Heir of Mystery
Nine days later cops busted the scruffy Durst, 58, near a local motel. Only after the suspect was freed the next day on $300,000 bail did authorities discover that he was not the destitute vagabond he seemed to be. "We arrested a haggard-looking man who drove an old car and lived in a $300-a-month apartment with no telephone," says Galveston police department Lt. Mike Putnal. "He didn't look or act anything like a millionaire."
But he was, the scion of one of New York City's wealthiest and most powerful real estate families. More to the point, authorities in Texas belatedly learned, Durst had long been linked to the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen, in an infamous New York case dating back nearly 20 years. When he skipped bail on Oct. 16, Galveston police launched a nationwide manhunt. At a press conference in Manhattan on Oct. 22, Durst's high-powered attorney Michael Kennedy implored his client to turn himself in. "Robert, if you see this or hear this, please come home," said Kennedy. "Your family is solidly behind you."
As it happens, Durst has been estranged for years from most of his family and their empire, which includes nearly a dozen Manhattan skyscrapers and is estimated to be worth $650 million. And in any case, even those vast resources might not be enough to explain away the evidence that has been assembled by investigators in Texas. Officers recovered a 9mm handgun and a bow saw from the Honda CRV Durst was driving at the time of his arrest. In Durst's trash they found a .22-cal. handgun and a spent .22 shell. Inside Durst's apartment they found a knife and a pair of boots with blood on them, along with bloodstains on the walls and floor.
In a bizarre twist, it also emerged that Durst had evidently rented the Galveston apartment while disguised as a woman. This past April Rene Klaus Dillmann, the landlord of the building, got an anonymous call from a man saying that a friend by the name of Dorothy Ciner would be stopping by to rent an apartment. The man explained that Ciner could not speak. When she showed up that afternoon, Dillmann could easily tell that his prospective tenant, who communicated by writing, was wearing a wig. But he shrugged that off. "She only looked like a middle-aged woman who had had a hard life," he says. "I had no right to question beyond that." After that, the landlord rarely saw Ciner, whose apartment was soon being used by her supposed friend Durst.
When cops later discovered that Dorothy Ciner was the name of a high school classmate of Durst's who hadn't seen him in years, they concluded that their suspect had probably been using a disguise. But police have no clear idea what prompted Durst, whose personal worth is in the millions and who had leased a luxury condo in Dallas and had pricey homes in Colorado, California and New York City, to settle in such modest surroundings. "It's just one of those strange questions you would like to have an answer for," says Lt. Putnal.
As for a possible motive for the murder of Black, about whom little is known except that he was once arrested in South Carolina for making threatening calls to the electric company about his bills, Galveston police can only speculate. Dillmann was in the process of evicting Black, who was again obsessed with the cost of electricity, for shutting off the power in the apartment complex from time to time. Dillmann says that the cantankerous Black "didn't have a golden touch when it came to people, and that's putting it kindly." At least one other resident of the apartment building has told police of hearing Durst and Black engaged in loud arguments, with doors slamming. In the Black murder case police initially got a lucky break when an officer spotted Durst, who had checked into a motel under an alias, cruising in his car along the beachfront a mile and a half from the apartment building, and took him into custody.
Durst's subsequent flight outraged friends of his vanished wife, Kathie, who for years have suspected that Durst knew more than he was telling about that case. At the time of her disappearance Kathie, then 29 and from a middle-class family in Queens, was a fourth-year medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx. She and Robert, who was then working for his father Seymour's real estate company, had been married for 10 years, but Robert was estranged from his wife. She was last seen on Jan. 31, 1982, heading off to the country house she and Robert still shared in the Westchester, N.Y., town of South Salem. Robert later told police that Kathie had arrived, consumed a bottle of wine, during which time they quarreled, and around 9:15 p.m. he had put her on a train to New York City.
Police could never establish conclusively that she had ever reached Manhattan. What raised eyebrows was that Robert didn't report her missing for five days. There was also the fact that three weeks before she disappeared, Kathie had gone to a hospital with face and head bruises, which she said had been inflicted by her husband during an argument. Durst denied ever harming his wife. But friends said she had begun preparing for a divorce. Durst argued that Kathie probably had just run out on him. "She was doing badly in our life. She was unhappy," he told the New York Post not long after the disappearance. "I think Kathie's alive."
After several months of digging, detectives could generate no hard leads. Eventually the case went cold, with Durst never officially named a suspect. But Kathie's family and friends never stopped pushing for further investigation. Last year police got a tip about the disappearance. It didn't pan out, but it did generate new interest in the case. Westchester police reopened the investigation and began searching the Dursts' country house, which Robert had sold in 1990. Officials say they have recovered some forensic evidence but won't specify the nature.
Meanwhile, as part of the resumed investigation, police were preparing to interview Susan Berman in Los Angeles last December. Berman, 55, was a writer and producer of documentaries, some of which chronicled her life as the daughter of Davie Berman, a top lieutenant to notorious Las Vegas Mob boss Bugsy Siegel. She was also a confidante of Robert Durst, whom she had known since they were students in California and to whom she had remained loyal over the years. "There was nobody else with such close contact to Bob," says Gilberte Najamy, a longtime friend of Kathie's. "She would have the inside info on Bobby's state of mind, what he was feeling and how he was acting at the time." But last Christmas Eve, Berman was found murdered in her home, shot once in the head with a 9mm slug. Los Angeles police have traveled to Galveston to see if there is any connection between that killing and the 9mm handgun found in Durst's car.
Durst, who left the family business about seven years ago, had fallen out of touch with most of his kin. In recent years he had evidently drifted around the country. People who knew him when he was married to Kathie describe him as an affable but tormented man prone to fits of rage. Najamy says that as a child Durst had endured the trauma of seeing his 32-year-old mother, Bernice, who was being treated for psychological problems, get up on the roof of the family home in Katonah, N.Y., and either fall or jump to her death. Certainly the ordeal that Kathie Durst's family has endured has been no less agonizing. At this point they simply hope that the case in Texas can bring an end to their suffering. "This would be a gift from God if we could get closure," says Kathie's older brother Jim McCormack, 55, of Sparta, N.J. "The bottom line is we believe and hope this will bring justice."
Alice Jackson Baughn in Galveston and Matt Birkbeck in New York City