The story of Robert Durst is bizarre and complex. Born into a wealthy Manhattan real estate family worth billions, he was fated to take control of the family business. But because of his erratic and unstable behavior, it never happened. Who is he: a murderer or just a victim of many strange circumstances? We hope our Robert Durst wiki can shed a little bit of light on this mysterious, multi-level case.
While it’s uncertain who Durst really is, what is certain, however, is that people around Durst had a tendency to vanish or end up dead or murdered.
He is suspected of murdering his wife Kathleen McCormack Durst, though her body has never been found.
He admitted to murdering a neighbor and chopping up his body. But he claimed self-defense and was acquitted.
One of his closest confidants, Susan Berman, died execution-style.
And many others in Durst’s sphere have simply disappeared without a trace.
His everyday life has been marked by suicide, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental breakdowns, extramarital affairs, corporate intrigue, gangsters, being a fugitive, and cross-dressing.
Durst spent much of the time trying to live his eccentric life under the radar. But all that changed after the HBO documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst aired in 2015.
With this show, Durst was back in the spotlight. It led to police reopening the Berman cold case…and actually arresting Durst for her murder.
This Robert Durst wiki looks at the suspected murderer’s long and strange life, his alleged misdeeds, trials, and tribulations.
Who Is Robert Durst?
Robert Alan Durst was born on April 12, 1943 in New York City.
The eldest son of real estate magnate Seymour Durst and his wife Bernice Hertstein, he has three siblings: Douglas, Thomas, and Wendy.
Just because he was brought up in a life of luxury doesn’t mean, according to him, that he had it easy. He saw himself as the tormented son of a big real estate developer, with an intense sibling rivalry with his younger brother Douglas. According to him, he went through the trauma of witnessing his mother commit suicide.
His Mother’s Suicide
Robert Durst’s mother committed suicide in 1950, when he was just seven. At the time, the family was living in Scarsdale, Westchester County, New York. One day that autumn, Bernice climbed up onto the roof of their family’s home and fell, or jumped, to her death.
Bernice’s untimely death left her husband Seymour with four young children. The eldest of whom was seven-year-old Bobby, who is said to have witnessed his mother’s alleged suicide.
Robert claimed that Seymour walked him over to a hall window and pointed out Bernice standing on the roof. He remembers waving at his mother. He never saw her fall, but he heard the maid shout, “She’s off the roof.”
“I never forgot it,” Durst said. “It never left me,” he added.
Not everyone remembers it that way. According to Douglas, all four children were taken away for the duration of the incident.
Moreover, Douglas said that, after his mother died, Seymour was attentive, doting, concerned for their well-being, and supportive of Robert.
Meanwhile, reporter Matt Birkbeck, who authored the 2003 book A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst, said Robert’s account differs from the records from that day, news reports, and police reports.
When Robert Durst was 10 years old, he was sent to see a psychiatrist to help him deal with mental and emotional issues he was dealing with. Because of Robert’s severe issues, which the therapist diagnosed as “personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia,” he didn’t believe that the child could even be treated.
In 1953, the warning signs were there—Robert was a ticking time bomb.
One individual who was well aware of Robert’s unhinged nature was his younger brother, Douglas. The sibling rivalry between Robert and Douglas is one for the ages. It continued unabated from the early 1940s on.
Douglas didn’t say what year, but when the brothers were young, he said Robert deliberately shoved Douglas onto the ice at a skating rink. The younger brother ended up with a broken wrist.
It was, Douglas recounted, their life as boys and men: “a low-grade menace that swelled as they grew up.”
In fact, Douglas said that ever since he can remember, he hated spending time with Robert. They constantly fought. The two were around the same height, but because Robert was one year older, he was usually victorious.
Robert would also torture his younger sister Wendy and younger brother Tom; worse than he abused Douglas.
That sibling rivalry would eventually be behind a corporate takeover.
A Family Divided
As the older brother, Robert was destined to take over the family’s real estate company, which includes One World Trade Center, 4 Times Square, and nine other commercial New York City properties.
In 1971, Robert and his then girlfriend Kathleen McCormack opened a health-food store in Vermont.
