Wigs, ruses tied to fugitive
One day Robert Durst allegedly is posing as a woman to rent a shabby apartment using an old schoolmate’s name. A few months later he’s dining at the Four Seasons, looking every bit the rich man that he is. One day the New York real estate scion mingles with relatives at a nephew’s out-of-town wedding. A few weeks later he stands accused of chopping off an old man’s head. The life of Robert Durst, now a fugitive from justice after jumping bail, has become increasingly bizarre during the past decade. Durst, 58, confounds not only his family and former colleagues but the police who are investigating him. They’re puzzled by such mysteries as the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen, in 1982 and the murder last year of a long-time confidant, author Susan Berman. Some people who know Durst believe he is sliding deeper into mental illness, desperation and violence. “It sounds like he’s schizophrenic at the very least,” said retired state Appellate Division Justice Theodore Kupferman, a Durst lawyer who had lunch with his client at the Four Seasons earlier this year. “But at lunch, he behaved like a completely normal person.
” Durst was arrested Oct. 9 in Galveston, Tex., for the dismemberment murder of Morris Black, 71, a loner who lived next door to him in a modest apartment house in that Gulf Coast town. His missing wife’s brother, James McCormack, sees a parallel between Durst’s behavior now and his actions after Kathleen vanished. “With all the heat that’s on him, it’s as if he’s resumed his scurrying around to avoid coming to grips with reality,” McCormack said. Running away For years, Durst has been running from the life his father had wanted for him. Seymour Durst, who died in 1995, amassed a huge fortune in real estate, cutting some of Manhattan’s biggest land deals. The Durst Organization owns nearly a dozen of the city’s most prominent skyscrapers. Robert Durst, whose mother plunged to her death when he was 6, grew up in Scarsdale. At first he shied away from the family business. “When I was growing up, it was the days of long hair and marijuana,” he said during a 1994 interview. “In terms of announcing you were going into the family business, that was extremely uncool.
” But then he met Kathleen McCormack, a bright and beautiful dental hygienist, and they married in 1972. After dabbling in the health-food business, Durst finally decided, at his father’s urging, to take up the land game. But his marriage became increasingly stormy, according to Kathleen’s friends. Just months before Kathleen, 29, was to earn her medical degree, she disappeared. Durst reported her missing on Feb. 5, 1982, five days after he said he’d last seen her. The missing-persons case caused a media sensation. Kathleen’s friends and family always suspected Durst killed her. But eventually the case went cold and the story faded. Durst pressed on with his work at the Durst Organization, but industry sources say his heart wasn’t in it. His younger brother Douglas would take command of the company. “I just remember the meetings with Douglas and Bobby, and Bobby was always the dark presence,” said a real estate executive who dealt with the organization in those days. “He was always silent, sullen.
” Life of an itinerant Durst broke with the business about eight years ago. Since then he’s led an itinerant and increasingly puzzling life. In April 1998 he leased a $3,875-a-month apartment in Dallas. He kept the apartment until this April. But his business in Dallas remains unknown. A tenant who lived next door said she never saw him. Durst went to great lengths to conceal his true identity. He listed his occupation as a botanist and his former employer as Pacific Lumber, a California company that never heard of him. He also listed his botany business partner as Manhattan real estate agent Debrah Lee Charatan, who industry insiders say was actually a former girlfriend. Durst also falsely claimed that New York writer Julie Baumgold was his daughter in California. Baumgold is married to Edward Kosner, the editor in chief of the Daily News. She has known Durst since childhood but has never lived in California and is not his daughter. Durst also maintains an office in the northern California town of Eureka. Harley Smith, former manager of the five-story building, said Durst rented the space before 1997 but insisted his name not be posted in the lobby. “Nobody ever saw or heard from him,” Smith said. “We just periodically got a check in the mail with him prepaying for months and months.
” Durst hasn’t abandoned New York. He owns a Battery Park condominium as well as a home in Ridgefield, Conn. “He’s an infrequent visitor, but he’s here from time to time,” said Kenny Shane, manager of the Battery Park building. “He runs on the esplanade and he’s always very cordial and very pleasant to everyone.
” A mute woman in a wig Last fall, the Durst tale took another strange twist when someone identifying herself as Dorothy Ciner rented a $300-a-month apartment in Galveston. Landlord Klaus Dillmann said the woman wore a wig and, claiming she was mute, communicated only by writing on a pad. Dillmann said the woman told him she would be traveling a lot and that her brother-in-law would be coming by occasionally to check on the apartment. Early this year a man Dillmann now knows was Robert Durst began appearing at the apartment and the landlord assumed he was Ciner’s brother-in-law. Dillmann said he saw the man three or four times. Then on Sept. 30 a teenager fishing in Galveston Bay spotted a headless, limbless torso floating in the water. Cops later pulled out garbage bags containing arms and legs. An address on a home-delivery newspaper found with the limbs led cops to 2213 Avenue K, the dingy beige and brown house – long ago converted into efficiency apartments – where Durst has been staying. Authorities identified the victim as Black and found a trail of physical evidence, including blood in the apartment Durst had been staying in, that led to Durst’s arrest. Police now suspect that Durst posed as Ciner to rent the apartment. The real Ciner phoned authorities this month and told them she was a classmate of Durst and had never been to Texas. Motive unknown Police don’t know the motive for the slaying. Black has no known next of kin and his body remains unclaimed at the county morgue. Records show that Black once lived in North Charleston, S.
C., where he was arrested for making a telephoned bomb threat to the gas company during a dispute over a refund. After Durst’s arrest, authorities from New York and Los Angeles converged on Galveston. Among them was Investigator Joseph Becerra of the New York State Police, who has been investigating Kathleen Durst’s disappearance. L.
A. cops were working the unsolved slaying of Berman, the daughter of a mob figure who was a longtime Durst friend. She had served as an informal spokeswoman for Durst after his wife disappeared. Berman was shot with a 9-mm. gun and L.
A. police are testing a 9-mm. handgun Galveston cops found in Durst’s car to see if it was the murder weapon. Friends of Durst’s missing wife see a potential link between Kathleen’s disappearance and the murders of Berman and Black, though cops know them only to have been neighbors. Gilberte Najamy, one of Kathleen’s closest friends, said she is convinced Black died because “he could have shed some light” on Kathleen’s disappearance. “Morris Black might be a clue as to where Kathie’s body is buried,” she said.