Robert Durst, Scarsdale native charged in wife's South Salem disappearance, dies

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Robert Durst, the Scarsdale native and millionaire real estate scion convicted of murder and charged recently with killing his wife in Westchester nearly 40 years ago, died Monday at the age of 78.

Durst was estranged from his family and in the headlines for decades over a trio of sensational cases: his wife's 1982 disappearance from their South Salem cottage; the 2000 execution-style slaying of his best friend Susan Berman in Los Angeles; and the 2001 fatal shooting and dismemberment of an elderly neighbor in Galveston, Texas for which he was acquitted.

He was serving a life sentence for Berman's murder and died early Monday morning while in the custody of the California Department of Corrections, one of his lawyers, Chip Lewis, said in a statement.

"We understand that his death was due to natural causes associated with the litany of medical issues we had repeatedly reported to the court over the last couple of years," Lewis said. "We will issue no further statements and will not entertain any questions out of respect."

Robert Durst in his wheelchair spins in place as he looks at people in the courtroom as he appears in a courtroom in Inglewood, Calif. on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, with his attorneys for closing arguments presented by the prosecution in the murder trial of the New York real estate scion who is charged with the longtime friend Susan Berman's killing in Benedict Canyon just before Christmas Eve 2000. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)
Robert Durst in his wheelchair spins in place as he looks at people in the courtroom as he appears in a courtroom in Inglewood, Calif. on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, with his attorneys for closing arguments presented by the prosecution in the murder trial of the New York real estate scion who is charged with the longtime friend Susan Berman's killing in Benedict Canyon just before Christmas Eve 2000. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)

Crime: Robert Durst indicted on murder charge in wife's 1982 disappearance

Kathie Durst: Family wants probe into why it took so long for charges

Robert Durst: A timeline

Prison officials confirmed that Durst died at 6:44 a.m. at a local hospital. He had been in custody at a state prison medical facility in Stockton since he was sentenced to life in prison in October for killing Berman in her Los Angeles home.

Jurors a month earlier convicted Durst of first-degree murder, finding he killed Berman during a reopened investigation of Kathie Durst's disappearance to keep her from revealing that she knew he had killed his wife.

Durst's death means the conviction will likely be vacated because a notice of appeal had been filed on his behalf and convictions are not technically finalized until the state Court of Appeal has ruled on the challenge.

John Lewin, the Los Angeles deputy district attorney who led the prosecution, said in an interview Monday that it was expected Durst would not survive the entire two to three year appellate process.

So while the death was no surprise he was relieved it did not happen during the trial so that a jury was able to hear the whole case and decide Durst had killed Berman and did it because she was a witness to what happened to his wife.

Kathie Durst has never been found and no charges were ever brought in her case until recently. Westchester prosecutors obtained an indictment charging him with second-degree murder three months ago and at the time of his death they were working to bring him to New York for arraignment and to await trial.

"After 40 years spent seeking justice for her death, I know how upsetting this news must be for Kathleen Durst’s family,” Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah said of Durst's death. “We had hoped to allow them the opportunity to see Mr. Durst finally face charges for Kathleen’s murder because we know that all families never stop wanting closure, justice and accountability.”

HBO - The Jinx tells the tale of Robert Durst, whose first wife, Kathleen, vanished mysteriously.HBO documentary THE JINX: THE LIFE AND DEATHS OF ROBERT DURSTPictured: Kathleen Durst, Robert Durst. Credit: HBO
HBO - The Jinx tells the tale of Robert Durst, whose first wife, Kathleen, vanished mysteriously.HBO documentary THE JINX: THE LIFE AND DEATHS OF ROBERT DURSTPictured: Kathleen Durst, Robert Durst. Credit: HBO

Robert Abrams, a lawyer for Kathie's four siblings, urged prayers for her and Durst's other victims and said efforts to hold responsible anyone who may have helped Durst cover up his crimes would continue.

Durst had been suffering from a variety of medical conditions, including bladder and esophageal cancer. Though he spent nearly the entire four-month trial in a wheelchair, he was alert, combative and sarcastic on the witness stand during nine days of cross examination.

But he appeared wan and quite ill when sentenced and two days later a lawyer announced he had contracted COVID-19.

That prompted the filing of a criminal complaint in Lewisboro Town Court charging Durst with murder even as the grand jury was still hearing the case.

Durst's early life

Durst was the oldest of four siblings, the heir apparent to the Manhattan real estate empire of Seymour Durst. Tragedy struck when he was just 7 when his mother jumped or fell to her death off the roof of the family's Hampton Road home in Scarsdale.

He was a 1961 graduate of Scarsdale High School. He went to college at Lehigh University and later graduate school at UCLA, where he met Berman, a writer and the daughter of Las Vegas mobster Davey Berman.

Durst met his future wife, Kathleen McCormack, in 1971 when she was a 19-year-old tenant in a building owned by his family. The couple moved to Vermont to run a health food store but returned to New York and married on his 30th birthday in 1973.

New York real estate scion Robert Durst, 78, takes the stand and testifies in his murder trial at the Inglewood Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, in Inglewood, Calf.
New York real estate scion Robert Durst, 78, takes the stand and testifies in his murder trial at the Inglewood Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, in Inglewood, Calf.

The relationship soured, though, as Durst became abusive and at one point forced Kathie to get an abortion as he adamantly opposed having children. In the late 1970s she decided to become a doctor and enrolled at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

Kathie was just months from graduation when she disappeared on Jan. 31, 1982 after a weekend at their Hoyt Street cottage along Truesdale Lake in South Salem, a hamlet in the town of Lewisboro.

The case remained a Manhattan investigation for years because five days later when he reported his wife missing he convinced NYPD detectives that he dropped her off at the Katonah train station so she could return to their Manhattan apartment. He admitted only in recent years that he lied to police about talking to her by phone later that night.

Berman was his unofficial spokesperson at the time — and it is believed she called a dean at the medical college on Feb. 1, 1982, posing as Kathie Durst reporting she was feeling sick and wouldn't be attending her first day of a pediatrics rotation.

Robert Durst in the HBO documentary, “The Jinx.”
Robert Durst in the HBO documentary, “The Jinx.”

The case was dormant for years and Durst quietly divorced his wife in Westchester in 1990, claiming spousal abandonment. A few years later, he left the family business when one of his younger brothers, Douglas, was tapped to run the Durst Organization.

At the California trial last summer, Douglas Durst testified for the prosecution, saying he believed his brother wanted to murder him.

The Durst Organization issued a brief statement from Douglas Monday afternoon.

“Bob lived a sad, painful and tragic life," he said. "We hope his death brings some closure to those he hurt.”

In 1999, a tip led state police Investigator Joseph Becerra to delve into Kathie Durst's disappearance. The lake and cottage were searched for the first time but nothing was found.

Murder defendant Robert Durst smiles for the camera at the end of the day's testimony in his murder trial in Galveston, Texas, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003. An appeals court has ruled the $3 billion bail set for the bond jumping and evidence tampering charges against New York real estate heir Robert Durst are unconstitutionally excessive and should be reduced.
Murder defendant Robert Durst smiles for the camera at the end of the day's testimony in his murder trial in Galveston, Texas, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003. An appeals court has ruled the $3 billion bail set for the bond jumping and evidence tampering charges against New York real estate heir Robert Durst are unconstitutionally excessive and should be reduced.

When word of the reopened investigation by state police and the Westchester DA's Office became public in the fall of 2000, Robert Durst went into hiding, with apartments he rented in Galveston and New Orleans as well as a home in northern California, where he flew before driving down the coast and killing Berman two days before Christmas.

In Galveston, he posed as a deaf-mute woman with the name of a high school classmate. In September 2001, Durst fatally shot neighbor Morris Black there before dismembering him and dumping bags with the body parts in Galveston Bay. But they surfaced and Durst was charged with murder when a receipt led police to him.

They had no idea who they were dealing with and when he posted $300,000 bail he promptly skipped town and crisscrossed the country for five weeks, even appearing in his brother's yard in Katonah.

He was arrested shoplifting a sandwich, a newspaper and a bandage at a Wegman's near Lehigh in Pennsylvania despite having more than $37,000 in his car.

In this Dec. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Durst sits in a courtroom in Los Angeles.
In this Dec. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Durst sits in a courtroom in Los Angeles.

Durst managed to win acquittal at his murder trial in 1993, convincing jurors he shot Black in self-defense and cut up the body in a panic because he didn't think anyone would believe his account against the backdrop of the investigations into his wife's disappearance and Berman's killing.

Durst might never have been charged in either woman's death had it not been for his decision a decade ago to cooperate with the directors of "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," a six-part HBO documentary.

During one interview, they confronted him with a pair of envelopes. One was the so-called "cadaver" note that directed police to Berman's body at her Benedict Canyon home. The other was a note from Durst that Berman had kept among her belongings.

He had long denied penning the cadaver note but could not escape the exact same misspelling, "Beverley Hills," on both envelopes. He again denied he had written it, although his lawyers conceded on the eve of his trial that he had — but only after arriving and discovering Berman's body.

Susan Berman with Robert Durst
Susan Berman with Robert Durst

Durst was arrested in a New Orleans hotel in March 2015 the night before the airing of the final episode, in which he was caught on a hot mic in a bathroom saying "what the hell did I do? Killed them all of course."

Becerra retired two weeks ago after 36 years with the state police, including 22 years working on the biggest case of his career. On Monday he said he was saddened by Durst's death only because it came without him ever revealing to Kathie Durst's siblings what happened to her.

"I really didn't feel confident he was going to tell us where she was," Becerra said, citing Durst's stubbornness and decades of eluding responsibility. "That would have been the right thing to do. But we're talking about Robert Durst."

Lewin recalled his lengthy interview of Durst following the arrest in New Orleans and said there were points at which he thought Durst was ready to tell all. But he realized that was just how Durst operated - like a defense in football that lets an opponent march down the field but doesn't let them into the end zone.

He doesn't think there is anyone living who Durst ever told what happened to Kathie. He also tried to get it out of him during cross examination last summer.

"I tried to appeal to some decent parts of Bob Durst that were remorseful for what he had done," Lewin said. "There wasn't a whole lot for me to work with."

Matt Spillane contributed to this report.

Twitter: @jonbandler

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Robert Durst dies while serving life sentence for murder in California