A nationwide FBI manhunt is underway for a man who lived in Humboldt County much of the past six or seven years and was apparently last seen in a campground on the Trinity River.

Fugitive Robert Durst, 58, is a member of one of New York City’s richest and most influential real estate families, according to an article in the New York Times. He was arrested Oct. 9 in Galveston, Texas and charged with the murder of a neighbor. He was released on $250,000 bail the following day and disappeared.

A campground manager near the Humboldt/Trinity County border said Durst spent 24 hours there in mid October.

Mugshot of DurstThe case has gripped the attention of the New York press all year because Durst has been linked to two other high profile crimes — the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen Durst, in 1982 — a missing persons case that was reopened in 1999 — and the murder Christmas Eve last year of Durst’s long-time friend, Susan Berman, in Los Angeles. Berman was the daughter of a mobster who made her living writing about organized crime.

Durst has been the subject of several television shows this year, including ABC’sVanished and Prime Time. This Saturday the Durst manhunt will be featured onAmerica’s Most Wanted.

Nearly a decade ago Durst broke with his family, which owns a string of skyscrapers on Third Avenue and the Avenues of the Americas in Manhattan. In the years since, he has moved around the country between residences in New York, Texas and California’s North Coast.

He bought a home in Trinidad about six years ago where he spent “50 or 60 percent” of his time, according to Diane Bueche, a neighbor who sold Durst the house and eventually became his friend.

“He travelled a lot, but we were constantly in touch by phone, e-mail or faxes,” Bueche said. When he was in town, “we might go to the movies. He was a running partner or sometimes we’d go to some event if one of us had tickets.”

Because she knew him well, Bueche defended her friend when ABC’s Vanished came to town in the spring to do a story on Durst’s wife, who had been missing for 18 years, and the murder in Los Angeles last year .

“I thought he was totally a victim of the ruthless press,” she told the Journal last week. She refused to talk to ABC and other reporters and even invited Durst to the campground she owned in the mountains as a retreat to shield him from the press.

Bueche recalled once in the spring Durst called her and told her to watch Unsolved Mysteries, “not a show I am accustomed to watching,” she said. She now thinks he called her to prepare her in case she inadvertently saw the show and would be alarmed.

Bueche’s support for Durst continued up until the first week in November, two weeks after the nationwide manhunt began.

“I was in Safeway Arcata and picked up People magazine — and thought — oh, my God. Maybe it’s all true,” she said.

Bueche — who owns and manages a number of properties in Humboldt County as well as the Lazy Double B, a campground near Salyer — was with Bradley Bass, her campground manager. They both read the People article detailing Durst’s arrest for the murder of a 71-year-old Texas man whose headless, dismembered body was found floating in Galveston Bay.

Bueche said she has had no communication with Durst since early October. She did not see him in mid-October, but Bass said he is certain it was Durst at the campground just days after he fled Texas.

Ironically, there was a large gathering of police and highway patrol officers and their families at the campground that day. “They come every year for salmon season,” Bueche said.

According to Bass, a small pup tent appeared in the middle of that group. Late in the day Bass knocked on the tent and spoke with the man briefly. That night the tent and its occupant were gone. He said he did not know it was Durst until he saw the photograph inPeople.

“There is no doubt that it was Durst,” Bass said. “He has a couple of things that are very distinguishing –large nose and … tiny warts in the packets of skin under his eyes.”

The Galveston police are calling the incident “an unconfirmed sighting” since it was not reported until nearly two weeks after the fact.

Police say that complicating the search for the fugitive is the fact that he has been known to wear a wig and disguise himself as a woman.

“Not a very attractive one, apparently,” said Lt. Mike Putnal of the Galveston Police Department, in a telephone interview.

Bueche said she is worried Durst may still be in the area “and he is extremely dangerous.” She believes Durst came back to the North Coast in mid-October expecting to be sheltered. “After all, I had invited him,” she said.

Durst sold his Trinidad house last year because he feared the purchase of Trinidad Head by the Trinidad Rancheria would mean an expansion of traffic and casino operations, according to Bueche. Durst told her he purchased land in Big Lagoon and planned to build but was having trouble with permits from the Coastal Commission. He said he had a business office in Eureka and was renting in Big Lagoon until his new place was ready.

According to a report in the New York Times, Durst said on a lease application that he was a self-employed botanist who made $480,000 per year in salary and investments and had worked for Pacific Lumber Co. for 15 years.

“We’ve never had a Robert Durst work for us,” said PL spokeswoman Mary Bullwinkle Monday.

“Who knows how much of what he said is true,” said Bueche. “He was obviously a notorious liar. He told me he liked to shop with his daughter in the fancy stores in New York.

“He doesn’t even have a daughter.”

By Judy Hodgson (North Coast Journal)

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