Robert Durst had sought refuge in Houston to get away from the media mob.
But by March 9, the media had found him, with television satellite trucks circling his condominium.
Durst, the scion of a New York real estate family, was back in the news because of an HBO documentary series about him, “The Jinx.”
The latest episode revealed a letter Durst had written to friend Susan Berman with handwriting and a misspelling of “Beverley” similar to the writing on a note mailed to Beverly Hills police alerting them to a “cadaver” at her home after she was fatally shot in 2000. Durst had long been a person of interest in the killing.
Durst, 71, decided it was time to leave.
So began a bizarre week of events that culminated in his arrest in New Orleans in connection with Berman’s death. The journey, authorities allege, involved stacks of cash, false identities, guns, a rubber old-man mask and suggestions of an escape plan to Cuba.
A portrait of Durst’s last week of freedom emerges from court testimony, records, interviews with his attorneys and law enforcement.
Before leaving Houston that Monday, Durst called one of his attorneys who represented him in a 2003 Galveston case in which he was acquitted of murdering a neighbor. He told the lawyer he was planning to leave town.
Knowing Durst owned a vineyard in Spain, attorney Chip Lewis advised him not to go overseas or even too far stateside. Go somewhere where you could still meet your attorneys in person if need be, Lewis said he told Durst, maybe Austin, Texas, Dallas or New Orleans.
Durst chose New Orleans and promised to check in with the attorney daily by phone.
It was not a surprising choice. According to one of Berman’s friends in New Orleans, Durst had fled to the city years before, posing as a woman and using a fake name, Diana Wynn.
This time, investigators were prepared, according to an account given at Durst’s bond hearing Monday by Jim O’Herne, an investigator with the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office.
They had already obtained a warrant to track his cellphone, O’Herne said.
Durst left his Houston condo with five suitcases, making sure to pack his passport, birth certificate and a false Texas identification card featuring his photo and an alias, Everette Ward.
He loaded the suitcases into a red 2005 Toyota Camry, leaving the doors to his home and his car unlocked, and headed east on Interstate 10.
Investigators tracked Durst’s cellphone 85 miles east, to Beaumont, Texas, where he stopped using it March 9 — and the trail went dead. They asked Louisiana authorities to look for license plates registered to Durst, but that didn’t work: The Toyota that Durst was driving was registered to another man.
The following Wednesday, a Los Angeles judge issued a warrant for Durst’s arrest on a first-degree murder charge in connection with Berman’s killing. Investigators were trying to figure out where he was, until he called his voicemail from a New Orleans hotel.
Durst had settled into room 2303 at the plush J. W. Marriott hotel on Canal Street at the edge of the French Quarter, using the fake name and Texas ID card and paying in cash. He frequented nearby PJ’s Coffee, always wearing button-down shirts and a blue jacket and endearing himself to baristas with $5 tips.
The following Saturday night, two FBI agents were dispatched to the hotel to find Durst and arrest him.
They started at the front desk, asking if Durst had registered as himself. No, staff said. So the agents began running down a list of Durst’s 10 known aliases, including Ralph Durst, Diana Wynn, Dorothy Ciner, Jim Turs, Jim Turss, James Fleishman and Morris Black, the name of the neighbor he was accused of killing in Galveston.
No one had registered using any of those names, hotel staffers said.
The FBI agents didn’t know about Everette Ward, the name Durst had registered under.
But as they scanned the lobby, one of the agents noticed a short, thin, white-haired man near the elevators who fit Durst’s description.
He approached and asked the man if he was Durst.
Durst looked at him without replying.
The agent asked him for identification. Durst said he didn’t have any with him. It was in his room, he said.
The agents accompanied him to the room and verified from the passport and birth certificate that they had found their man.
They also found the fake Texas ID card, a .38 revolver in the pocket of Durst’s blue jacket, four plastic bags containing about five ounces of marijuana and other evidence detailed in court records. Authorities said it appeared that Durst was preparing to flee.
The evidence included: a new cellphone, two Florida travel guides; a map folded to show New Orleans, Florida and Cuba; a rubber flesh-tone mask with salt and pepper hair; more than $42,000 in cash in $100 bills stuffed in seven bank envelopes, and a UPS tracking number that led them to a package containing another $117,000 in cash. Notably absent: credit cards.
Durst was arrested at 7 p.m. on March 14. He immediately contacted his attorneys and was taken to an Orleans Parish jail.
One of the Los Angeles Police Department detectives investigating him, Michael Whelan, arrived in New Orleans that night. Three more detectives followed, and by Sunday morning, they were joined by at least one prosecutor, Deputy L.A. County Dist. Atty. John Lewin.
At 6 a.m. the next day, one of the detectives and a prosecutor conducted a three-hour recorded interview of Durst before his attorneys had arrived and without their consent, Houston-based lead attorney Dick DeGuerin said. (DeGuerin declined to say what they talked about, whether Durst was read his Miranda rights or waived his right to counsel before the interview.)
Then Durst appeared in court for an extradition hearing. Instead of being sent to California, he was arrested by Louisiana State Police on charges of illegal possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and possession of a firearm in the presence of a controlled substance, felonies that carry maximum penalties of 10 and 20 years for first-time offenders.
Within days, investigators had searched Durst’s Houston condo, recovering credit cards, checks, financial records and other evidence. They estimated in the warrant that Durst was worth $100 million.
On Monday Durst looked on in court, shackled in an orange jail jumpsuit with his head newly shorn to reveal a large scar across his scalp. DeGuerin has said his client had recently undergone neurosurgery. Durst appeared tired at times, yawning; at others he leaned forward, dark eyes following the prosecutor.
The judge ordered Durst held without bail at the medical facility he was transferred to last week at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, about 70 miles west of New Orleans, pending his next hearing April 2.