A longtime friend and confidante who was allegedly murdered by millionaire New York real estate scion Robert Durst in her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles sealed her fate by lying to him and telling him that investigators had contacted her about the disappearance of his first wife 18 years earlier, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday.
In the second day of the prosecution’s opening statement in Durst’s trial, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said Susan Berman lied to Durst and told him she had been contacted by and planned to speak with investigators looking into the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie.
That conversation “sealed her fate” and Durst “decided to kill her,” the prosecutor said, telling jurors that the circumstantial evidence will show that Durst showed up at the 55-year-old woman’s house either late at night on Dec. 22, 2000, or early the following morning.
“He pulled out a 9 millimeter gun and … executed her,” Lewin said, noting that she was shot once in the back of the head and was “murdered by someone she truly trusted.” Her friends are expected to testify that she would never have opened her door to a stranger.
Investigators had planned to contact Berman about Kathie Durst’s disappearance, but had not yet reached out to her, according to the prosecutor. Durst was unaware that Berman had told others that she had posed as his wife in a call to the dean at the medical school the missing woman attended, Lewin said.
Berman had told friends that Durst would be visiting her over the holidays and mileage records for Durst’s 1995 Ford Explorer were consistent with the vehicle being driven from Eureka — near where Durst owned a home — to Berman’s home and then back up to Northern California, the deputy district attorney said.
A forensic pathologist is expected to testify that Berman had been dead for more than 24 hours when a worried neighbor contacted police, and that the gun had been held within an inch of the victim’s head when the weapon was fired, according to the prosecutor.
Durst had decided to go into hiding by disguising himself as a mute woman in Galveston, Texas, after authorities launched a new investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance, Lewin told jurors. He subsequently met a 71-year-old drifter, Morris Black, who was living at the same small boarding house as Durst and eventually became “the only person in Galveston who knew that Bob Durst was Bob Durst,” Lewin told jurors, calling Black “a loose end” for the defendant.
“Morris Black is pressuring Bob Durst to get a house with him,” the prosecutor said, telling the panel that those were the “circumstances right before Morris Black is going to be murdered.”
Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, quickly interrupted, “The jury found him innocent,” with Lewin countering that he was found not guilty instead of innocent of Black’s killing.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham then reminded the jurors that Durst was acquitted of murder in that case, but that the facts of the case may be relevant to the trial involving Berman’s killing.
The deputy district attorney told jurors that the prosecution will be arguing that what happened to Black was not done in self-defense or an accident and that Durst subsequently dismembered the man’s body and dumped the body parts — without the head — in Galveston Bay, where they were discovered.
A newspaper containing the address of the boarding house, along with a receipt for the trash bags, was also discovered along with the body parts, Lewin said, telling jurors that Durst then went to work to try to make it appear that Black had moved out of the boarding home.
The prosecutor called it a “tried and true strategy” and said Durst had “done the same thing with Kathie and it worked,” referring to witnesses’ testimony that Durst had discarded his first wife’s personal belongings after her disappearance.
Durst — whose past was detailed in the HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” — is accused of killing his longtime friend because Berman was prepared to speak to New York investigators about the still unsolved disappearance of Kathie Durst.
The 76-year-old defendant has been behind bars since March 14, 2015, when he was taken into custody in a New Orleans hotel room hours before the airing of the final episode of the HBO series, which examined the 1982 disappearance of Kathie Durst and the killings of Berman and Black.
Durst was tried for Black’s death and dismemberment after a nationwide manhunt in which he was located in Pennsylvania, but a jury acquitted him of murder after agreeing with Durst’s contention that he had killed his neighbor in self-defense.
In the finale of HBO’s “The Jinx,” Durst is caught on microphone muttering to himself, “Killed them all, of course,” and “There it is, you’re caught.”
The prosecutor told jurors Wednesday that they would hear evidence about all three killings, while noting that the case they were there to decide involves Berman’s killing.
Kathie Durst — who was nine years younger than her husband and had been the victim of domestic violence — was planning to divorce him and was never seen again after the two took a weekend trip to their lakeside cottage in South Salem, New York, according to Lewin.
The prosecutor said the evidence would show that Durst killed his wife, who had been set to begin a rotation at a pediatric clinic as part of her medical school training.
“Kathie never made it. That was February 1st, 1982. It’s now been 38 years,” Lewin said, telling jurors there was no evidence other than Durst’s account that he had taken his wife to the train station to travel back to New York City.
A key piece of evidence in the case is expected to be the so-called “cadaver note” alerting police to a body inside Berman’s home. The note simply contained the word “cadaver” and Berman’s address.
Prosecutors have contended that Durst wrote the note and had originally planned to introduce handwriting evidence in an effort to prove who penned it. Defense attorneys responded with motions in an effort to exclude such evidence from the trial. But in December, Durst’s defense team filed a motion admitting that their client had written the note.
DeGuerin insisted, however, that the concession is not an admission that Durst killed Berman. The attorney told reporters that he had never publicly admitted or denied that Durst wrote the note.
Along with the so-called ”cadaver note” sent to Beverly Hills police, jurors will also hear about a so-called “dig note” found at the South Salem home written by Durst that includes the words town dump, bridge, dig, boat and shovel, the prosecutor said. In a subsequent interview, Durst said it was his handwriting, but had no idea what it meant.
The eight-woman, four-man jury — along with 11 alternates — has yet to hear from the defense, which is also expected to give a lengthy opening statement before the jury begins hearing what is expected to be months of testimony.
At an earlier court hearing, defense attorney David Chesnoff said there are no fingerprints, DNA, blood, hair samples or eyewitnesses linking his client to the crime. Durst’s defense team has long insisted that their client did not kill Berman and does not know who did.
Durst has been long estranged from his real estate-rich family, which is known for ownership of a series of New York City skyscrapers — including an investment in the World Trade Center. He split with the family when his younger brother was placed in charge of the family business, leading to a drawn-out legal battle.
According to various media reports, Durst ultimately reached a settlement under which the family paid him $60 million to $65 million.