Editor's note, March 15: Durst was arrested Saturday on a warrant for first degree murder.
In 2000, Jeanine Pirro, now the host of Fox News’ Justice With Judge Jeanine, was the DA of Westchester County when, acting on a tip, she reopened the then-17-year-old very cold case of Kathleen Durst. Kathie was a beautiful medical student—and wife of Bobby Durst, heir to one of the biggest real-estate fortunes in New York City—who mysteriously vanished (not that there’s any other way to vanish) on a cold February night in 1982. It was her husband’s story then that he put her on a train from South Salem, New York, to the city, spoke to her later that night when she got to their Manhattan apartment, and never heard from her again. Pirro never believed that Kathie got to Manhattan that night, and when she went through the case file, she discovered that not even the rudimentary basics of an investigation were done. Her decision to reopen the case got a bit of coverage, albeit in the pre-Internet era, which is to say: not that much. But Bobby Durst, as he’s since admitted, didn’t miss a headline.
In short order, Pirro determined that Bobby Durst’s closest confidant at the time of Kathie’s disappearance was one Susan Berman, a bright, complicated journalist best known for her memoir, Easy Street, about growing up as mob daughter. (Her father, Davie Berman, aka “Dave the Jew,” was Bugsy Siegal’s partner in Vegas.) Pirro had her investigators call Susan and set up a meeting in Los Angeles, where she lived. Before they got there, she was dead. Two days before Christmas, she’d been murdered, a single bullet to the back of her head. Pirro never believed that this was some mob hit—even if it looked like one. “I knew, I knew, I knew,” she says today, “that Robert Durst killed her.”
And then it got weirder. Less than a year after Susan’s funeral, Bobby Durst, the heir to billions, was arrested for murder in Galveston, Texas, where he was living in a $300-a-month flophouse, posing as a deaf-mute woman named Dorothy. It brought new meaning to the phrase, “you can’t make this shit up.” The victim was his next-door neighbor, a cranky guy named Morris Black, whose body parts washed up in various trash bags in the Galveston Bay. Bobby fled. He got out on $250,000 bail because no one in Galveston knew who he was; then he moved on to Bethlehem, Pa., where he was arrested for shoplifting a sandwich at a grocery store—when he had $38,000 in cash in his car. On trial for the murder of Morris Black, Durst testified that he didn’t mean to kill Black, but once he did, he had to chop him up and get rid of the body parts because no one would ever believe he was innocent, given Pirro’s relentless and highly public pursuit of him. Basically, the defense was: Jeanine Pirro made him do it. Amazingly, the jury actually bought this defense and acquitted Robert Durst.
Over the past decade and a half, a great many journalists (including me) became obsessed by the case—or rather, cases—of Bobby Durst. Susan was especially fascinating. She had an ingrained sense of mob-like loyalty—probably would have taken a bullet for her friend Bobby, but not like this. Her body was found in her run-down home on Benedict Canyon Road, where cops followed her dogs’ bloody paw prints to her corpse in the back room. After they removed the body and her girlfriends came to the house, there was a clump of Susan’s jet black hair still on the floor in a pool of blood. It was never fair, Susan’s killing or the investigation of Susan’s killing.
But justice has come of late, in the form of an extraordinary six-part docu-series on HBO called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Bobby Durst,” by director Andrew Jarecki and producer Marc Smerling, in which Bobby Durst, shockingly, cooperated. And then in “Chapter 5,” which aired this past Sunday, came a crucial break. One of the creepiest pieces of evidence in the Susan Berman murder case was a note that was mailed to “THE BEVERLEY [sic] HILLS POLICE DEPARTMENT.” That was all that was on the envelope. No stamp, no address. Inside was a piece of paper that said: “1527 BENEDICT CANYON.” (Susan’s address.) And one other word: CADAVER. It was postmarked in L.A. on December 23, 2000, the day she was killed. The filmmakers shrewdly bring up the note. Bobby replies that he can’t imagine who would have mailed that because “you’re writing a note to the police that only the killer could have written.”
The existence of the cadaver note was first reported in 2001. I don’t mean to brag by saying that I reported it first, because I couldn’t seal the deal. I had a sample of Durst’s handwriting from a lease he filled out in Houston, Texas, which sure did look just like the block printing on the Cadaver envelope. But a perfect match? Who knew?
Fifteen years later. One of the closest people in Susan Berman’s life was Sareb Kauffman, the son of an ex-boyfriend of Susan’s, who she considered her son. I got to know Sareb when I was writing about Susan’s murder. His pain was always palpable. He wanted so much to believe that Bobby Durst, the man his mother considered her BFF, could not have done this. (Bobby has also been giving him money all these years.) In “Chapter 5,” Sareb discovers a letter in his mother’s stowed-away possessions sent to her from Bobby in 1999, a couple of months before her murder. His handwriting on the envelope—down to the misspelled “Beverley”—is identical to the handwriting on the cadaver note.
It looked to be, at last, a clinching piece of evidence. But would Bobby finally be arrested for Susan’s murder? And what about his wife, Kathie’s? As I file this, sources tell me Bobby Durst is in Texas again. And that he is in ill health. He has told at least two people that I know of that he has brain cancer. He also, according to sources, called Sareb Kauffman after the last episode; Durst was not pleased.
