Robert Durst Is Denied Bail as Prosecutors Argue He Is a Flight Risk

Robert A. Durst, 71, entering a Louisiana jail. He is accused of murder.

Robert A. Durst, 71, entering a Louisiana jail. He is accused of murder.

On March 8, an HBO documentary revealed new evidence seeming to tie Robert A. Durst to the 2000 killing of his confidante Susan Berman. Not long after, Mr. Durst stopped using his cellphone.

On March 10, law enforcement authorities tracing the location of the phone noticed the signal moving east out of Houston, before it died completely. Having later traced Mr. Durst to a hotel in New Orleans, agents approached the front desk clerk and ran through 10 different aliases that Mr. Durst had once used. Nothing turned up.

Then they spotted him in the lobby.

These were just some of the revelations at a crowded hearing in Orleans Criminal District Court here on Monday, which ended with a judge ordering Mr. Durst, who has been charged in Los Angeles with the murder of Ms. Berman and with lesser charges here, to be held in jail in Louisiana without bail.

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Durst was a flight risk, presenting evidence that he was expecting to get over $100,000 in cash and saying that a map of Cuba had been found in his hotel room.

What might have appeared as a relatively straightforward proceeding — a lawyer for Mr. Durst said he would not contest any bail ruling — turned into a four-hour demonstration that the Durst case, as sensational as it has already been, is still generous with surprises.

The hearing was to determine whether Mr. Durst, 71, who appeared in court with a shaved head exposing a surgical scar, is a flight risk and a threat to public safety. Since his arrest on March 14, Mr. Durst has been in Louisiana’s custody and is being held at a correctional facility over an hour away from New Orleans, where he was moved after the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office raised concerns about his mental health.

Throughout the hearing, Dick DeGuerin, one of Mr. Durst’s lawyers, focused on the arrest, on a Los Angeles warrant, as well as on the search of Mr. Durst’s hotel room that followed. That search turned up a .38-caliber revolver as well as around five ounces of marijuana, which would lead to two felony charges here.

Mr. DeGuerin argued that the arrest and search were improper, thus invalidating the charges brought by Louisiana.

“The arrest of Mr. Durst here in Louisiana was without probable cause,” he argued before Judge Harry Cantrell.

Mark Burton, a prosecutor with the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office, said the hearing was only about whether Mr. Durst should stay in custody, not about his guilt or innocence or the propriety of a warrant from another jurisdiction. Mr. Durst has not been charged by the local district attorney, only by the Louisiana State Police, he said. Of the objections to the Los Angeles warrant, Mr. Burton said, “I have no dog in that hunt.”

The prosecution’s sole witness, James O’Hern, an investigator with the district attorney’s office, ran through a litany of crimes, allegations and news reports that have surrounded Mr. Durst over the decades: the disappearance of his wife in 1982; Ms. Berman’s unsolved murder, for which he was recently charged; the killing of a man in Texas that Mr. Durst successfully argued was an accident and committed in self-defense; the various times when Mr. Durst skipped bail; the media storm over the HBO documentary; and finally, to a rapt courtroom, the circumstances of his recent arrest.

In a brief diversion during this recounting, Mr. DeGuerin expressed surprise at Mr. O’Hern’s testimony and told the judge he would like to call as a witness Jeanine Pirro, the former district attorney in Westchester County, N.Y., and now a Fox News host.

Mr. DeGuerin said he wanted to ask Ms. Pirro about some of Mr. O’Hern’s testimony of her actions around the time of Ms. Berman’s killing. An assistant district attorney argued that this was not the proper way to subpoena a former prosecutor.

A lawyer for Ms. Pirro argued that she was here to cover the hearing as a journalist and did not want to be sequestered as a witness.

A bail hearing for Robert Durst on Monday reflected the continuing media storm over the case.

A bail hearing for Robert Durst on Monday reflected the continuing media storm over the case.

The judge ultimately denied Mr. DeGuerin’s request, and Ms. Pirro took her seat in the front row.

When law enforcement agents confronted Mr. Durst at the hotel, Mr. O’Hern resumed in his testimony, they accompanied Mr. Durst to his room. There they conducted “an inventory,” Mr. O’Hern said, finding a fake Texas identification card, a valid passport, several bags of clothes, the revolver, several bags of marijuana and some rolled marijuana cigarettes, among various other things.

More critically for the prosecution, investigators found a brand-new cellphone, a map that included Florida and Cuba, a “flesh-toned” latex mask and around $45,000 in cash. They also found a sheet of paper with a tracking number for a UPS package, which, when it was seized, contained another $117,000.

Mr. Burton argued that this evidence, in addition to Mr. Durst’s history of flight and a degree of wealth that puts him “beyond the social contract,” should justify holding him without bail.

Mr. DeGuerin appeared eager to contest fully the basis on which the Los Angeles warrant was issued. But with that avenue largely closed to argument in a New Orleans courtroom, he challenged the validity of the searches that turned up the drugs and the gun.

While a Los Angeles judge had signed an arrest warrant for Mr. Durst days earlier, Mr. DeGuerin said federal agents might not have confirmed that warrant before they stopped Mr. Durst and began conducting the inventory of his hotel room. Because of that, the inventory was invalid, Mr. DeGuerin said, and a local warrant was not issued until a local magistrate signed off on it hours after Mr. Durst was arrested, and the inventory was completed.

Mr. DeGuerin also said a prosecutor and detective from Los Angeles had interviewed Mr. Durst without his lawyer present the morning after his arrest, which he saw as another violation of his rights.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Cantrell ordered Mr. Durst to be held without bail. But the judge scheduled a preliminary examination for April 2, when more evidence would have to be presented.

“I didn’t have any hope at all that the judge was going to set a bail bond, so we’re not surprised,” Mr. DeGuerin said to reporters afterward, adding that he was pleased to have heard “a lot of information that hadn’t been available to us.”

It is unclear what happens next. If the district attorney decides to indict before April 2, the right to a preliminary hearing goes away, said Craig Mordock, a New Orleans criminal defense lawyer who attended the hearing on Monday as a spectator.

This extended legal wrangling in New Orleans may actually be doing the authorities in California a favor, Mr. Mordock said, in delaying the moment when they have to show their hand. “This is a way for L.A. to dig and put a better case together,” he said.

(Source)

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