Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki first became aware of Robert Durst decades ago but it wasn’t until Jarecki learned about Durst’s strange pilgrimage to Bethlehem that he became truly riveted by the man at the center of one of Pennsylvania’s most bizarre true-crime tales.
Durst, a Lehigh University graduate and the heir to a Manhattan real-estate fortune, has been a suspect in the murders of three people: his wife Kathie Durst, his friend Susan Berman and an elderly neighbor named Morris Black.
He never was charged in the first two slayings. But after jumping bail in 2001 in relation to the Black homicide, he left his home in Texas for a seven-week sojourn. On his trip, Durst visited a number of his past haunts, including the lake cottage in upstate New York he shared with Kathie, and Lehigh, where he earned his undergraduate degree.
“Based on what he was charged with in Galveston, Texas, [Durst] had reason to believe it was the end of the line for him, and if they brought him back to Texas, there was a good chance he’d end up in jail for the rest of his life — or worse,” Jarecki says.
“And he wanted to go back, and be reminded of the life he’d had before. At Lehigh, he had been a bit of a stoner. He was bright and popular with the ladies. People were drawn to him; he was an intriguing character.”
Jarecki, best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary “Capturing The Friedmans,” and critics’ favorite “Catfish,” was so intrigued by Durst that he mounted two projects about him. In 2010, Jarecki made his fiction film debut with “All Good Things,” starring Ryan Gosling as Durst (though, for legal reasons, he had another name) and Kirsten Dunst as Kathie.
Now Jarecki and “All Good Things” writer co/producer Marc Smerling are behind “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” a six-part HBO documentary series airing at 8 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 8-March 15. The miniseries marks the first time that Durst has answered questions about the murders outside of court appearances. Jarecki talked with Durst for 25 hours. The series also includes interviews with Kathie’s friends, family members, lawyers and law enforcement officials.
“When you get to the end of the series, you’ll know what happened,” the filmmaker promises.
In the second episode, Durst, now 71, discusses his increasingly violent relationship with Kathie but insists the last time he saw her was when he dropped her off at Westchester’s Katonah station so she could catch a train to New York.
During the interviews, Jarecki says he encountered a man who was nothing like what he anticipated.
“Honestly, everything about him surprised me,” says Jarecki. “The fact that he’s as bright as he is and as thoughtful as he is and that he has such clear memories as he does — all of that was surprising. He also admits to many things that he’s never said before. He takes us on a journey that was radically different from what we expected.”
Even before its airing, “The Jinx” was controversial. A spokesman for the Durst family named Jordan Barowitz issued a statement claiming that the documentary was paid for by Robert Durst. Barowitz works for the Durst Organization, the multi-billion-dollar, 100-year-old New York real estate company founded by Durst’s grandfather and later run by his father Seymour and now his older brother Douglas. The company developed much of Manhattan, including One World Trade Center.
Barowitz told The New York Times in December that Robert Durst’s version of his story should “rival the great works of propaganda.”
Jarecki denies those charges. “I’d never in a million years take funding from the subject of a documentary,” he says. “It’s out of the question. I think it was irresponsible for them to even say that. But it gives you an idea of how upset they are [with the series].
“And I don’t understand that because we have offered them, on a dozen different occasions, the ability to meet, talk or be interviewed. But they’ve gone fully after us. They’ve not only threatened to sue us but they have sued us.”
The Durst organization has gone to court to force Jarecki to reveal the sources of some of his information about the Durst family, claiming it violates a confidentiality agreement with Durst that came with a multi-million settlement in 2006 that cut ties to the family business.
In many ways, Durst’s story is odder than anything Hollywood could have dreamed up.
After refusing to go into the real-estate business like his family, Durst married the middle-class Kathleen and moved to upstate New York where he opened up a health food store. In 1982, Kathie disappeared. Her body has never been found.
Police re-opened the case in 2000 and it was then that Durst’s friend — and possible witness — Susan Berman was killed execution-style. In 2001, Durst moved to Texas. One of the ways he disguised himself was by pretending to be a woman who didn’t speak.
Durst ran into trouble again after the body of his neighbor Morris Black was found in Galveston Bay. Durst admitted that he killed and dismembered Black but claimed the killing was in self-defense. Following his arrest, Durst jumped bail and wound up in Bethlehem.
