Two decades after his lovely young wife vanished, Robert Durst, scion of a Manhattan real-estate family worth billions, faces new murder charges. A cold case is now red-hot news, with a gangland-style execution, a headless torso, a manhunt, and revelations that Durst led part of his double life as a woman
She was at home, watching TV with a friend, when the call came. She was in Connecticut, where she’d remained all these years since Kathie disappeared. She was 29 back then—the same age as Kathie. Now she was 49. Her day job involved counseling abused women. Nights were a different story. They were devoted to volunteer work, of a sort. The hours were horrible, and horribly unpredictable, and her phone bills were through the roof. Not that she minded.
The caller mangled her name, which was Gilberte Najamy. Everyone mangled it the first time around. (It’s pronounced Gill-BURR-tah Nah-JAY-me.) Strangers were always calling. Strangers were part of the deal.
“I’m Andy Geller,” the stranger said. “I’m calling from the New York Post, and I need to tell you something.” Then, as only a Post reporter can, Geller told her, “They found a headless torso floating in Galveston Bay.” Najamy said nothing. Geller continued: “The reason why I’m calling you is that the person who was arrested is named Robert Durst.”
She leapt to her feet and grabbed her chest. Her heart was racing. “What are you telling me?” she asked.
“I’m telling you that in Texas a man by the name of Robert Durst, who’s 58 years old, has been arrested. And we don’t know if it’s our Bobby.”
Our Bobby. Everyone called him Bobby, even Gilberte. He certainly didn’t look like a Bobby, at least not in his mug shot—quite possibly the first new photograph anyone had seen of the elusive Durst in years. Eyes hard, lips pursed, he looked very much like . . . a homicide suspect. A Bobby Lee, maybe. But not a Bobby. And definitely not a multi-millionaire, definitely not (as he is inevitably described) the scion of a family which owns a Manhattan real-estate empire, the Durst Organization, worth more than a billion dollars.
Bobby. That’s what they called him back when he was still hobnobbing with Jackie Onassis and making seven-figure deals and flying off to Paris and Saint-Tropez. The name stuck even during the bad old days, in the early 1980s, when he and his lovely young wife, Kathie, were no longer the happy couple they’d once been. By then Kathie’s complaints about Bobby—that he regularly brutalized her, physically and psychologically—were an open secret among their friends and neighbors. “If something ever happens to me,” she’d say, over and over, like a mantra, “don’t let Bobby get away with it.” The marriage had devolved into acrimony and violence, and Kathie wanted out. Then, just like that, on or around January 31, 1982, she vanished.
No one was ever charged with a crime in the case, least of all Bobby Durst. A tragic mystery, he claimed at the time; a missing-persons case, the N.Y.P.D. decided. Murder, Gilberte believed, and still believes. She always suspected that Bobby had done it—strongly suspected. She said this to anyone who would listen, even after they stopped listening, even after almost two decades had passed and the case had gone cold, even after her white-knuckle obsession with her best friend’s disappearance nearly destroyed her.
She had also come to suspect—strongly suspect that Bobby was behind the December 24, 2000, murder of a writer named Susan Berman, too. For years Berman had been his closest confidante. But a headless torso? In Galveston, Texas? Gilberte grabbed the phone and dialed the New York state-trooper barracks, asking for Criminal Investigator Joseph Becerra. If she had an alter ego in this matter, it was Becerra, an unflappable young detective who, virtually out of the blue, had re-opened the Kathie Durst case after almost 17 glacial years.
Becerra dialed back from his car. Gilberte told him, “You need to pull over, get off the cell phone, get on a plane, and go down to Texas. Bobby’s been arrested.”
“What?” Becerra replied.
“It looks like Bobby committed another murder.”
Sure enough, Bobby Durst had been arrested for allegedly beheading and dismembering a cantankerous (and somewhat mysterious) 71-year-old man named Morris Black. It was a surprise, up to a point. For years Durst had been the epicenter of an ever more bizarre psychodrama marked by suicide, domestic violence, corporate intrigue, substance abuse, mental breakdowns, extramarital affairs, gangsters, and homicide. But no one—not even the woman who had tailed and bedeviled him for nearly two decades—had thought it would come to this.
And then it got worse. Within a day of his arrest, Durst skipped bail, becoming a fugitive, and led F.B.I. and other law-enforcement-agency investigators from Galveston, Dallas, and New York on a massive seven-week manhunt that stretched across several states. Along the way, police discovered that during the months leading up to his arrest Durst had lived a double life. He had set up de facto safe houses in at least two cities and established a number of aliases. He changed his appearance. And, not withstanding the fact that Kathie Durst had never been declared dead, he had married someone else. One last thing: sometimes he wore a wig and glasses and a pretty dress and liked to be called Dorothy.
