Robert Durst Pleads Guilty in Gun Case, Setting Up Possible Murder Trial

Written by Charles V. Bagli (NY Times)

Robert A. Durst’s luck may be running out.

Mr. Durst, the estranged scion of a New York real estate family who has long been a suspect in several murders, pleaded guilty in New Orleans federal court on Wednesday to illegally possessing a .38-caliber revolver.

In March 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, fearing that Mr. Durst was about to flee the country, arrested him at the JW Marriott Hotel on Canal Street, where he had registered under an alias. During a search, they discovered a handgun. Because Mr. Durst, 72, is a felon, it is illegal for him to possess a firearm.

His arrest came as the cable channel HBO was broadcasting a six-part documentary about him, which turned him into a notorious national figure.

Under a plea bargain arrangement, Mr. Durst will be sentenced to 85 months in federal prison, pending final approval by Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt of United States District Court, who is now handling the case.

Mr. Durst will eventually be transferred to federal prison, most likely to Terminal Island, outside of Los Angeles, to face charges that he murdered a former confidante, Susan Berman. Under the plea agreement, the prosecution has to arraign Mr. Durst by Aug. 18.

Mr. Durst faced a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a fine of $250,000.

“We got everything we wanted out of the way so we can get to California,” Mr. Durst’s lead lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said. “We want to go to trial and prove that he didn’t kill Susan Berman and doesn’t know who did.”

Mr. Durst, who appeared so thin that his shackles kept slipping below his waist, responded to questions from the judge in a weak, raspy monotone.

The resolution of the Los Angeles case could finally cast light on the mysteries that have enveloped Mr. Durst for the past 34 years.

Mr. Durst is the oldest son of Seymour Durst, whose family owns a dozen skyscrapers in Manhattan. Robert Durst broke with his family in 1994, after his father and uncle picked his younger brother Douglas to take over the business.

Mr. Durst’s first wife, Kathleen, disappeared in 1982, and the authorities believe he killed Ms. Berman to ensure she did not reveal what she knew about what happened to Ms. Durst.

Over the years, Mr. Durst, who is worth more than $100 million, has benefited from some of the best defense lawyers money could buy. He was never charged in the disappearance of his first wife.

In 2003, a jury in Galveston, Tex., acquitted him of murder charges, despite his testimony explaining how he cut up the body of a neighbor, Morris Black, and threw the parts into Galveston Bay. The head is still missing.

In an interview before his arrest, Mr. Durst said that he had no idea where the head is. “I just threw the garbage bags off the pier,” he said. “I could barely lift them. I expected them to sink.”

Mr. Durst claimed that Mr. Black’s death was an accident that occurred while the two men grappled over a gun. Investigators in California, New York and Texas do not believe it was self-defense. Mr. Durst later pleaded guilty to charges of jumping bond and evidence tampering in connection with the case.

Mr. Durst and his defense team, led by Mr. DeGuerin, appear to have miscalculated in New Orleans. The defense had argued that the search of Mr. Durst’s hotel room by two F.B.I. agents was illegal and that the evidence they turned up, in particular the revolver, should be thrown out.

Federal prosecutors and investigators from Los Angeles disputed that account and countered that a second, independent search, conducted hours later by Los Angeles detectives, was unquestionably legal.

Mr. Durst’s lawyers were so confident the federal judge in the case, Helen G. Berrigan, would throw out the evidence that they never formalized a proposed plea agreement that would have meant a sentence of up to 27 months, according to lawyers briefed on the negotiations who were not authorized to discuss them.

Instead, Judge Berrigan sided with the prosecution in October, leaving the defense with little leverage in subsequent plea negotiations.

“It’s more than I wanted,” Mr. DeGuerin acknowledged of the 85-month sentence. “It’s kind of the price of poker.”

Under the plea agreement, Mr. DeGuerin said, prosecutors in New York also agreed not to prosecute a money laundering case they had been investigating against Mr. Durst. And the authorities in Houston agreed not to prosecute him over the circumstances of how he acquired the revolver.

Mr. Durst’s lawyers say they have been eager to resolve matters in New Orleans so they can get to Los Angeles to answer what they say are spurious murder charges.

“They’ve got a TV show and 15-year-old evidence that wasn’t good enough back then,” Mr. DeGuerin said in an interview last year, “and certainly isn’t good enough now.”

The show was “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which was broadcast on HBO in February and March of 2015. Mr. Durst cooperated in the making of the film, giving the producers more than 20 hours of interviews and turning over reams of court records, phone bills and credit card statements.

Mr. Durst said he decided to cooperate with the documentary despite recommendations by his lawyers to stay away.

“I am convinced that there’s no reason I shouldn’t say anything I want to anyone I want,” he said in an interview a year ago. “It’s so long ago. Some D.A. would have to commence a major budget-busting investigation. I don’t see that happening.”

But John Lewin, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County who has a reputation as a skilled prosecutor of cold cases, found the information uncovered by the filmmakers compelling.

At one point, the filmmakers confronted Mr. Durst with strong similarities between the handwriting on a letter he sent to Ms. Berman and on a note the police received after her killing, alerting them to the existence of a “cadaver.”

The documentary concluded with Mr. Durst’s own words, uttered while he seemed unaware that his microphone was still recording: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Mr. Lewin has repeatedly flown to New York to interview witnesses, including friends of Ms. Berman and Mr. Durst.

He also interviewed Mr. Durst for 90 minutes in New Orleans, although the defense will almost certainly challenge the admissibility of that encounter given that his lawyers were not present.

Lawyers are expecting battles over handwriting experts and Mr. Durst’s utterances during “The Jinx.” Mr. Lewin must also contend with memories that in some cases are 34 years old.

Ms. Berman and Mr. Durst became fast friends after they met in Los Angeles in the late 1960s.

“She was really smart and really interesting,” said Julie Smith, a mystery writer who was close to Ms. Berman. “You never knew what she would say or do. And she had a fascinating background.”

The daughter of a Jewish gangster, Ms. Berman was a promising magazine writer living in New York in 1982 when Kathleen Durst disappeared. Her body was never found. During that investigation, Ms. Berman served as Mr. Durst’s shield against reporters.

“He was like a brother to her,” said Kim Lankford, a friend of Ms. Berman. “She always spoke of Bobby adoringly.”

But investigators also believe that Ms. Berman knew Mr. Durst’s secrets, which put her in jeopardy in October 2000, when he learned that the authorities had reopened the investigation into Ms. Durst’s disappearance.

In “The Jinx,” Mr. Durst said Ms. Berman had called him shortly before her death to say the authorities wanted to interview her.

Two months later, she was found dead in her Los Angeles home, shot in the back of the head.

Although the police investigation looked at other suspects, it eventually focused on Mr. Durst, who was in California at the time of Ms. Berman’s death.

Ms. Berman, who was in dire financial shape, was fiercely loyal to her friends, Ms. Smith said. Mr. Durst lent her $50,000.

“She described Bobby as the greatest guy in the world and how sweet he was,” Ms. Smith said. “She was not going to rat him out.”

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