Exclusive: Jeanine Pirro has been chasing the heir for years. But investigators and friends now tell the Guardian she ‘wouldn’t react’ until after Susan Berman’s death, scrambling the narrative of The Jinx – and a renewed murder mystery.
On Halloween night in 2000, the New York real estate heir Robert Durst received word that he was under renewed investigation for the disappearance of his wife Kathie, 19 years after she vanished from their home in suburban Westchester County.
Durst didn’t wait to be contacted by the police, who had questioned him extensively at the time of the disappearance and never accused him of anything. He didn’t even wait for the news to hit the papers. Instead, according to Westchester County investigative files made available to the Guardian last week, he made immediate plans to run – “setting myself up”, he would later say, “to be a fugitive”.
And so began a frenetic chain of events, many of them kept out of the public record until now, culminating in the murder of Durst’s old friend Susan Berman in Los Angeles – the crime at the center of the recent six-part documentary series The Jinx for which Durst is now facing first-degree murder charges.
The version Durst himself has offered – in a Texas court in 2003 and in interviews with the documentary makers – is that he felt hounded by the hard-charging, politically ambitious, media-savvy Westchester County district attorney, Jeanine Pirro, and was worried she would stop at nothing to put him behind bars.
However, interviews by the Guardian with Pirro’s staff members and those in touch with her office at the time reveal that by November 2000 Pirro was on the verge of giving up on the Kathie Durst investigation. The attempt to build a homicide case had been running for close to a year and had yielded little not already available to investigators in 1982.
At a big meeting at the district attorney’s office on November 8, 2000, Kathie’s old friends and family members urged Pirro’s staff to question Berman, who had acted as the Durst family spokeswoman at the time of Kathie’s disappearance in 1982 and helped create an impression in the media – uncorroborated by credible evidence – that Kathie had been seen in New York City hours after her husband supposedly dropped her off at a suburban train station.
One friend of Kathie, a lawyer named Ellen Strauss, later tracked down Berman’s address in Los Angeles through an investigative computer database and faxed a map of it to Pirro’s office.
But Pirro was unmoved. She popped her head around the door at the November 8 meeting but did not otherwise attend. According to Strauss and law enforcement sources, Pirro took no subsequent action to approach Berman – not even a plan for an interview, or funding to fly someone toCalifornia. It was only after Berman’s murder, on December 23, that Pirro agreed to send an investigator to Los Angeles.
This new accounting of the seven-week period between Durst’s decision to prepare for the worst and Berman’s murder suggests that his fears may have been rooted more in paranoia than in real risk of prosecution. The crucial and now more complete timeline speaks volumes about Durst’s possible motivations and about the failures of law enforcement at the time – and is likely to loom large as prosecutors in Los Angeles seek to bring him to trial.
“I begged them to go out five weeks before Susan Berman’s murder,” Strauss said. “Pirro wouldn’t react. She was so arrogant she wouldn’t listen to me… And now she is engaging in historical revisionism to make herself look better.”
In episode three of The Jinx, Pirro describes her reaction to hearing about Berman’s murder and says: “The first person I thought of was Robert Durst because we were about to speak with her.”
When approached by the Guardian, Pirro declined to comment on Strauss’s accusation. In a short written statement emailed last Thursday, Pirro acknowledged that she had retained an “appropriate professional skepticism” about pursuing an 18-year-old case with no body, but would not get into specifics. She declined to comment on many other aspects of her handling of the Durst case, including what one of her staff members described to the Guardian as her own fear that Durst might try to kill her, or a meeting she had with Durst’s brother Douglas, the head of the family real-estate empire, in 2004, after which her office’s remaining official interest in the case evaporated.
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While the Westchester authorities were at an impasse, Durst himself took no chances – as becomes clear from an investigative timeline read to the Guardian over the phone.
On November 1, 2000, one day after receiving the tip that he was under investigation again, Durst bought a $77,000 engagement ring for his girlfriend, Debrah Lee Charatan. They applied for a marriage license two days later.
“It was a marriage of convenience,” Durst later told his sister Wendy in a recorded phone conversation while in police custody in Pennsylvania. “I had to have Debrah to write my checks. I was setting myself up to be a fugitive.”
After news of the reopened investigation appeared in New York newspapers on November 11, Durst moved even faster. Within a week, he had rented a cheap room in Galveston, Texas, over the phone and traveled there disguised as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner.
On December 11, Durst and Charatan got married in a secret, 15-minute ceremony on the 25th floor of a New York office building.
A week later, Durst traveled to California, without his new bride, stopping first at a house he owned in the remote north of the state. Depending what you believe, he either drove straight to San Francisco and flew home on the evening of December 23, or he made the much longer drive to Susan Berman’s home in Los Angeles and shot her, execution-style, in the back of the head before heading north.
Anyone who believes Durst killed Berman – a constituency that has grown exponentially since The Jinx concluded with an apparent admission that he“killed them all” – can only wonder about the paradox of a man who appears to have panicked at exactly the moment judicial pressure on him was easing.
In killing Berman, he would have silenced a witness who had not been approached by law enforcement and was not likely to be approached. Investigators and Berman’s friends don’t believe – as the daughter of a Las Vegas gangster with a reputation for unswervingly loyalty – she was likely to have said anything incriminating, even if she had been questioned.
Durst’s own account in The Jinx, in which he denies involvement in killing his friend, is that Berman was contacted by the Los Angeles police shortly before her death. But there is no mention of contact with the LAPD in the Westchester files reviewed by the Guardian – “If I want to speak to someone in LA, the last thing I want to do is notify LAPD,” said a knowledgeable law enforcement source in Westchester – and investigators in Los Angeles agreed such contact would not be consistent with usual law enforcement practice.