They were happy once. That was in the early 70s, when they were married in a private ceremony with no guests. On their second date, he had asked her to move in with him. Urbane and cryptic, an artist wrapped in a suit, he sculpted and knew architecture. Kathie, a dentist’s assistant, barely 19, was impressed. She did not come from money. The youngest daughter in a big New Jersey Irish-Catholic family, she was not used to being flown to Bangkok, to dining in restaurants in Tribeca, to dancing at Studio 54. They met when she brought him a rent check for her apartment on East 52nd Street. His family owned the building. He was her landlord.
She fell hard. She wasn’t the last. Say what you will about Bobby, he was catnip to the ladies¬—the strong, silent type, wiry and athletic, if not exactly imposing at five fee seven. He was never much of a talker, but when he did speak, his voice had a gravelly intensity. He had an edge—a nerviness that you found either attractive or off-putting, depending. He was 30 when they married.
The fortune went back to his grandfather Joseph, a Jewish Polish immigrant who arrived in New York City in 1902 with three dollars to his name, according to family lore. Thirteen years later, working for a clothing manufacturer, he’d saved enough money to buy an office building on 34th Street. From there the hits just kept on coming. Joseph’s eldest son, Seymour, was a slight, bespectacled man whose physical stature disguised an outsize business acumen. By 1950 he was running the Durst Organization (as it would come to be known) and had taken a wife, Bernice, several years younger than himself. One day that autumn, having climbed on the roof of their house in suburban Westchester, Bernice fell to her death. The tragedy left Seymour with four young children, the eldest of whom was seven-year-old Bobby, who is said to have witnessed his mother’s apparent suicide.
Bobby was the quietest of the bunch—the others being Douglas, Thomas, and Wendy. He was polite, with a finely tuned sense of humor—he grasped irony. At times, he was aloof, moody. Extremely bright, but easily bored and distracted, he was just an O.K. student.
At Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, Bobby majored in economics. After graduation he headed west for more schooling at U.C.L.A. just as the 60s counterculture was reaching full flower. In all likelihood, this is where he met the first of two major influences, marijuana, which would become his lifelong companion.
The second influence was Susan Berman. Acerbic and lively, talking a mile a minute, controlling the room, Berman was, by almost any standard, an exotic. She had shiny, black Louise Brooks-style hair, and she had stories. She’d spent her childhood in Las Vegas and Hollywood, where her classmates included Liza Minnelli and Jann Wenner. Her late father, Dave Berman, had run the biggest hotels on the Las Vegas Strip—the Riviera, the El Dorado, and, most notably, the Flamingo, where his only daughter’s portrait hung over the reservation desk. That Dave Berman had been a confederate of Mob bosses Meyer Lansky’s and Bugsy Siegel’s—that, in fact, he was a notorious gangster whom one detective called “the toughest Jew I ever met”—was Susan’s obsession. Bobby was fascinated. They’d both lost their mothers. They both had paternal issues. They became fast friends. He doted on Susie, as he called her.
It was always platonic, and when Bobby returned to New York and got married, Susan and Kathie became close friends as well. By this point Bobby had become the heir apparent to the Durst Organization, which owned the lion’s share of Times Square. It was one of the most powerful real-estate empires in New York, right up there with those of the Trumps, Helmsleys, Zeckendorfs, Fishers, and Rudins. Today the Dursts own nine properties in and around Midtown Manhattan, including the Times Square building leased by and after the publisher of this magazine, Condé Nast.
Gilberte never really understood what she saw in him. Neither did most of Kathie’s friends. It wasn’t that they disliked Bobby, but this was Kathie. A beautiful woman, she had her pick. Yet she’d married this laconic, perpetually aloof man nearly 10 years her senior. They never pressed the issue. Why would they? Kathie loved Bobby, Bobby loved Kathie.
No question, Bobby was a ticket. He could be wildly generous, giving friends thousands of dollars. No repayment required. They would hit the clubs, in a pack that included Bobby, Kathie, Gilberte, and their friends Kathy Traystman and Peter Schwartz, a photographer. They haunted Studio 54 and Xenon. Bobby always seemed to know the club’s landlord. “Durst party,” they’d say, and in they’d go, right past the unruly mob. They danced, they imbibed, sometimes to excess. Except for Bobby, who usually left early.
Bobby was odd in other ways. He was a pothead—he smoked like a chimney. He had facial tics. But his strangest tendency—the thing that no one could ever fathom—was that Bobby belched. Belched and farted, actually. All the time. Anywhere. In front of anyone. Serial gas expulsion was his statement to the world, went the theory. It was his way of saying, “I’m Bobby Durst, and fuck you if you don’t like it.” That was the theory, anyway.
