Billionaire Robert Durst has been viewed with suspicion since his wife’s disappearance in 1982. His bizarre life – which has seen various brushes with the law – was even the subject of the HBO documentary The Jinx. However, five years after allegedly confessing his crimes on camera, he’s finally standing trial for murder.
Robert was born to a wealthy New York family on April 12, 1943. And his grandfather, Joseph Durst, was an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1902 and set up the Durst Organization. The business was incredibly successful and remains one of New York City’s oldest family-run real estate companies.
But while Robert’s family were rich, his childhood was marred by tragedy. You see, when he was just seven, his mother Bernice died after either jumping or falling from the roof of their family home in Scarsdale, NY. And Robert would later claim that he witnessed his mother’s death, though this claim has been disputed by his brother, Douglas.
In fact, Robert and his brother never saw eye to eye. And as children, they reportedly had counseling to address their sibling rivalry. According to Matt Birbeck’s 2003 book A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst, a psychologist’s report on a 10-year-old Robert described “personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia.”
Anyway, Robert would go on to attend Scarsdale High School, but he reportedly kept himself to himself. However, he later studied economics at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where it seems he became more outgoing. There, he joined the varsity lacrosse team and helped manage the student newspaper. After completing his bachelor’s degree, Robert enrolled at UCLA.
At this point the year was 1965, and Robert was studying for a doctorate. However, he never completed the program and moved home to New York in 1969. But two years later, in 1971, Robert met a dental hygienist called Kathleen McCormack. The pair started seeing each other, and after just two dates Robert invited Kathleen to move into his Vermont home.
So Kathleen moved in with Robert in January 1972. At the time, Robert was running a health food store. However, his father, Seymour, was eager to employ Robert in the family firm. So he and Kathleen moved to Manhattan, where they tied the knot on Robert’s 30th birthday – April 12, 1973.
Then, in 1974, Seymour took control of the Durst Organization following the death of his father, Joseph. At this point, Robert began working as a real estate developer for the family business and expected to inherit the Durst’s Manhattan property empire when his father retired. But that’s not how things went down.
You see, in 1992 Seymour appointed Robert’s younger brother Douglas to run the Durst Organization. According to The New York Times, he’d apparently grown concerned about his eldest son’s behavior – which included urinating in Douglas’ trash can. It was a decision that would crush Robert, causing him to cut ties with almost all of his family.
For the remainder of the 1990s, Robert drifted between homes in Texas, New York and California. Strikingly, he didn’t even attend his father’s funeral after Seymour died in 1995. However, by the end of the decade, a family rift would be the least of his problems, after the police investigation into his first wife’s disappearance was reopened.
During the first part of their marriage, Robert’s status had meant that he and Kathleen enjoyed some of the finer things in life. You see, the couple frequented Studio 54 and enjoyed exotic holidays abroad, visiting Thailand and the Mediterranean. But on the other hand, Robert was also eager to appear frugal.
Indeed, Robert avoided flashy suits and gold jewelry and owned a Volkswagen Beetle. Meanwhile, Kathleen drove a Mercedes and was ambitious, training as a nurse and then a doctor. Describing the couple in a 2001 interview with The New York Times Kathleen’s friend Gilberta Najamy explained, “They were earthy, downright regular people. I thought he was a caring, loving husband. I know Kathy was in love with him.”
Now, Robert and Kathleen based themselves between two New York homes. One was a Manhattan penthouse, while the other was a lakeside cottage 50 miles north of the city. However, while their marriage may have seemed idyllic at first glance, those who were close to the couple alleged there was a darker side to their relationship.
Yes, friends of Robert and Kathleen would later say that their relationship was strained. Apparently, Robert put pressure on Kathleen to have an abortion. Meanwhile, it was also noted that he had a hot temper, and was prone to heated outbursts. Furthermore, Robert grew increasingly possessive of Kathleen, and she was unhappy with their frugal lifestyle, reported The New York Times.
So Kathleen eventually hired a divorce lawyer and was reportedly seeking a $250,000 settlement from Robert. He, in turn, attempted to cut Kathleen off financially, removing her name from their joint bank account and canceling her credit cards, reported Vulture. In the midst of their split, it is alleged the Robert became physical with Kathleen, reportedly landing her in the hospital with bruises to her face.
Shockingly, in early 1982, Kathleen disappeared. And Robert told police that he had last seen his wife when he took her to catch a train in Katonah, NY. He claimed that they had stayed at a nearby cottage for the weekend and that he had called her after putting her on the train.
As a matter of fact, five days had passed before Robert reported Kathleen missing. And some of the people in the couple’s circle immediately pointed the finger of suspicion at Robert. However, he denied knowing anything of Kathleen’s disappearance and even offered a reward for her return. Soon the investigation dried up and police filed it as a missing person case.
It wasn’t until detectives working on Kathleen’s disappearance received a rogue tip in 1999 that they returned their focus to Robert. The information that reopened the case proved to be unstable. However, as investigators began to pour over the evidence, they noted some apparent inconsistencies in Robert’s testimony.
Ultimately, Robert was never charged with Kathleen’s murder, though many believed him to be responsible. However, he would face trial in 2003, accused of the murder and dismemberment of Morris Black, his neighbor and landlord in Galveston, Texas. You see, Robert had been arrested two years prior, following the discovery of Morris’ remains.
Shockingly, in September 2001 a man was fishing by the Galveston Bay when he saw a torso floating in the water. Subsequently, cops located Morris’ arms and legs, which had been dumped with some garbage bags close by to the bay. His head was never found. Still, this led to another development.