In 1973, his father urged Robert to move back to New York to rejoin the family business.
But Robert wasn’t someone you could rely on. He worked intermittently, showed up late in the day, or waited until everyone else left for the day.
He also spoke to himself out loud, which was disconcerting for those he worked with. And it accelerated over the years. In meetings, he would sit there mumbling to himself.
Douglas installed a camera in his office, and caught Robert rifling through his papers. The last straw was when he discovered that Robert urinated in his waste paper basket.
But the family did nothing about it until one of their uncles found that Robert had also used his waste basket as a urinal.
After that, the family decided that Douglas, and not Robert, would succeed Seymour. This did not affect Robert’s shares in the company; they simply shifted control to Douglas.
On December 19, 1994, the day he turned 50, Douglas took control of the Durst Organization.
Later that week, the family gathered for its regular lunch at Osteria al Doge on West 44th Street and waited for Robert to show up. He didn’t. When they returned to work, they discovered that Robert cleared out his office, with his mail and calls being forwarded to an address on Wall Street.
Douglas said that it was difficult to discern any rational reasoning for Robert’s behavior or lies. As a child, Robert pretended he was in the school band, going so far as to bring a tuba home. He also claimed to have earned two doctoral degrees, which was also a lie.
In later years, Douglas said, “Bob is incapable of telling the truth. He is a true psychopath, beyond any emotions. That’s why he does things, so he can experience the emotions that other people have vicariously. Because he has absolutely none of his own.”
In 2006, Robert Durst accepted $65.0 million for his interest in the Durst Organization. He no longer has any legal claim to the family empire.
The Strange Disappearances of Those Who Knew Durst
His Wife, Kathleen McCormack Vanishes
In 1971, Robert Durst met Kathleen (Kathie) McCormack. He was 28, she was a teenage dental hygienist living in one of his family’s buildings. They met when she brought him a rent check. The Durst family owned the building, and he was her landlord.
The couple hit it off. He was older, came from a wealthy family, sculpted, and knew architecture. Young McCormack was impressed. After two dates, Durst invited her to move to Vermont, where he owned a health food store.
On first meeting McCormack, Durst said, “She thought I was good looking in my little way, cute or whatever it was. She was very outgoing and social and got along with people real good. It was perfect because I don’t get along with people. Most people don’t get along with me.”
He was correct. Most people didn’t exactly know what Kathie McCormack saw in Robert Durst. It’s not that they disliked Durst, but McCormack was young and pretty; she could have had anybody. But she chose Durst, a terse, aloof individual who was 10 years her senior.
In 1973, Seymour Durst insisted that Robert return to New York City and rejoin the family’s real estate business. The couple sold the health food store and back to the city.
They married on April 12, 1973 in a small private ceremony. It was Durst’s 30th birthday; Kathie was just 19.
By this point, Durst was the heir apparent to the Durst Organization; one of the most powerful real estate families in New York City. The Durst family rubbed shoulders with the Trumps, Rudins, Fishers, Zeckendorfs, and Helmsleys.
The youngest daughter in a big Irish-Catholic family, Kathie Durst McCormack was not accustomed to flying to Bangkok, eating in fancy restaurants in Tribeca, or partying at legendary Studio 54. But in the early days, the couple had fun.
But those early days did not last very long.
Fairy Tale Marriage Turns into a Nightmare
As Durst later recalled, “I was the dominant one in the relationship. I was making all the decisions. Calling all the shots, as she would say. She went along with that for a while and then she got tired of it. She said she wants her independence. She doesn’t want me to be controlling her all the time.”
The couple’s so-called fairy tale marriage began to sour in 1976 after Durst forced McCormack to get an abortion. He allegedly told McCormack from the outset that he didn’t want children. He said she agreed, but his wife clearly changed her mind.
“I said, ‘I told you from the beginning I didn’t want children. You agreed we wouldn’t have children. Now you’re telling me you’re pregnant, which you’re in charge of that stuff not me. And you want to keep the baby. Well, you keep the baby you’re gonna get divorced from me. Period.’ I just didn’t want kids around. I didn’t want to raise children. Somehow I thought I would be a jinx. … I knew I wasn’t going to be a good father,” Durst observed after finding out McCormack was pregnant.
