Robert A. Durst, an heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune, sat alone in a small cell in a county jail in Pennsylvania yesterday as investigators in three states tried to piece together the path of his six-week flight from murder charges in Texas.
Mr. Durst is being held in an isolation cell under close observation, the police said. A lawyer hired by the Durst family trust, Michael Kennedy, visited him yesterday morning at the Northampton County Prison in Easton for about an hour. Mr. Kennedy declined to comment later.
Mr. Durst was arrested on Friday after the police said he shoplifted from a Wegman’s supermarket in Bethlehem, Pa. The arrest brought a nationwide manhunt to an end.
When he was arrested, Mr. Durst was carrying $500 in his pocket, according to officials. The Durst family, which owns a number of Manhattan skyscrapers, and the police remain puzzled as to why Mr. Durst would allegedly shoplift a sandwich, a Band-Aid and a newspaper, given that he had money.
Mr. Durst, 58, will remain in custody in Pennsylvania while officials in Texas seek to have him extradited to Galveston to answer charges that he beheaded and dismembered an elderly man, Morris Black. Mr. Durst fled Galveston while out on $300,000 bail after his arrest on Oct. 9.
In New York, the Westchester County district attorney wants to interview Mr. Durst, who is the subject of a recently reopened investigation into the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen Durst, in 1982.
Police officials have determined that since he fled Galveston, Mr. Durst, using various disguises, traveled from New Orleans to Plano, Tex., to Pennsylvania, with at least four agencies in pursuit. The Galveston police were joined by F.B.I. agents, New York investigators and Los Angeles detectives. Mr. Durst’s longtime confidante, Susan Berman, was found shot to death in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, and the detectives want to interview him about what he may know about her killing.
After his release on bail on Oct. 10, Mr. Durst traveled to New Orleans, where he had rented an apartment earlier this year while posing as a woman and pretending to be mute. The police began a nationwide manhunt on Oct. 16, when Mr. Durst failed to show up for a bond hearing in Galveston.
On Oct. 17th, Mr. Durst, apparently using a phony driver’s license in the name of Morris Black, the man he is accused of murdering in Texas, rented a 1996 red Chevrolet Corsica from Rent-a-Wreck in Mobile, Ala. The owner of the business, John Foster, said Mr. Durst, his head shaved, told him he was staying at a Mobile motel and left that as his forwarding address. He paid a large cash deposit because he did not have a credit card, Mr. Foster said, and indicated he would need the car until Oct. 31st. Mr. Foster said he had begun to wonder about its whereabouts when he learned yesterday that it had been impounded in Pennsylvania.
The police said they believe that shortly before Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Durst stopped in Frederick, Md., a small city west of Baltimore. The license plate on Mr. Durst’s Corsica had been stolen from a car parked in a lot at the Moore Printing Company in Frederick, according to the police and the owner of the car, Georgia B. McDaniel.
In a telephone interview, Ms. McDaniel said that on Nov. 20, her daughter had driven the car, a white Dodge Stratus, to work at Moore. At the end of her shift, Ms. McDaniel said, her daughter noticed that the rear license plate was missing and reported the loss to the authorities.
From Maryland, Mr. Durst traveled about 125 miles north to his old college town, Bethlehem. He had spent four years at Lehigh University, graduating in 1965.
The police said Mr. Durst told them that he was in Bethlehem visiting his daughter at the campus. But Mr. Durst does not have a daughter. Although he is believed to have stopped at libraries in different cities to use computers, the clerks at the university’s library yesterday did not recall seeing him.
Investigators are trying to determine exactly when Mr. Durst changed his appearance, and whether it better enabled him to don a wig and pose as a woman. The F.B.I. has identified him as a cross-dresser because they believe that he disguised himself as a woman in Galveston, New Orleans and Plano.
But if Mr. Durst made no impression at Lehigh University, people at the Wegman’s store where he was arrested on Friday were still talking about him yesterday.
To the security staff there, he was just another older man shoplifting a sandwich.
”It was absolutely routine,” said Kevin Lang, the perishable-foods manager at the supermarket. ”To us, it was just a small shoplifting incident.”
Had the man in question not given an out-of-state address, police officers said, they would have just written him a summons.
As events unfolded Friday afternoon, police officers in Bath, Pa., discovered that the shoplifting incident was just the latest twist in the bizarre case of Mr. Durst.
According to Mr. Lang, the store’s security officers, monitoring cameras, noticed the man and approached him. Dean Brenner, the investigating officer with the Colonial Regional Police Department, said Mr. Durst was trying to leave the store with a bandage, a newspaper and a chicken salad sandwich.
At this point, Officer Brenner said, he did not know who Mr. Durst was, or that he was a wanted man.
”When I ran the Social Security number he gave me, all sorts of bells and whistles starting going off,” Officer Brenner said.
Back at the small police office in Bath, Officer Brenner said, he asked Mr. Durst, who was handcuffed to a metal ring on the wall, about his knowledge of the Texas changes. ”The only words he spoke were, ‘I want a lawyer,’ ” Officer Brenner said.
Mr. Durst looked very distant and showed no emotion, Officer Brenner said, except for one moment in the interrogation room, when he got up from a chair and hit his head against the two-way mirror. The marks are still there, on the glass.
”The realization sunk in,” Officer Brenner explained.
For a man who eluded the law by dressing as a woman and pretending to be mute, the mundane nature of his capture seemed out of character.
Why would a man with hundreds of dollars in his pockets steal a sandwich? Was this an attempt by Mr. Durst to turn himself in, on the day before the nationally televised program ”America’s Most Wanted” was to broadcast a report on his case? Was he living in the area or just passing through? Was he alone?
In the quiet communities surrounding the scene of his arrest, many people spent yesterday trying to solve the riddles.
”The coincidence and the irony in all of this is unbelievable,” said Jackie Santanasto, a teacher from Bethlehem. ”I think that it shows how you never know what little thing is going to trip you up. He evaded so many high-level authorities to come to this little town and get caught. I think it’s a compliment to the local authorities and shows real attention to detail on everyone’s part.”
Inside the 24-hour Wegman’s just off Route 512, customers marveled at the sight of the store on the cover of so many newspapers on sale near the registers.
My mom said, ”Oh my Gosh! Look at this,” said Jerry Sekerak, who was on his way into the store to buy some desserts. ”This is big news here, a very big deal.”
By Charles V. Bagli and Susan Saulny (NY Times)