He and Kathie took up residence in a penthouse at 37 Riverside Drive, off 77th Street. They spent weekends at their little stone cottage in South Salem, a hamlet in northern Westchester County. After Kathie enrolled in college to become a nurse, she’d sometimes stay up in South Salem when Bobby was in the city. It made sense because the cottage was just 15 miles from campus. But when she graduated, in 1978, she decided to become a pediatrician and enrolled at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, in the Bronx. Then she’d sometimes stay in the city while Bobby and his beloved husky, Igor, unwound in South Salem. Bobby didn’t tend toward grandeur or showiness. His were relatively simple needs. He exercised religiously, starting his day with rigorous sets of push-ups, sit-ups, stretches. He was as tight as a drum. He drove a Beetle.
He also knew a Beatle, John Lennon. As well as other famous people, such as Mia Farrow—although to say that he actually knew them is stretching it. In any case, he didn’t name-drop, didn’t flaunt his connections. He had a small but not insignificant circle of friends, among them a journalist, Julie Baumgold, an advertising executive, Nick Chavin, a real-estate developer, Douglas Oliver, and Stewart and Emily Altman, old friends from Scarsdale.
And Susan Berman—always Susan Berman. She’d spent much of the 70s writing for the San Francisco Examiner, where she had made her bones as a reporter. By 1980 she had moved to Manhattan, where the real action was. Her articles appeared in New York magazine. Better still, she was about to publish her memoir, Easy Street, chronicling her early life as a mobster’s little girl. She’d received $350,000 for the film rights. She began holding court at Elaine’s, the literary cantina.
Bobby and Susan were together again. Kathie made three.
He killed her. That’s what Gilberte thought. She couldn’t prove it. There was no proof.
Her inkling began on Monday night, February 1, 1982. She was sitting at the bar, waiting for Kathie, at the Lion’s Head, a writer’s hangout in Greenwich Village. Kathie was late, but then, she’d been so busy—such was the life of a fourth-year med student. The hours were wicked. So Gilberte waited, then waited some more. An hour . . . 90 minutes . . .
She called the penthouse. No answer. She called their other apartment, on East 86th Street. That’s where Kathie went when things turned really ugly, and they’d been ugly for a while. No answer there. No answer in South Salem.
Bobby didn’t call back, either. Tuesday and Wednesday were a blur of phone calls. None of Kathie’s friends had heard from her. Not Kathy Traystman. Not Eleanor Schwank, a friend from nursing school. For more than a year, Kathie had called her friends every day, sometimes several times a day. The phone was her lifeline, they’d say. If she got a busy signal, she’d make the operator break in and connect her. Emergency breakthroughs, they were called.
“He slapped me.” That’s what she had said at the beginning, during her first years in med school. He disapproved of her career, wanted her at home. She played it down. Bobby had lost his temper, she’d say, as if it had been a fluke. Not until later did she tell how Bobby had pulled her out of a family gathering—by her hair. Not until later did she claim that Bobby had made her get an abortion even though she had wanted a child.
Eventually, though, her tone changed. She began to envision life beyond Bobby: her own pediatrics clinic—that was her dream. But the more independent she became, the angrier Bobby grew. According to friends, he threatened to cut off her tuition payments. She pulled away, farther and farther, and started to consider divorce. By 1981 “slapping” had become “hitting.”
They all knew about Bobby’s violent streak. Who could forget the night they had gone out dancing—Kathie, Bobby, Gilberte, Kathy Traystman, and Peter Schwartz? They all left together, in two cabs. But Peter and Kathie didn’t show for quite a while. Bobby simmered, and later the men had words. Then Bobby beat the daylights out of Schwartz, breaking a bone in his face and sending him to the emergency room.
Bobby started seeing other women, including Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, subject of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” Kathie strayed, too. Alcohol entered the picture. So did cocaine. Kathie was scared and angry. By now her friends were on alert. They wanted her to leave Bobby. But there was a pre-nuptial agreement, Kathie claimed, and it was unfair. She wasn’t leaving without a fight. She retained a lawyer, who told her to collect all the documentation she could find. She and Gilberte rifled through Bobby’s desk, grabbing bank statements and tax returns.
One night Kathie called Eleanor Schwank. It was January 6, 1982. Bobby had hit her again, Kathie said. “Kathie, get to the hospital,” Schwank told her. “You need to get this on paper, and you need to get treatment.” Kathie went to Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and was treated for bruises on her face and head.
Bobby began seeing a primal-scream therapist, who believed that screaming—and screaming and screaming—would unlock his patients’ suppressed pain and anger. Bobby also started growling. It happened more than once.
“What do you mean, he’s ‘growling’?” Schwank asked when Kathie told her about it. “What does it sound like?”
