By Bill Hewitt
December 04, 2000 12:00 PM

The chill of that winter day 18 years ago stays with Gilberte Najamy even today. It was Jan. 31, 1982, and Najamy was having a party at home in Newtown, Conn., for a few guests, including her close friend Kathie Durst. Everyone was having a good time until Kathie, then 29 and a fourth-year medical student, started getting calls from her estranged husband, Robert, then 38, scion of one of New York City’s wealthiest real estate families. At around 7:15 that evening Robert Durst apparently called from the lakeside home in South Salem, N.Y., that the couple still shared as a weekend retreat. “They were fighting on the phone,” recalls Najamy. “Kathie hung up and said, ‘I have to leave. Bobby wants me home. He’s really upset.’ ”

And so Kathie said her goodbyes. Before departing, though, she had one last word with Najamy. “She said, ‘If something happens to me, you will check it out,’ ” says Najamy. ” ‘I’m afraid of what Bobby will do.’ ” Kathie then got into her red Mercedes and headed out into the snowy night for the 45-mile drive to South Salem—never to be seen by her friend again.

At the time, the disappearance of Kathie Durst was headline news in the New York newspapers. The saga of the beautiful young woman who had vanished without a trace seemed irresistible. But when there was no break in the case, public interest began to wane. For those who knew her, though, Kathie’s disappearance remained a painful memory. “We all went through a great period of depression,” says her brother Jim McCormack, 55, of Sparta, N.J. “My mom would sit in Kathie’s old room and cry.” Now, nearly two decades later, police have reopened the case.

There had always been suspicious aspects to Kathie Durst’s disappearance. For starters, Robert didn’t get around to reporting his wife missing to New York City police until five days after the fact. He told authorities then that Kathie had arrived at their South Salem home, where she drank a bottle of wine and they quarreled, and that he had dropped her off at the local train station to get the 9:17 back to Manhattan. He said he had spoken to his wife again later that night, after she reached her apartment in the city. (During the couple’s separation, he had been living at another apartment.) As for the delay in reporting her missing, he explained that it wasn’t unusual for the two of them to go several days without speaking.

But when detectives began digging, they found no conclusive evidence that Kathie had ever made it to Manhattan. The day after her supposed return, an employee at her apartment building reported seeing a woman from behind that he took to be Kathie. And a dean at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, where Kathie was a student, described getting an unusual call that same morning from a woman who identified herself as Kathie, said she was sick and told him she would not be at class. But none of Kathie’s friends heard a word from her.

At no time during the initial investigation was Robert considered a serious suspect. New York police interviewed him in South Salem but never searched the home. Robert, who put up a reward for information about Kathie, seemed inclined to speculate that his wife had simply decamped from their marriage. “Kathie was doing badly in medical school”—which, friends say, was not the case—”and she was doing badly in our life. She was unhappy,” he told the New York Post shortly after the disappearance. “I think Kathie’s alive.” Absent any hard evidence to the contrary, police were prepared to agree. “At that time, when there was a missing person without the obvious presence of foul play, you can’t run a full-blown investigation,” says retired New York City detective Michael Struk, one of the investigators on the case. “People take off on their spouses every day.”

But Kathie’s family and friends fault the police for not taking a closer look at all the circumstances of her life and for not searching the South Salem home. Kathie, who was from a middle-class family, had met Robert in 1970, when she was working as a dental hygienist and renting an apartment in a building owned by the Dursts. At that time Robert was working for his father, Seymour, head of the Durst Organization, one of the top real estate developers in the city. (The company is now estimated to be worth more than $600 million.) The couple married in 1972 and seemed first to have an untroubled marriage. Robert was laid-back, though sometimes aloof, and didn’t like flaunting his wealth; she was vivacious. “I liked Bobby,” says Najamy. “And Kathie was in love with him.” According to Kathie’s friends, however, Robert soon told his wife that he didn’t want children. To compensate, she threw herself into a new career, enrolling at Western Connecticut State College and then, in 1978, at Albert Einstein medical college.

But by 1980 their marriage was unraveling. They separated and Robert reportedly began seeing Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister and a film producer. In March 1981 Kathie vacationed with Najamy in Puerto Rico, where Kathie broke the news that she intended to seek a divorce. In preparation for a financial settlement, she began pressing her husband for details about the holdings of the Durst Organization but made little headway. Kathie told friends that she had even gone searching among her husband’s papers for helpful documents.

In any event, there was trouble. On Jan. 6, 1982, three weeks before her disappearance, Kathie was admitted to Jacobi Hospital in The Bronx with bruises on her face and head—injuries she said were caused by her husband during an argument. (Robert Durst did not respond to interview requests for this article, but in one previous sworn affidavit denied that he had ever threatened or assaulted his wife “or caused her any physical harm or abuse.”) Her friends pleaded with her just to walk away from the marriage, but she refused, though she repeatedly told them she was convinced that her husband might try to kill her. “She was terrified for her life,” says Dr. Marion Wattlington, who became friends with Kathie in college and now practices medicine in Bermuda. “But she said, ‘I’ve been with him a while and I want a settlement in the divorce.’ ”

After Kathie’s disappearance her family had little contact with the Dursts. Her brother Jim McCormack recalls having a very brief meeting with Seymour Durst to discuss the case. “He was very evasive,” says McCormack. “It was strange.” Roughly five years ago Robert left the family business, after his brother Douglas took over the company. He now reportedly invests in real estate and has homes in Manhattan and northern California.

The case of his vanished wife lay fallow until late last year, when Joseph Becerra, an investigator with the New York state police, dug up the file while checking on a tip. Intrigued, he began to reexamine the evidence. State police have now searched the South Salem home six times—though Robert sold it eight years after Kathie went missing—and have dragged nearby Lake Truesdale. This month investigators spent nearly five hours examining the crawlspace under the home, though it is unclear what, if anything, they may have discovered. But Kathie’s brother says police have told him they have new leads in the case, and for the first time he and Kathie’s family and friends sense that a break may be at hand. “I’m hopeful and very prayerful for a resolution,” says McCormack.

As for Robert Durst, when the news broke that the investigation into Kathie’s disappearance was being reopened, he told a reporter for the New York Daily News only, “I know nothing about it, but I would not have any comment.” Later, Douglas Durst, 56, issued a statement repeating his brother’s denial of any knowledge about the case. “Robert Durst,” he declared, “continues to maintain his innocence.”

Bill Hewitt

Matt Birkbeck in South Salem