street for $30 million. He used his quarter-share to buy several buildings and a storage center in the Dallas area.

Mr. Durst’s problems with his family culminated two years later when it became clear that Douglas would succeed his father at the head of the family empire. Family members said Mr. Durst abruptly stopped going into work and cut his ties to his close friends like Mr. Oliver, who is bewildered by the turn of events.

”He separated from everyone in New York,” said another close friend of both Mr. Durst and Ms. Berman. ”It was a loss of face in his mind.”

For much of the 1990’s, Mr. Durst was out of touch with his family as he drifted between Northern California, Connecticut, Dallas and Lower Manhattan. He appeared briefly at his father’s deathbed in 1995, after his brother and sister agreed to leave the hospital, but he did not attend the funeral.

Except for an errant tip, Mr. Durst never would have aroused the suspicions of investigators. In 1999, a Westchester man provided them with bad information about the disappearance, but it was enough to intrigue a state police investigator, Joseph Beccera, about the case. Officials began to review apparent discrepancies in Mr. Durst’s account of his whereabouts.

For example, Mr. Durst said he had spoken to his wife from Westchester that night after she arrived home in Manhattan. He said he called from a pay phone while walking the dog. But the nearest pay phone was several miles away, they found, and the night was rainy and cold.

As part of the investigation, the Westchester County district attorney and the state police made plans to interview Susan Berman. But just days before they were scheduled to speak to her, Ms. Berman was found shot to death with a 9-millimeter handgun in her Los Angeles home.

But Ms. Berman’s friends and relatives said at the time that Mr. Durst, the man who gave her away at her 1984 wedding and periodically gave her tens of thousands of dollars when she needed it, would never have hurt her. Detectives, who never identified Mr. Durst as a suspect, were far more interested in another figure in Ms. Berman’s life. But the case was going nowhere when word came that Mr. Durst had been arrested in Galveston.

The police in Texas charged Mr. Durst with murdering Morris Black, a cantankerous tenant who lived in an efficiency apartment across from Mr. Durst’s in a gray wood-frame house, not far from downtown. Neighbors said Mr. Durst and Mr. Black often engaged in long arguments, punctuated by much slamming of doors. Investigators said they found bloody evidence that tied Mr. Durst to the crime. They also found evidence of a life that appeared to have unraveled.

In Dallas, where Mr. Durst had kept a luxury apartment for several years, they found lease documents in which Mr. Durst said he was once a botanist for a California lumber company, not a New York real estate man. He was divorced, he said in the paperwork, when actually his wife had disappeared.

What Mr. Durst did in Dallas is unclear, but by April he had moved to Galveston, to an apartment he found through a newspaper advertisement. He told the landlord he was renting it on behalf of his mute sister-in-law, Dorothy Ciner. Actually, Ms. Ciner had been a high school classmate years ago in Scarsdale. She had no knowledge of the ruse, according to investigators, who say they believed it was Mr. Durst who wore a wig to play the role of Dorothy. He visited the local library in the wig, according to a librarian at the Rosenberg Library who remembered him, dressed as a woman, sitting occasionally in the computer room.

At times, he traveled back to New York where he kept an apartment on Rector Place. Kenny Shane, who manages the building where Mr. Durst owns an apartment, said he was there last summer. ”He goes out running,” he said. ”He is very cordial to everyone.”

Life in Galveston was spartan in comparison. His apartment on Avenue K had no phone, just a bed, a table and a television. The range seems to have never been used, Klaus Dillman, the landlord, said. Neighbors remembered seeing him taking meals at a local pancake house and at the Saltwater Grill.

Investigators are now trying to retrace Mr. Durst’s life. They have frozen his bank accounts and looked for him in New Orleans, where he is known to have traveled after the murder. But few people in Galveston seem to remember Mr. Durst.

One who does, Becky Faris, said he was an occasional customer at Bob’s, the liquor store that she and and her husband run. She recalled one incident about five months ago. On that occasion, she said, Mr. Durst came in to buy a few bottles. On his way out, a dog barked at him, she said, and Mr. Durst bent over and barked back, for several minutes.

”He was nice enough,” she said, ”but there was something scary about him.”

By CHARLES V. BAGLI and KEVIN FLYNN (NY Times)

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