On March 14, 2015, Durst was arrested in New Orleans, Louisiana, on a first-degree murder warrant signed by a Los Angeles judge in relation to the Berman killing. On November 4, 2016, Durst was transferred to California and soon after was arraigned in Los Angeles on first-degree murder charges. A preliminary hearing will be held in October 2017.
One of four children, Durst grew up in Scarsdale, New York. He is the son of real estate investor Seymour Durst and his wife Bernice Herstein. His siblings are Douglas, Thomas, and Wendy. Durst's paternal grandfather, Joseph Durst, a penniless Jewish tailor when he emigrated from Austria-Hungary in 1902, eventually became a very successful real estate manager and developer, founding the Durst Organization in 1927. Seymour became head of the family business in 1974 upon Joseph's death. Durst claimed that, at the age of seven, his father walked him to a window where he saw his mother on the roof of the family's Scarsdale home prior to her death, which resulted when she fell or jumped. In a March 2015 New York Times interview, his brother Douglas denied this. As children, Robert and Douglas underwent counseling for sibling rivalry; a 1953 psychiatrist's report on ten-year-old Robert mentioned "personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia". Durst attended Scarsdale High School, where classmates described him as a loner.
He earned a bachelor's degree in Economics in 1965 from Lehigh University, where he was a member of the varsity lacrosse team and the business manager of The Brown and White student newspaper. He enrolled in a doctoral program at UCLA later that year, where he met Susan Berman, but eventually withdrew from the school and returned to New York in 1969. Durst went on to become a real estate developer in his father's business; however, it was his brother Douglas who was later appointed to run the family business in the 1990s. The appointment caused a rift between Robert and his family, estranging him from them.
Police have directly questioned Durst, and sometimes conducted searches, in connection to the disappearance of his first wife Kathie McCormack, and two homicides, Susan Berman and Morris Black. In one of those homicides, he was tried and acquitted.
In the fall of 1971, Durst met Kathleen McCormack, a dental hygienist, whose nickname was "Kathie". After two dates, Durst invited McCormack to share his home in Vermont, where he had opened a health food store; she moved there in January 1972. However, Durst's father pressured him to move back to New York City to work in the family real estate business. Durst and McCormack returned to Manhattan, where they married in April 1973. After Durst and McCormack were married, McCormack became known as Kathleen McCormack Durst.
Shortly before her disappearance, McCormack was a student in her fourth and final year at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx and was only a few months short of earning her degree. She had intended to become a pediatrician. McCormack was last seen by someone other than Durst the evening of January 31, 1982, at a friend's dinner party in Newtown, Connecticut. Later on that night, McCormack unexpectedly arrived at the house of her best friend, who noticed she was upset and was wearing red sweatpants, which the friend found odd since McCormack had often dressed in much better quality clothing. She later left for South Salem, New York, after a call from her husband. Although the couple argued and fought, Durst maintained that he put his wife on a train to New York City, had a drink with a neighbor, and spoke to his wife by telephone later that evening. "That's what I told police," Durst later told documentary filmmakers. "I was hoping that would just make everything go away."
After McCormack had left her friend's house, she was supposed to meet her friend at a pub called "The Lion's Gate" in Manhattan. When she failed to show up, her friend became concerned and repeatedly called the police for several days. Days later, Durst filed a missing person's report as well. A doorman at one of the two Manhattan apartments where the couple lived claimed to have seen McCormack there on February 1, which was one day after she was last seen, but also claimed that he had seen her only from behind and couldn't be 100% sure that it was her.
McCormack had been treated at a Bronx hospital for facial bruises three weeks before. She told a friend that Durst beat her, yet she did not press charges over the incident. McCormack asked Durst for a $250,000 divorce settlement. Durst had cancelled his wife's credit card, removed her name from a joint bank account, and refused to pay her medical school tuition. At the time his wife disappeared, Durst had been dating Mia Farrow's sister Prudence for three years and was living in a separate apartment. Durst initially offered $100,000 for his wife's return, then reduced the reward to $15,000. Not long afterwards, he was seen discarding his wife's possessions, which he denied. When McCormack's friend and sister had heard she was reported missing, they broke into her cottage hoping to find her. Instead, they found the cottage ransacked and McCormack's mail left unopened. They then became afraid and left.