One theory aired in The Jinx is that Berman was blackmailing Durst, because she was on the brink of penury and asking all her friends for money. But the investigative files reveal a letter, sent on November 5, 2000, in which Berman apologizes for turning to Durst and says she hopes it does not ruin their friendship – hardly the words of a blackmailer. Durst subsequently sent her the second of two $25,000 checks.
Another explanation for why Durst reacted as he did might be that he misinterpreted the media coverage. Kathie Durst’s friends and family, frustrated at the failure of authorities to follow leads they had been developing on their own for years, had been telling reporters for some time that a new investigation might be under way. No stories appeared until the investigation was officially confirmed, but at least one reporter, Charles Bagli of the New York Times, contacted the Durst Organization, most likely in late October, to seek comment. Bagli told the Guardian he called “more than once”.
It was Durst’s sister, Wendy Kreeger, who then tipped off Durst on Halloween night, according to law enforcement files based on Durst’s Pennsylvania prison phone calls. (A spokesman for the Durst Organization told the Guardian that Kreeger “has no recollection of such a call”.)
In November and December, stories at last appeared in theNew York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post andPeople magazine – though none of them were on the front page, as Durst and his lawyers later claimed, and none mentioned Pirro, his supposed nemesis.
The investigation was not supposed to have gone public; its reopening got leaked just as it was becoming clear behind the scenes that Pirro was losing interest. The most likely leaker, according to numerous sources, was New York state police investigator Joe Becerra, the man who had initiated the new investigation and was thus most likely to be frustrated by Pirro’s waning interest. (Becerra, through a police spokesperson, declined several requests for comment.)
According to her former staffers, Pirro became enraged when Becerra’s name appeared in the People magazine story in early December – and froze him out of the investigation shortly thereafter.
“Pirro smelled publicity, and she jumped on it,” said an investigator who worked under her at the time. “That was her MO then, it’s her MO now.”
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By the late autumn of 2000, the animosity pitting Kathie Durst’s old friends and family against the Westchester County district attorney’s office had reached extraordinary heights as the office’s investigation reached new lows. “It was so galling,” Strauss told the Guardian. “Everybody was blaming everybody else.”
After the Berman murder, Pirro became so ubiquitous that prosecutors in other jurisdictions started commenting publicly on her unexpected appearances in their courtrooms. She was in Galveston when Durst made bail in the wake of the Morris Black killing and in Pennsylvania when he was picked up, having fled Texas, for stealing a chicken sandwich and a Band-Aid in a grocery store.
Pirro’s visibility almost cost her re-election in late 2001. Her unexpectedly strong challenger Tony Castro, who came within six percentage points of her, later toldthe New York Times: “She’s jeopardizing the integrity of the investigation and hampering working relationships with other law enforcement departments.”
Westchester’s investigation into Kathie Durst was suspended when Durst went on trial for Black’s murder, because everyone expected him to be convicted. (He had, by his own admission, dismembered the corpse with an axe and bowsaw and dumped the remains in black garbage bags in Galveston Bay.) According to the prison phone records, Durst and Charatan offered a hung-jury bonus to Dick DeGuerin when he became Durst’s lead defense lawyer; what Durst got was an outright acquittal in November 2003.
Pirro, one of her former co-workers told the Guardian, voiced concern that a freshly released Durst might try to kill her. The Kathie Durst investigation was revived again, and investigators asked the Durst family to cooperate. When they would not, Pirro’s office considered convening a grand jury and forcing them all to testify under oath.
Then, sometime in early 2004, Pirro had a one-on-one meeting with Durst’s brother Douglas, and everything changed. Both Pirro and Douglas Durst acknowledged the existence of this meeting to the New York Times ahead of the airing of The Jinx.
Shortly after the meeting, the investigator closely involved in the case told the Guardian, Pirro scrapped the grand jury idea and, for all intents and purposes, shut down the investigation. (Pirro declined to comment.)
At the time, Pirro was preparing to leave the district attorney’s office to run against Hillary Clinton for the US Senate in 2006 – an ambition she abandoned after early polls showed her trailing by a wide margin. She ended up running for state attorney general instead and lost to Andrew Cuomo, now the New York governor. Currently, Pirro hosts a weekly crime show on Fox News and has penned two in a planned series of semi-autobiographical crime thrillers.
Interest in the Durst case has been scant in Westchester ever since. Joe Becerra, the state police investigator, initiated a new round of interviews with Kathie’s old friends last December – apparently after learning that the FBI and other agencies were back on Durst’s trail.
The interviews were supposed to be hush-hush, but one of Kathie’s old friends leaked them to a journalist. According to three sources insideand out of the Westchester County district attorney’s office, they also took place without authorization from the new district attorney, Janet DiFiore.
Technically, the Kathie Durst case is still an open homicide investigation, but even the intense new interest sparked by the airing of The Jinx has done little to move things forward. A spokesman for DiFiore’s office told the Guardian that the status of their case on the disappearance of Durst’s wife “has not changed relative to the HBO special running in terms of any new information”.
Investigators who worked under Pirro feel bitter that they were unable to make a case against Durst, who was a free man from the time of his acquittal in Texas in 2003 until his arrest in New Orleans on March 15, the night before The Jinx finale. But for the politics, media leaks and personality clashes, they feel they could have had him locked up much sooner.
“A lot of people are angry at Jeanine Pirro, mostly the family and friends of Kathleen Durst,” said the source close to the investigation. “I’m very disappointed at what happened and I feel really bad. We did lead these people on into thinking we were going to do something. And we ended up not.”