Robert Durst: Burning Questions Answered

Answers to some of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Durst case, from author Matt Birkbeck

Photo: Marc Smerling/HBO

HBO’s documentary series The Jinx raised as many questions about the Robert Durst case as it answered.

Since Durst’s March 15 arrest in the 2000 killing of his friend and confidante, Susan Berman, the mysteries surrounding the New York real estate heir have only grown. Authorities in New York are watching the case closely in hopes of discovering what happened to Durst’s first wife, Kathie, who disappeared in 1982, and whose body was never found. And there has been speculation connecting him to other missing persons.

While Durst remains in custody in New Orleans, author Matt Birkbeck, who wrote the 2010 book A Deadly Secret about the Durst saga, addresses some of the burning questions surrounding the case.

What did Susan Berman know?
“Police believe that Susan Berman, who was killed on December 24, 2000, and shot execution-style, knew that Robert Durst killed Kathie Durst. They also believe Berman impersonated Kathie in a phone call to her medical school dean the day after she was last seen alive, claiming she was ill and couldn’t attend school, thereby misleading authorities to her whereabouts. Berman also acted as Durst’s spokesperson in the weeks after Kathie disappeared in 1982. There is also suspicion that she may have helped him dispose of Kathie’s body, which has never been found.”

Do investigators have evidence on Durst in the Berman case in addition to what we saw in The Jinx?
“Investigators can place Durst in Los Angeles on December 24, 2000, the day Berman was killed, based on his travel and credit card records. They also have his handwriting sample connecting him to the so-called “cadaver letter” sent to police in 2000. They apparently also have DNA evidence linking him to that letter.”

Is Durst a suspect in any other criminal cases?
“In my book, I reported that the FBI has been looking in other cities where Durst lived since the mid-1990s. One case involves the 1997 disappearance of Karen Mitchell, a 16-year-old from Eureka, California, who vanished after getting into a car with an unidentified older man. Durst knew Mitchell. According to a police composite, based on the account of an eyewitness, the man in the composite looks remarkably like Durst. At the time, Durst was living nearby in Trinidad, California. He left soon after Mitchell’s disappearance.”

Is there any physical evidence linking Durst to the disappearance of Kathie Durst?
“In 1999, police discovered blood in the kitchen of the South Salem, New York, house that Durst shared with Kathie. Over the years, they have conducted DNA tests on the sample, the most recent being a few months ago.” (Birkbeck does not know the results of these tests.)

Why do you think Durst agreed to cooperate with the documentary, The Jinx?
“When I met with the director Andrew Jarecki several years ago, he said that Durst approached him because he liked how he was portrayed by Ryan Gosling in the movie All Good Things, Jarecki’s 2010 feature film on the Durst saga. It was the first time that Durst was seen in a different light, as the tortured son of a powerful and wealthy real estate family instead of the scandalous headlines we’d seen before. He and Jarecki developed a bond and Durst subsequently believed that Jarecki would paint him in a sympathetic light as he had in the earlier film.”

How will the documentary affect Durst’s case in court?
“That’s going to be interesting. Did the producers strike deals with prosecutors to withhold an arrest until it aired? Many of the interviews are years old, including Durst’s. And the key evidence, the letter to Susan Berman, was given to the police two years ago. A lot of what we saw on TV was scripted and events changed and even created to complement the dramatic narrative arc. For instance, in the fifth episode, when they found the Durst letter to Susan Berman, I’m sure the producers discovered the letter during their research and created that scene. In the last episode, Jarecki showed the letter to Durst’s attorney Chip Lewis before the big showdown with Durst. I can tell you Chip Lewis is a very competent attorney and had he seen that letter before, he never would have let Durst interview with Jarecki again. That’s my opinion. So there’s a lot for Durst’s attorneys to chew on.”

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