New York real estate scion Robert Durst testified Thursday that he panicked and went into hiding disguised as a mute woman after hearing that an investigation was being reopened into his first wife’s 1982 disappearance, but eventually decided to travel to Los Angeles to visit a longtime friend whom he is charged with murdering at her Benedict Canyon home.
The 78-year-old Durst — who is on trial for the December 2000 killing of Susan Berman — said he had never heard of then-Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro before being alerted that she was “going after this rich Durst person” in connection with his wife Kathie’s disappearance. He said he recalled seeing her announce two days later that she was “going to get Robert Durst one way or another.”
“Did it frighten you?” Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, asked his client.
“Yes,” Durst responded. “I panicked and I flew to Dallas, Texas.”
Durst said he drove to the “little bitty island” of Galveston, Texas, where he “disguised myself as a woman, rented a cheap apartment and planned on hiding out there.”
Durst said the publicity in the New York newspapers about the reopened investigation eventually “went away” and that he got over his panic as time went by.
He testified that he flew to California in December 2000 and spent time in the northern part of the state before driving south for a get-together with Berman, whom he had met years earlier at UCLA.
Durst said he phoned her from a Bakersfield motel to let her know that his arrival in Los Angeles would be delayed because he needed to take prescription medication for a migraine and shouldn’t be driving that night.
“And twice, she interrupted our conversation to talk to somebody,” Durst told jurors.
“Did you hear who she was talking to? Did you hear anybody else?” DeGuerin asked.
“No,” responded Durst, shortly before wrapping up his testimony for the week.
Durst — who quickly denied involvement in Berman’s shooting death when he began his testimony Monday — is due back on the stand next Monday for a fourth day of questioning.
In his opening statement last year, DeGuerin told jurors that his client “showed up and found her dead” and “panicked.”
DeGuerin acknowledged that his client had written an anonymous “cadaver” note that was subsequently mailed to police so her body would be found.
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman and he does not know who did,” DeGuerin said in May when the trial resumed after being stalled for more than a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeGuerin disputed the prosecution’s contention that Berman made a phone call posing as Kathie Durst and called the 55-year-old writer a “storyteller” who had a “great imagination” and “made things up.” He has maintained that his client didn’t kill Berman and doesn’t know who did.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told jurors in his opening statement the evidence would show that Durst shot and killed Berman “out of survival” just before Christmas in 2000 because he feared she would tell authorities about his involvement in Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
During his updated opening statement in May, Lewin called the cases of Kathie Durst and Susan Berman “inter-related,” and told jurors they would hear evidence that Durst killed his wife and used Berman to help cover up his part in the crime, and that he subsequently had to kill his neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas, in 2001, because the man figured out who Durst was and was putting pressure on him.
Durst was acquitted of murder in Texas after testifying that he killed Black in self-defense in September 2001.
In his testimony Thursday, Durst said he grew worried about what had happened to Kathie Durst when she failed to show up for medical school after he dropped her off at the train station near their cottage in South Salem, New York.
He said Berman — whom he subsequently walked down the aisle when she got married — subsequently offered to take phone calls from reporters on his behalf.
He said Berman immediately exclaimed, “Take me with you!” when he talked to her years later about buying property in San Francisco, where she would live on the bottom floor with her three dogs and he would live on the top two floors.
“Did you agree to take her with you?” DeGuerin asked.
“Sure. I felt good about it,” Durst responded, adding that he only knew one person in San Francisco.
He said he had “given her (Berman) money when she asked for it” and didn’t expect to be re-paid.
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 six-part HBO series, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which examined Kathie Durst’s disappearance and the killings of Berman and Black.
DeGuerin has told the panel that the series — in which the defendant was recorded saying “There it is, you’re caught” and “killed them all, of course” — was “heavily edited” and “not a documentary.”
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.
Durst split with the family when his younger brother was placed in charge of the family business, leading to a drawn-out legal battle, and ultimately reached a settlement under which the family reportedly paid him $60 million to $65 million.