Durst’s luck seemed to run out, at least temporarily, while he was in the Lehigh Valley. After spending a few days in and around Bethlehem, he was apprehended at a Wegmans in Hanover Township, Northampton County, for trying to shoplift a $6 grilled chicken sandwich, a newspaper and Band-Aids.
“His arrest … was such a critical moment in his story,” Jarecki says. “He was almost going away unnoticed. He was on the run from the authorities in Galveston.
“But he got a little — who knows? — bored, and walked into Wegmans and decided to steal a sandwich even though he had $500 in cash on him and $28,000 in cash in his car.
“It’s fascinating: he’d made it so far, and he’s in … Pennsylvania, and he’s caught on a security camera shoplifting. Why would he put himself in that situation unless he wanted to get caught?”
Durst’s Lehigh Valley journey is stranger still given the fact that part of the time he was in the area, he was dressed in drag. Reportedly, one evening before the Wegmans arrest, he stopped at a bar near Lehigh University in feminine attire. Durst leaned too close to a candle, and caught his wig on fire. After stomping on the hair piece, he put it back on his head and finished his drink.
Initially, police officers were unaware that their shoplifting suspect was not only wanted for a Texas murder but also one of the richest men in the United States. When the cops asked Durst if he had $250,000 to post bail, he replied, “Not on me.”
Following his arrest, Durst was shipped back to Texas where he stood trial for murdering Black. He was acquitted but spent three years in jail for evidence-tampering and bail-jumping.
“Operatic” is the word that Jarecki uses to describe Durst’s peculiar saga.
“It’s such a grand story,” says the director. “This is a story writ very large, a story where the stakes are huge.
“I also think it’s a story that highlights a lot of bigger social issues as far as how the justice system works, and what people’s obligations are to each other … It’s a very deep story, and one that spans generations and has a lot of dimensions.”
Like Durst, Jarecki comes from a wealthy family. The filmmaker’s father is Dr. Henry Jarecki, a billionaire who runs the Gresham Investment management company. In the ’90s, Andrew founded MovieFone, the telephone and Internet movie listing service, which he sold to AOL for $450 million in 1999.
(Andrew’s brothers also are filmmakers. Nick directed “Arbitrage” starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, and Eugene directed the documentary “Why We Fight.”)
In 2003, Andrew made his feature film directorial debut with the acclaimed documentary “Capturing the Friedmans,” which dealt with the 1980s child molestation investigation into Long Island’s Arnold and Jesse Friedman.
All three of Jarecki’s projects investigate complicated and often reviled figures.
“I’m always interested in these monster stories,” the filmmaker says. “I like looking [at people] who have been demonized and turned into marginalized burlesque figures. I just think it’s so interesting to find out what’s behind … the headlines.”
Once production wrapped on “All Good Things,” Jarecki imagined he was done with Durst, who did not participate in the feature film. But Jarecki says Durst, after seeing the movie, called him up and told him how much he’d liked it. Durst was such a fan of the film, Jarecki says, that he admitted crying three times during the screening.
“I remember he told me, ‘You know more about Bob Durst than anyone else.’ And then he said, ‘Why don’t we talk some time?’ And that was the beginning of the idea of doing an interview.”
The interview, done over the course of a few days, was actually more like a 25-hour question-and-answer session with Durst.
“I figured we’d be making a [feature-length] documentary,” Jarecki says. “But eventually we decided the story was so big, and had so many twists and turns, that we needed to let it play out in a longer context.
“We thought, ‘Hey, we’re binge-watching stories all the time now. Maybe this will be the first documentary series that will be watched that way.'”
Durst has yet to see “The Jinx” primarily because he’s back in Texas, where he lives most of the time. He is awaiting trial on a 2014 charge of exposing himself and urinating on a rack of candy at a Houston CVS drugstore. If he’s convicted, he could face fines and year-long stint in prison. Durst has said the incident was the result of treatment he was undergoing for esophageal cancer.
In December, Durst was acquitted of trespassing charges brought against him for loitering at his nephew’s Manhattan home.
Even though Durst has nothing to do with the operation of his family’s business, he is anything but poor.
“He has unlimited resources, which is one of the most interesting things about him given what he’s been accused of,” Jarecki says.
“He had plenty of money before and then he sued his brother in 2003 over the control of the family trust and he got $68 million in that lawsuit.
“So he’s not going hungry.”
Morning Call)Amy Longsdorf (