The Strange Case of Robert Durst

As Robert Durst awaits trial for the 2000 murder of friend Susan Berman, what some believe to be his original sin gets an airing in the Lifetime movie “The Lost Wife of Robert Durst,” which premieres on Saturday. The film imagines the events leading up to the 1982 disappearance of the notorious real estate scion’s first wife Kathleen Durst.
Robert Durst during a preliminary hearing in December 2016 in Los Angeles, after being charged with the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman. (Photo: Jae C. Hong-Pool\Getty Images)

Robert Durst during a preliminary hearing in December 2016 in Los Angeles, after being charged with the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman. (Photo: Jae C. Hong-Pool\Getty Images)

After years of Robert Durst grabbing headlines for misdeeds both proven and alleged, some may feel it’s about time the focus was placed back on the woman whose disappearance got the whole sordid saga rolling. Kathleen Durst’s body was never found, and there was not enough compelling evidence to bring charges against her husband. But friends and family who were privy to their troubled marriage came to believe early on that Robert was responsible for her disappearance. One friend who stood by him was Susan Berman, an author known for memoirs of her life as a mobster’s daughter. Some suspected that Berman knew more about what became of Kathie than she was telling, and in 2000 Durst may have suspected that she was finally starting to talk. Later that year, she was shot execution-style in her Los Angeles home. 

As detailed in the 2015 HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Durst was later tried and found not guilty of murder in yet another violent death, that of his neighbor in Galveston, Texas. He seemed to have a knack for walking away from any terrible act, but cooperating with Jinx filmmaker Andrew Jarecki proved to be his undoing. Caught on tape muttering “Killed them all, of course,” Durst soon was arrested and charged with Berman’s death, and is currently awaiting trial.

But no such developments have occurred in the Kathleen Durst cold case; there is not even proof that a murder occurred. The Lost Wife of Robert Durst, which is based on the book A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst by investigative journalist Matt Birbeck, may not solve the mystery. But by dramatizing the case (with Katherine McPhee cast in the role of Kathleen and Daniel Gillies as Robert), it should further fan the speculative flames. 

For those in need of a recap, here are a few bizarre facts from the long-running Durst saga:

The facts that made Durst such a complex and compelling subject are these: in 1982, Durst’s semi-estranged wife Kathleen, who was in the process of finishing her medical degree, disappeared without a trace. Her husband came under suspicion, but neither body nor tangible evidence of his culpability in any crime was found. The investigation foundered as Durst prospered in his father’s real estate business. Then, in the 1990s, he left the firm after a family dispute and himself disappeared from sight, only to resurface in Galveston, Texas as the main suspect in the murder/dismemberment of a neighbor. There was a manhunt, Durst was caught, and acquitted (though he did cop to cutting up his neighbor’s body.) In the meanwhile, Susan Berman, a longtime female friend, of the suspect also turned up murdered in California. On March 14, 2015, Durst was arrested by the FBI in connection with Berman's murder. 

That’s the outline of Durst’s ongoing saga. But here are some of the more bizarre details of his story:

1. Trouble attached itself early to Robert Durst. When he was seven, his 32-year-old mother either jumped or fell to her death from the roof of the family home in Scarsdale, New York. Robert was a witness; years of counseling followed. As a child, his eccentricities included pretending to be in a school band and hiding his tuba in the woods.

2.  Despite his wealth, Robert styled himself a member of the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While enrolled at UCLA, he minored in marijuana intake, engaged in primal scream therapy alongside John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and became an acolyte of Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In the early 70s, he met Kathleen, and the couple moved to New Hampshire to run a health food store.

3. Robert seemed less than concerned after his wife’s disappearance. Kathleen was on the verge of extricating herself from what friends described as a controlling, abusive Robert when she vanished in 1982. Durst did not report the disappearance for four days, and his accounts of the last time he saw his wife in their Westchester County home kept changing and did not hold up to scrutiny. The police were stumped, but after several of Kathleen’s friends undertook their own investigation, their homes were burglarized and relevant materials stolen.

4. Like Cain, Robert was no fan of his younger brother. In an interview with The New York Times, Douglas Durst revealed that he and his brother’s long-standing enmity extended to keeping weapons—a plumber’s wrench for Robert, a piece of pipe for Douglas—close at hand in their Durst Organization offices during the 1990s. Father Seymour Durst eventually replaced eldest son Robert with Doug as designated successor. Robert subsequently left the company.

5. Being a mafia princess doesn’t necessarily protect you from your crazy friends. On Christmas Eve of 2000, Durst pal and supporter Susan Berman, who had written books about her girlhood amongst Las Vegas mobsters like Bugsy Siegel, was found dead in her California home. A single gunshot wound to the head made it look like a gang hit. But it then emerged that New York State Police had been in touch with Berman about the Kathleen Durst cold case. Durst was arrested by the FBI on March 14, 2015 in connection with Berman's murder. 

6. In 2000, the same year as Berman's murder, a cross-dressing Robert turned up in Galveston. Dressed in drag and posing as a mute woman called Dorothy Ciner (the name of an actual childhood acquaintance), Durst moved into a shabby apartment in the Texas coastal city. At times he also passed as a mute man, and sometimes as Dorothy Ciner’s house guest, Robert Durst.

7. Dorothy was no more to be trusted than Robert. In September 2001, pieces of Dorothy’s neighbor, 71-year-old Morris Black, started washing ashore around Galveston. No head was ever recovered. A trail of blood was found leading from Black’s apartment to Dorothy’s. Her true identity was revealed, and Robert was arrested, but posted bail and escaped.

8. Robert should have resisted the urge to shoplift that chicken sandwich. Still dressed in a woman’s wig, Durst was apprehended while stealing a sandwich, a newspaper, and a Band-Aid from a Pennsylvania supermarket. He pled innocent to the murder charge during trial, claiming a struggle over a gun had led to Black’s death (while admitting to carving up the man’s body with a paring knife). Durst was acquitted of murder, although he served some time on lesser charges.

9. Was Robert also a dogslayer? With interest revived in Kathleen Durst’s disappearance and presumed murder, Douglas Durst revealed a theory in his Times interview. According to his account, Robert had a succession of seven Alaskan Malamutes (all named Igor) who mysteriously died over the months leading to Kathleen’s disappearance. Could these have been dry runs for the big event?

10. Public urination has tripped Robert up on more than one occasion. In July 2014, Durst was arrested when he exposed himself and urinated on a candy rack at a Houston CVS. Douglas Durst recalls that his older brother’s fate with the Durst Organization may have been sealed when he peed in an uncle’s wastebasket. This piece of information may not help solve the Kathleen Durst case, but when it comes to Robert Durst, stranger things truly have happened.