An Affair to Dismember: My Two Decades Covering Robert Durst

Journalist Lisa DePaulo spent years covering the case of the infamous millionaire murderer—then she became a witness at his trial
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For the last few years, I couldn’t write about this case I covered relentlessly for 20 years and was obsessed with, because in the midst of covering it I became a witness. And the last thing lawyers want is for a witness in a homicide trial to talk to the press, let alone be the press. It was torture. But now here we are. And there he is: On Friday, after a trial delayed more than a year after it started because of COVID, a Los Angeles jury found Robert Durst, 78, guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of his best friend Susan Berman in 2000. (Because he had recently been exposed to a COVID-positive deputy he had recently hired, Durst was in quarantine and not in the courtroom when the verdict was read.)

What took so long? How did this serial killer—worth $200 million, give or take what he paid his defense attorneys all these years, his share of a vast real estate fortune inherited from a family to whom he longer speaks—skate for so long?

Durst’s saga began in 1982 when his pretty wife, Kathie McCormack Durst, who was about to graduate medical school, went “missing” in New York (women who are about to graduate medical school don’t go missing by choice). It ended in Benedict Canyon just before Christmas 2000, where it was long alleged and is now proven, Durst shot and killed Berman, a wildly provocative writer and mob daughter. She and Bob had first met as students at UCLA and soon become fast friends, to the point that she provided an alibi for him in 1982 after Kathie Durst disappeared. Impersonating Kathie, Berman called the dean of her medical school to say she was sick and couldn’t attend classes. All signs suggested that Bobby had a hand in her disappearance. But thanks to a combination of incompetence by investigators and the intimidation of his money, Kathie Durst’s creepy husband was never charged in the case.

Fast forward 20 years. A young state trooper in Westchester County, New York, Joe Becerra, dusted off the file and got the case reopened. This spooked the hell out of Bob. First he went to L.A. and killed Susan because he thought she would talk. Then, he fled to Galveston, Texas, where he rented a $300 a month flophouse apartment, dressed as a woman, and pretended to be mute. Are you following? Millionaire Bob Durst was now a mute named Dorothy Ciner (the name of someone he went to high school with in Scarsdale). He said he was hiding so the Westchester County District Attorney couldn’t find him. But his neighbor, a drifter named Morris Black, got wise to Bob—and ended up shot and dismembered.

robert durst
Susan Berman and Robert Durst early in their friendship, which lasted until her murder in 2000. “Bobby adored Sustan,” a friend said. “She was his Holly Golightly. Bobby was Caspar Milquetoast.”

I got involved in this crazy saga in January of 2001, when my editors at New York called to ask if I could get on the next flight to L.A. after Berman, who had also written for the magazine, was found with a bullet in the back of her head in her Benedict Canyon home. The resulting story, “Who Killed the Gangster’s Daughter?” got me hooked. Later that year, when Morris washed up in pieces in Galveston Bay, I headed to Texas to chase the story for Talk magazine.

When the jury’s guilty verdict was read at the courthouse in Inglewood, there were three people I couldn’t wait to talk to—at least after I picked up my jaw off the floor.

The first was Kathie Durst’s brother, Jim McCormack. Jim and I had gotten tight over the years that I’d covered the story. It seemed like everyone involved in the decades-long Bob Durst melodrama—friends of Susan’s, friends of Kathie’s, reporters, even judges—were like family. (But not like the Durst family—no one had committed suicide by jumping off a roof in Scarsdale, as Bob’s mother did. Nor was anyone killing family pets, as Bob allegedly had, knocking off several dogs all named Igor; he would often talk about “Igoring” people.) As we waited for the verdict, I said that if the jury came back without a guilty verdict, I would—to borrow one of Susan’s great lines—get in my bathtub with my hairdryer.

Over the years, Jim and I came to really love each other. I loved him even when he fell into his anti-Biden schtick; eventually he learned not to bring it up. But Kathie? We could talk endlessly about her. Jim was relentless in seeking justice for his baby sister, who had been emotionally and physically abused by Bob before her disappearance. If anything ever happened to me, I would hope to have a big brother like Jim. Though he will never move on from Kathie’s death, I hope the verdict has brought him a little peace. When I reached him after the verdict was announced, Jim told me: “I’m ecstatic. It’s been a long, long journey.”

