Robert A. Durst, the multimillionaire whose bizarre life of privilege and mayhem was the subject of a 2015 documentary, was arraigned here on Monday on charges of murdering a onetime confidante 16 years ago.
Mr. Durst is accused of having shot his friend, Susan Berman, to stop her from revealing any secrets behind his first wife’s disappearance in 1982. Ms. Berman was shot once in the back of the head in her Benedict Canyon home shortly after Mr. Durst said she told him that the authorities in New York wanted to talk to her about what happened to his wife.
Mr. Durst, 73, sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a neck brace, appeared before Judge Mark Windham in Los Angeles County Superior Court and entered a plea of not guilty. He had orange prison slippers on his feet.
Answering a procedural question from the judge, Mr. Durst said in a hoarse, low voice: “I am not guilty. I did not kill Susan Berman.”
Later, outside the courthouse, his lead defense lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said the same thing. “Bob is not guilty,” Mr. DeGuerin said. “He did not kill Susan Berman. He doesn’t know who did.”
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said the state would not seek the death penalty against Mr. Durst. Both sides agreed to convene again on Feb. 15 to set the date for a preliminary hearing.
Mr. Durst was arrested in New Orleans in March 2015 on a murder warrant issued in Los Angeles. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the illegal possession of a firearm. On Friday, he was transferred here from federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., to stand trial.
Suspicions have surrounded Mr. Durst since 1982, when his first wife, Kathleen Durst, disappeared from the couple’s stone cottage in Westchester County, N.Y. His friends and relatives believed that Mr. Durst, a member of the wealthy real estate family that runs the Durst Organization, was involved.
He was never charged in connection with the case.
Mr. Durst met Ms. Berman during the late 1960s at the University of California, Los Angeles, where they were students. Friends say there was an immediate bond. They came from wealthy families and had lost their mothers at a young age, possibly to suicide. Ms. Berman, the daughter of Davie Berman, a mobster who was a partner in Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, became a journalist and a screenwriter.
“We became fast friends,” Mr. Durst said during courtroom testimony in Galveston, Tex. “We were never boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Mr. Durst counted on Ms. Berman to shield him from the press when his wife’s sudden disappearance generated tabloid headlines in New York. He walked her down the aisle when she married at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles in 1984.
He left the family business in 1994 after his father, Seymour Durst, appointed his younger brother Douglas to take control of the Durst Organization. He has been estranged from his family since then — Douglas is expected to testify for the prosecution in Los Angeles — and for years led a peripatetic life, moving restlessly among California, New York and Texas, even as he became a suspect in three murders.
But it was Mr. Durst’s own hubris that brought his freewheeling ways to an end.
Beginning in 2010, he agreed to participate in the documentary — “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” — about his life and the murder allegations, which was eventually broadcast on HBO in February and March 2015.
His friends and lawyers had advised him not to participate for fear of antagonizing prosecutors.
But Mr. Durst told The New York Times he thought there was “no reason I shouldn’t say anything I want to anyone I want,” because it was unlikely that any prosecutor would undertake a “budget-busting” investigation for a couple of cold cases.
In “The Jinx,” Mr. Durst said Ms. Berman contacted him in October 2000 saying the authorities wanted to talk to her about his first wife. In quick succession, he married his current wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, and fled New York, renting modest apartments in Galveston and New Orleans while posing as a mute woman.
In December of that year, Ms. Berman’s body was found in her Los Angeles home, the back door open and her dogs running loose.
Initially, the police focused not on Mr. Durst but on Ms. Berman’s landlady and her agent.
But the authorities came to suspect that Mr. Durst was the author of a short anonymous note sent to the Beverly Hills police the same day Ms. Berman was found dead, saying there was a “cadaver” in her home.
The makers of “The Jinx” obtained a letter he wrote to her in which the lettering of the address on the envelope appears identical to that of the “cadaver” note, down to the misspelling of Beverly Hills as “Beverley.”
In 2001, when Mr. Durst was living in Texas, body parts of his elderly neighbor were found floating in Galveston Bay, and Mr. Durst was charged with his murder.
He was acquitted in 2003, despite his testimony of how he sat in a pool of blood while cutting up the body. Mr. Durst insisted that the man’s death was an accident and an act of self-defense.
Mr. Durst said during a 2015 interview that he did not have “the faintest idea” what happened to Ms. Berman, or to Ms. Durst, although he conceded in “The Jinx” that he had lied to the police about his whereabouts when his wife disappeared — “Nobody tells the whole truth,” he said — and that their relationship had descended into rounds of “fighting, slapping, pushing.”
“The Jinx” ended with Mr. Durst’s own words in an unguarded moment: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Just hours before the final episode of the documentary was broadcast, Mr. Durst was arrested in New Orleans. The police feared he was about to flee the country.
There is very little forensic evidence in either case and no apparent witnesses as to what happened to either woman. Prosecutors will have to rely on the decades-old memories of the people who knew the two women and Mr. Durst.
But Mr. Durst left footprints and provided leads for the authorities when he granted access to the producers of “The Jinx” to his credit card receipts, phone bills and legal papers, which put him in California at the time of Ms. Berman’s killing; when he gave a lengthy deposition in 2005 as part of a lawsuit against the Durst family trust; and when he spoke for 90 minutes with John Lewin, the Los Angeles prosecutor, after his arrest in New Orleans.
But all of that is likely to be the subject of fierce litigation before trial, as the defense moves to exclude the material. Mr. DeGuerin has described “The Jinx” as a “sensationalized docudrama.”
Mr. Durst has also told falsehoods over the years, which could cast doubt over both his protestations of innocence and his damaging admissions.
He told Ms. Berman and other friends that he witnessed his mother’s fall or leap from the roof of his childhood home in 1950, but Douglas Durst said that he was not there.
He testified in court in Galveston that he was “relieved” that his father did not hand him the family business, after telling friends in the 1990s that he was so furious with his father that he refused to attend Seymour’s funeral.
Even if Mr. Durst is ultimately found not guilty of murder, he will go back to prison to complete his 85-month sentence on the gun charge.