In late December of 2000, a police dispatcher in Los Angeles received a call from a woman requesting a check-in for her neighbor, Susan Berman. The woman had noticed Berman’s dogs loose in the yard for an unusually long time. Her backdoor was wide open. There was a car in the garage, but no answer at the door. Berman lived on a busy street—a shortcut to the Valley—and people drove fast. “Not a place you want your dogs loose,” Los Angeles prosecutor John Lewin told a jury Wednesday morning in the opening arguments of the criminal trial of Robert Durst—the Manhattan real estate heir charged with Berman’s murder.
When police arrived, they searched Berman’s small, somewhat rundown home. “This is what they find,” Lewin said. “Susan is on the floor. There’s a small pool of blood around her head. She is not moving. She is cold to the touch. They very quickly realize that, in fact, she is deceased.” The officers found a gun casing by the body. They found no signs of forced entry, struggle, or theft—Susan’s purse with credit cards, ID, and cash still sat on her kitchen counter. “The evidence will show that Susan knew her killer,” Lewin said. “[Berman] was a somewhat paranoid woman, the kind of woman who would never open her door to a stranger… She let the killer into the house. She turned her back to them. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t scared. And then she was executed. Thankfully, she did not see it coming.”
In March, 2015, nearly fifteen years after Berman died, Robert “Bob” Durst, son of Seymour Durst, the former CEO of one of the largest private real estate firms in New York, was arrested for Berman’s murder. The arrest came just one day before the finale of The Jinx, an HBO docu-series about his history of alleged crimes. Directed by Andrew Jarecki, it retold the story of Durst’s relationship to the disappearances of three people between 1982 and 2001: Durst’s wife, Kathleen Durst; his best friend, Susan Berman; and his former neighbor, Morris Black. Durst was tried and acquitted of Black’s death, and never charged in his wife’s disappearance.
In the Los Angeles Superior Airport Courthouse on Wednesday, Lewin gave the first statements in a trial that has been five years in the making and could send Durst to jail for life. The heir has pleaded not guilty to Berman’s murder. His attorneys, Dick DeGuerin and Chip Lewis, will deliver their own opening remarks on Monday (they did not respond to requests for comment). The trial, slated to run for five months, will bring in evidence from all three disappearances, and more than one hundred witnesses for the prosecution, including two of Durst’s brothers, friends and family of all three victims, and former SNL cast member, Laraine Newman.
As reporters took their seats, staff passed out Purell to the audience, laughing nervously about news of more cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus in southern California. Prosecutor John Lewin, a stocky, wry attorney dubbed the “King of Cold Cases,” for his record securing convictions on crimes long thought unsolvable, approached the podium in a navy suit and red tie. “I’m not going to lie to you guys, this is not going to be short,” Lewin began. “I’ll let you in on a secret—I, myself, do not know how long it is going to be. I just know it’s going to be long.”
He began with Berman. Like Durst, the screenwriter with straight black bangs, had grown up exorbitantly wealthy. Berman was born in 1945 to Gladys and notorious gangster David “The Jew” Berman, who had helped Bugsy Siegel’s Las Vegas gambling racket at the Flamingo Hotel. Susan, Lewin said, “was the princess of Las Vegas. Liberace played at her birthday party. She hung out at all the casinos.” Also like Durst, whose mother committed suicide when he was young, Berman lost both her parents in adolescence. By age 12, Berman’s father had died in surgery; her mother had passed while institutionalized. Her friends became her family. “Susan was very loyal. She learned it from her father,” a witness said in a video testimony played in court. “It was the mafioso way.”