“GRRRRRRRR!” Loudly. Like an animal. Another time, Gilberte actually heard it in the background. “GRRRRRRRR!”
“Kathie,” Schwank said, “please get out of there. Come live with me.”
“No, I’ll be all right,” Kathie replied. “But if anything happens to me, please don’t let Bobby get away with it.”
There it was: Kathie’s mantra. God knows how many times she said it to Schwank, to Traystman, to Gilberte. She even said it to a neighbor in South Salem, Bill Mayer. “If anything happens to me,” she said, “suspect foul play.” Mayer was shocked—the nightmare next door was news to him. Kathie was so frightened that he kept her company all one night during the last week of January 1982.
The following Sunday night Gilberte threw a party. Kathie came. Bobby didn’t. He was 45 miles away, in South Salem. Shortly after seven, Bobby called. They argued, then Kathie abruptly offered her good-byes. “Bobby wants me home,” she said. “He’s really upset.” Before Kathie left, she turned to Gilberte and said, “If something happens to me, check it out. I’m afraid of what Bobby will do.”
In her haste Kathie left behind a notebook. Gilberte grabbed it. She’d return it the next night. They had dinner plans in Greenwich Village.
Four days later, Bobby Durst walked into the 20th Precinct, on West 82nd Street in Manhattan, with Igor, and said he wanted to report a missing person. Durst was led to a seasoned, occasionally gruff detective named Michael Struk, who had worked 200 homicides, give or take.
Durst said that his wife was missing—that, in fact, he hadn’t heard from her since Sunday. It was now Thursday. Immediately, Struk found the timetable suspicious. A husband who’s waited four days to report his wife missing deserved, at the very least, closer scrutiny. But this particular husband was calm, rational, and he had a reasonable explanation: it wasn’t unusual for Kathie to spend two or three days straight in clinical training. She’d sleep in the dorms, Durst explained, or at the hospital. That she hadn’t called for a while was typical.
On the previous Sunday evening, Durst recalled, Kathie had returned to their South Salem cottage from a party at her friend Gilberte’s house, then downed a bottle of wine. She had been drinking; they had quarreled. After that, Durst said, he drove her to the station in Katonah so she could catch the 9:15 train to Manhattan. She was going to spend the night at their place in the city. She had a busy week ahead of her. He called her later that night, Durst said. She was in bed, watching television. And that, he said, was their last conversation.
Within days, the mystery thickened. Struk found two witnesses who said they had seen Kathie at her Riverside Drive address on Monday. One was the building’s superintendent; the other was its doorman. Then another lead. That same Monday, someone who identified herself as Kathie Durst had called the associate dean’s office at Albert Einstein to say that she was ill, with nausea and diarrhea, and wouldn’t be making it in.
The next week, in the New York Post, Bobby stoked the intrigue with statements quoted in an article headlined, HUNT GROWS FOR MISSING BEAUTY. “She was going to graduate medical school in three months,” Bobby said. “That’s what makes me sure she’s not hanging out at somebody’s house.” The paper reported that Bobby had hired a private investigator, Jerry Martin, “who specializes in tracing missing people.” Beneath the headline was “Hubby offers $100G reward.”
Seeing the reward offer, Gilberte almost had to laugh. When Bobby had finally called her back, he said, “By the way, Gilberte, have you seen Kathie?” That’s what she remembers him saying, casually, nonchalantly. That’s when she thought, My God. What am I gonna do?
Bobby never again spoke publicly about his wife’s disappearance, and by springtime he was done dealing with Michael Struk.
By then Struk was even more suspicious. The doorman’s and super’s accounts didn’t seem quite so solid. The later conceded that he’d seen “Kathie” only from behind, and from a half-block away. And Durst? His story wasn’t perfect, either. For starters, he said that he’d called Kathie from the cottage. Then he changed his story and said he’d used a pay phone. It was cold and wet that night, and the nearest pay phone was about three miles from the cottage.
Then there was the unofficial investigation: Gilberte was in full detective mode. She and Eleanor Schwank were so eager for action that they actually sneaked onto a Durst estate in Westchester, looking for something, anything. (They found nothing.) Gilberte also searched the South Salem cottage, even sifting the garbage, where she found Kathie’s mail, unopened.
Gilberte was convinced that Bobby’s timeline didn’t work. Kathie had left Gilberte’s party between 7 and 7:15. She would have arrived in South Salem between 8:15 and 8:30. The train station was 20 minutes away. They needed to leave the house no later than 8:55. At most, Kathie spent 40 minutes at home. During that time, Bobby claimed, Kathie had quarreled with him, changed clothes, gathered her belongings, and drunk an entire bottle of wine.
It remained a missing-person case. By the mid-80s, Struk had retired from the police department to run his own private-eye office and to serve as a consultant for the NBC drama Law & Order.
