The Unusual Suspect
Take a pot-smoking millionaire murder suspect posing as a deaf-mute woman while living in a shabby apartment in Galveston, TX. Add a decapitated drifter, a 21-year-old mystery of a missing wife and a dogged DA, and you’ve got a story so outlandish that even Hollywood would have hooted it out of town. Except that it is true. And stranger still, it is a Westchester tale.
By Nancy Claus Giles
Her face is familiar, smiling out at us from newspapers, magazines and the TV screen whenever her strange disappearance from the Lake Truesdale section of South Salem 21 years ago recaptures the media’s attention. People don’t just “disappear” from this bucolic corner of the county where the police blotter is more apt to run reports of cows on the loose than of serial killers.
The cast of characters in this still unsolved mystery seems too improbable to be true: Robert Durst, the cross-dressing Scarsdale native and super-wealthy real estate heir as the number one suspect in his wife’s disappearance; Susan Berman, the murdered mafia princess who was thought to be a key witness in the investigation; and Morris Black, the decapitated drifter found floating in Galveston Bay in Texas. When Durst was charged with Black’s murder in 2001, the mystery of Kathleen Durst’s whereabouts once again resurfaced in the press.
It’s a case that gets progressively stranger. Two months ago, a Texas jury acquitted Durst, scion of a billion-dollar Manhattan real estate empire (which owns the Lorillard, Random House
and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich buildings, among others), of murder. This was despite the fact he admitted dismembering Morris Black after shooting him (in self defense, he claimed) and tossing his remains into Galveston Bay. (Dismemberment, known in legal parlance as abuse of a corpse, is only a misdemeanor offense.) The autopsy report showed Black had been severely beaten before he died. Eerily, it also showed that he had been expertly dismembered. And the New York Daily News wondered, in its inimitable style in 72-point type: “Where’s the Head?”
Even more bizarre was the defense claim in this trial that Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro was the devil who made him do it. Supposedly, her dogged pursuit of Durst to discover the whereabouts of his wife drove his “descent into madness,” according to trial transcripts, providing the defense’s explanation for why he chopped up his next-door neighbor, threw him into the bay and hightailed it out of town. “It made me sick to my stomach,” Durst testified. “I wanted to run away. I knew I had to get away from this Jeanine Pirro woman.”
“That’s about as ridiculous a defense as I’ve ever heard,” Pirro says. “The defense will allege anything in an effort to get their client off. It will stoop as low to accuse anything and anyone but the actual criminal. Even the jury in the case thought it was comical.”
Lake Truesdale is a pretty little lake about three miles around, tucked into the woods of Northern Westchester, where residents swim, fish, sail and canoe—a perfect Norman Rockwell scene. The community has grown substantially since the Dursts lived there. Their small stone cottage (now dramatically enlarged) faces the lake; the back, now a subdivision, was once all woods. The desolate dirt road is now paved. Only the longtimers there remember Kathleen (better known as Kathie) and Robert Durst.
Their early relationship was said to be idyllic—she was 19, he 28, when they met in 1971 while she was living in an apartment owned by the Durst organization. After two dates, she moved in with him. They married two years later and enjoyed the social scene in New York, dancing at discos, dining at Elaine’s, attending fund-raisers. In 1976, they bought the house on Hoyt Street in South Salem as a weekend retreat. Several years later, however, their marriage had started to unravel.
Ellen Strauss, an attorney who today lives in Weston, CT, knew Kathie from their college days at Western Connecticut State. “She would call late at night,” Strauss recalls. “One time I logged the call and it was more than two hours. Kathie was more than unhappy. She knew of his affairs, and he was abusing her. Three weeks before she disappeared, Bobby put her into the hospital. She wanted a divorce, but he wasn’t going to give her anything. I was a law student at the time, and I told her to just get out of the marriage and worry about a settlement later. But she had this dichotomy of being afraid of him and thinking she could handle him.”
Kathie disappeared on January 31, 1982. According to a police report Durst filed five days later, she had returned to their South Salem home from a party the night of January 31 and he claimed he then dropped her at the Katonah train station so she could spend the night in her apartment in the city. NYPD investigators found witnesses who believed they saw Kathie in New York (later recanted); the dean at Einstein Medical School, where Kathie was a few months shy of graduation, said he received a call from her saying she wouldn’t be in class. While the police found inconsistencies in Durst’s account, they found no evidence of a crime. Kathie Durst remained a missing person case.
