Robert Durst has been the subject of an HBO documentary, a Ryan Gosling movie, decades of tabloid coverage, and multiple SNL spoofs, but on Wednesday, prosecutors turned the attention back onto the two women they say he tormented and killed.
Opening statements began Wednesday in the Los Angeles murder trial of Durst, a 76-year-old real estate heir with a truly bizarre history. Prosecutors believe he killed his first wife, Kathie, in 1982, though her body has never been found. He has now been charged with the murder of his longtime friend Susan Berman, whom he has been accused of killing in 2000 to prevent her from implicating him in Kathie’s death.
A graphic image of Berman lying on her back in a pool of blood from a gunshot wound to the head was one of the first pieces of evidence that Deputy District Attorney John Lewin presented to the jury. Jurors also heard audio of the 911 call placed by her concerned neighbor, who saw Berman’s dogs loose in her backyard. It was unusual for the neighborhood, and particularly out of character for Berman, who lived alone and was devoted to her pets. When first responders arrived at the house, they had no idea they’d find an execution-style murder inside.
Her run-down rental was a far cry from her days as a “mafia princess” in Las Vegas, where her father, David Berman, was one of mobster Bugsy Siegel’s partners. Her memoir, Easy Street, documented their conflicted relationship and her deep loyalty to her father despite the terrible things he did.
“Loyalty was very important to Susan," her close friend Miriam Barnes testified at a pretrial hearing. "She learned loyalty from her father, and he meant everything to her.”
This “loyal to the extreme” quality was at the heart of Berman’s relationship with Durst — and the reason, prosecutors say, she stood by him after his wife went missing under suspicious circumstances. But when Berman told Durst police had contacted her about reopening Kathie’s case, prosecutors say, it was his fear of betrayal that motivated him to kill his best friend.
Durst demanded loyalty — not just from “Susie,” but also his wife Kathie.
Lewin emphasized the “unequal power dynamic” between Kathie and her husband, who was nine years older and heir to a real estate fortune.
“In terms of education she had zilch,” Durst told filmmaker Andrew Jarecki in an interview from the 2015 HBO documentary The Jinx that was played in court. “I guess you would say I was marrying beneath me. Or she was marrying up.”
Durst said money didn’t matter to him, but he hated spending time with his wife’s “average American family” and “despised” and “ridiculed” the things they did.
Durst was unfaithful almost from the start of their marriage, Lewin pointed out. But later on, when their relationship became rocky and Kathie cheated on him, Durst was furious.
“I was always very, very, very controlling,” he told Jarecki in the interview.
He gave her a small allowance and withheld money when she crossed him — like when she told him she was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby.
“I told her from the beginning, I didn’t want to have children,” Durst said. “Keep the baby [and] you’re going to get divorced from me. Period.”
Lewin said this was “the beginning of the escalation in the domestic violence in the marriage” and the beginning of divorce proceedings.
As their relationship deteriorated, Durst refused to pay Kathie’s medical school tuition — she was in her last year at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and close to graduating.
On Jan. 6, 1982, she went to Jacobi Medical Center, a hospital affiliated with the medical school, with injuries to her face. She told doctors that she had been a victim of domestic violence, but she did not say that her husband was the one who assaulted her. Like many women, Lewin said, she was afraid and embarrassed.
Despite her fear — which another colleague at the medical school testified to witnessing — Kathie stayed with Durst. She wanted what she believed was a fair divorce settlement, Lewin said, and she would not leave her marriage until she got it.
Less than a month later, Kathie disappeared. The morning she was expected to attend classes, a woman called the dean of the medical school to say she was sick and would not be coming in. Prosecutors say that call was made by Susan Berman, impersonating Kathie after the murder to protect Durst, whom she called “Bobby.” Berman’s friend, movie producer Lynda Obst, testified in pretrial hearings that Berman at one point confessed to her about making the call.
Kathie disappeared after requesting her husband’s financial support, prosecutors noted. Years later, Berman was “living in squalor,” Lewin said, and she also needed money. She got it from Durst: two checks of $25,000 each in the year she died. Was it to buy her silence?
“Susan was my best friend,” Durst would later tell authorities from a New Orleans jail cell.