Jim also knew that a guilty verdict in the Susan Berman case would essentially mean a guilty verdict for Kathie’s death, thanks to the deft skills of L.A. County prosecutor John Lewin, who managed to deliver on his promise in opening arguments that the cases were interrelated. Like this exchange with Bob:

“But if you had killed Kathie, would you tell us?”

“No.”

“If you had killed Susan, would you tell us?”

“No.”

The second person I wanted to talk to was Stephen M. Silverman, a close friend of Susan’s. I met him doing my first piece for New York after Susan was found dead. Stephen, who also testified in the case, left me with an indelible image of Susan, who was his next-door neighbor back when they both lived in Manhattan. But Susan’s apartment had only a shower. “So Susan would put on this Madame Butterfly Cio-Cio-San bathrobe and walk out on the sidewalk, come into my apartment, and go right into my bathtub. I could be screwing my brains out. Susan would just barge in.” He loved her so. “It’s a tremendous relief,” Stephen told me Friday. “We won’t have to keep looking over our shoulder to see if Bob is coming.”

The third person was Susan Criss, the judge in Galveston who presided over the trial where Durst, after admitting to killing his neighbor Morris Black (in self-defense, he said) and then chopping up his body and dumping the trash bags in the bay (also in self-defense) was acquitted. Acquitted! He admitted he chopped up someone and got acquitted! Again, enter John Lewin. There were lawyers who thought that allowing the Morris Black stuff into the most recent trial was a gift to the defense—after all, Bob had been acquitted of killing Black. But Lewin knew better; it proved that Bob knew how to dismember someone—which became the theory after Kathie’s “disappearance” way back in 1981. He also got Bob to admit, over and over, that he had lied to the jury in Galveston. If he would lie to that jury, he would lie to you, was the message.

Criss has gotten a bad rap but she was a fine jurist. The problem in Galveston wasn’t the judge. The prosecutor was, shall we say, no John Lewin. And the jury seemed flakier than a pie crust. Also, Bob’s famed defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, was at the top of his game, more aggressive and energetic than he now seems.

Still, DeGuerin was always a gentleman and a pro when I had to call him for comments. Even when I had to call him about the Cadaver Note, a story I first broke in New York magazine. The Cadaver Note would become one of the great moments in the case’s history, a real “Bobism,” as Lewin would say. It was scribbled in green ink (Bob loved green ink) and addressed to the “Beverley [sic] Hills” police. Inside the envelope was a single word, “CADAVER,” and Susan’s address. For decades, Bob denied writing the cadaver note, and told the producers of The Jinx, the blockbuster HBO documentary series that made him a household name and led to his arrest, that whoever wrote the note was Susan’s killer. The producers then showed him a note he’d sent to Berman the year before misspelling “Beverly” exactly the same way. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Bob’s lawyers stipulated, at the start of the trial, that he was the author of the note. In his testimony, Bob explained that he knew no one would believe that he stumbled upon Susan’s dead body but wasn’t her murderer, so he sent the note to the police so her body wouldn’t rot. Bob was always a nice guy like that. Even the Galveston jury seemed to get the lie about the note.

So what did Susan Criss think after Bob was finally found guilty?

“I was telling myself, stop crying,” Criss told me. “But those tears were over two decades coming.”

Durst
Investigators say Susan Berman’s phone call to police misdirected the search for Kathleen McCormack after she vanished.