After McCormack went missing, police said that Durst had claimed to have last spoken to her when she called him at their cottage from Manhattan. He claimed that the last time he had seen her was at Katonah train station, where she was planning to board a 21:15 train to Manhattan. He also claimed that on February 4, the supervisor at her medical school called him and said that she had called in sick on February 1 and was absent from class for the entire week. It is uncertain if it was indeed McCormack who made the call. The day after Durst received the call from McCormack's medical school, he reported her as missing. The police found his stories to be full of contradictions.
The McCormack family now wants Kathleen declared dead as they strongly believe she is deceased. Her mother Ann McCormack had before attempted to sue Durst for $100 million. Her parents are both now deceased. Kathleen's younger sister Mary McCormack Hughes also believes that Durst killed her. The New York State Police quietly re-opened the criminal investigation into the disappearance in 1999, searching Durst's former South Salem residence for the first time. The investigation became public in November 2000.
On December 24, 2000, Berman, a longtime friend of Durst who had facilitated his public alibi after McCormack's disappearance and who had recently received $50,000 from Durst, was found murdered execution-style in her home in Benedict Canyon, California. Durst is known to have been in Northern California days before Berman was killed, and to have flown from San Francisco to New York the night before Berman's body was discovered. Although Durst confirmed to the LAPD that he had recently sent Berman $25,000, and faxed investigators a copy of her 1982 deposition regarding his missing wife, he declined to be further questioned about Berman's murder.
Durst said in a 2005 deposition that Berman called him shortly before her death to say that Los Angeles police wanted to talk to her about McCormack's disappearance. A study of case notes by The Guardian cast doubt on whether the LAPD had made such a call, or whether then-Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro had scheduled an interview with Berman at all. Durst moved to Galveston, Texas in 2000, lived in a boarding house, and began posing as a woman to avoid police inquiries. Durst had been tipped off to the re-opened investigation into his wife's disappearance on October 31, 2000, and immediately began planning for life as a fugitive. Berman biographer Cathy Scott has asserted that Durst killed Berman because she knew too much about McCormack's disappearance.
On October 9, 2001, Durst was arrested in Galveston shortly after body parts belonging to his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in Galveston Bay. He was released on $300,000 bail the next day. Durst missed a court hearing on October 16 and a warrant was issued for his arrest on a charge of bail jumping. On November 30, he was caught inside a Wegmans supermarket in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, after trying to shoplift a chicken salad sandwich, Band-Aids, and a newspaper, even though he had $500 cash in his pocket. A police search of his rented car yielded $37,000 in cash, two guns, marijuana, Black's driver's license, and directions to the Connecticut home of Gilberte Najamy, a former confidante of McCormack who had dogged Durst for years publicizing accusations he had murdered his wife. Durst also used his time on the run to stalk his brother Douglas, visiting the driveway of his home in Katonah, New York, while armed.
In 2003, Durst went on trial for the murder of Black. He employed defense attorney Dick DeGuerin and claimed self-defense; DeGuerin conducted two mock trials in preparation for the case. Durst's defense team had difficulty communicating with him, so they hired psychiatrist Dr. Milton Altschuler to find out why. Altschuler spent over 70 hours examining Durst and diagnosed him with Asperger syndrome, saying, "His whole life's history is so compatible with a diagnosis of Asperger's disorder." Durst's defense team argued at trial that the diagnosis explained his behavior.
Durst claimed he and Black, a cranky and confrontational loner, struggled for control of Durst's .22-caliber target pistol after Black grabbed it from its hiding place and threatened him with it. During the struggle, the pistol discharged, shooting Black in the face. During cross-examination, Durst admitted to using a paring knife, two saws, and an axe to dismember Black's body before bagging and dumping his remains in Galveston Bay. Black's head was never recovered, so prosecutors were unable to present sufficient forensic evidence to dispute Durst's account of the struggle. As a result of lack of forensics, the jury acquitted Durst of murder.