Over time, as everyone else inched toward normalcy, Gilberte could not. She consulted psychics, who channeled Kathie through her hairbrush. She spent thousands of dollars on private investigators who got nowhere. But one of them did giver her some eerily profound advice. “These cases get solved 10 or 15 years down the road,” he said. “Someone will get arrested. Someone will make a deal. And you’ll get a wrinkle in the case. Take that opportunity and run with it . . . because it will be your only chance.”
Her friends began to worry. Gilberte wasn’t getting on with her life. She had no life. “Oh,” they’d say to her, “you’re still looking for your friend?” It was getting sad. Pathetic, almost. She’d become an obsessive. A paranoid obsessive, people thought.
Gilberte was convinced that her phones were tapped. Actually, Schwank thought hers were, too. They couldn’t prove it, but after they would hang up, friends told them, someone remained on the line. Schwank and Gilberte stopped discussing important things on the phone. And Gilberte claimed that all of her case-related items—letters, the unopened mail—had been stolen from her home. Kathy Traystman, too, said that her apartment had been sacked of all things Durst.
Gilberte spiraled. Every week, in therapy, the same tortuous questions: Why doesn’t anyone believe me? Why don’t they care? She started to drink. She fell out with Kathie’s family. Even her own family put her on notice. If she ever brought up “the Kathie thing,” she’d no longer be welcome. Each January 31 was hell. She had no job. She’d spent a fortune on private investigators. She lost her house. She lost hope.
Ten years passed.
During the late 1990s, several women in and around the horsey countryside of northern Westchester County were flagged down by a middle-aged man named Timothy Martin in a light-blue car. When the woman approached the car, she would discover that Martin’s pants were open, and that he was masturbating. In 1999 he was convicted of public lewdness. Shortly before sentencing, Martin told the police he had “something you might be interested in.”
When Kathie Durst had vanished, Becerra was still in high school, in nearby White Plains. This was the first time he’d heard her name. He pulled the Durst file, which was relatively thin. The substantial files were in Manhattan, where the missing-person investigation had taken place. Days later, when those files arrived, Becerra dived right in. Instantly, he was intrigued. Timothy Martin’s “tip,” it turned out, was bogus. It was a stroke of fate, though. After nearly 17 increasingly cold years, sparked by a random twist of circumstance, Becerra began the Kathie Durst investigation anew.
She still kept tabs on Bobby. That she couldn’t help. She’d talk to his neighbors. “Tell Bobby Gilberte’s been here,” she’d say. She’d track down his latest phone number and address. She’d hang up on his machine. She just wanted to know where she could find him. With Bobby, you never knew. He always had a new girlfriend, a new apartment. Every year he and Douglas Oliver would take their girlfriends to Saint-Tropez. They never seemed to be with the same women twice. One time Bobby took a woman named Deborah Charatan. They spent most of the time gambling.
Bobby had done well for himself. By 1984 he’d gone back to the future at the Durst Organization. He’d found and bought properties in New York, Texas, and elsewhere. But in 1994, Seymour Durst chose Bobby’s younger brother Douglas as his successor; Bobby would be chairman of the board, and Douglas’s number two.
Bobby freaked. Without so much as an “I quit,” he walked out of the office and never returned. He severed ties with his siblings and most of his friends. He never told them why. Douglas Oliver tried and tried to reach him. Finally he received a note. “Sorry I haven’t gotten in touch with you,” Bobby wrote. “Some things have been bothering me. I’ll be in touch.” Oliver never heard from him again.
Every now and again, though, an old friend would bump into Bobby. Once, reporter Judith Licht and her husband, adman Jerry Della Femina, ran across him in a Manhattan hardware store. “You knew Kathie, didn’t you?” Bobby asked. “She was lovely.” They couldn’t help noticing his use of the past tense.
Gilberte wasn’t thinking about Bobby when she saw the message light blinking on her machine that night. “My name’s Joe Becerra,” said the caller, who identified himself as an investigator with the New York State Police. “I’d like to talk to you about the Durst case.”
Oh, no, Gilberte thought. It all came rushing back. She’d had calls before, strange calls from strange people, but when she phoned back, she got the state-police station in Somers, New York, near South Salem. “I’m not going to talk to you over the phone,” she told Becerra. “I’m going to come and see you in person. And I’m going to bring someone with me because I don’t do these things alone. I’ve learned.”
“Fine,” he replied.
She brought Kathy Traystman. The one-story barrack was squat, mostly brick. Becerra’s office was small and unadorned. He was note. He was smooth and smartly dressed—the kind of urbane, new-school detective who knows good food and drives an old BMW. Gilberte liked him instantly—the more so when hepromised to keep after Durst for as long as it took. But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was that Becerra used the one word she’d been waiting almost 18 years to hear from a cop: homicide.