Courtesy HBO

Sometime in 2016 Lewin called me and asked me to identify some off-the-record sources in my New York and Talk stories. He knew damned well I wasn’t going to give up my sources—people who told me how Susan told them she knew Bobby killed Kathie. But Levin was nothing if not persistent. So I told him this: I would reach out to those people and ask if they would want to go on the record now. I felt they should have that choice. (A lot of them felt differently about Bob after he admitted he’d chopped up Morris.) The first source I called, Nick Chavin, said yes without hesitation. In fact, Nick, who considered both Bob and Susan his best friends, ended up being the prosecution’s star witness, testifying that Bob told him one night after dinner that he had to kill Susan because it was “her or me.” (Bob would always choose “me.”) Another source I simply couldn’t find; none of the numbers or emails I had for this person worked anymore. “You mean Bede Roberts?” asked Lewin. “I can’t answer that,” I replied. “Well, if it is Bede, she’s dead.” That was news to me. My taped transcripts made clear that Bede very much wanted to talk on the record but was terrified of Bob; she obviously no longer had anything to fear. With assurances from one of Bede’s friends (“It’s what she’d want”), I forked over my tapes of our conversations to Lewin. Which is how I ended up as a witness.

I flew to L.A. to deliver my testimony a few years prior to the start of the trial because I was on a special list of witnesses who might not be alive when it finally started. (At the time I was ill with cancer; other witnesses got summoned due to advancing age.) I remember how thrilled I was when I checked into the hotel the L.A. DA’s office put us in and spotted Julie Smith in the coffee shop. We both screamed at the same time. Julie, a mystery writer who lived in New Orleans, was one of Susan’s best friends; In fact, she was executor of Susan’s will. One of Susan’s instructions was to deliver to Bob one of Davie Berman’s most treasured artifacts; Davie was Susan’s father and Bugsy Siegel’s right-hand man in Vegas, known as Davie The Jew, who took over when Siegel was assassinated. Susan worshipped her father. She carried his mug shot in her wallet. It pained Julie to have to give Davie’s star of David to Bobby Durst.

“Why are you here early?” I asked Julie.

“Age. You?”

“Cancer.”

We knew we shouldn’t talk about the case, but really, there wasn’t much left to talk about; we’d already talked about it for years. And now here we were, finally, at the trial for Susan’s murder.

Testifying in the courtroom, even without a jury, was weird. Bob was seated less than 20 feet from me. I wanted to jump out of the witness chair, and beg him, “Bob, please. Just tell us what you did with Kathie’s remains.” I always felt that if Bob had an ounce of decency, he would give that information to her family. But Bob had no incentive to tell. As he said to Lewin after he was arrested in New Orleans, thanks to The Jinx, “What’s in it for me?” (After the verdict, Jim McCormack told me: You know what I want from Bob? To answer my late mother’s question: What did you do with her?”) And who could forget the immortal “Killed them all, of course,” uttered in a men’s room at the end of The Jinx, when Bob didn’t realize his mic was still live.

Bob did incredibly stupid things over the years, and many of them had to do with being cheap. Back in Galveston, one of the trash bags with Morris’s limbs that floated up in the bay included a receipt for eyeglasses that he’d had ordered the week before. Bob Durst wasn’t going to let a couple of hundred dollars go to waste, so he showed up at the eye doctor’s office to retrieve his new frames! Where the Galveston police were waiting for him. Then, he got out on bail, because no one in Galveston knew who Bobby Durst was, and went on the lam for 45 days. He finally got caught at a Wegmans in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he shoplifted a chicken sandwich, even though he had a trunk full of cash in his car. Why should he have to pay? Morris’s head was never found. But Bob, then a fugitive escaping to New Orleans, brought a bloody comforter to a dry cleaner there. The dry cleaner said there was this big round pink stain that was hard to get out. Classic Bob. Why throw out a good comforter?

Even in the ‘70s when Kathie’s brother Jim met his baby sister’s millionaire boyfriend for the first time at a bar on the Upper West Side, “I paid for the first round. Then the second round.” When Bobby and Kathie got married, there were only two guests (Bob’s wishes)—her working-class mother and Bob’s billionaire father. Her mother picked up the tab.

Susan was another person who always picked up the tab. She had inherited some mob money; ‘Davie the Jew’ died of natural causes at 52 when Susie was 12. She never recovered from losing her father—who commissioned an enormous oil painting of her that hung in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel, who hired Liberace to sing at her 12th birthday party, and into whose casket Susan tried to throw herself when he died. Susan’s mother Gladys, a tap dancer, died the following year, by suicide, in a mental hospital. At his trial, Bob testified about watching his mother jump off the rooftop of their Scarsdale home when he was a little boy. Whether he actually witnessed her death is debatable; he lied about so much. But having mothers who both took their lives was one of the reasons that he and Susan bonded.

