How HBO's 'The Jinx' helped lead to millionaire Robert Durst's murder conviction

FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, file photo, real estate heir Robert Durst appears in Los Angeles Superior Court Airport Branch for a hearing in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles jury convicted Robert Durst Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 of murdering his best friend 20 years ago in a case that took on new life after the New York real estate heir participated in a documentary that connected him to the slaying linked to his wife’s 1982 disappearance. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool, File)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki was in the middle of an interview Friday when he got a text message years in the making: A verdict was coming in the murder trial of Robert Durst, the New York real estate heir he'd captured confessing in the HBO documentary series "The Jinx."

He immediately stopped what he was doing, went next door and turned on a TV.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

For 16 years, Jarecki has immersed himself in the world of the eccentric millionaire, first directing a 2010 film starring Ryan Gosling as Durst, and later digging into the three slayings Durst was long suspected of in "The Jinx."

Material from roughly 24 hours worth of interviews with Durst was handed over to authorities. John Lewin, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, used the tycoon's own words from "The Jinx" in his opening statements of the murder trial: "Killed them all, of course." He was also recorded muttering in a bathroom, "There it is. You're caught."

As the courtroom flickered onto Jarecki's TV screen Friday, it happened: Durst was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2000 death of Susan Berman, 55, a close confidante shot in the back of the head while preparing to tell police how she helped cover up Durst's wife's death.

Jarecki said he immediately thought of the families devastated by the man he got to know as "Bob."

"My reaction to the verdict was to be extremely relieved," he said. "I was obviously very gratified because this has been an incredibly long process."

Durst, 78, is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 18 and faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole. He was not in court Friday for the verdict because he was recently exposed to someone with the coronavirus. The verdict comes after multiple attempts to prosecute him for crimes spanning nearly four decades. He had previously been acquitted of murder in the 2001 killing of Morris Black, a 71-year-old neighbor in Texas.

The news overwhelmed Jarecki, who added: "Bob is dangerous and had been wandering around for a very long time without ever being held accountable."

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys acknowledge the film was key in the conviction, even if they disagree on whether it had an undue influence. Jason Blum, executive producer of the Peabody Award-winning series, said Jarecki's work reignited interest in a case. Dick DeGuerin, one of Durst's attorneys, said in an email that the documentary series "was instrumental in the prosecution in California, providing a blueprint to the prosecutors."

"He did a great job working with law enforcement, which got attention back on the case," Blum said of Jarecki. "It's very hard - I wouldn't say it's impossible - but it's very hard to get rich and powerful people to pay for their crimes. And it happened."

DeGuerin had a different take: "It was cleverly and heavily edited to paint Bob Durst in the worst possible light," he said. "That said, I'm proud of the long, hard fight we fought."

The defense team has indicated they planned to appeal the conviction.

The guilty verdict caps a long journey for authorities who sought to prosecute Durst for killings in three states without success. He was never charged in the case of his wife, Kathie McCormack, who was 29 when she disappeared in 1982. She was never found. He was acquitted in Black's slaying, even though he admitted to dismembering Black's body and tossing it out to sea in Galveston, Tex.

Durst, who once quipped that he was "the worst fugitive the world has ever met," became the subject of tabloid and film frenzy that stretched from New York to Los Angeles for decades, even as families of the victims demanded justice.

After the Hollywood release of "All Good Things," the film starring Gosling as well as Kirsten Dunst, who played McCormack, Durst reached out to Jarecki and agreed to be interviewed for a documentary series about him. In doing so, Durst, who had not previously cooperated with the media, also gave Jarecki and his crew access to all of his records.

At some point during the hours and hours of interviews, Jarecki realized Durst had grown comfortable in talking about the disappearance of McCormack and the deaths of Berman and Black - a little too comfortable.

"It was clear to me Bob was willing to not just talk but willing to speak in an extraordinarily unguarded way about many things that many people would lie about," Jarecki said.

When Jarecki realized his documentary subject was saying "a lot of incriminating things," he and his staff doubled down on their efforts to confront Durst about his past. They would soon find an anonymous note sent to police directing them to Berman's body.

Confident he could not be connected to the note, Durst told Jarecki that "only the killer could have written" the letter.

"Once we found this document, we had to get him back in the chair because it was just much more powerful to ask him about it than to just put it on the screen," the filmmaker told The Washington Post. "To that point, Bob had incredible explanations."

That changed when Jarecki and his crew confronted Durst on the note, on which the handwriting bore stark similarities to a letter Durst had sent Berman a year before her death. The handwriting was not only identical, but Beverly Hills was misspelled on both as "Beverley Hills."

Durst couldn't tell the handwriting in the two letters apart. The scene in the series finale was followed by Durst being heard off-camera saying, "Killed them all, of course."

"There is a lot of power to capturing something on film," Jarecki said. "When he sees the letters, he just dissembles in front of your eyes, and turned into a whole different person than the polished person we normally see. It was kind of the end of the line in that moment."

On March 14, 2015, the day before the episode aired, he was arrested by the FBI in New Orleans after Los Angeles police obtained an arrest warrant in Berman's killing, due in part to the hours' worth of interviews Durst gave to Jarecki for "The Jinx" that were handed over to police. 

Durst later said he regretted being involved in "The Jinx," describing it as a "very, very, very big mistake."

When the letter to Berman was brought up during his trial, Durst acknowledged it was hard to imagine he could have written the note without killing his close confidante. 

"It's very difficult to believe, to accept, that I wrote the letter and did not kill Susan Berman," Durst testified.

The prosecution called it one of the truest things Durst had ever said.

The use of "The Jinx" to help convict Durst shows the power of the true-crime genre to produce results in cases that have long been abandoned, said Joe Giacalone, a retired New York police sergeant and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Giacalone told The Post that the guilty verdict could provide "a great opportunity for New York to reopen his wife's missing persons case."

"Did the documentary play a sole role in convicting Durst? No. But did it help? Absolutely," Giacalone said. "It shows you how powerful these things could be."

Blum celebrated the conviction on Saturday, saying stories like the one told by Jarecki "certainly have the power to change the world." He said the legacy of "The Jinx" will forever be linked to Durst being found guilty.

"I think the conviction just cements its history," Blum said.

For Jarecki, he said his work will now shift from wondering whether Durst was behind the crimes he was implicated in to how Durst he managed to evade authorities for so long. He again pointed to McCormack's family, hoping they could find some comfort in knowing Durst is finally facing some justice, even if his wife is never found.

"They've been sitting at home and waiting literally 40 years for this kind of accountability," he said.

Related Content

Determined migrants unfazed as deportations begin from Texas border

Lost grave markers surface from a distant World War II battlefield

In Japan's anime universe, 'Belle' seeks to rewrite script on female power

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting