Catching Up With Robert Durst

Written by C.W.S.

HBO’s The Jinx: Life and Deaths of Robert Durst captured arguably some of the most shocking moments in documentary film, moments that would go on to implicate the quirky son of New York real estate royalty in the murder of writer Susan Berman. The Jinx was the story of Robert Durst and his relation to three people either missing or dead. It was a story that gripped viewers by their guts and made them feel Durst’s anxiety, his fear, his visceral reaction to being faced with irrefutable evidence. Durst would go on to make what many call a confession to not only Susan’s murder, but also the murders of his missing (presumed dead) first wife and his former neighbor. Durst seemed to forget his microphone was still on and mumbled to himself in the bathroom. His words? “There it is. You’re caught. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” 

Susan Berman with Robert Durst

Susan Berman with Robert Durst

The same day that the final episode of the segment aired, March 14, 2015, Durst was arrested for Susan’s murder in New Orleans while possessing five ounces of marijuana, an illegal .38-caliber revolver, and over $40,000 in cash. He is currently serving a seven-year sentence for firearm charges.

Director Andrew Jarecki was apparently working along side police for two years prior to premier of The Jinx. In a statement from prosecutors, they explained: “The Jinx’s final episode...was about to become public and [Durst] was about to hear for the first time this extremely damning evidence. Preventing defendant’s flight, holding him accountable for his past actions, and protecting society from the danger he posed, were of the utmost importance.” They also stated that because Durst had access to a great deal of money and because he had a history of fleeing law enforcement and even donning disguises (Durst once hid out in Galvaston Texas, disguised as a mute woman), they needed to make sure he wouldn’t disappear before they could apprehend him.

Durst’s reasons for participating in a documentary that would ultimately (allegedly) prove his guilt are difficult to figure out. Going against the advice of his lawyers, Durst gave many personal interviews with filmmakers and gave them unlimited access to his personal records and information.

"I wanted them to see the whole thing," Durst said. "That they would see me as an acceptable human being, as opposed to all this other stuff."

In a 2015 interview with prosecutors that was recently filed, Durst claimed that the reason he agreed to do the documentary is that he was high on methamphetamine for the duration of production. “It should have been obvious. I think the reason I did it had to be because I was swooped, speeding,” Durst said.  

Clearly it was not just the final episode that made The Jinx a masterpiece of documentary film. It was Durst’s unique personality: his candor, his humor, his strange charm. Though sometimes off-putting, Durst’s eccentricities were also engaging, and the film brought about a feeling of getting to know, and even like a wacky character. It also gave viewers a sense of why he was able to get away with so much for so many years.

Born into a wealthy New York family, Durst’s father Seymour was heir to the Durst Organization, a real estate company founded by Seymour’s father in 1927. Robert Durst claims he saw his mother, Bernice Herstein, commit suicide from jumping from their roof when his father led him to the window to watch. He was seven-years-old at the time, though his brother Douglas denied the claim that their mother committed suicide at all, saying instead that she fell from the roof. It was Douglas that was eventually given the position of running the family real estate business in the 1990s. This led to Robert’s estrangement from the family.

Douglas and Robert were always fiercely competitive. Douglas claimed that Robert had been stalking him, and said that The Jinx, which led to his brother's arrest, helped him to feel safe again: "I no longer am looking over my shoulder. I'm very grateful to The Jinx for having brought this about," he said.

Robert Durst with his missing wife Kathleen McCormack

Robert Durst with his missing wife Kathleen McCormack

Other odd behaviors by Durst like urinating on a candy rack in a Texas CVS and stealing a sandwich from a Pennsylvania grocery while disguised as a woman were also described in The Jinx, as were the mysterious disappearances of seven Alaska Malamutes that Durst owned in the early 1980s, all named Igor. Durst was once recorded on tape saying he wanted to “Igor” Douglas. Douglas said of the missing animals: "In retrospect, I now believe he was practicing killing and disposing [of] his wife with those dogs."

After his arrest in 2015, Durst later pled not guilty to the 2000 murder of Susan Berman, his former best friend who prosecutors believe possessed knowledge of his involvement in the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen McCormack. Durst was questioned by police when, in 1982, Kathleen disappeared from their home in Westchester County, New York. He was never charged, and Kathleen’s body has never been found. The Jinx showed interviews with friends of Kathleen that claimed Durst had turned abusive leading up to her disappearance, and that she had sought a $250,000 divorce settlement.

Susan Berman was found dead in her Los Angeles home, a single bullet in the back of her head. Police received a mysterious letter in the mail that gave simply the word "Cadaver" and Susan's address, the same letter that filmmakers would use to implicate Durst fifteen years later. The similarities in handwriting and the misspelling of "Beverley Hills" found on an old letter to Susan Berman were presented to Durst on-screen. 

Durst was also able to maneuver his way out of a murder charge in 2001, where he admitted to killing his elderly neighbor and dismembering his body, all, he claimed, in self-defense. Morris Black’s body parts were found floating in Galveston Bay, and Durst was arrested soon after. He made the bail of $300,000, and then missed his first court date. The defense argued that Durst and Black had fought over the pistol that Durst kept hidden in his residence, and during the struggle the pistol was discharged, hitting Black in the face and killing him. Durst claimed he dismembered and hid the body parts because he was already on the run from other charges.  Since there was not enough forensic evidence to counter Durst’s claims, a jury acquitted him of murder, He was sentenced to three years for bond jumping and evidence tampering.

The judge who presided over the Morris Black case, Susan Criss, later said of Durst: "You could see that this person knew what they were doing and that it was not a first time. The body was cut perfectly like a surgeon who knew how to use this tool on this bone and a certain kind of tool on that muscle. It looked like not a first-time job. That was pretty scary.”

According to Durst, because of throat cancer that led to the removal of his esophagus as well as fluid on the brain from Hydrocephalus, he only has five years left to live. He was confined to a wheelchair after a spinal fusion surgery Louisiana earlier this year, and entered the courtroom in early November to make the not guilty plea, saying hoarsely, “I am not guilty, I did not kill Susan Berman.”

According to a prosecutor John Lewin, Durst is still a danger despite his frailty. Lewin believes that because of Durst’s wealth and his alleged murder of a past witness, witness testimony should be recorded before the trial begins. Durst’s lawyer thinks it’s “hyperbole” that a wheelchair bound man could pose a threat to witnesses.

"Bob Durst didn't kill Susan Berman and he doesn't know who did,” stated Durst’s lawyer Dick DeGuerin. “He's eager to get to trial to prove it." The murder trial of Susan Berman is expected to start in late 2017.