Robert A. Durst, heir to a real estate fortune, quietly divorced his long-missing wife in 1990 without the knowledge of her grieving family or friends.
Mr. Durst, who is being held in jail in Bethlehem, Pa., on murder charges in an unrelated case, published a notice of the pending divorce in an obscure Westchester County weekly. But he could never entirely sever the links to his wife Kathleen, a vivacious woman who vanished months before she was scheduled to graduate from medical school.
The 11-year-old divorce was, however, a surprise to investigators in Westchester County, who in 1999 had opened a fresh investigation into Kathleen Durst’s 1982 disappearance, which focused on Mr. Durst.
Ms. Durst’s family also was stunned to hear yesterday that Mr. Durst had obtained the divorce, though they have long insisted that Mr. Durst played a role in Kathleen’s disappearance.
”It’s just another extension of his deceptive personality,” said James McCormack, Ms. Durst’s brother. ”To the best of my knowledge, he never reached out or attempted to contact anyone in our family before doing this.”
Although Mr. Durst claimed in divorce papers in 1990 that Ms. Durst’s family lived in Manhattan, they actually lived outside New York City at the time of the divorce, Mr. McCormack said.
Under New York law, Mr. Durst was under no obligation to notify Kathleen’s family about the divorce, said William Beslow, a Manhattan divorce lawyer, but he was required to exhaust every reasonable means to locate his missing spouse.
Mr. Durst was arrested in October in Galveston, Texas, on charges of murdering a 71-year-old man who lived across the hall from him in a four-family house in that city. He disappeared while out on bond and was captured Nov. 30 in Pennsylvania.
The existence of the divorce helped answer certain questions about Mr. Durst’s quiet marriage a year ago to a real estate broker, Debrah Lee Charatan. Some had wondered how he could have married Ms. Charatan without being divorced from Kathleen Durst or without her having been declared dead. Mr. Durst married Ms. Charatan in a private ceremony on Dec. 11, 2000, about seven weeks after he learned that the state police wanted to question him in connection with their new investigation into Ms. Durst’s disappearance. The couple kept the marriage a secret from their respective families, with whom they both had troubled histories, according to friends and family members.
Some refused to believe the wedding had happened. ”She never married him,” Pauline Charatan said of her daughter, from whom she has long been estranged. ”I don’t think she saw him for the last few years.”
Investigators also were unaware of the marriage until Oct. 10, when Ms. Charatan presented her marriage license while obtaining the $300,000 bond that enabled Mr. Durst to be released from jail in Galveston. She presented the license again five days later during an unsuccessful attempt to withdraw $1.8 million from one of Mr. Durst’s bank accounts in New York.
The wedding itself took place on the 25th floor of 1500 Broadway, a Times Square office tower that sits directly across 43rd Street from the Condé Nast Building, a 48-story skyscraper built by Mr. Durst’s younger brother, Douglas. Rabbi Robert I. Summers, who performed the 15-minute ceremony in a conference room overlooking Times Square, said that Ms. Charatan had picked Rabbi Summers’s name out of the phone book.
The couple indicated that they had each been married and divorced once before. Mr. Durst, who used a Dallas address, added that he did not know whether his first wife was alive.
Mr. Durst’s 1973 marriage to Kathleen had begun to fray in the early 1980’s, when Ms. Durst complained to friends that he had become increasingly possessive and violent. She disappeared on Jan. 31, 1982, after meeting him for dinner at their lakeside cottage in South Salem, N.Y.
According to court papers, Mr. Durst filed for divorce in March 1990, claiming abandonment. His petition was granted in June after he published notices in The Westchester Law Journal. He had just sold the South Salem cottage.
Around the same time, Mr. Durst and Ms. Charatan moved into 923 Fifth Avenue, according to friends of the couple. The luxurious apartment was a dream come true for Ms. Charatan, her friends said, but Mr. Durst disliked what he considered the stuffy Upper East Side neighborhood and moved out after nine months. They never lived together again, although Mr. Durst visited her in Manhattan and in Bridgehampton, where she vacationed.
Last month, Judge Renee Roth of Manhattan Surrogate Court ruled that Kathleen Durst would be declared dead, effective Feb. 1, 1987, based on a stipulation between Mr. Durst and Kathleen’s family. She said the $123,670 in Kathleen’s estate could be distributed, with about $36,000 going to Kathleen’s mother, Ann Catherine McCormack. But Judge Roth ruled that Mr. Durst’s share of the estate, about $61,000, be put in escrow until the Westchester County district attorney determined if he had any culpability in his wife’s death.