After more than thirty years of suspicion and strange behavior, Robert Durst, the eccentric black sheep of one of New York City’s most prominent real estate families, has been arrested on a charge of murder and seems to have nearly confessed. Durst implicated himself in the murders of three people in the final episode of HBO’s documentary “The Jinx,” and was arrested Saturday in New Orleans.
“We are relieved and also grateful to everyone who assisted in the arrest of Robert Durst,” said younger brother Douglas Durst in a statement on Sunday. “We hope he will finally be held accountable for all he has done.”
Update: Durst was charged Monday with the murder of his friend Susan Berman and could face the death penalty, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
The arrest is the cap on a decades-long saga surrounding the family that now runs one of America’s most important: the new Freedom Tower. Worth some $4.4 billion by Forbes’ estimates, the Durst family built and owns many prominent New York City buildings, including the Condé Nast tower in Times Square and the Bank of America BAC +1.42% tower across from Bryant Park.
As we wrote last year, the family also completed the build-out of One World Trade–the replacement of the fallen Twin Towers–in which it has an equity stake and manages the leasing. The Dursts were brought in by the government agency that owns the land and most of the structure, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “We knew that the Port Authority’s skill set was not going to be developing the largest and most expensive office tower in America,” Chris Ward, the former Port Authority chief who left the agency in 2011, told Forbes last year. Under his direction five developers were invited to bid on the project, and the Dursts prevailed.
The Durst family story in New York begins with Joseph Durst, a tailor, who traveled from what is now Poland in 1902 and arrived in New York with three dollars to his name. He bought his first building, in Manhattan’s Garment District, in 1915. Joseph and his wife, Rose, had five children. Seymour, the eldest, moved the Dursts into skyscrapers, buying up small parcels under assumed names to eventually create blocks of land ripe for major development.
In 1950, Seymour’s wife Bernice fell (or jumped) to her death off the roof of their Scarsdale family home. Robert has said that he witnessed his mother’s apparent suicide (a claim his brother Douglas says is not accurate). As young men, both brothers joined the family business. Robert’s was passed over as the heir apparent in favor of Douglas, who still helms the company today.
After the death of his wife, Bernice, Seymour never remarried, pouring himself into real estate and his many hobbies, including protests against unnecessary government encroachments. In particular, he had an obsession with New York City history and the national debt. His collection of New York City historical maps, pamphlets, newspapers, books, and memorabilia, including items from the seedy days of Times Square like Playbills and posters for live sex shows, was so vast they once filled his five-story brownstone (they now reside at Columbia University). In 1989 he created a huge digital clock that displayed a real-time estimate of the national obligation–and each family’s share of it–and slapped it on the side of Durst-owned building a block from Times Square. An updated version of the clock–with an additional digit added–now hangs on 44th Street in Midtown.
Ironically, Seymour opposed the original World Trade Center, saying it was a waste of taxpayer money and would flood the market with excess supply. He formed the “Committee for a Reasonable World Trade Center,” and in 1968 the committee took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, depicting the Twin Towers with a now-chilling rendering of an airplane heading for the skyscrapers’ upper floors. The point was not to predict a terrorist attack but to criticize the towers’ potential interference with flight navigation and television reception.
The Dursts were also opposed to a government plan to redevelop Times Square in the 1980s. Seymour Durst was among several prominent developers who had quietly rolled up dozens of parcels throughout Times Square. His tenants included peep show operators, massage parlors and purveyors vices. By 1984 one single block on 42nd Street was generating 2,300 crimes a year.
As with the World Trade Center, a quasi-governmental entity had intervened in the market, dictating a $2.6 billion redevelopment with $240 million in tax abatements granted to a different real estate kingpin, George Klein. The Dursts vehemently opposed the plan. (“Perhaps all that new office space will simply provide more consumers for the drug trafficking and other illicit activities that now characterize one of the most notorious blocks in the world,” wrote Seymour in a 1988 op-ed.) Helped by the poor economy, in the end they got what they wanted: redevelopment was stalled for most of the 1980s. Then, in 1994, with the real estate market blooming, Douglas bought the development rights from Klein, picking up $100 million of the very tax breaks that the family had vigorously protested. With that sweet deal, the family built the Condé Nast building, 4 Times Square.
Today, the Dursts are working on a new development on the waterfront in Astoria, Queens, and a dramatic, pyramid-shaped apartment building on Manhattan’s western edge.
Douglas Durst has publicly admitted to fearing his older brother and feeling that his own life was at times threatened. Robert Durst has long been suspected as the killer in the 1982 disappearance of his beautiful first wife, medical student Kathleen Durst. According to many news accounts from the time, Kathleen had been telling friends that she planned to divorce Robert and that if something happened to her they should presume he had been involved. Kathleen Durst’s body was never found, and though Durst was investigated he was never charged with a crime.
Robert Durst was also widely suspected as the murderer of his longtime friend Susan Berman, who was found shot dead in her Los Angeles apartment in 2000. Berman’s death in 2000 came as New York City police were reinvestigating the case of Kathleen Durst’s disappearance, and planning to question Berman. Again, Durst was investigated but not charged.
Durst became a suspect in Black’s death in 2002, when a headless human torso washed up in Galveston Bay, Tex. The body belonged to Black, a cranky elder man who had rented an apartment across the hallway from Durst (the real estate scion had cross-dressed and rented his apartment under the assumed name of Dorothy Ciner). Durst said in court that he had removed Black’s head and limbs because he feared authorities would not believe his story–that he had killed Black in self-defense.
But it was “The Jinx,” a six-part documentary about his life on HBO, that finally got Robert Durst to a near-confession.
It was Durst himself who approached the producers of “The Jinx,” Jarecki and Marc Smerling, after they produced the film “All Good Things,” a fictionalized account of Durst’s life. The producers had spent a decade investigating the facts surrounding Durst’s involvement in the three murders. Durst seemed to appreciated the chance to tell his life story on his own terms.
In the sixth episode of the series aired Sunday night, Durst seemed to confess that he had, in fact, murdered all three people. “What the hell did I do?” Durst whispered to himself while in the bathroom, perhaps forgetting that he was still wearing a wireless microphone. “Killed them all, of course.”
Durst was arrested Saturday in New Orleans on a charge of murder in a hotel that he had checked into under a false name. The case of Berman’s death has reportedly been reopened.
Corrections and amplifications: A previous version of this article stated that Douglas and Robert Durst witnessed the death of their mother. In fact, Robert Durst has claimed that he witnessed his mother’s death, but Douglas Durst has publicly disputed that either he or Robert were there.
By Erin Carlyle (Forbes)