Robert Durst's wife, Kathie, vanished 37 years ago

By Christine Pelisek
November 25, 2019 03:00 PM

In the years after her daughter Kathie disappeared, Ann McCormack was terrified of the missing woman’s husband: New York real estate heir Robert Durst.

McCormack’s daughter Ginny McKeon tells PEOPLE her mother would barricade her house because she feared the eccentric millionaire, who currently faces charges for another murder.

“My mom would barricade her house every day. In the hottest summer days, all her windows locked, closed at night when she’d go to bed,” McKeon says. “She’d put step stools next to the doors, because she was afraid. I thought, ‘What a terrible way to live, to have to do that.'”

Kathie was just months away from graduating medical school when she was last seen alive on Jan. 31, 1982, at a friend’s gathering. Five days later, her husband filed a missing person report, telling police he and his wife had had an argument at their South Salem, New York, cottage that night. He claimed he had then taken her to the station to catch a train to New York City.

Kathie has not been seen since.

Although Durst has never been charged in connection with Kathie’s disappearance, Kathie’s family and law enforcement have long believed he killed her. Her remains have never been recovered.

“There is still no evidence that he had anything to do with Kathie’s disappearance,” Durst’s criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin tells PEOPLE.

Robert Durst
| Credit: Jefferson Siegel/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Durst returned to the spotlight for tragic reasons again in 2000 when his close friend Susan Berman was fatally shot execution-style in her Los Angeles home.

The following year, 2001, attention swirled around Durst following the gruesome slaying of Morris Black, his neighbor in Galveston, Texas. Durst, who was posing as a mute woman to allegedly avoid police inquiries into the death of Berman and the disappearance of his wife, became a fugitive in the Black case when he didn’t show up at a court hearing. He was caught weeks later shoplifting a chicken sandwich at a store in Pennsylvania. He was later acquitted of the Black murder despite admitting he chopped up Black’s body.

Kathie and Robert Durst
| Credit: HBO

McKeon, whose mom died at age 102 in 2016, recounts how frightened Durst made her mom.

“I’d come down and visit my mom often, and she would always be, ‘[Ginny], you be careful when you leave,’” McKeon says. “’He dresses up like a woman. Watch when you open your doors. Be careful with strangers’. She had to live with that fear that somebody was going to hurt her or her kids.”

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McKeon says her sister’s disappearance made her more cautious. “I would be careful of anyone that came to my door,” she says. “You don’t open the door. You talk through the window. ”

Ginny McKeon, Mary Hughes, Carol Bamonte and Jim McCormack
| Credit: Ali Smith

Kathie’s brother, Jim McCormack, says coping with Kathie’s disappearance and living without any justice in her case has been a lifelong struggle for the family.

“I hate to say this, but I’ve spent more time on the couch in the den, not wanting the sun to rise,” he tells PEOPLE. “I just didn’t want to face another day.”

McKeon says she tries to remember the good times.

“I can still see [Kathie] on Christmas,” she says. “This was before she met Bob. It started to snow Christmas Eve. Her and her friend were going out caroling. I still have that vision of her going down the path and then going along the sidewalk. It was just so cute. Things come to you. Just the fun that we had. And that’s what you try to keep with you.”

“It is palpable how damaging and painful it is for [Kathie’s family] over four decades,” says family attorney Robert Abrams of Abrams Fensterman. “It’s just a tragedy all the way around.”

As Durst, 76, prepares to stand trial in Los Angeles this winter for murder in connection with Berman’s death, McCormack says he is determined that Kathie’s life won’t be “just a footnote to the Susan Berman story or the Robert Durst story.”

“This is my baby sister,” he says. “She had a purpose. She had a life.”

McCormack plans to honor Kathie by creating Kathie’s Porchlight Foundation, which will provide financial assistance to aspiring doctors and nurses. The foundation will partner with Western Connecticut State University and Albert Einstein colleges, Kathie’s former schools.

“It’s what she stood for, the passion to care for people,” McCormack says.