Real Estate Chief Fears Troubled Sibling Has New Weapon: TV

Douglas Durst, in Rare Move, Speaks About Robert Durst Ahead of HBO Documentary

Douglas Durst, a real estate developer and the younger brother of Robert Durst, in the offices of the Durst Organization on the 49th floor of One Bryant Park in Manhattan.

 

Douglas Durst recalled the last time he saw and spoke with his troubled older brother, Robert.

It was on a short bus ride 13 years ago, a shuttle taking members of the fabulously rich Durst family to a wedding reception at the St. Regis Hotel in Houston. Beneath the sheen of that festive moment, decades of torment crackled between Robert and Douglas, two of the groom’s uncles, then in their late 50s.

That tension is central to a largely untold narrative of one of modern New York’s most prominent real estate families, a story that echoes with sibling rivalry as old as humankind. With Robert about to tell his version in a new documentary, Douglas has spoken publicly for the first time, concerned that his brother, at age 71, is on the verge of opening up a new attack on the family.

They fought as boys, scuffling and punching through childhood. As young men, working in the offices where the family presided over billions of dollars in Manhattan real estate, Robert kept a sharp-pointed plumber’s wrench on his desk. Douglas responded by positioning a piece of pipe — “to protect myself,” he said — on his own desk.

Robert Durst in Manhattan Criminal Court last month. He was acquitted after a two-day bench trial on charges of trespassing on property owned by his estranged family, including the West 43rd Street residence of his brother Douglas.

Robert Durst in Manhattan Criminal Court last month. He was acquitted after a two-day bench trial on charges of trespassing on property owned by his estranged family, including the West 43rd Street residence of his brother Douglas.

Eventually, their father, Seymour Durst, removed Robert as his designated successor in running the family’s empire and replaced him with Douglas, who had just turned 50. That was in 1994. To make the change, a team of lawyers had to revise dozens of legal documents governing the family trusts.

The swap was made, Douglas Durst said, after Robert urinated in an uncle’s wastebasket.

By the day of the wedding in Houston, Sept. 22, 2001, Robert had been on the run for most of a year, an uncharged suspect in the disappearance of his first wife and the killing of a woman who was his closest confidante. He surfaced a few days before the family gathering, long after ceasing contact with most relatives.

“I was sitting in the bus and he walked on and sat almost directly behind me,” Douglas Durst said in December. “He was obviously very disturbed. I was just hoping to be able to walk off the bus.”

He did. A week later, Robert Durst chopped up the body of a neighbor in one of his hide-outs, an apartment he rented for $300 a month in Galveston. Mr. Durst had been living there, disguised sometimes as a mute woman and other times as the male friend of the supposed woman. He would later be acquitted of murder, claiming the man had died in an accidental shooting; he served time for bail jumping and other lesser charges.

Until now, Douglas Durst — a man of few words, great wealth and dynastic power over Manhattan real estate — has said virtually nothing in public about his brother, their relationship or his views about whether Robert was involved in the unsolved disappearance of his wife and the murder of his friend.

In recent years, Robert has twice appeared at Douglas’s home in Westchester County, once while carrying two guns, another time in a ski mask.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if he had the opportunity to kill me, he would,” Douglas Durst said.

Yet it is not worries about a physical threat that has prompted Douglas to speak now, he said, but what he believes will be a violent broadside against the family name and history: In coming weeks, HBO plans to broadcast a six-part documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” It draws on 25 hours of interviews with Robert Durst.

Douglas Durst, 70, has not seen it. Nor did he agree to be interviewed by the filmmakers, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, despite repeated entreaties. Nevertheless, he believes that the series will be rooted in an untrustworthy source.

“Bob is incapable of telling the truth,” Douglas Durst said. “He is a true psychopath, beyond any emotions. That’s why he does things, so he can experience the emotions that other people have vicariously. Because he has absolutely none of his own.”

Robert Durst in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Robert Durst in the late 1970s or early 1980s..

Through his lawyer, Robert Durst was invited to discuss the matters raised by his brother, but declined. “Bob appreciates the opportunity to speak with you, but he’s not going to do so at this time,” the lawyer, Steven M. Rabinowitz, wrote in an email.