Around this time, McCormack enrolled in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; she wanted to be a pediatrician.
By 1981, Durst’s controlling, emotionally abusive behavior graduated into physical abuse.
McCormack considered leaving and getting a divorce, but couldn’t because she’d signed an unfair prenup. However, despite the ironclad prenup agreement, she hired a divorce lawyer.
The couple began falling further and further apart, with both of them having affairs.
Durst had an intense relationship with Prudence Farrow, younger sister of Mia Farrow. Prudence was the inspiration behind the Beatles’ song, “Dear Prudence.”
On January 6, 1982, Robert Durst hit Kathie McCormack.
Her friend, Eleanor Schwank, told her to go to the hospital. “You need to get this on paper, and you need to get treatment,” Schwank told her.
McCormack followed her advice and went to Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. She was treated for bruises on her face and head.
Durst, meanwhile, began seeing a primal-scream therapist, believing that screaming would help quell his suppressed anger. In addition to screaming, Durst also took to growling like an animal.
Schwank heard Durst growl one night when she was over and implored McCormack to come live with her. As she had numerous times before to many different people, McCormack said she would be alright, “But if anything happens to me, please don’t let Bobby get away with it.”
January 31, 1982: Kathie McCormack Vanishes
On the evening of Sunday, January 31, 1982, Kathie McCormack went to a party at her friend Gilberte Najamy’s in Connecticut. But she left early after getting an angry phone call from Durst.
Before leaving, she told Najamy, “If something happens to me, check it out. I’m afraid of what Bobby will do.”
That is the last verifiable account of McCormack’s movements.
According to Robert Durst, McCormack returned to the couple’s Westchester home after the party. As usual, they engaged in a “pushing, shoving argument” over whether she would drive into New York City to their Riverside Drive apartment.
He won. Durst allegedly drove McCormack to the Katonah train station, where she caught the 9:17 p.m.
He reportedly never saw her again.
But, he did claim to have spoken to her over the phone after she arrived at their Manhattan apartment.
Durst didn’t report McCormack missing until February 5. He said that his father and brother had convinced him not to go to the police. Because of their marital problems, they’d assumed McCormack had simply taken off, and the family didn’t want the negative publicity.
Kathie McCormack disappeared without a trace.
Upon further investigation, it was revealed that the doorman of their Manhattan apartment believed he saw McCormack enter the building. But he only saw her from behind, so perhaps, it wasn’t her.
The following morning, the associate dean of her medical school claims to have received a call from a woman identifying herself as Kathie McCormack, calling in sick. But no one can say for certain if it was actually McCormack who made the call.
When asked why he didn’t report McCormack missing sooner, Durst said that, because she was in med school, it was not uncommon for him to go two or three days without seeing her.
Robert Durst Comes under Suspicion
Robert Durst came under suspicion almost immediately. But there was no body or evidence to suggest a crime was even committed. The police were stumped.
Believing Durst murdered his wife, a group of McCormack’s friends started their own investigation.
Two of them, Ellen Strauss and Najamy, said they rummaged through Durst’s garbage five weeks after their friend disappeared. Among many things, they discovered a list written in Durst’s hand that included “town dump,” “bridge,” “dig,” “boat,” and “shovel.” They also found mail addressed to McCormack unopened, as though Durst knew she would never be back to open it.
Interestingly, the friends who were investigating McCormack’s disappearance had their homes burglarized, and the material relating to McCormack was stolen.
Eventually, Durst stopped making comments about his wife’s disappearance and appointed his friend Susan Berman, a writer with New York Magazine and the daughter of a famous Las Vegas gangster, as his spokesperson.
The mysterious disappearance of Kathie McCormack was front-page news in the beginning, but eventually faded from the headlines.
In 1988, Durst started dating Debrah Lee Charatan, a New York City real estate broker.
In 1990, Robert Durst quietly divorced McCormack, citing spousal abandonment.
Over the years, Durst changed his story about the night his wife disappeared a number of times.
In 1982, Durst said he dropped McCormack off at the train station, and stopped in at a friend’s house for a drink. He claimed he spoke to her that night on the phone.
