The tale of a rich transvestite and a bizarre killing has gripped the US. Now he’s on trial for murder
That was two years ago and the discovery was to lead to one of the most bizarre murder cases in US legal history. It is a story of American Gothic horror stretching from the rarefied world of Manhattan real estate to the swampy lagoons of the Texan shore.
At the centre of it is the enigmatic figure of Robert Durst, the 60-year-old heir to one of the largest real estate fortunes in America. To some he is a brutal madman, perhaps a serial killer, who came to Galveston posing as a handicapped woman and ended up slaughtering his neighbour. But to others he is a victim of a terrible accident, whose famous name and riches have brought unhappiness and infamy. Durst’s murder trial, which began in Galveston last week, will decide which is true.
One thing is clear. Durst, dubbed ‘Butcher Boy Bob’ by salacious American tabloids, killed Morris Black, a 71-year-old man who lived across the hall. Durst shot him in the head in his kitchen, then bought a tarpaulin and bin bags from a hardware store and dismembered him on the linoleum floor. He dumped the pieces, wrapped in black bin bags, into Galveston Bay. It was there that Avina found them. All that was missing was Black’s head. It has never been found.
Durst’s defence is simple: an accident. Black was a dangerous man with a vicious temper. Durst came back one night to find Black had broken into his apartment and was holding Durst’s gun. During a struggle, Black fell and the gun went off. When asked to plead, Durst said: ‘It was self-defence, an accident.’
Durst’s wealth has assembled a dream team of top Texan lawyers who have been dubbed ‘The Cowboys’ for their habit of wearing high-heeled cowboy boots and Stetson hats. Their fee is reported to be $2 million. Last week Durst’s team painted a picture of a lonely and eccentric man, possibly suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. They said Durst wanted to escape a media frenzy surrounding the reopening of an investigation into the mysterious disappearance of his first wife two decades ago.
The place that he chose was Galveston, a decaying town of crumbling seafront houses in a swampy bayou attached to the mainland by a thin causeway. He did it by disguising himself as a woman. Wearing a wig and a dress, he rented a $300-a-month apartment on Avenue K, near the downtown area. He posed as a deaf mute and called himself Dorothy Ciner, after a high-school classmate. Black lived opposite him.
Such behaviour was not out of place in the town, which has often been a refuge for outlaws and curiosities. But, his lawyers claim, Durst realised even Galveston would have trouble believing his version of Black’s killing.
So Durst panicked and disposed of the body. Rubbish left in the bin bags soon led police to Black’s Avenue K apartment. They also contained an eye appointment for Durst. While carving up Black, the knife had cut through the tarpaulin and into the floor, leaking blood in the kitchen.
Durst was arrested but, with bail set at $300,000, his wealth allowed him to go on the run. Police chased him on a six-week hunt across the US. Using a platinum American Express credit card, Durst would sometimes spend thousands of dollars in one day. Sometimes he would stay at the Trump Towers off Central Park, but on others he would stay in roadside motels. In a grim twist he used Black’s driving licence to rent a battered old Chevy from Rent-a-Wreck. He also checked in using Black’s identity when he stayed in room 327 at a Marriott hotel in Alabama. Down the corridor in Room 301, another guest had checked in under the name Hannibal Lecter.
Black’s double life ended in the small town of Hanover, Pennsylvania, when he was caught stealing a $5 chicken sandwich in a store. When police searched him they found $500 in his pocket and $38,000 in the boot of his car. ‘I can’t believe how stupid I am,’ he told the officers.
Many see Durst as someone who lived a double life. On one hand he was an heir to the famed Durst Organisation, founded by his father, Manhattan property mogul Seymour Durst. The group owned tracts of Manhattan’s skyline, including Times Square, and he had the best upbringing money could buy. But Durst was passed over for taking charge of the company in favour of a younger sibling and he had an unhappy childhood which was scarred by the early suicide of his mother.
His first wife, Kathie, disappeared in 1982. Her body has never been found. She was 29 and a few months away from graduating from medical school. Friends had reported her wanting a divorce, and Durst, who was the last person to see her alive, took five days to report her missing.
Durst has also been named as a ‘person of interest’ in the murder of his friend, Susan Berman, who was shot in 2000 in Los Angeles.
Police in northern California have also expressed an interest in interviewing Durst regarding the disappearance of two girls – 18 year-old Kristen Modafferi and 16-year-old Karen Mitchell – in 1997. No charges have ever been brought against him – except for Black. Prosecutors know Durst shot him. They know Durst chopped him up. They just have to prove it was no accident.
Last week prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk said the discovery of Black’s remains was a demand for justice. ‘He rose from his watery grave and started pointing his finger in one direction,’ Sistrunk told the hushed courtroom and then coolly pointed at Durst.
Durst cuts a lonely figure in court, his slight form dwarfed by burly Texan lawyers. Novelist Julie Baumgold has known him from childhood. She knows his riches never made him happy. But is he a ruthless cross-dressing killer? Or a mentally sick man cursed with terrible luck and an unwanted fortune? ‘I don’t think he really knows who he is. He has spent his whole life trying to work that out,’ Baumgold said.