She never should have left New York, her friends thought. She was a journalist. She was many things, actually, a riot of contradictions—brilliant, exasperating, insightful, and annoying all at the same time. That’s what her friend Jim Milio, a television producer, thought. She was loyal, she ripped people out of her Rolodex. She was a raconteur nonpareil, she was a suicidal depressive. And she was famously phobic. She wouldn’t cross bridges or ride elevators alone. She felt unsafe. She nailed closed her bedroom windows. She bolted her doors, even if you just stepped out for a smoke. It made sense: she was raised by gangsters.
In the 1990s, Berman rented a small house in Benedict Canyon, north of the Beverly Hills Hotel. She had three fox terriers, who were her life. She was productive—completing two thriller novels, co-producing an A&E series on Las Vegas—and indefatigable. She was always inches from the next deal, the next story, the next big thing. But money was a ghost. In 2000 she drove a 1984 Chrysler LeBaron, and sometimes the engine would catch fire. Constantly friends lent her money; constantly she vowed to repay them.
As a last resort there was Bobby. He still adored her. At her wedding he gave her away. He helped her out sometimes. Then again, he’d also turned her down—for instance, when she tried to finance, of all things, a Broadway musical based on the Dreyfus Affair. Plus, she and Bobby hadn’t talked much lately. He’d grown scarce. Sometimes he was in New York, sometimes at a place he’d bought in Northern California, sometimes just . . . somewhere. She fretted. She needed $7,000 to buy a used Isuzu. Finally, in August of 2000, she sent Bobby a letter care of the Durst Organization. Months passed with no word back.
Then, in November, a check arrived with a note which read, in part: It’s not a loan, it’s a gift. And you can always call on me. That’s what she told her friend Hillary Johnson, a journalist. The note indicated that Bobby was in Northern California, Berman said. The check was for $25,000.
Berman rejoiced. She bought the Isuzu. By mid-December she had repaid most of her friends. By Christmas she was dead.
Gilberte was floored. Only weeks earlier, things had been moving along nicely. Investigators had finally scoured the South Salem cottage (which had had two owners since Durst sold it, around 1990). They took out wood paneling and conducted forensic tests. Divers even searched nearby Lake Truesdale. (Becerra declined comment on any aspect of the investigation, and referred all questions to Westchester’s district attorney, Jeanine Pirro.)
In November, Gilberte had deftly played the Bobby card with People. At her urging, the magazine published a story about the revived Durst murder investigation. When the Daily News asked Bobby to comment, he replied, “I know nothing about it.” Now he did. Gilberte wanted Bobby to feel the heat. Psychological warfare, she called it.
Berman’s death was too eerie: On Christmas Eve, one of her terriers had been seen wandering outside her house. The neighbors called the police, who arrived and found her door unlocked. The cops discovered Berman facedown on the floor, surrounded by congealing blood and bloody paw prints. She’d been shot once, in the back of the head, at close range.
She’d known her attacker, went the logic. There were no signs of a struggle or forced entry, and she never would have opened the door for a stranger. Never. Also she’d turned her back on the killer—another sign that she’d known him. Rumors flew. Berman’s manager, Nyle Brenner, told Daily Variety that “she had been talking to a lot of people in Las Vegas recently, people who’d had ‘a past.’ ” Which was true because she had been researching another Mob book. And now she’d been killed Mob-style. It was obvious, went the logic: she’d been whacked.
Then again, maybe it was too obvious. The rumors soon changed trajectory, and not by accident. Gilberte was telling anyone who would listen that, prior to Berman’s murder, detectives from the New York State Police had been planning to interview her in connection with Kathie Durst’s disappearance. But Gilberte, being Gilberte, took it a step farther. She suggested that Berman had been, in some way or another, complicit in the disappearance. She’d been raised by gangsters, after all. Gangsters who valued loyalty above all else, gangsters who knew how to keep a secret. And Berman loved the cloak-and-dagger. Only days before her murder, reported New York magazine, she had cryptically told her friend Kim Lankford, “I have information that’s going to blow the top off things.”
More than likely, Gilberte theorized, it had been Berman who made Kathie’s sick call to the dean’s office. Why would an ill student call the dean’s office? And were we really to believe that the $25,000 was a “gift”? Berman had sent Bobby the letter in August. She didn’t know how to reach him, she said. No reply for months. But then, in November, a reporter tells Bobby he’s under investigation. (Funny—he managed to reach Bobby.) Suddenly $25,000 arrives in Berman’s mailbox. But that’s not all. Before she died Berman had deposited another $25,000 check from Bobby. Gilberte thought, Blackmail anyone? (Berman’s friends says this is nonsense.)