Most recently, Durst claims to have taken her to the train station, then he went home and fell asleep. Moreover, he never spoke to her that night on the phone.
His goal in 1982 was to convince police that McCormack went missing in New York City.
“That’s what I told police,” he said. “I was hoping that would just make everything go away.”
McCormack’s friends don’t believe she ever got on the train. Her case is still an open homicide investigation.
Douglas Durst Has His Own Theory
Thanks to the HBO documentary on Robert Durst, there is renewed interest in the disappearance and presumed murder of Kathie McCormack.
The normally media shy Douglas Durst has his own theory of what happened.
Douglas recalled how Robert had a series of seven Alaskan Malamutes, which are like huskies, all named Igor. They all died mysteriously, of different things, in the months leading up to McCormack’s disappearance.
“We don’t know how they died, and what happened to their bodies,” Douglas recalled. “In retrospect, I now believe he was practicing killing and disposing his wife with those dogs.”
Why does Douglas think Robert murdered his seven dogs?
While in jail in Pennsylvania, Robert was recorded as saying, “I want to ‘Igor’ Douglas.”
The Murder of Susan Berman
Before meeting his first wife, Robert Durst went to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, majoring in economics. After graduating, he enrolled in a doctorate program at UCLA. It was there, in 1969, that he met Susan Berman.
Berman was doing her Masters of Arts in journalism at University of California, Berkeley. She was vivacious, friendly, and, compared to Durst, led a fascinating life.
She was born in 1945, and grew up in Las Vegas. Later, she moved to Hollywood, where her fellow classmates included Jann Wenner and Liza Minnelli.
Her late father was Dave Berman, a gangster who worked with Mob bosses Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Berman operated some of the biggest hotels in Las Vegas: the Riviera, the El Dorado, and the Flamingo.
Susan was about 12 when her father died of a heart attack. Her mother committed suicide a year later. Berman and Durst bonded over their similar family experiences.
Their friendship was always platonic. When Durst and McCormack returned to New York City and got married, Berman and McCormack became close friends.
During much of the 1970s, Susan Berman was living in Northern California, working as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. By the early 1980s, she moved to Manhattan. She regularly had her articles published in prominent New York City magazines. She also published her memoir, Easy Street, detailing her childhood as the daughter of a famous mobster. She received $350,000 for the film rights.
Not that she was desperate for money. By 1975, when she was 30, she’d received $4.3 million from the Mafia for her father’s interest in casinos and other properties.
When Katie McCormack Durst went missing in 1982, Berman acted as the Durst family spokesperson. She suggested to the media that Kathie was seen in New York City hours after her husband dropped her off at the Katonah train station.
Berman’s Light Begins to Fade
While Susan Berman’s writing career was gaining traction, her personal life was not.
By the mid-1980s, she moved back to California. She married Mister Margulies, a struggling screenwriter in 1984 at the Hotel Bel-Air; Durst gave her away. But the couple divorced not long afterwards. Margulies eventually died of a heroin overdose.
She had a serious relationship with Paul Kaufman, a financier, but that one also failed.
Her memoir, Easy Street, didn’t sell very well, and the film adaptation never got off the ground.
Still, Berman enjoyed early success as a screenwriter, and moved into a big home in Brentwood. But then her early successes ended, and so too did the money. She lost her home.
In the 1990s, Berman rented a small house in Benedict Canyon, a tiny neighborhood near Beverly Hills. There, she completed two novels and co-produced a series about Las Vegas for A&E. Money was still scarce, though, and she was always asking friends if she could borrow some, with the promise to repay.
Police Reopen Kathie Durst Case
In late 1999, police in Westchester reopened the Kathie McCormack Durst case after receiving a tip about her body, which ended up being bogus. Police searched the Durst’s old cottage and the nearby lake, but didn’t find anything.
Still, McCormack’s death was on the police’s radar again and was being looked at more closely as a homicide.
In the summer of 2000, Susan Berman, still short on cash, sent Robert Durst a letter asking for money. She didn’t get an immediate reply.
