Billionaire’s Psychiatrist Speaks Out For The First Time
For seven weeks last year, in the Texas port city of Galveston, Texas, one of the wealthiest men in America was standing trial for the bizarre murder of an elderly man.
Robert Durst, 60, and Morris Black, 71, were neighbors. Durst claims Black came into his apartment, grabbed a gun that Durst had hidden and pointed it at him. Durst then said that they struggled over the gun before it went off, killing Black accidentally.
At Durst’s two-month trial, the jury’s not-guilty verdict, after five days of deliberation, shocked everyone – including Durst himself.
But lead investigator, Det. Cody Cazalas, says he’s rarely had a more clear-cut case of murder. “I believe that he probably walked up behind him and shot him in the back of the head,” he says.
“There was nothing to suggest self defense … He never said self defense until after the defense attorneys got the case.”
What made Durst’s claim of self-defense even harder to believe was that after the shooting, instead of calling the police, he chopped up Black’s body, loading the parts into plastic bags and dumping them into Galveston Bay.
“I think he assumed that the tide would take the bags on out to sea. But instead, the bags just stayed right there by the pier,” says Cazalas. “He didn’t panic. Everything he did was cold and calculating.”
The jurors, who were widely criticized for the acquittal, said it proved to be a most difficult decision. But they say they had no choice. While they knew Durst had cut up the body, they weren’t convinced he had actually committed premeditated murder.
Is Durst a cold-blooded killer with a string of victims over more than 20 years? Or is he somehow a victim himself? Last spring, Correspondent Erin Moriarty talked to Durst’s closest friends and the defense psychiatrist who examined him.
The Durst fortune, valued at more than $2 billion, is in the same league as Donald Trump’s fortune. And it’s certainly more than enough for the best legal defense that money can buy.
His high-powered defense team – Dick DeGuerin, Mike Ramsey and Chip Lewis – say that early on, they had difficulty communicating with Durst. So they hired Dr. Altschuler, a well-known Houston psychiatrist, to find out why.
Altschuler says he met with Durst almost on a weekly basis, and spent more than 70 hours examining him. His conclusion: Durst suffers from a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. It’s a fairly uncommon disorder that leaves a victim’s intellect intact, but limits his ability to interact socially.
“Emotion is very difficult to him. He doesn’t know what happy is,” says Altschuler. “He can feel it, but almost as if he were feeling it as we would feel fingers through a glove. It’s very dulled, at best, to him … His whole life’s history is so compatible with a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder.”
The jury apparently bought it. They were convinced that Durst, in a panic, dismembered Black’s body.
“It would have been an explanation for some of the inappropriate — and obviously, it was inappropriate to dismember a corpse — behavior that Bob went through,” says Ramsey.
If you travel 1,647 miles southwest of New York City, the road ends at the Gulf port of Galveston, Texas.
Durst says he came to Galveston in late 2000 to get as far away as he could from New York tabloid reports that were tying him to another mystery – the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie.
“I have no reason to believe that she isn’t dead and that this wasn’t a homicide,” says Jeanine Pirro, the district attorney of Westchester County, N.Y., who is actively investigating the case. “We want to talk to Bob Durst and he won’t talk to us. There’s no one who knows more about what happened to Kathleen, and what her last actions were than Robert Durst. And he won’t talk to us.”
In the winter of 1982, Kathie Durst, who’d been married to Robert for 11 years, disappeared. Strangely, Durst waited several days before notifying either the police or his wife’s family.
Did he sound worried? “No, it was almost casual,” recalls Kathie’s brother, Jim McCormick. “And almost rushed, to get the phone call out of the way.”
“He’s a very odd person,” says Kathie’s close friend Ellen Strauss. “He was tossing out her things and trying to rent her apartment – immediately after disappearing.”
Strauss is so convinced that Durst killed her friend that she’s been collecting evidence for years, and storing it in a safe deposit box — even sharing it with investigators.
“I keep certain items that can’t be reproduced. Every scrap of paper that I wrote in 1982,” she says. “I made a promise, not that I would avenge her, but that I would get to the bottom of it. That’s what friends are for.”
Kathie was just 19 when she left home in suburban Long Island for the bright lights of New York City.