In 2004, Durst pleaded guilty to two counts of bail jumping and one count of evidence tampering. As part of a plea bargain, he received a sentence of five years and was given credit for time served, requiring him to serve three years in prison. Durst was paroled in 2005. The rules of his release required him to stay near his home; permission was required to travel. That December, Durst made an unauthorized trip to the boarding house where Black had been killed and to a nearby shopping mall. At the mall, he ran into former Galveston trial judge Susan Criss, who had presided over his trial. Due to this incident, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles determined that Durst had violated the terms of his parole and returned him to jail. He was released again from custody on March 1, 2006.
Asked in March 2015 whether she believed Durst murdered Morris Black, Criss commented: "You could see that this person knew what they were doing and that it was not a first time. The body was cut perfectly like a surgeon who knew how to use this tool on this bone and a certain kind of tool on that muscle. It looked like not a first-time job. That was pretty scary."
A few days after a first-degree murder warrant was signed by a Los Angeles judge in relation to the Berman killing, Durst was arrested by FBI agents on March 14, 2015 at the Canal Street Marriott in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he had registered under the false name "Everette Ward". Durst, who had been tracked to the hotel after making two calls to check his voicemail, was observed wandering aimlessly in the lobby and mumbling to himself, having driven to New Orleans from Houston four days before. In addition to a .38 revolver loaded with four live rounds and one spent shell casing, police recovered five ounces of marijuana, Durst's birth certificate and passport, maps of Louisiana, Florida, and Cuba, a "flesh-toned" latex mask, the fake Texas ID used to check into the hotel, a new cellphone, and cash totaling $42,631. Police discovered a UPS tracking number, which led to an additional $117,000 cash in a package sent to Durst by a woman (not his wife) in New York. which was seized after his arrest. Bank statements found in one of Durst's Houston condominiums revealed cash withdrawals of $315,000 in little more than a month.
On March 15, 2015, New York State Police investigator Joseph Becerra, long involved with the Kathleen McCormack case, and said to be working closely in recent months with FBI and Los Angeles detectives, removed some sixty file boxes of Durst's personal papers and effects from the home of Durst's 30+ year friend Susan T. Giordano in Campbell Hall, New York, where they had been sent by his present wife Debrah Lee Charatan three years prior for safekeeping. Also stored there were videotaped depositions of Durst, Charatan, and Douglas Durst, all related to the Morris Black case.
John Lewin, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney in charge of the prosecution, has a long history of trying cold cases. Lewin says he found information uncovered by the filmmakers in the HBO documentary series The Jinx to be compelling and has repeatedly flown to New York to interview witnesses, including friends of Durst and Berman. The trial was scheduled to begin in Los Angeles after Durst was transferred to a California federal prison and arraigned, but Durst's transfer has been delayed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons due to "serious surgery", according to DeGuerin. Durst was transferred to California on November 4, 2016, and arraigned on November 7; he pleaded not guilty. Lewin said the state would not seek the death penalty. A preliminary hearing was scheduled to begin on October 17, 2017. The trial has been postponed to April 16, 2018 to accommodate Durst's defense team some of whom suffered damage to their homes and offices from Hurricane Harvey.
On March 16, 2015, DeGuerin advised court authorities in New Orleans that his client waived extradition and would voluntarily return to California. Late that same day, Louisiana State Police filed charges against Durst for being a felon in possession of a firearm and for possession of a firearm with a controlled substance, forestalling his immediate return to California. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro commented that, in light of prior convictions, which could influence Durst's sentencing, "[j]ust for those gun charges here in Louisiana, [Durst] could face up to life in prison".
On March 23, Durst was denied bail by a Louisiana judge after prosecutors argued he was a flight risk. In an effort to hasten his extradition to California and avoid a protracted Louisiana court battle, DeGuerin raised questions about the validity of the New Orleans arrest and hotel room search, pointing out that a local judge did not issue a warrant until hours after his client was detained. While communicating with the LAPD and conducting an inventory of Durst's hotel room possessions, "[t]he FBI ... held him there, incommunicado, for almost eight hours". According to DeGuerin, Durst was questioned extensively by a Los Angeles prosecutor and detective, without a lawyer present, on the morning after his arrest.