ROBERT DURST has had improbable success in mounting his version of reality at critical moments. He was able to convince a Texas jury that he was not legally responsible for the death of the man whose body he dismembered in 2001. Caught on videotape in 2012 and 2013 lurking around the homes of Durst family members in Manhattan from which he had been barred, he and his lawyer were still able to persuade a judge last month to acquit him of trespass by maintaining that Mr. Durst did not know which specific properties were owned by the family. Afterward, he told Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times that he had once managed those very buildings.

Often, Douglas said, it was hard to discern any rationale for Robert’s behavior or fabrications. As a child, he pretended to be in the school band, even bringing home a tuba, but simply hid it among trees when he was going to school. He claimed to have two doctoral degrees, but did not. When he jumped bail in the Texas murder case, he used elaborate ruses to travel across the country incognito, but was arrested in a Pennsylvania supermarket, trying to shoplift a sandwich, a Band-Aid and a newspaper. He had $500 cash in his pocket, and was receiving income of about $2 million a year from a family trust.

Years earlier, working in the rent-arrears department of the family business, he siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars for himself, according to Douglas, who said Robert had tried to enlist his help in creating a ghost payroll operation to generate more cash. “From the family, it was just a bizarre thing to do, because they would have just given him the money,” Douglas said. When Douglas showed Seymour Durst the bank accounts with the stolen money, he instructed Robert not to do it anymore, according to Douglas.

Sometimes, the true hue of events involving Robert could take years to emerge.

One involved a dog named Igor — actually, seven of them, according to Douglas.

Robert and his first wife, Kathie Durst, ran a health food store in Vermont before returning to New York, where they kept several residences, including one near Douglas Durst’s home in Westchester.

Kathie Durst, a medical student, disappeared in 1982, after her marriage with Robert Durst had become chronically contentious. She is now presumed dead. At the time, Douglas said, he suspected his brother had been involved but was uncertain. The authorities have never charged him.

“Even though he wasn’t my favorite person in the whole world, it was hard for me to believe — to completely believe — that he had killed her,” he said.

But his suspicion hardened into certainty, he said, with the 2001 death of the man in Texas, Morris Black, and the murder in December 2000 of his brother’s confidante, Susan Berman. No one has been charged in her killing.

That, Douglas Durst said, was when he came up with a theory about the peculiar matter of his brother’s dogs in late 1981, just before Kathie Durst vanished in January 1982.

“Before the disappearance of my sister-in-law, Bob had a series of Alaskan Malamutes, which is like a husky,” Douglas Durst said. “He had seven of them, and they all died, mysteriously, of different things, within six months of his owning them. All of them named Igor. We don’t know how they died, and what happened to their bodies.

“In retrospect, I now believe he was practicing killing and disposing his wife with those dogs.”

What led him to that conclusion, Douglas said, was that Robert turned the word “Igor” into a verb and inflected it with a menace: “When he was in jail in Pennsylvania, he was recorded saying, ‘I want to Igor Douglas.’”

Mr. Durst said he refused many times to be interviewed for the documentary because the same filmmakers had previously made a feature film based on the Dursts, “All Good Things,” which he believed distorted the truth, and would not give him assurances that the HBO series would not be twisted by his brother’s fabrications.

Mr. Jarecki, who has spent much of the last decade pursuing the Durst story, said last week that he had offered to go through his research with Douglas Durst and genuinely wanted to include his perspective in the documentary.

“I’ve said to him many times before, and say now, we’re glad to show him the materials we’re working with,” Mr. Jarecki said.

The series is only weeks from airing, he said, and is in the final phases of editing. “We would interrupt the edit now, meet him at a time and place of his choosing,” he said.

Mr. Durst said that was not going to happen. “While I cannot choose my brother, I can choose who interviews me,” he said.

As an example of why he distrusts Mr. Jarecki, Mr. Durst noted that in “All Good Things,” he was portrayed as using his clout to set up a private meeting with the Westchester district attorney in an apparent attempt to shut down the investigation into the disappearance of his brother’s wife. In fact, Mr. Durst said, in early 2004 he did meet by himself with the prosecutor, Jeanine Pirro, but the circumstances were different than those depicted in the film.