Bob’s lawyers emphatically did not want him to testify—no defense attorney wants a client who’s an admitted murderer on the stand. But Bob wanted to and Bob was paying. (Besides, it worked in Galveston.) His behavior in the courtroom certainly was memorable: he constantly muttered to himself while scribbling notes in a legal pad, and spun in his wheelchair to stare at people in the gallery. During his testimony, Bob told so many lies told that at one point Lewin told the judge, out of the jury’s presence, that he had never seen someone commit perjury so many times. The judge, Mark Windham, agreed—also out of earshot of the jury—that Durst’s testimony was simply “not credible.”

Durst in court in 2016

Jae C. Hong-Pool/Getty Images

One of the biggest whoppers was Bob’s explanation of why he was in Los Angeles on December 23, 2000. For decades he swore he was never in Los Angeles around the time that Susan was killed. Then, shortly before trial, his lawyers stipulated that he had in fact been in L.A. He testified that he entered her home with a spare key and “did a double-take. I saw Susan lying on the floor. I shouted Susan! A couple of times. Then I quickly ran to the bedroom where she was. Her eyes were closed.” Under cross-examination by Lewin, the story got better. Durst said he thought maybe the killer was still in the house and that her breath was warm but her body was cold. “Her breath was warm? She was dead,” said Lewin.

Bob also testified that he and Susan were going to spend Christmas at the Chateau Marmont (where there was no record of a reservation) then travel to northern California. This was the first mention—ever—of a vacation, never mind that Susan had plans with relatives and friends carefully annotated in her diaries; when challenged about Susan’s supposed use of “staycation,” which wasn’t widely used in the early aughts, Bob blithely explained, “Susan was ahead of her time.”

But the big question still loomed: As a witness to what Bob did or said he did to Kathie, the theory was that Susan knew enough to rat him out. But, would Susan have ratted him out? I think not. With a few caveats.

Raised by a mobster father whom she adored, Susan had long ago internalized mob mentality. Loyalty was everything to her. And she was fiercely loyal to her best pal, “Bobby, Bobby, wonderful Bobby” as she referred to him to friends. Bob may have thought she’d rat him out, paranoid as he was, but I don’t believe she would have. I do, however, believe that, as she got more and more destitute—Susan’s once-promising career was by then in retreat, her Benedict Canyon house barely furnished—she may have seen the re-opening of the case an opportunity to squeeze some cash out of her wealthy friend. Susan was nothing if not manipulative, maybe she dropped some hints. In fact, towards the end of her life, she was irked that Bob changed his numbers and was forced to write to him in care of the Durst Organization. He ended up sending her two $25,000 checks. Not a lot for a millionaire heir but a lot for a cheap bastard.

Susan had so many phobias she’d have never let someone she was angry at into her home. Even Bobby Bobby wonderful Bobby. This is why I bought the prosecution’s theory that Durst lay in wait for her and then shot her, point-blank, ambush-style. The only saving grace is she probably never knew what hit her.

As the trial wound down, and Bob took the stand, many worried that his decrepit condition—he had bladder cancer and looked like, well, a cadaver—would inspire pity. I did too until he opened his mouth, proving that even someone who is frail and dying can come off as an arrogant and unlikable jerk.

Then came the closing arguments. I actually felt sorry for DeGuerin. He had nothing to work with. Even the court reporter was rolling her eyes. It was “an honor to represent Bob”? There’s a great little group on lawandcrime.com who snark commented on the closing arguments in real-time. While DeGuerin was delivering his close, one of them wrote, “Sounded better over drinks last night.”

Now we’ll have to wait for the appeals. And there will undoubtedly be appeals as long as Bob has the money to fund them. Many have speculated that he’ll die before any appeal comes to fruition. Please. He’ll outlive us all.

In the hours after Bob’s guilty verdict, Susan’s friends played “The Sunny Side of the Street” over and over. It was her favorite song because it was her father’s favorite song.

Her friends sang it at her funeral. That her best friend Bobby Bobby wonderful Bobby never showed up for.


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