In failing to produce the arresting officers subpoenaed for a probable cause hearing, Durst's attorneys charged that Louisiana prosecutors engaged in a "misguided attempt to conceal the facts from the court, the defendant, and the public." Peter Mansfield, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, said that his office instructed the two FBI agents and arresting officer not to appear, arguing that DeGuerin's subpoenas were issued in an attempt to conduct "actions against them in their official capacities for the purpose of obtaining testimony, information and material maintained under color of their official duties."
On April 8, a day after the U.S. Attorney filed an independent federal weapons charge, Durst was formally indicted by a Louisiana grand jury for carrying a weapon with a controlled substance and for the illegal possession of a firearm by a felon. Later that month, Durst's lawyers requested that more than $161,000 seized by authorities during their searches be returned, saying the cash "is not needed as evidence, is not contraband, and is not subject to forfeiture."
After negotiations with Durst's defense team, Louisiana authorities ultimately dropped weapons charges against Durst on April 23, 2015. Durst's trial on the federal weapons charge was scheduled for September 21, 2015. DeGuerin confirmed rumors that Durst was in poor health, stating that he suffers from hydrocephalus and had a stent put into his skull two years before, as well as spinal surgery and a cancerous mass removed from his esophagus.
Durst's attorneys requested a later date for the federal weapons charge trial, saying they'd need more time to prepare after rulings on pending motions. U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan later rescheduled the trial to January 11, 2016. On November 16, 2015, a New Orleans federal judge ordered Durst re-arraigned on the weapons charges and scheduled a hearing for December 17. When asked, Durst's attorney said only that Durst did not kill Berman, and that he wants to resolve the other charges to expedite Durst's extradition to Los Angeles to face that charge.
On December 16, 2015, prosecutors and defense attorneys told Berrigan in a joint motion that scheduling conflicts ruled out all dates before a January 11 trial date. Berrigan ultimately rescheduled the trial for February 3, 2016, and Durst changed his plea to guilty to the federal gun charge and received an 85-month prison sentence.
Days after the Berman murder, police were reportedly examining connections between Durst and disappearances of 17-year-old Lynne Schulze from Middlebury, Vermont, and 16-year-old Karen Mitchell from Eureka, California. Investigators are also looking into a possible connection with the disappearance of 18-year-old Kristen Modafferi, last seen in San Francisco in 1997.
Schulze, a Middlebury College freshman, patronized Durst's health food store on December 10, 1971, the day she disappeared, and was last seen that afternoon near a bus stop across from the store. DeGuerin characterized the Schulze investigation as "opportunistic" and said he would not permit his client to be questioned by Vermont police. Author and investigative journalist Matt Birkbeck reported in 2003, and again in his 2015 book A Deadly Secret, that credit card records placed Durst in Eureka on November 25, 1997, the day Mitchell vanished. Mitchell may have volunteered in a homeless shelter that Durst frequented; Durst, dressed in women's clothing, had visited the Eureka shoe store owned by Mitchell's aunt. Mitchell was last seen walking to work from her aunt's store and possibly speaking to someone in a stopped car; a witness sketch of Mitchell's presumed abductor resembles Durst.
Although the FBI ultimately could not connect Durst to the Long Island serial murders (in which some victims disposed similarly to the Black killing), the Bureau created an informal task force in 2012 to work with investigative agencies in jurisdictions where Durst was known to have lived in past decades, including Vermont, New York, and California. In the wake of his recent arrest, the FBI encouraged such localities to re-examine cold cases. Texas private investigator Bobbi Bacha has also traced Durst operating under stolen identities in Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia.