“Hey,” James said, turning toward his stepfather. “There’s a body over here.”
“Don’t play,” Avina replied, worried that James was trying to spook his kid sister.
He wasn’t. Avina approached, looked into the shallow water, and saw something floating there—a dead pig, James guessed. Avina knew otherwise. He was a surgical nurse, and he’d seen human corpses in many states of disrepair—although, it must be said, he’d never encountered a naked torso, shorn of its head and limbs, floating at his feet.
By nightfall the place was crawling with news trucks and police. Neighbors reported that a number of trash bags had been floating offshore. In due time, the police found them. The bags contained two severed arms and two severed legs. They also contained Metamucil packets, a receipt (dated September 28) from Chalmers Hardware, plastic cups, paper towels, the October 1 edition of USA Today (front section only)—and, not least, the cover for a Green Thumb bow saw. On the newspaper was a delivery address: 2213 Avenue K, in Galveston.
The olive-brown house at 2213 was neat but humble, divided into four small-ish apartments, which rented for $300 a month. The house had a little backyard, which bordered an alley where tenants put out their garbage cans. Once placed in the alley, the garbage ceased to be private property.
Galveston police wasted no time. Inside the garbage cans they found an empty trash-bag-box, a Metamucil box, plastic cups, paper towels, and packaging for a drop cloth. Most of the items had been purchased at Chalmers Hardware, they said, and the serial number on the Metamucil box matched that on the packets found in the ocean. Police also discovered the packaging for a four-inch paring knife, a spent .22 caliber-shell casing, a pair of men’s briefs, a bloody sock, an eviction notice addressed to a “Morris Black,” and an eye-exam receipt made out to a “Robert Durst.” Black lived downstairs, in Apartment 1; Durst was not listed as a tenant. On October 3, police executed a search warrant on Black’s apartment, and there they found blood in the Kitchen sink, the bathroom shower, and on the carpet. They also found blood between Black’s apartment and the unit across the hall. That unit’s tenant was a “Dorothy Ciner.”
Police searched her apartment. It was sparsely furnished and had no telephone. What it did have was another section of the October 1 USA Today, more trash bags, and a drop cloth—plus bloody boots and a bloody four inch paring knife. Preliminary blood tests turned out positive in various parts of the apartment, police said. Also, there was a “cut” in the kitchen’s linoleum floor. Blood had seeped through the cut, soaking the wood beneath the flooring.
Ms. Ciner wasn’t home. In fact, she was rarely home. The landlord, Klaus Dillman, had seen her four times, tops. Her lights were on only rarely, and her blinds were always closed. She was very quiet. When she had showed up to rent the place, about six months earlier, she communicated only in writing. “I can’t talk,” she scribbled. A throat condition, she indicated. She was about five seven, with a noticeably flat chest, and she wore a wig. She always paid with unsigned money orders. On occasion a friend stayed with her, and once or twice Dillman had chatted with him. The friend’s name was Robert Durst.
Sometimes Dorothy would enter the house, and minutes later Durst would leave. Sometimes it was the other way around. Dorothy liked to visit the local library. She wore glasses, which sometimes were held together with tape. Every now and then neighbors saw Durst smoking on the porch. He was shy and polite and avoided eye contact. He wanted quiet, and sometimes he yelled at school kids to keep their voices down. He took issue with the barking of neighborhood dogs. He barked back. No one ever seemed to see Dorothy and Durst together.
None of the tenants got along with Morris Black. Black was a drifter, more or less. He was 71, lonely, and cranky, always whining that he was about to die, always in everyone’s business. He slept in his kitchen. In September, his lease was up, and Dillman wanted him out. On September 28, Durst asked Dillman if a “friend of Mrs. Ciner” could rent Black’s apartment. That was odd. At the time, Black was still in his apartment. Odder still was the fact that September 28 turned out to be, in all likelihood, the last day of Morris Black’s life.
Further garbage sifting turned up more evidence, police said—a .22-caliber pistol and two clips of ammunition. In the meantime, neighbors said that on the night before the torso was found they’d seen Durst loading bags into a silver, wagonlike car. Police found a vehicle identification number registered to Durst. The number was traced to a silver Honda CRV. On October 9, police spotted the Honda traveling through Galveston and pulled it over. When Officer Gary Jones looked through the car’s window, he saw, in addition to the driver, a Holiday Inn Express card—Durst had been staying at the hotel on East Seawal Boulevard, under the alias “Jim Truss”—and a bow saw.
A grand jury indicated Durst on a charge of murder. In Texas, only those charged with murder in the commission of another crime or capital murder—the murder of a cop of a federal official—can be held without bail. Durst’s was set at $300,000. The figure was, by Galveston standards, high.