“The apartment she was living in was owned by the Durst Organization, and Bob was apparently some collector of rents,” says McCormick.
Kathie and Robert got along instantly, and within two years, they married.
“She was crazy about him,” says Strauss. “He was quiet and there was that dark side to him. He was always dark and brooding and some women find that attractive.”
Plus, there was the lifestyle Durst’s world-class fortune could buy: going to discos like Studio 54, star-studded parties and exotic travel all over the world.
While Durst worked in the family real estate business, Kathie decided to go to medical school. But her friends say that did not make her husband particularly happy.
“He was very tight with money in terms of going to school. She had to come up with ways to do things on her own,” recalls Strauss. “In spite of the fact of being married to Bob Durst, he was not generous.”
Friends say Durst wouldn’t help cover Kathie’s medical school, and sometimes wouldn’t even pay for home repairs.
The marriage grew strained, and by 1981, most of her friends knew there were serious problems.
“Kathie was being abused by Bob physically. She always said that if anything ever happens to me, look to Bob,” says Strauss.
“The one time I saw the physical violence was when he was impatient to leave my mom’s house in New Hyde Park,” recalls McCormick. “He turned around and walked over and grabbed her by the hair, and pretty much yanked her right off the couch … Just kind of pulled her. I should have ripped his face off.”
In January 1982, Kathie suddenly disappeared. Her friends say it was after a confrontation with her husband, but Durst tells a very different story. He says they had dinner together that night and then he dropped her off to catch a train back to New York City. That’s the last time he says he ever saw her.
”It sickened him that he’s been suspected of killing a woman that he loved very much,” says Durst’s laywer, Dick DeGuerin, who claims his client had no reason to kill his wife. “He has her wedding picture in his cell in Galveston.”
“There were several people interviewed by police at the time who gave written statements that saw her after Bob had last seen her,” adds Durst’s lawyer, Mike Ramsey.
But sources in the investigation have told 48 Hours they question the credibility of some of those witnesses. And, there was another issue: the troubles in the Durst marriage were escalating.
The police have never found Kathie’s body – and don’t have enough evidence so far to charge anyone with her death. But Pirro says her office is not giving up: “You don’t need a body in criminal case. It’s a lot harder without a body, but that’s not going to stop us.”
In the freewheeling beachfront bars of Galveston, Texas, you’ll hear another strange story about Bob Durst — that when he first came here from New York to hide out from the media, he came disguised as a woman.
His cross-dressing made headlines during the Morris Black murder trial. And his attorneys even used it as part of their defense strategy.
“Why did a rich guy end up in Galveston wearing a wig, masquerading as a woman, and hiding from the world,” asks Ramsey, Durst’s attorney. “Well, we have an answer for that. It’s a complex answer. It has to do with a psychological disorder.”
According to Altschuler, it’s a psychological disorder that helps to explain why Durst panicked and chopped up Black’s body in the Texas murder case.
Altschuler says the disorder is called Asperger’s syndrome, the rare form of autism that he says makes Durst act inappropriately in stressful situations.
But Durst’s oldest friends in life know a very different person. “People really have the wrong impression of Bob,” says Stewart Altman, who regularly visits Durst at the Galveston jail.
Altman has been Durst’s friend and at times legal advisor for 40 years. He and his wife, Emily, agreed to talk to 48 Hours. “He’s just a regular guy who happens to have a lot of money,” he says. “I don’t see why people should hold that against him.”
Altman and Durst met in high school in the upscale New York suburb of Scarsdale, where Durst – the firstborn prince of New York real estate royalty – struggled to make friends.
“Socially, Bob was not a great success,” recalls Altman. “I always knew Bob had these problems relating to other people.”
Part II: Robert Durst
Is New York Real Estate Heir Guilty Of Murder?
Robert Durst’s troubles began when he tragically lost his mother at 7. “She was on the third floor and fell off,” says defense psychiatrist Dr. Milton Altschuler. “Or jumped off. She died.”
By 10, he was such an angry child that a family doctor wrote that Durst might be schizophrenic. But Altschuler says the doctor was simply seeing the signs of Asperger’s syndrome.
“Certainly, children who are somewhat autistic, who have Asperger’s, do have a great deal of anger. Because they are really being frustrated a great deal,” says Altschuler.