Ms. Pirro “arranged for the meeting,” Douglas Durst said.

“She told me,” he continued, “that based on what happened in Texas, Bob was not smart enough to make his wife disappear, and I must have helped him. I told her that if I had any way of getting my brother behind bars, I would do everything I could, but there was nothing I could do.”

Seymour B. Durst in 1969. He died in 1995, less than six months after his older son, Robert, stopped communicating with him.

Seymour B. Durst in 1969. He died in 1995, less than six months after his older son, Robert, stopped communicating with him.

Ms. Pirro, who has left public office and now has a show on the Fox News Channel, did not dispute that she had arranged the meeting, but scoffed at Mr. Durst’s account. She declined to answer specific questions.

AT the crux of his distress over the documentary, Mr. Durst said, is what he fears will be a false portrayal of the brothers’ father, relying on Robert’s narrative.

“I see him getting a megaphone to spout his lies and his distortions about my father, about his relationship to the family and about the family’s history,” Mr. Durst said. “He’s saying that my father was domineering, that he pushed him to go into the business, and that Seymour didn’t love him. All that’s completely the opposite of the truth. Seymour never pushed anyone to join the family business, and he loved Robert very much.”

As evidence of the esteem, Mr. Durst described how he came to inherit his father’s position as the leader of the trusts that controlled the family real estate holdings. The business was started by Joseph Durst, who immigrated to the United States in 1902. Two of Joseph’s sons, Seymour and David, were the trustees until the early 1990s. Around the time Robert, the oldest child, turned 18 in 1962, he had been designated by Seymour as his successor.

Robert intermittently worked in the business, showing up at the office late in the day or after everyone else had gone home. He often spoke aloud to himself, a disconcerting practice that accelerated over the years. Douglas, who had started a family when he was young, gave up plans to become an urban economist in order to join the business, too. One evening in the early 1990s, catching up on correspondence after returning from a vacation, Douglas said, he filled his wastebasket with paper. When he tried to empty it, he felt something wet. There was urine in it.

“I asked the cleaning staff the next day, and they said, ‘It’s your brother, and he does it frequently,’” Mr. Durst recalled. “So I went to my father and uncles and complained, knowing exactly what they would say. Which was, ‘Maybe he had to go.’ Nothing happened until he peed in my uncle’s wastepaper basket. Then he had a stern talking-to. He stopped peeing in wastepaper baskets.”

But there was another, more profound response. “One result of the wastepaper basket incident was I was able to convince my uncles to name me as the successor trustee,” Douglas said. That did not dilute Robert’s share of the trusts, but shifted control to Douglas.

How Robert would react to the change was a source of anxiety to Seymour Durst. “He’d had many discussions with me about how he was going to talk to Bob about this,” Douglas Durst said. “That, like any older brother, that he would be slighted by the younger brother stepping up, so to speak.”

There were two Durst trusts, each naming 13 grandchildren of Joseph — that is, Douglas, his siblings and cousins. The torch passed to Douglas on his 50th birthday, Dec. 19, 1994. That week, Robert did not show up for a regular family lunch at Osteria al Doge on West 44th Street. When the others returned to work, they discovered that he had cleared out his office and set up a mail drop and a phone elsewhere. Robert did not communicate with his father again.

“When Bob stopped talking to him, Seymour was brokenhearted,” Douglas said. “He kept trying to find ways to get him to speak to him.”

Seymour Durst had a stroke four and a half months later. “He was in the hospital for six days, and my sister tried very hard to get Bob to go visit,” Douglas said. “Finally, Bob did go. My father kept holding on until Bob did go.”

Did Seymour Durst have any awareness at that point? “The doctors would tell you no, but I’m just telling you what happened,” Douglas said. “He dies the next morning, a couple of hours after.”

In 2006, Robert Durst accepted $65 million for his interest in the family trust and no longer has any legal claim to it. Last month, after winning the trespassing case in New York, Mr. Durst pleaded no contest to urinating on the checkout display at a CVS store in Texas and paid a $500 fine.

Upset as Douglas Durst is about the documentary, he detected a mordantly bright side.

“I am pretty certain that until the series is over,” Mr. Durst said, “he is not going to kill me.”

(Source)

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