The Millionaire & the Murders


Though his family’s New York real estate fortune is an estimated $4.4 billion, Robert Durst lives fairly quietly these days. Neighbors sometimes see him buying bread at the local market or strolling around the block from his $1.75 million Harlem townhouse. But for Durst, life has never been mundane. From his mother’s violent death—she plunged from the roof of the family’s mansion when Robert was just 7 years old—to the disappearance of his first wife in 1982, the execution-style murder of a close friend in 2000 and the death at his own hand of a neighbor the next year, a horrific, macabre trail of blood and suspicion has followed him over three decades. “He’s the one who got away,” retired Galveston homicide detective Cody Cazalas tells PEOPLE. “In my entire career, I never saw a more clear-cut case of murder. I still can’t believe he’s not in jail.”


Kathleen Durst’s disappearance in 1982 was front-page news. Robert Durst has always maintained that he last saw his wife as she boarded a train for Manhattan.

Charming, manipulative, murderous or misunderstood, the notoriously media-averse, reclusive Robert, 71, is finally stepping into the spotlight. On Feb. 8 at 8 p.m., HBO premieres its six-part documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which examines the disappearance of his then-29-year-old wife Kathleen, whose body has never been found, and his trial and acquittal for the murder of Morris Black in Galveston. And for the first time, Robert tells his version of events. “He really wanted to tell his side,” says director Andrew Jarecki, who also helmed the Ryan Gosling/Kirsten Dunst movie All Good Things, based on Robert’s life. “He’s very intelligent and very well-spoken. After hearing what he has to say, people are going to feel like they know him a lot better.” Adds producer Marc Smerling: “You have to listen to Robert carefully. There’s a lot of depth there. He talks about multiple levels of his life.”

It was a life that began full of privilege and promise. The oldest of four children born to Seymour and Bernice Durst, Robert describes his memories of life before his mother died as “happy, happy, happy.” But he gives a chilling account in the documentary of his memory of the night she died: “My father got me and said, ‘Come on over here, I want you to see Mommy.’ We looked out a window onto the roof, and there was Mommy. I waved at Mommy; I don’t know if she saw me. All of a sudden I heard the maids shouting, ‘She’s off the roof!’ She had a long, long fall.” Though her death was ruled an accident, Robert believes it was a suicide. But Robert’s estranged brother Douglas maintains that his brother distorted the events surrounding their mother’s death to gain sympathy. “Your docudrama relies on Robert’s self-serving, revisionist and fictitious account of the past,” Douglas wrote in a letter to producers. “On the night my mother died, Robert was not brought to the window by my father. This makes you an enabler of a sick and dangerous man and helps him in his attempts to rewrite history and blame others for his misdeeds.”

Those misdeeds seemed to begin immediately after his mother’s death, as Robert—who says his father was distant and not often home—frequently ran away, necessitating calls to police to find him. He graduated from Scarsdale High School and attended Lehigh University, then graduate school at UCLA. Meeting and marrying the pretty, outgoing Kathleen McCormack in 1973 brought him happiness. “It was perfect,” he says. But the marriage became troubled because “I was making all the decisions,” including one that Kathie would have an abortion because he didn’t want kids. “Kathie started changing … when I made her get an abortion.” Robert admits that on Jan. 31, 1982, the day Kathie disappeared, the couple had gotten into a physical altercation but claims that he dropped her off at the train station so she could visit friends in Manhattan. Robert didn’t call police for four days—because, he says, he didn’t want them to investigate their troubled marriage. “Our lives were half argument, fighting, slapping, pushing, wrestling,” he says. “It deteriorated from there.”

Kathleen’s case went cold, but Robert was always under suspicion. In 2000, shortly after police had reopened the investigation into her disappearance, citing new evidence, Robert’s longtime confidante Susan Berman—who was considered a key witness—was found shot execution-style in her Benedict Canyon, Calif., house. Robert was questioned but not charged.

Looking for a new start, Robert moved to Galveston, where he disguised himself as a woman and rented a rundown $300-a-month apartment in a rough neighborhood. His neighbor: Morris Black, 71, who had fled some legal troubles in South Carolina. In September 2001 Black’s dismembered body was found floating in Galveston Bay, and police zeroed in on Robert, who was on the run and had left bloodstains and physical evidence behind in his apartment. When he was found, Robert claimed he had shot Black in self-defense and disposed of the body in a panic. “We had everything: physical evidence, bloodstains, and he even admitted he had killed Mr. Black,” says Cazalas. “He was still found not guilty. I think about that a lot.”

Now cut out of the family’s business through a $65 million settlement in 2006 and remarried to Debrah Lee Charatan, Robert seems reflective, especially when he talks about the unsolved disappearance of Kathie Durst. “I am complicit in Kathie’s not being here,” he says matter-of-factly in the documentary. “If she met some normal guy, like, from Long Island, she would have had a bunch of kids and would have lived an average life.”

It’s comments like those that make producers feel they are close to the truth. “We may never know why he does what he does,” says Jarecki. “But after this documentary, I believe everyone will know what happened.”

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