In the mid-1960s, Durst and Berman met as students at UCLA and became fast friends. Durst, who harbored a lax respect for authority, reminded Berman of her father. “I didn’t have to follow the rules,” Durst said in a video played in court. He spent their grad school years “smoking marijauna, going to screen therapy with John Lennon, and dodging the draft.” Later, he would forge financial statements to qualify for food stamps. (“I loved using food stamps,” Durst said in a recording played in court. “It’s like, I’m getting away with this. I’m beating the government.”) When he got a job at his father’s company, Durst would show up hours late, belch in meetings, talk to himself, and speak to his associates, as his father put it, “like the maid.”
For decades, the friends remained “very, very close,” as one witness said in a clip played in court. Asked if there was anything Berman would not have done for Durst, the answer was short: “No.”
That was the murder driving this trial. But to grasp Durst’s connection to it, Lewin told the jury, required some backstory, dating back to 1970. That year, Durst was a 28-year-old grad student at UCLA and, while back on the east coast for a spell, he met a 19-year-old named Kathleen McCormack. A lower-middle class Irish girl from Long Island, McCormack had just moved into one of Durst’s father’s buildings, and began work as a dental hygienist. Durst went home with her that night. In 1973, the couple married.
According to motions filed by prosecutors Lewin and Habib Balian, the couple had a fraught and highly abusive relationship, which Durst characterized himself as “controlling.” The heir was tight with money, allotting his wife a small allowance. In 1976, when Kathleen discovered she was pregnant, Durst forced her to get an abortion. When she applied to medical school, he refused to pay the tuition. In several declarations to prosecutors, witnesses alleged Kathleen often said she was “afraid” of Durst, and that “if anything happens to [her], it was him.”
On January 31, 1982, Kathleen disappeared from their house in South Salem, New York. Durst claimed she had boarded a train to the city, where she was enrolled at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The following morning, the school received a call from Kathleen, explaining that she was too ill to come into class. She was never heard from again. Durst denied any involvement in the disappearance and was never charged in connection with it.
The case went unsolved for nearly 20 years. But in 1999, the police reopened the case. When they began digging, friends of Kathleen’s told them to reach out to a woman named Susan Berman. If Durst had told anyone about the murder, they said, it would be Berman. New York police made plans to contact Berman, but they never did. After reaching out to Los Angeles police in December of 2000, the department confirmed that she had been murdered. Detectives received an anonymous note, marked only with Berman’s address—misspelling her neighborhood as “Beverley” Hills—and a single word: “Cadaver.”
When Berman died in 2000, Durst had set up residence in Galveston, Texas, living, as he occasionally did, disguised as a mute woman with a pseudonym: Dorothy Ciner. It was there, in October, 2001, barely a year after Berman’s murder, that Durst was arrested and tried for a different homicide. The victim was 71-year-old Morris Black, Durst’s neighbor in Galveston and, according to statements made at trial and in court documents for Berman’s murder, the one person who knew his true identity. A month prior, Black’s body had floated to the surface of a nearby body of water, cut up, and wrapped in bags. The heir would later admit at trial that Black had been killed with his gun, and that he had disposed of his friend’s body. But Durst claimed he had acted in self-defense, and in a controversial decision, the jury voted to acquit. The heir served a brief prison sentence for bail jumping and “evidence tampering” —that is, dismembering Black’s body.
For nearly two decades, Durst went on with his life without charges. But, in March of 2015, during the later episodes of The Jinx, and facing increased media scrutiny from the show’s popularity, he fled. The docu-series had uncovered a crucial piece of evidence connecting him to Berman’s death—a letter written on Durst’s office stationery addressed to Berman, in the same handwriting as the cadaver note, with the same misspelling of “Beverley” Hills. They had also confronted Durst with that evidence, and prompted a stunning off-camera moment, when Durst unknowingly whispered into a hot mic, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
On March 14, 2015, the day before the final episode of The Jinx aired, authorities traced Durst to a J.W. Marriott in New Orleans, where he had hidden out under another false name, along with several fake IDs, a latex mask, large sums of cash, and a loaded gun. The following day, Durst was charged with Susan Berman’s murder. Lewin’s opening arguments will continue on Thursday.