On October 31, 2000, Robert Durst was tipped off by his sister, Wendy Kreeger, that he was being investigated for the disappearance of his wife. Kreeger later denied tipping off Durst.
Regardless, Durst didn’t want to face questioning again; he went into hiding, setting himself up to be a fugitive. Even though he might only be wanted for questioning.
But not before getting married. On November 1, 2000, Durst bought his girlfriend, Debra Charatan, a $77,000 engagement ring. The two applied for a marriage license two days later.
By the middle of the month, Durst was on the run, but not with his fiancée. He rented a cheap room in Galveston, Texas. He told the landlord he was an assistant to a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner. To make his story more credible, Durst sometimes dressed up as Dorothy Ciner.
Sometimes, the landlord would recall, Dorothy entered her room, and minutes later, Durst would emerge. Other times, it happened the other way around.
Durst/Dorothy met neighbor Morris Black, but the two did not get along.
In November, Susan Berman finally received a response from Durst, along with a check for $25,000. He told her it was a gift, not a loan, and that she could always count on him. He sent her a second check for $25,000. Berman was elated. She spent $7,000 on a used Isuzu and paid most of her friends back.
By early December, Durst was back in New York. On December 11, he married Charatan in a secret 15-minute ceremony.
One week later, Robert Durst flew from New York City to San Francisco; from there, he headed to Southern California, but no one knows exactly where. On December 23, 2000, Durst flew back to New York from San Francisco.
December 24, 2000, Berman Found Dead
On Christmas Eve 2000, Susan Berman was found dead in her rented Benedict Canyon home.
She had been killed execution style, a single gunshot wound to the head.
Many believe that Berman knew more about what happened to Kathie McCormack Durst than she ever let on.
It is thought that Robert Durst, fearing Berman was going to talk to police, murdered her. In killing Berman, he perhaps silenced the only witness who possibly knew what happened to Kathie McCormack Durst.
That said, as the daughter of a Las Vegas gangster, chances are remote that she would have said anything incriminating to the police, even if she had been questioned. Or even if she was the woman who called the associate dean of the med school on February 1, 1982, and pretended to be McCormack calling in sick. If there’s one thing Susan Berman had learned from her gangster father, it was loyalty.
How did police know to visit Berman’s house on Christmas Eve? Someone sent a note to the Beverly Hills Police Department telling them there was a “cadaver” at the address.
Durst first met Morris Black in 2000 when he rented a room in Galveston. He moved there to pose as Dorothy Ciner, a mute woman, in an effort to avoid investigators who wanted to talk to him after they reopened the investigation into his ex-wife’s disappearance.
Durst and Black were not on the best of terms.
In September 2001, pieces of Morris Black, 71, began washing up around Galveston. A young boy found bags containing the body parts; no head was ever located, though.
Investigators found a trail of blood leading from Black’s apartment to “Dorothy’s.” Her true identify was eventually discovered, and Durst was arrested.
Police in Texas had no idea who he was or how wealthy he was. He posted $250,000 bail and escaped.
He led police on a six-week cross-country manhunt.
Durst was finally caught at the end of November, inside a supermarket in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania after trying to shoplift a chicken salad sandwich, Band-Aids, and a newspaper. He had $500 in his pocket.
Police searched his rented car and found $37,000 in cash, two guns, Black’s driver’s license, and directions to the Connecticut home of Gilberte Najamy, Kathie McCormack Durst’s former friend who’d accused Robert Durst of murdering his wife.
No one knows for certain why Durst murdered Morris Black. It is thought, perhaps, that he saw or heard something he wasn’t supposed to.
At trial, Robert Durst never denied murdering Morris Black and chopping him up. He said it was an act of self-defense after struggling with Black to recover one of his guns.
Without the head of Morris Black, there was no way to verify whether or not Durst’s claims of a struggle were true. The jury acquitted him. He did, however, serve time for jumping bail and weapon charges.
HBO Documentary: “The Jinx”
The HBO documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, opened up a window in the life of Durst that he could have otherwise avoided.
Beginning in 2010, against the advice of his lawyers and wife, Durst gave the documentary makers a number of interviews and unfettered access to his records.