In early 2015, a six-part HBO documentary titled The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst described circumstantial evidence linking Durst to the murder of Berman, who was believed to have knowledge of McCormick's disappearance. The documentary detailed the disappearance of McCormack, Berman's subsequent death, and the killing of Black. Against the advice of his lawyers and his wife Debrah Lee Charatan, Durst gave multiple interviews and unrestricted access to his personal records to the filmmakers. The FBI arrested Durst in New Orleans on the same day as the final episode was broadcast. The documentary ended with him moving into a bathroom where his microphone recorded him saying to himself: "There it is. You're caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
The Associated Press reported that a March 1999 letter from Durst to Berman, discovered by her stepson and turned over to the filmmakers during their research, provided "key new evidence" leading to the filing of murder charges.
On April 12, 1973 – Durst's 30th birthday – he married Kathleen McCormack. Durst divorced her in 1990, eight years after her disappearance, claiming spousal abandonment. On December 11, 2000, shortly before the Berman killing, Durst married Debrah Lee Charatan. According to The New York Times, the couple briefly shared a Fifth Avenue apartment in 1990 but "have never lived together as husband and wife". Durst once told his sister that it was "a marriage of convenience"; "I wanted Debbie to be able to receive my inheritance, and I intended to kill myself," Durst said in a 2005 deposition. Charatan currently lives with one of Durst's lawyers, Steven I. Holm.
Durst traveled and lived under dozens of aliases over the years, using different identities to buy cars, rent apartments, and open credit card accounts. "He had a scanner, copier and a laminating machine," a former office employee of Durst told Newsweek. "What I didn't realize is that I unwittingly saw what would have allowed Robert Durst to make a fake driver's license." Durst was also "a prolific user of private mailboxes," and apparently conducted business under a number of canine-themed names: Woofing LLC, WoofWoof LLC, and Igor-Fayette Inc.
In the early 1980s, Robert Durst owned a series of seven Alaskan Malamutes each named Igor, which according to Douglas Durst all died under mysterious circumstances. In December 2014, prior to the airing of The Jinx, Douglas told The New York Times that, "In retrospect, I now believe he was practicing killing and disposing [of] his wife with those dogs." Durst was once recorded saying he wanted to "Igor" Douglas. Robert, however, has disputed the notion that he owned seven dogs named Igor; he owned three, he said, one that was run over and another that died in surgery after eating an apple core, "before the Igor that lasted forever."
In late 1981, while Durst was still married to McCormack, he was nearing the end of a three-year affair with Prudence Farrow, who was also married at the time. A few months before McCormack's disappearance in January 1982, Farrow called her and asked that she give him up, as friends said she wanted him all to herself. After Durst's acquittal of murdering Black in 2003, Farrow contacted law enforcement authorities with concerns for her safety, as she said Durst was angry with her for terminating their relationship three days before McCormack disappeared.
In mid 2002, Durst signed over a power of attorney to his wife Debrah Lee Charatan, a real estate investor, and it is believed their holdings remain closely intermingled. In 2006, Durst gave Charatan around $20 million of his $65 million trust settlement.
In 2011, Durst purchased a $1.75 million townhouse on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City. A source close to his estranged family confirmed that he was living there at least some of the time, and they were keeping him under surveillance. Durst also owns three condominiums in a multi-story complex in Houston, and after filing suit, received a $200,000 settlement in 2006 from a Houston developer who refused to let him move into a unit newly purchased by his wife, which she had then immediately resold to Durst for $10. At the time of Susan Berman's murder in Los Angeles, Durst had just sold a home in Trinidad, California, but maintained an office in Eureka while renting in nearby Big Lagoon.
Media have variously reported Durst's financial status as "real estate baron", "rich scion", "millionaire", "multimillionaire", and "billionaire". The Durst family's real estate holdings are worth more than $4 billion, but his brother Douglas was in control of the company beginning in 1994, shortly before their father's death. From about 1994 to 2006, Robert Durst waged a legal campaign to gain greater control of the trust and family fortune. During that time he received $2 million a year from the family trust. In 2006 the case was settled, with Robert Durst giving up any interest in the Durst family properties and trusts in exchange for a one-time payment of about $65 million. It is unknown how much of that went to legal fees and taxes. Durst was still active in real estate; he reportedly sold two properties in 2014 for $21.15 million after purchasing them in 2011 for $8.65 million. At the time of his 2015 arrest in New Orleans, the FBI estimated Durst's net worth at approximately $100 million; The New York Times estimated his net worth at $110 million.