It was early the next evening when a New York Post reporter named Larry Celona received a call from one of his sources, who told him that a Robert Durst had been arrested for murder. That’s when Andy Geller called Gilberte, and Gilberte jumped out of her skin. “Well,” Geller said, “there’s some talk about bail.”
A few hours earlier, a friend had posted Durst’s bail. Durst was released pending his arraignment, scheduled for October 16. He never showed.
Black was a mystery man. He lived an itinerant lifestyle. And yet, at the time of his death, he had $137,000 in a South Dakota bank. Shortly before his death, he approached a neighbor who was looking to buy a nearby property and suggested that he might be able to help. “I’ve been talking to someone who has a lot of money,” he told the neighbor, Ted Hanley. He also told Hanley that he had a “big secret” that he couldn’t possibly discuss.
Needless to say, Gilberte promptly envisaged a history between Black and Durst. Investigators doubted that. The murder, they felt, had been committed in a fit of rage, perhaps after Black heard or saw something he shouldn’t have. Maybe, Gilberte said. But were we to believe that Bobby just randomly chose to hide out in Galveston, Texas? Across the hall from a mysterious “drifter” who, it turned out, had more money in the bank than she did? First Berman, then Black.
But where was Bobby now? He’d been in New Orleans, where he kept another little hideaway. His landlord there, Michael Ogden, called the cops after spotting Durst’s mug shot in a magazine. When they searched the apartment, they found a brunet wig resting on a Styrofoam head. They also found a videotape of an ABC News report on the Durst case and a silver medallion inscribed with the name “Dave Berman” that had been willed to Durst by Susan. “It’s almost like he wants to get caught,” Ogden theorized.
In November, Durst was spotted in Plano, Texas. By the time police got there, however, he was gone. There were alleged Durst sightings in Northern California, in homeless shelters, even in Manhattan. After all, that’s where Durst’s wife lived. His new wife, anyhow. That would be Debrah Charatan—a wealthy New York real estate broker he had also taken to Saint-Tropez long ago, and also the “friend” who posted his bail. The two were reportedly married on December 11, 2000, in a private ceremony in a Times Square office tower built by Douglas Durst. It seems that Robert, claiming abandonment, had divorced Kathie without telling her family or friends.
On December 1, America’s Most Wanted broadcast a segment about the Durst case. A day earlier, however, at a Wegman’s grocery store in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, security guards watched as a gnomish little man wearing sneakers reached into a box of Band-Aids, pulled one out, and placed it under his nose. (He’d cut himself shaving. Evidently, he did a lot of shaving—his head and eyebrows were hairless.) When the guards stopped the man, they said, it turned out that he had stolen a newspaper and a $5.49 chicken-salad sandwich with roasted red peppers on a pumpernickel baguette. The man was carrying $500.
“I don’t know why I did it,” an officer quoted him as saying. “I guess I’m just an asshole.” The man gave his correct name, Robert Durst, but an incorrect Social Security number, police said. Nevertheless, their computer database revealed that Durst was a wanted man.
They cuffed him and drove him to the office of a local judge, Barbara Schlegel. “I am not answering any questions until I speak to my lawyer,” he told her.
Durst’s timing was exquisite. His vaunted criminal-defense attorney, Michael Kennedy, had just called the police. In fact, they said, Kennedy called within an hour of Durst’s arrest. Which was odd, they thought. While in police custody, Durst hadn’t called anyone.
Durst, it turned out, had been staying near the campus of his alma mater, Lehigh University, for 13 days, having checked into a local hotel under yet another alias, “Emilio Vignoni.” During that time, locals had seen him wearing a brown wig and a white mustache and talking to himself.
He was taken to the Northhampton County Prison and placed under suicide watch. Kennedy requested that his client be given a full psychiatric evaluation. Texas prosecutors promptly filed an extradition request. Later they announced that Durst will not face the death penalty, because Black’s murder was not a capital offense. The New York investigation, Joe Becerra said, will continue. (The L.A.P.D. remained tight-lipped, saying only that Durst has not been ruled out as a murder suspect in the Berman case.)
Gilberte, as ever, has her suspicions. She thinks Bobby’s fishing for an insanity plea. With Bobby, you never know. Case in point: outside Wegmans that day, police found the rental car he’d been driving. It was a Chevy Corsica with stolen Maryland license plates. Inside the trunk police found two .38-caliber handguns, another stash of marijuana, and $37,000, all in hundreds. Possibly this was Durst’s remaining nest egg. Weeks earlier, Charatan had tried and failed to withdraw $1.8 million from one of his accounts, which had been frozen by police. The Corsica was traced back to a Rent-a-Wreck in Mobile, Alabama. The car had been picked up on October 17. The name on the rental agreement was “Morris Black.”