Fast forward to 1999. Joseph Becerra, an investigator with the New York State Police in Somers, received a call from a flasher he recently had arrested, who claimed he had information on the Durst case. Becerra, who had been in high school when Kathie disappeared, hadn’t even heard of the case. The tip proved to be a dead end, but Becerra’s curiosity was piqued, particularly when he learned that—incredibly—the Durst home in South Salem and the surrounding area had never before been examined as a possible crime scene. Soon, the quiet lake community was overrun with police cars, divers and helicopters.
“I was doing laundry one day and heard a loud banging on the back door,” recalls Ginny Vreeland, who lives a few houses away from the former Durst residence. “When I answered, there was a man in a black suit flashing a badge at me—just like on TV. I had no idea what was going on.”
The officer wanted to speak to her husband, Jeff Vreeland, who has lived by Lake Truesdale since 1979. He doesn’t have fond memories of his former neighbor. “Everyone here pretty well believed Robert Durst was responsible for Kathie’s disappearance,” he says. “There were so many incongruities to his stories, what the news was reporting, what her friends were saying. And from what I knew of the man, I thought, â€˜Yeah, he could have done that.’” Vreeland had had an unpleasant real estate dealing with Durst. “He took me to court to keep me from building on my own property and threatened to do it again a second time if I didn’t sell him the property at half its value—I had a choice of that or be tied up in court for five years,” Vreeland says. “Then he held onto the property for the longest time. I often thought he bought the property because he had buried her there.”
But a search of the lake and surrounding properties did not produce Kathie’s body. So why do many people still suspect that Robert Durst is responsible for murdering his wife? Matthew Birkbeck, a veteran investigative journalist who has reported extensively on the Durst case for People magazine and Reader’s Digest, is author of A Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durst, a book published in 2002. “A compelling case could be made against Durst solely on the circumstantial evidence,” Birkbeck maintains. “Durst lied to police. He had a history of beating his wife. He was throwing away her mail and clothes and tried to sublet her Manhattan apartment before he even reported her missing.”
The “lie” to police concerns Durst’s whereabouts in the days following Kathie’s disappearance—but before he reported her missing. New York Telephone records show collect calls made to Durst’s office (he’d call his office collect only) from New Jersey during a time he claimed to police to be in Connecticut. Other damning evidence surfaced when the case was reopened. A letter from a Dr. Alexander G. Silberstein indicated that Durst was diagnosed with “personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia” as early as 1953—when he was just 10 years old. (The boy had entered therapy after witnessing his mother’s apparent suicide at age seven.)
Then contradictory reports emerged of the last night Kathie was seen by friends. Gilberte Najamy, a close friend, has reported that the last time she saw Kathie was during a gathering at her house in Newtown, CT, on that last night. Najamy had originally told police that it was a simple family party and that Robert Durst made repeated calls to Kathie insisting she return home. When she left, Najamy claimed, Kathie told her “â€¦look to Bobby if anything happens to me.”
That account is now in question. Other eyewitnesses describe more of a bacchanal than a tea party with Kathie, reportedly consuming two bottles of wine and two grams of cocaine while being egged on by Najamy to end her marriage. In a drug-and-alcohol-fueled rage, Kathie Durst returned home to confront her husband. That was the last time she was ever seen.
“When I first started writing about this case three years ago,” Birkbeck says, “I thought it was a sad but typical case of a guy who got away with murder. Then, when Susan Berman was murdered, it added a whole new dimension to the story.” Now, Birbeck says, there were two people connected to Durst who’d met questionable ends. Just weeks after it was reported that Kathie’s case had been reopened, Berman was found shot to death in her Los Angeles home, a single bullet in the back of her head. There was no sign of a struggle; nothing appeared to have been stolen. A rumor of a mob hit floated briefly; her father had been gangster Davie Berman, an associate of Bugsy Siegel. But Berman senior had been dead for so many years, few gave the rumor much credence.
Kathie’s friends were certain Berman knew something of Kathie’s disappear-ance because she and Durst had been extremely close—like sister and brother—since their days at UCLA. “She was on my short list,” says Strauss. “I always believed she was the one who picked up the phone, called the dean and pretended to be Kathie to back up Bobby’s story to the police that she made it to the city. Kathie never left South Salem that night alive.”
To date, no one has been charged in Berman’s murder or in Kathie’s disappearance. She is still classified as a missing person. “This case is actively being investigated by my office and the New York State Police,” says Pirro. “As soon as we have sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we will move forward.” Meanwhile, her family and friends wait for justice.