Robert Durst said there was no reason not to talk about McCormack and Berman since it was unlikely that any prosecutor would reopen a “budget-busting” investigation for a couple of cold cases.
The six-part series investigated the 1982 disappearance of Durst’s first wife, the 2000 killing of his confident Susan Berman, and the 2001 death and dismemberment of Durst’s neighbor, Morris Black.
During the end of the fifth episode (“Family Values,” aired March 8, 2015), Sareb Kaufman, the son of Paul Kaufman, one of Berman’s partners, gives the filmmakers some material to research.
One of the pieces is a letter that Durst sent to Berman in March 1999. The block lettering matches the same anonymous envelope sent to Beverly Hills Police in December 2000, telling them about Berman’s murder. The two envelopes also misspell “Beverley Hills [sic].”
In the sixth, and final episode of The Jinx (“What the Hell Did I Do,” aired March 15, 2015), it is revealed that a forensic document analyst believes the two letters were written by the same person.
The filmmakers attempt to get a second interview with Durst, who becomes uncharacteristically quiet and uninterested in a follow-up interview. But Durst relents.
He admits that he sent a letter to Susan Berman from his Wall Street office. He’s then shown the second letter alerting police to the location of Berman’s body. Durst denies writing the “cadaver” letter.
After the interview ends, Durst gets up and leaves to go to the washroom, unaware that he is still wearing the microphone, and that it is hot.
That’s when, apparently talking to himself, he makes his now famous off-camera alleged confession.
First, he says, “There it is. You’re caught.”
Then: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Arrest Warrant Issued for Durst
On March 14, 2015, the day before the final episode of The Jinx aired, Durst was arrested by FBI agents at a New Orleans hotel for the first-degree murder of Susan Berman. Police tracked hin to the location, after Durst made a couple calls to check his voice mail.
By all appearances, it looked as if Robert Durst was about to make a run for it. He registered himself under a false name, Everette Ward, using matching fake Texas ID.
When arrested, police recovered $42,631 from his hotel room, most of it $100.00 bills in small envelopes.
Investigators also found his birth certificate and passport, a new cell phone, a map that included Florida and Cuba, a flesh-toned rubber mask, and a .38 revolver. They also discovered UPS documents and tracking numbers for shipments of cash (which when seized, added up to another $117,000). Bank documents showed he’d withdrawn an additional $315,000.
On March 16, 2015, one day after the final episode of The Jinx aired, Durst’s lawyers said he had waived extradition and would return to California.
But, later that day, Louisiana State Police filed charges against Durst for being a felon in possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm with a controlled substance.
Leon Cannizzaro, Orleans Parish District Attorney, noted, “Just for those gun charges here in Louisiana, he could face up to life in prison.”
In early 2016, Durst changed his plea to guilty on the federal gun charge.
On April 27, Durst was sentenced to 85 months in prison, followed by three years of supervision. Additionally, Durst was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and special assessment of $100.00.
Susan Berman Murder Trial
Durst may have been in jail for a firearms conviction, but he still had another legal headache to worry about: his trial for the murder of Susan Berman.
Durst pleaded not guilty to the murder of his friend on November 7, 2016.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin contends that Durst killed Berman to prevent her from revealing her role in helping him cover up the murder of his wife. So, to prove the Berman murder, Lewin would also have to address the disappearance of McCormack.
To bring Durst to trial, they need to show probable cause. On that ground, the prosecution has scored a number of victories.
The judge said agreed to accept testimony from 13 friends who say Susan Berman confided in them that she helped Robert Durst cover up the murder of his wife. Berman also allegedly told friends she was expecting Durst to visit her around the time she was murdered.
Moreover, one of Durst’s closest friends, Nathan Chavin, who was also friends with Berman, testified that Durst basically admitted to killing her: “It was her or me, I had no choice.”
Robert Durst’s trial for the murder of Susan Berman is expected to start in early 2019.
Even if Durst is eventually found guilty of the murders of McCormack and/or Berman, he won’t spend much time in jail. Seventy-five-year-old Durst only has a few years left to live after losing his esophagus to cancer, and he’s dealing with hydrocephalous, or fluid on the brain.