On May 1, 2015, the New York Post reported that Durst's brother Douglas had settled litigation against Jinx filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, having confirmed that Robert Durst was the source of videotaped Durst family depositions which appeared in the documentary. Robert Durst's disclosure apparently violated the terms of his 2006 agreement with the Durst family which dispersed to him a lump sum of family trust assets. Although it was unclear whether Jarecki confirmed Robert Durst as his source—The New York Times reported in March 2015 that Jarecki was given "unrestricted access" to Durst's personal records, including the videotaped material—the settlement paves the way for Douglas Durst to reclaim as much as $74 million of his brother's assets, effectively freezing those assets pending court judgment. This could affect Robert Durst's ability to pay for high-caliber legal representation without tapping into real estate or other investments. The Post reported that Douglas Durst was "mulling his next move".
In November 2015, nearly 34 years after her disappearance, several immediate family members of Kathleen McCormack Durst (her three sisters as well as her 101-year-old mother) sued Robert Durst for $100 million, citing Durst's apparent role in her murder and his denial to her family of the "right to sepulcher", a New York law which grants immediate relatives access to a deceased person's body and the opportunity to determine appropriate burial. If successful, the lawsuit could deprive Durst of most or all of his inherited fortune. Another brother, James McCormack, had attempted in October 2015 to file a wrongful death suit against Durst on behalf of his mother, but was challenged by one of his sisters, who holds her mother's power of attorney. Durst's defense attorney Dick DeGuerin commented that "there is no evidence that Robert Durst had anything to do with Kathleen's disappearance. Anybody can file a lawsuit, but eventually they'll have to come with evidence." On Monday December 7, 2015, the same family members filed a suit asking the court to freeze Durst's assets. The family's attorney Robert Abrams called Durst the "poster child" for why courts block defendants from disposing assets while civil lawsuits are pending. In July 2016, the McCormick family asked the Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan to "declare that Kathie died on January 31, 1982, when she was murdered by her husband, Robert Durst" so the sepulcher lawsuit can proceed.
In 2012 and 2013, Durst's family members sought and received restraining orders against him, claiming they were afraid of him. Durst was charged with trespassing in New York for walking in front of townhouses owned by his brother Douglas and other family members. He went on trial and was acquitted in December 2014. The judge also vacated the thirteen orders of protection his family members had taken out on him.
In July 2014, Durst was arrested after turning himself in to police following an incident at a Houston CVS drugstore in which he allegedly exposed himself without provocation and urinated on a rack of candy. He then left the store and casually walked down the street. Durst was charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief. In December 2014, he pleaded "no contest" and was fined $500. His lawyer described the incident as an "unfortunate medical mishap", as Durst had just been released from a hospital where he had undergone two medical procedures. The incident was recorded on videotape.The events surrounding Durst inspired the 2010 film All Good Things, the title of which is a reference to a health food store of the same name set up by Durst and his wife in the 1970s. David Marks, the character based on Durst, was portrayed by Ryan Gosling. Shortly after its theatrical release, Robert Durst saw the film and contacted director Andrew Jarecki, expressing admiration for the film which evolved into discussions between the two of them being included on the DVD video release, and eventually resulting in Jarecki co-writing, co-producing, directing, and appearing in the 2015 HBO six-part documentary series on Durst, The Jinx.
Three episodes in the Law & Order television franchise gave different takes on the murders: The Law & Order episode "Hands Free"; the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Maledictus"; and the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Devil's Dissections".
Fred Armisen played Robert Durst in a 2003 sketch on Saturday Night Live and again in 2016 on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Kate McKinnon played Robert Durst in a 2015 SNL sketch.
A&E and Lifetime announced in August 2016 that they were developing a movie based on the book A Deadly Secret. The movie is scheduled to air during the summer of 2017.