The lawyers who successfully defended Robert A. Durst against murder charges in Galveston, Tex., are the toast of talk radio on Houston and national television programs. But the $2 million legal dream team — Dick DeGuerin, Mike Ramsey and Chip Lewis — almost disintegrated before filing its first motion, because of a war waged by Mr. Durst’s wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, against the Durst family, according to interviews and transcripts of jailhouse conversations.
Mr. Durst, a New York real estate heir, was in jail in Pennsylvania at the time, awaiting extradition to Galveston to answer charges of murdering a 71-year old drifter, cutting up his body with a bow saw and dropping the remains in Galveston Bay.
Fearing she would lose control of Mr. Durst’s share of the billion-dollar family fortune, Ms. Charatan forced her husband to fire Michael Kennedy, the high-profile lawyer hired by the Durst family trust. And she twice sought to oust Mr. DeGuerin, the Houston lawyer who played a pivotal role in Mr. Durst’s successful claim of self-defense.
In a turnabout, Mr. DeGuerin formed an alliance with Mr. Ramsey, the lawyer selected by Ms. Charatan, and ultimately persuaded her to stay out of Galveston during the six-week trial that ended on Tuesday, according to three people who know Mr. Durst. She did conduct on-again, off-again negotiations with the Durst trust to renounce her husband’s interest in return for about $52 million, according to people who have been briefed on the negotiations.
Mr. DeGuerin alluded to the battle between Ms. Charatan and the Durst family in a pretrial hearing in September when he mentioned a ”very ugly dispute” over who would control Mr. Durst’s millions if Mr. Durst was found incompetent. But he never went into detail.
Mr. Ramsey would not discuss the dispute. ”I was fired a couple times myself,” he said. ”Dick and I went through that together. We tried to support each other’s position. We tried to focus on the welfare of Bob Durst.”
But transcripts of jailhouse conversations between Mr. Durst, his wife and others, as well as interviews with five people involved in Mr. Durst’s defense, shed some light on the battling that occurred immediately after Mr. Durst, then a fugitive, was arrested on shoplifting charges in Pennsylvania.
Long estranged from his family, Mr. Durst is the oldest son of Seymour B. Durst, who developed a string of skyscrapers along the Avenue of the Americas. Mr. Durst broke with his family in 1994 after his father chose his younger brother, Douglas, to run the family empire. Still, the family trust paid Mr. Durst nearly $2 million a year.
In November 2000, Mr. Durst moved to Galveston disguised as a woman after learning that the Westchester County district attorney’s office had opened a new investigation into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen.
Arrested and charged with murder in Galveston in October 2001, Mr. Durst posted bail and went on the run. On his behalf, the family trust hired Mr. Kennedy, a lawyer who had represented Dr. Timothy Leary, Ivana Trump and members of the Irish Republican Army, and Mr. Kennedy appealed publicly to Mr. Durst to turn himself in.
On Nov. 30, Mr. Durst was arrested in Bath, Pa., after he tried to steal a Band-Aid, a newspaper and a chicken salad sandwich from a Wegman’s supermarket. The next day, Ms. Charatan — who secretly married Mr. Durst in December 2000 — pulled into the parking lot of the nearby Northampton County Prison with her lawyer, Steven Rabinowitz, at the same moment that Mr. Kennedy arrived in a separate car with Daniel L. Alterman, another lawyer hired by the family trust.
Ms. Charatan went inside first to talk to her husband, beginning weeks of tense maneuvering over the shape of Mr. Durst’s defense team.
Mr. Kennedy brought in Mr. DeGuerin, a high-powered Houston lawyer, and suggested a psychiatric examination to help explain Mr. Durst’s flight, disguises and fears about Morris Black, the drifter who was killed.
But Ms. Charatan, who declined to comment for this article, opposed Mr. Kennedy’s plan, fearing that if Mr. Durst was found incompetent, she would lose control of his share of the Durst trust, according to people who know her. But Mr. Kennedy insisted that the power of attorney she had from Mr. Durst would become inviolable if Mr. Durst was declared incompetent.
Two other people familiar with the Durst trust also said that Mr. Durst and Ms. Charatan would have continued to be beneficiaries of the trust.
Nevertheless, Ms. Charatan told her husband to fire Mr. Kennedy and Mr. DeGuerin. She suggested bringing in Mr. Ramsey and one of Houston’s most flamboyant defense lawyers, Rusty Hardin.
At one point, Ms. Charatan threatened divorce if Mr. Durst used Mr. Kennedy for the trial in Galveston, describing the lawyer as a ”cancer” that had to be cut out.
”I think you have to get rid of him entirely,” Ms. Charatan told her husband, according to a transcript of Mr. Durst’s jailhouse telephone calls. ”I think you have to fire him and tell him to give the files to Ramsey.”
”I can’t do that,” Mr. Durst replied.
”Yeah, you can,” she said.
Mr. Durst later offered to keep Mr. Kennedy but dismiss Mr. DeGuerin. Although Mr. Kennedy said he would quit if that happened, Mr. DeGuerin was fired, for about 24 hours. But Mr. Durst’s sister Wendy prevailed on him to reinstate Mr. DeGuerin. To placate his wife, Mr. Durst also hired Mr. Ramsey, who represents Ken Lay, the former chairman of Enron.
With Mr. Ramsey’s help, Mr. DeGuerin fended off a second offensive by Ms. Charatan. But by the time Mr. Durst was extradited to Texas in January 2002, Mr. Kennedy was off the case. Ms. Charatan continued to comment on defense strategy and often flew from New York to Galveston to visit her husband in jail. But when the trial started in September, she was suddenly absent.
Given that Ms. Charatan was a potential witness and a ”lightning rod” for the media, Mr. Ramsey said, ”it was in her best interest and in Bob’s interest to stay out of town.”
One person who supported Mr. Durst suggested that the defense went more smoothly without her often disruptive influence on her husband and the lawyers.
By CHARLES V. BAGLI ( NY Times)