New York real estate scion Robert Durst testified Monday in his murder trial that he sent police a letter informing them about a dead body after going to a longtime friend and confidante’s Benedict Canyon house and finding her lifeless on the floor.
In his fourth day on the stand, the 78-year-old defendant said he used a house key Susan Berman had sent him to get inside her home after she failed to respond to him ringing the doorbell and knocking on the door. He said he eventually found her “just lying there” and thought she had fallen or fainted and struck her head or been hit in the back of the head.
“I did not imagine at that time that she had been shot,” said Durst, who has denied being involved with the 55-year-old writer’s December 2000 shooting death.
Durst said he subsequently realized that her hair was in a pool of some type of liquid that he later decided was blood.
He testified that he unsuccessfully tried to call 911 from a land-line phone in the home that was dead, then drove to a pay phone to make a 911 call and realized his voice would be recognized even if he gave a fake name. He said he opted instead to send Beverly Hills police a letter informing them about the “cadaver” at Berman’s home.
“Did you write that letter?” Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, asked his client.
“Yes, I did,” Durst responded.
“Did you lie about it for years?” DeGuerin asked.
Durst responded that he had lied about it because “it’s a very difficult thing to believe” that he wrote it but “did not kill Susan Berman.”
He said he had “no reason” to kill his longtime friend, but “someone must have had a reason and a motive to kill Susan Berman.” He said he didn’t have a gun in California.
“Was there anything Susan had to blackmail you with?” his attorney asked.
“No,” Durst responded.
At one point, Durst’s attorney told his client, “They’re having trouble hearing you.” Durst took some time to drink from a bottle of water before resuming his testimony.
He said he decided that he wanted “to get far away from Los Angeles,” drove to San Francisco and made a reservation for an airline flight.
In his opening statement last year, DeGuerin told jurors that his client “showed up and found her dead” and “panicked.”
“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 Durst’s first wife, Kathie Durst, after she disappeared in 1982, and called Berman a “storyteller” who had a “great imagination” and “made things up.”
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 “interrelated,” 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 testimony before the jury hearing the case involving Berman’s killing, the defendant said he was “scared” upon seeing Black with a gun and struggled with him for control of the weapon.
“The gun went off,” the defendant said.
Durst — who is battling a series of medical problems including bladder cancer — agreed that he could stand up for a re-enactment, but was cautioned to stay seated since he has been assessed as being a “fall risk.”
DeGuerin and another of Durst’s lawyers, David Chesnoff, subsequently engaged in the re-enactment on the courtroom floor.
When the judge asked if that was an accurate depiction of what had happened, Durst quipped, “It’s a full-service law firm” and responded that it was accurate.
He said he was unsuccessful at convincing a woman who was using a nearby pay phone to allow him to make a 911 call, eventually decided not to call authorities and unsuccessfully tried to carry Black’s body out of the apartment after wrapping it in a blanket.
He told jurors that he decided to dismember the man’s body so he could move it easier, and vomited a lot while he was cutting up the corpse. Durst said he put the body parts in trash bags, dumped them in the water, subsequently found the bags that he had expected to sink were floating in the water and felt like “going away” after seeing police by the water.
Durst testified that he was arrested after returning from New Orleans to pick up eyeglasses in Galveston, and was “amazed” to learn that his bail had been set at $250,000. He said he jumped bail, rented two vehicles he each described as a “wreck” without a credit card, shaved his head and eyebrows so he would not be “recognizable” and decided to return to places he had lived while pondering killing himself.
“I was going to shoot myself because I could not imagine being a fugitive,” he said, telling jurors that he was eventually arrested after shoplifting from a supermarket even though he had ample money with him.
Following his acquittal in Black’s killing, Durst said he pleaded guilty to bail-jumping and tampering with evidence and federal gun charges. He said he subsequently was rejected by co-op or condominium boards in New York and Los Angeles before being accepted for a condominium in West Hollywood.
Durst is set to continue his testimony Tuesday.
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.