You see, the garbage bags found with Morris’ remains contained a number of curious items. Yes, these included a bow saw cover, a hardware store receipt, a drop cloth and a newspaper addressed to a Galveston property where Morris lived. But who had been living alongside Morris at the property? Oddly, Robert, who had also been posing as a woman by cross dressing, reported The New York Times.
At his 2003 trial, Robert claimed that he’d been friendly with Morris prior to his death. But one day, Morris had confronted Robert in his apartment with a gun. After a struggle, Morris was shot, and Robert tried to dump his body. But he claimed he only did this because he feared no one would believe his account, following him being linked to Kathleen’s 1982 disappearance.
Notably, Robert was acquitted of Morris’ murder in 2005 after his legal team claimed he’d acted in self-defense. But he still pleaded guilty to evidence tampering and jumping bail twice, for which he did jail time. He was subsequently paroled in 2005 but returned to prison until March 2006 after breaking the terms of his release.
While Robert was ultimately cleared of killing Morris, it wouldn’t be the only time he stood trial for murder. You see, In March 2015 he was arrested by FBI agents on suspicion of murdering Susan Berman, his friend and publicist. Susan had been discovered dead at her home in Benedict Canyon, California, on Christmas Eve 2000.
Now, Robert had first met Susan during his time at UCLA. And unbelievably, she was the daughter of Las Vegas mobster Davie Berman, who’d worked with the likes of Bugsy Siegel. In any case, she reportedly provided Robert with an alibi following Kathleen’s disappearance. And when cops arrived at the scene of her murder in 2000, she’d been shot in the back of the head. Strangely, her back door was open with no sign of forced entry.
Mysteriously, days after Susan’s body had been located, a handwritten letter arrived at the Beverly Hills Police Department, postmarked December 23. The note simply contained Susan’s address, alongside the word “cadaver.” As a result, police believed the person responsible for the correspondence was their prime suspect.
And it wasn’t long before Robert was a suspect in Susan’s murder. Therefore, as he waited to stand trial for Morris’ murder in 2002, police requested a handwriting sample to compare against the note. However, there was not enough evidence to make a case against Robert, so the investigation went cold.
In any case, Robert’s various run-ins with the law didn’t prevent him from courting publicity. You see, his fictionalized life story was the subject of the 2010 film All Good Things. However, he became best known for the 2015 HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which was made by the same team as the movie.
For the making of The Jinx Robert gave over 20 hours of testimony. And over the course of the project, he admitted he’d been violent towards Kathleen and confessed he’d lied to police. However, most shocking of all was the letter filmmakers found addressed to Susan’s home in California.
Yes, according to The New York Times the note, which was dated 1999, bore two striking similarities to the one received by cops. Firstly, it was written in block letters. Secondly, the word “Beverly” – as in Beverly Hills – was misspelled as “Beverley.” However, this wasn’t the only way that The Jinx appeared to implicate Robert.
Staggeringly, in the final scenes of The Jinx, Robert appears to confess to murder on camera. Indeed, he is filmed entering the bathroom while his microphone continues to record. He is then heard saying, “What the hell did I do?… Killed them all, of course.” However, Robert’s lawyers later accused producers of splicing two separate sentences together to fabricate the alleged confession.
Nevertheless, by the time the shocking audio footage was aired in March 2015, Robert had already been arrested. During the FBI investigation into Susan’s death, Robert described the slain publicist as his “best friend.” Also, he gave his opinion on the so-called cadaver note, which detectives had tried to link to him. Robert said, “Whoever wrote that note… had to be involved in Susan’s death,” reported The New York Times.
In the lead up to Robert’s trial, his defense team allegedly tried to block evidence from document experts who claim that his handwriting matched that of the cadaver note. Still, in a court document filed on Christmas Eve 2019 his lawyers made an incredible admission.
That’s correct – exactly 19 years to the day that Susan’s body had been found, Robert’s legal team admitted that he was the author of the cadaver letter. So this new piece of evidence appeared to place Robert at Susan’s home around the time of her murder. Nonetheless, he continued to deny any involvement in the killing.
As you may already know, Robert’s trial for Susan’s murder got underway on March 5, 2020. And during the first day of proceedings, the jury was shown the clip of Robert’s alleged confession from The Jinx documentary. Meanwhile, the prosecution also laid out its argument that Robert had killed Susan to cover up Kathleen’s murder.
You see, although Kathleen disappeared in 1982, she wasn’t formally declared dead until 2017, following a request from her family. But investigators continued to suspect Robert was her murderer. In any case, her body has never been found, and Robert has never been charged over it.
But when police reopened the case in 1999, they were reportedly eager to speak to his good friend Susan. However, she was murdered before they could even reach her. So it’s the prosecution’s belief that Susan helped Robert to cover-up Kathleen’s murder. On that note, let’s find out more.
According to The Guardian, prosecutors claimed that Robert recruited Susan in the days after Kathleen’s 1982 death to help him get away with murder. They even claim that Susan made a fake phone call to Kathleen’s medical school, pretending to be the victim. Thus, this would’ve created the impression that Kathleen was still alive, it’s alleged. However, prosecutors claim that Susan may have known too much about Kathleen’s case, which they say was Robert’s motive for killing her too.
Furthermore, in his opening statement, deputy district attorney John Lewin seemed to imply that Susan must have known her killer. As reported by The Guardian, he told the jury, “She let the killer into her house, she turned her back to them… She wasn’t afraid of them and then she was executed, shot in the head at very close range.”
So for now, Robert’s trial is ongoing and is expected to last for a number of months. According to The New York Times, the prosecution is planning to call over 100 witnesses and introduce over 2,000 exhibits. Meanwhile, Robert – now aged 77 – reportedly wants to take the stand in order to protest his innocence. The trial, as they say, continues.