Jim McCormick, the brother of Durst’s missing wife Kathie, believes that this anger and frustration makes his brother-in-law a dangerous man.
“Devious, deceptive, criminally cunning, contemptuous of civility. This is, you know, the person who doesn’t believe any of the rules apply to him,” says McCormick, who believes that Durst murdered his sister.
“He was already at his full rage, and she was at her full throttle of womanly independence –and that a terrible, terrible fight ensued.”
But the Altmans says Durst has been unfairly accused. “I honest to God think that if there were anything in these accusations, something would have come in the past 20 whatever years,” says Emily Altman.
“I think Bob’s an easy target, because he’s quiet. He’s shy. People sometimes interpret that in different ways.”
Would being a person who doesn’t feel a lot of emotion make him more able than the average person to commit a crime? “No, it makes him, to me, less dangerous,” says Altschuler. “Because most people commit crimes because of emotion. Not because of lack of emotion.”
Even if Durst dismembered a body? “No,” says Altschuler. “Because there’s nothing in his history to indicate a real dangerous past.”
There is, however, considerable evidence that Durst has been violent in the past.
There’s the hair-pulling incident that Kathie’s brother remembered witnessing. Durst also kicked in the face a man he believed was involved with his wife. And shortly before Kathie disappeared, she went to a New York hospital with bruises.
Even Altschuler admits that Durst sometimes hit his wife. “He hit her in the stomach. Absolutely, he had. But that was to get her attention,” says Altschuler, who claims Durst never meant to hurt Kathie.
Altschuler adds that even though Kathie wanted a divorce and financial settlement, Durst still had no reason to kill her: “Money doesn’t mean much to him. He’s lived very conservatively. [Even the fact that she wanted to leave him] meant nothing to him. Because after all, he couldn’t feel that much of an attachment to her.”
“He’s not a robot. There is no psychiatric disorder that’s a get-out-of-jail-free card, so to speak,” says Dr. Lawson Bernstein, a forensic psychiatrist who studied Durst’s trial testimony at 48 Hours’ request. He believes that Durst suffers from only a very mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. “We’re talking about someone with Asperger’s, who nonetheless forms close human relationships.”
Durst, for example, has maintained his friendship with the Altmans. In 2000, just before he fled New York, he got married again, to New York real estate broker Debrah Charatan.
“This is somebody who’s been married twice, who does have some ability for human connection,” says Bernstein. “If he’s capable of normal human interaction, he’s capable of feeling emotions. And if he’s capable of feeling emotions, he’s capable of doing things that human beings do – including murder.”
In Christmas 2000, another dead body was discovered – this time in Los Angeles.
The victim was Susan Berman, a flamboyant writer with a storied past. Her father was Davie Berman, one of the pioneer mobsters who founded Las Vegas.
The timing of Berman’s death sparked suspicion in people who followed Durst’s story. She was shot just a month after newspapers reported that police had re-opened their investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Kathie Durst.
Berman was once Durst’s close friend and had been living in New York when Kathie disappeared. Investigators had planned to talk to her, but before they could meet with Berman, she was murdered, shot in the back of the head.
“Susan would not have let anyone into her house. It was someone she knew,” says Kathie’s friend, Ellen Strauss. She thinks Durst killed Berman because she helped him cover up his wife’s murder back in 1982. “She knew too much.”
Strauss says that the morning after Kathie disappeared, a woman called her medical school, identifying herself as Kathie, to say she wasn’t feeling well. “I think it was Susan Berman who made that call,” says Strauss. “I think that’s why Susan Berman was killed. Once the story broke about the case re-opening, I think Bob was trying to mop up all the loose ends.”
Durst’s attorney, Chip Lewis, says Berman’s murder was a clear and simple mob hit: “The fact of the matter is Susan Berman had cried out soon before her murder that she was about to expose the mob in a tell-all book about what she knew. It was a hit-style murder.”
But sources close to the L.A. investigation say that there wasn’t any mob connection — and that Durst is a focus of the investigation. And when Berman was found murdered in L.A., New York District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, of Westchester County, turned up the heat on the long cold case of Kathie Durst.
“We really didn’t get involved in the case until after Susan Berman was shot in Los Angeles,” says Pirro.
