The decade's most triggering comedy
Robert Durst, the descendent of a prominent New York real estate family who inadvertently confessed to murdering three people while using the bathroom when he was still wearing a wireless microphone for a documentary, has died. He was 78.
Durst reportedly died early Monday in Stockton, California. Though he evaded prosecution for his crimes for years, he was finally convicted in September 2021 and sentenced to life in prison, where he contracted COVID-19. His attorney, Chip Lewis, confirmed Durst’s death to The New York Times, adding that COVID worsened his already existing medical conditions. Durst had been taken to the San Joaquin General Hospital for testing, went into cardiac arrest, and died.
Durst’s wealthy lifestyle collapsed after three people in his orbit died under suspicious circumstances, including his first wife, a longtime confidante, and an elderly neighbor. For decades, Durst’s guilt was suspected but not confirmed, until he cooperated with a documentary filmmaker and made a startling admission: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Durst’s captivating true-crime story began on January 31, 1982, when his wife, Kathleen Durst, vanished after the couple fought in their South Salem, New York, home. Kathleen was never seen again. The couple met when Kathleen was a medical student living in a building owned by Durst’s family. After just two dates, the Times reported, Durst asked Kathleen to move to Vermont with him since he had just opened a health-food store called “All Good Things.” A year after they moved, Durst’s father urged him to return to New York and join the family’s real estate business. In 1973, Durst married Kathleen, who was then 19 years old. Durst was nine years older than her.
The marriage started to fall apart three years later and in 1981, Kathleen hired a divorce attorney. Not long before she disappeared, she went to a hospital where she was treated for bruises she claimed were made by her husband.
“Mrs. Durst told her sister, her friends and virtually anyone who would listen, ‘If anything happens to me, don’t let Bob get away with it,’” the Times reported in 2017.
Durst reported his wife’s disappearance five days after she went missing, telling police he drove her to the train station so she could board a train to Manhattan for a medical school appointment. Durst claimed he returned to South Salem and later called his wife while she was staying at their penthouse in Manhattan, but phone records show no such calls existed. Durst claimed he used a pay phone while walking his dog, but this made no sense since the nearest pay phone in South Salem was miles from his home and the night in question was cold and rainy. Durst also said he had a drink with neighbors after taking Kathleen to the train station, but neighbors couldn’t confirm his claims.
Without conclusive evidence linking Durst to his wife’s killing, he went on with his life, eventually marrying Manhattan real estate broker Debrah Lee Charatan. Sixteen years after Kathleen’s disappearance, police received a tip from a suspect in an unrelated case, learning that confidential financial records Kathleen had given to two friends had been stolen in a burglary.
Police also had questions for Susan Berman, Durst’s longtime confidante and spokeswoman, regarding whether she was more than just a spokesperson. In 2000, police scheduled an interview with Berman, but shortly before the date they received a handwritten letter using block letters mentioning a “cadaver” and providing an address. Berman’s body was found at that address. She had been shot. It was Berman’s killing that would eventually undo Durst, as she was reportedly set to tell prosecutors that Kathleen’s disappearance was staged and that Durst had killed his first wife. Berman allegedly was going to tell prosecutors that she helped Durst cover up the crime. Durst was not charged with Berman’s murder until 15 years later, in 2015, when the case was reopened.
One year after Berman’s murder, Durst’s neighbor, Morris Black, was shot in his Galveston, Texas, apartment. Durst was living in the building pretending to be a mute woman – one of many odd identities he adopted while avoiding prosecution for his crimes.
During an argument one night, Durst shot Black in the face and killed him, then dismembered his body and dumped the parts in Galveston Bay. He was arrested for Black’s murder and tried in 2003, but claimed self-defense and said he dismembered the body and fled because he didn’t think anyone would believe him. He was acquitted.
As The Times reported, while evading arrest, Durst sometimes cross-dressed and “became a vagrant urinating in public.”
In 2015, Durst, who previously refused to speak with journalists or filmmakers, agreed to participate in a six-part HBO mini-series titled “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” He spoke with filmmaker Andrew Jarecki for 20 hours, all recorded. In their last interview, Jarecki shared with Durst two samples of block-letter handwriting – a known letter he had sent to Berman in 1999 and the anonymous one sent to police explaining where to find Berman’s body. Jarecki informed Durst that a handwriting expert said the same person wrote both letters – an insinuation that Durst had killed Berman.
After the interview, Durst when into a bathroom and began rambling to himself, unaware that his wireless microphone was still recording. He ended up confessing to the crimes, saying, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Durst was arrested before the last episode of “The Jinx” aired.
During the trial, which was delayed until 2021, Durst’s longtime friend Nick Chavin testified that Durst had confessed in 2014 to killing Berman, saying “It was her or me. I had no choice.”
Durst was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Berman on September 17, 2021 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Two days after he was sentenced, New York State Police investigator Joseph Becerra filed a criminal complaint against Durst, accusing him of second-degree murder in the death of his first wife, Kathleen. Nothing more came of the case before Durst died early Monday.