One of Robert Durst’s brothers told jurors that he was “fearful” of his eldest sibling when asked why he was reluctant to testify in the millionaire New York real estate scion’s trial on a charge that he murdered a longtime friend at her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles just before Christmas in 2000.
“I hate it,” Thomas Durst said of being asked how he felt being required to come to a Los Angeles courtroom for his brother’s trial. “I’m humiliated to be here. This is a horrible experience and I’m fearful of my brother.”
Thomas Durst was one of five witnesses called during the first day of testimony in his brother’s trial for the December 2000 killing of Susan Berman, who was shot once in the back of the head.
Of his brother, Thomas Durst said the two “didn’t have a relationship” while they were growing up and that his sibling had treated him “as if I didn’t belong there.” He said the two tried to become closer in 1970, but that it didn’t last.
He described his brother as “minus 50 if the scale goes that low” when asked if Durst was generous, saying that he came to visit him and observed that his brother’s first wife Kathie was using food stamps.
“Well, the word wonderful comes to mind,” when asked about his sister-in-law, whom he described as being in an “inferior position” to her husband.
Thomas Durst said he recalled an incident when his brother and Kathie had a “terrible fight” while visiting them in San Francisco, and that she whispered to ask if there was another way out of the residence. He said that he showed his sister-in-law — whom he described as “upset” and “crying” — how to go down a fire escape and into a basement. She eventually came back and the couple left soon afterward.
Thomas Durst said on another occasion that he had a conversation with Kathie in which she claimed his brother was involved in impropriety involving assets of the family business, the Durst Organization, and that she told him they were getting a divorce but said she was afraid Durst was going to cut off her access to any money he owed her.
Durst’s brother testified that he gave Kathie all but one bill in his wallet, but didn’t give her a personal check for additional money because he was “afraid” that Durst would be “violent towards me” if he learned about help being provided to his wife.
He said he had a “serious confrontation” with his eldest brother in 1982 following his sister-in-law’s disappearance, shouting in court with a booming voice as he repeated what he said were Durst’s words, “I know she asked you for money.”
He said he learned that Kathie Durst had gone missing by talking to his sister.
Thomas Durst also described an incident with his brother in which the two were following their father, Seymour, through a revolving door, and Durst “like a sneak” used his full body strength and shoved the glass, causing Thomas Durst to fall to his knees. He said his older brother was “guffawing” as their father walked away.
Thomas Durst noted that he and each of his siblings — from whom he has been estranged since their father’s death in 1995 — have trust funds, and that he hung up the phone on the defendant in 1990 after last speaking with him in 1986.
He acknowledged it had been difficult for him to be in court in his brother’s presence.
Under cross-examination, Thomas Durst told jurors that their father became very distant while the siblings were growing up following their mother’s death.
Prosecutors contend that Durst killed Berman, his 55-year-old friend and confidante, after she told him she was going to speak with investigators looking into the disappearance of his wife in 1982. The prosecution alleges that Berman posed as Durst’s missing wife during a call to her medical school dean, and subsequently told numerous friends about that conversation.
In the defense’s opening statement, Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, told jurors, “Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman and he does not know who did. He did find her body shortly after someone had shot her in the head.”
He said Durst panicked and fled the scene, opting to send an unsigned note to Beverly Hills police in which he advised that there was a “cadaver” at Berman’s address. Durst had planned to spend the holidays with Berman, his attorney said.
Durst will testify in his own defense during the trial, his attorneys told jurors Tuesday during their opening statement.
He was profiled in the six-part HBO series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” in which he was recorded saying, “There it is, you’re caught” and “killed them all, of course.”
Berman’s next-door neighbor, Kathryn Shaw-Cutter, told jurors that the “more I thought about it the stranger it seemed” that the woman’s back door was open and that her dogs — who normally stayed close to Berman — were running around loose in December 2000.
“It just didn’t add up,” Shaw-Cutter said of Berman, who she said didn’t like to answer her door and doted on her dogs that she kept on leashes so they stayed close to her. “I was concerned for her.”
Shaw-Cutter — who had been given Berman’s wire fox terrier, Lulu, by another neighbor a day after the dog wandered into their house — said she decided to call 911 on Christmas Eve 2000. She said she didn’t suspect that Berman was dead and hadn’t heard anything like a gunshot, but thought she might have had a health issue and fallen down.
The prosecution witness said she “always felt extremely safe” in that neighborhood, but that it was not an area where small children, dogs or cats would be left out because of a “robust” population of wildlife, including coyotes that were “pretty big and daring.”
Another of Berman’s neighbors, Sandra Garfield, testified that she and other family members walked to Berman’s house to try to return her missing dog to her on Dec. 24, 2000, after the terrier had spent the night with them.
The woman said that she saw two larger dogs “wildly jumping up and down and barking” and that her stepson wanted to climb the fence. But she said she felt something was wrong and opted to leave the dog with Berman’s next-door neighbor.
She said she had left numerous phone messages for Berman after spotting her name and phone number on the dog’s name tag when the canine ambled into her house while she and her husband were bringing in groceries a day earlier.
“As I was petting it, I thought there appeared to be blood on its paws,” Garfield testified.
Another neighbor, Marvin Karp, who was the first witness to be called to the stand, testified that he saw two of Berman’s dogs running loose the day before authorities discovered her body. He said he thought it was strange that the dogs were running loose and planned to go over to Berman’s house to alert her but ultimately didn’t do anything because he saw them run back to the house.
He said he didn’t hear any unusual sounds such as gunshots coming from the house.
Jurors also heard from a former neighbor of Durst and his first wife when they lived in New York City, who testified that an “emotionally rattled” Kathie Durst crossed over the terrace from her neighboring apartment on multiple occasions to confide that she wanted to get away. Former model Anne Andersen Doyle testified that Kathie Durst told her that her husband had been physically and verbally abusive.
“… She was coming to me because she was afraid,” the woman testified. “I know that she was terrified of him and that wasn’t just emotional abuse.”
The prosecution alleged that Durst killed his wife at a New York cabin where the two subsequently went for the weekend, while the defense countered that there was no evidence to show the woman was murdered there.
Prosecutors also told jurors that the evidence would show that Durst murdered and then dismembered his boarding house neighbor, Morris Black, in 2001 in Galveston, Texas, where he had posed as a mute woman after learning that investigators had launched a new investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
Durst was tried in Texas for Black’s killing and was acquitted there of murder after testifying that he killed Black in self-defense.
DeGuerin said he understood that the dismemberment of Black’s body is one of the things that will bother jurors the most, calling it “the elephant in the room.” But he said Durst decided that the police would never believe him.
Another of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, told jurors that Durst had already been “blamed for the disappearance of his wife” when Durst found Berman’s dead body inside her house, and said there was “no forensic evidence” to link Durst to the crime.
In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told the jury that Durst “waited for Susan to turn her back on her best friend, someone she loved and trusted” and that he “executed her at point-blank range” inside her home. The prosecutor said Durst “killed her about 20 years too late” because he didn’t realize that she had told friends that she had posed as Durst’s missing wife during the phone call.
“It’s been long and it’s complicated because Mr. Durst has committed a lot of crimes,” the prosecutor said as he neared the end of his opening statement.
Durst 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 Kathie’s disappearance and the killings of Berman and Black.
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.
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