There are now active murder investigations on both coasts. In Berman’s case, Durst denies that he was in Los Angeles, but authorities tell 48 Hours that they have documents which they believe prove that he was in California at the time Berman was killed. Still, no charges have been filed, and Durst’s attorneys say it’s unfair to jump to conclusions in either the disappearance of his wife or the death of Susan Berman.
Galveston Police Det. Cody Cazalas says there is evidence that Durst has a long history of deceptions: “I think if Bob Durst was to tell me good morning, I’d run outside and see if it’s raining.”
Long before he dressed as a woman and used false identities in Galveston, Durst had been taking other people’s names and Social Security numbers. That’s what private detective Bobbi Bacha found after she was hired by a local newspaper in Texas to research Durst.
For example, Bacha says, “We know that Dorothy Ciner is a confirmed name. E Dianne Wynn. We know that he used Kathleen Durst. We know that he used Jezowsky.”
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Durst was renting or buying up residences in New Orleans, Dallas and Galveston, as well as several places in New York, San Francisco and Trinidad, Calif.
Durst’s attorneys say their client was just trying to escape the burdens of his life. “Bob was not comfortable being Bob Durst,” say DeGuerin. “He had to explain that he was extremely wealthy and didn’t have to work. He was not proud of that.”
“I think he killed his wife in 1982 and disposed of her and he’s been living with that, and he’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Cazalas. “And when it did, he was gonna run. And he would run all across the country and have safe houses. That’s why I think he did it.”
Prosecutors have been holding Durst in jail for almost a year on other charges. So how will he manage to get out and around the multi-billion dollar bail?
Durst remains a very wealthy man, but not wealthy enough. He’s been in jail for 10 months after his shocking acquittal because he couldn’t make bail, which was set at $2 billion.
Even though Durst was acquitted in the murder of Morris Black, he’s still facing bail-jumping charges for skipping town before the Galveston murder trial began last fall.
He was on the run for seven weeks. Then his story took a pathetic turn when the wealthy real estate heir was arrested in Pennsylvania trying to shoplift a sandwich from a grocery store. Police say he had two loaded guns, some marijuana and $38,000 in hundred dollar bills. He has been in the Galveston jail ever since.
“It was a product of irrational behavior,” says Durst’s attorney, Chip Lewis. “He was very tired. He was very suicidal. He was very confused.”
“He’s probably the wealthiest person in the criminal justice system in America. Why would it surprise anyone that his bail would be the highest,” says Judge Susan Criss, who’s handling the Durst case. “You’re not required to set something they can afford, because if you do have to do that, there should not be a single person in this country who has to sit in jail waiting for their trial.”
This past February, Judge Criss raised Durst’s bail even higher – to $3 billion – after prosecutors added a new charge.
Bail is set to ensure a defendant appears for trial. And Durst’s own lawyers have to admit their client has a history of running. There was also concern in Galveston about releasing a man who admitted to chopping up another man’s body.
Two weeks ago, Durst’s lawyers persuaded an appellate court to lower his bail to $450,000 dollars. Durst could walk out of jail any day.
However, the jurors who acquitted Durst of murder bristle at the charge that his legal dream team swayed them. They maintain that prosecutors just failed to prove their case of premeditated murder.
If Durst is convicted of the new charges, bail jumping and tampering with evidence, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. But there is also a chance that he could simply be released for time served.
“Assuming he is released, and has some life, he’s gonna have to go some place where nobody knows him,” says Durst’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin. “And live a quiet existence. That’s all he wants to do.”
Should people be concerned if Robert Durst is ever freed? “No, ma’am,” says Dr. Altschuler. “I would stake my 40 years of practice on that.”
“I think that wherever Bob Durst goes, there’s a certain wake when he leaves,” adds Pirro. “And I think that but for the currents in the Galveston Bay, Morris Black would never have appeared on the radar screen. His body would never have floated up. And he would have disappeared off the face of the earth, just like Kathleen Durst did.”
Robert Durst is pursuing legal action of his own in a fight over the family fortune. It’s a lawsuit against one of his brothers and a cousin. He says they’re trying to stop him from naming his second wife as heir to his share of the family trust fund — reportedly worth millions of dollars a year.
Meanwhile, Robert Durst remains a millionaire under suspicion and under investigation on both coasts.