Amidst all the final-act buzz, I called Jeanine Pirro, who has been like a dog on a bone about Durst all these years.
Lisa DePaulo: Wow.
Jeanine Pirro: Right? I think that they clearly have enough now. California definitely does. I think Bobby Durst knows the jig is up. It appears from what we’ve seen on television that there is no question that they have evidence now that we did not have when I was in office, and that California did not have. And kudos goes to Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling. I mean, their tenacity and their determination and their wit and intelligence in moving this case forward is really unparalleled. And so as you look at what has been unearthed, there’s no question that the prosecution of Robert Durst for the murder of Susan Berman is far more in play that it was six months ago.
LDP: What’s your guess? An arrest this week?
JP: You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen or when. But I will say that the chain of custody, as it related to that envelope that Sareb gave to the producer and the director, is impeccable. And it tells me that there was some discussion as to the best way to preserve that evidence. And that they clearly had some legal advice relating to the preservation of that incredibly important envelope.
LDP: Isn’t it amazing that he talked?
JP: Yeah. Well, I think that Robert Durst’s attorney who allowed him to speak is either about to jump off a ledge somewhere or [laughs] is in a very depressed state. But the truth is that Durst decided to speak.
LDP: When you say the new evidence that you didn’t have—the match to the cadaver note is obviously the big thing, but, anything else from the show so far?
JP: Oh, well, ha! I almost flew off my chair when he said that he would say to Kathleen’s mother “I was complicit in your daughter’s disappearance.” I also flew off my chair when he said that he never made a phone call from that pay phone, that he never had a drink with the neighbor, and when he was asked about that, he said, “Well, I just wanted to get it into the city.” And what that tells me is that Robert Durst knew that if he had this case in New York City, that the chances of an investigation, in his mind, would be, I think, less serious and less determined. Although, it appears that Westchester in 1982 when this happened, did virtually nothing. There was little if any investigation in 1982 in Westchester.
LDP: Let’s go back to the cadaver note. I wrote about that many years ago and had a sample of Bobby’s handwriting from a lease he filled out in Houston, and it was the same weird block handwriting. Did they really need this?
JP: Yes. And I’ll tell you why. I had put together a task force of New York, Texas, and California, I was so determined to solve this. The handwriting experts for the L.A. police said that, based upon the exemplars they had from Robert Durst [he was forced to produce handwriting samples while in jail in Galveston], that it was not a definite match. So could Robert Durst have tailored his handwriting? Of course he could have. But to me, I just didn’t believe it. And what that did was to create an almost insurmountable hurdle for the prosecution in the Susan Berman case where you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this guy killed her, to a unanimous jury of 12. So that was a real hurdle. And I believe that—look, he was in California, and in “The Jinx,” Andrew Jarecki asks him a question about Susan Berman, he said, “You were in California?” And Durst smirks, “Yes, California’s a big state.” That smirk is gonna come back to haunt him.
LDP: I’m guessing that the last episode is going to have some other shocker.
JP: I don’t think there’s any question that the last episode is going to tie this thing in a package for California. I believe that the Susan Berman unsolved homicide, I think that that thing’s gonna be tied up by Jarecki in a nice neat box. Now, as it relates to New York, I don’t know what to tell you. I really don’t know whether or not they can go forward in New York. But we’re gonna have to wait and see.
LDP: You were a character in this whole drama in a great many ways, including in Galveston, when Bobby’s defense was built around you being the bogeywoman, basically.
JP: One of the things about “The Jinx” that was rewarding for me was when Jarecki got the defense attorneys to admit that they created this mythical character, Jeanine Pirro, who forced Durst to actually chop up Morris Black’s body because she was chasing him and that basically destroyed him. And the amazing part of it is this half-wit jury in Texas actually bought it. And I remember calling the DA at the time and saying, “I didn’t force him out of New York. He keeps coming back to New York! This is a defense that is ridiculous and you’re not rebutting it.” And shame on them for not rebutting it.
LDP: Go back to when you reopened the case in 2000. You’re about to interview Susan, then suddenly she’s dead. Your first thought was ...?
JP: Oh, please. That Robert Durst killed her! He knew we were coming out there, and he had to shut her up. I believe that Susan Berman’s role in 1982 when Kathleen disappeared was not only to talk to the press, but also to call that medical school and say, “I can’t come in today.” Look, I was in law school, I know a lot of women who were in medical school. The last thing you do in medical school is call the dean and say, “Hey, I can’t come in today.” Really? If that isn’t a forced alibi, I don’t know what is.
LDP: So what do you think her role was at the end?
JP: Look, what we do know is that Susan Berman was his spokesperson in 1982 and that they maintained a friendship. What we also know was that she was destitute in 1999 and 2000. That she needed money. We know that Robert Durst was sending her money. So why is Durst sending her money? They were in communication, we know that they had spoken with each other, and there’s no question in my mind that she would have told Bobby, “Hey, look, the Westchester County DA is sending somebody out to speak to me.”
LDP: And then she is dead. And you took a lot of heat for that. You know, I keep in touch with a couple of Susan’s closest friends, and I always wondered how they really felt about you, because you put all this into motion. Right? But in fact, as one of them put it, “we have always been rooting for her.” Then I talked to another of her friends this morning and she told me, “To me, she’s a hero. She did the best she could to get a really bad dude behind bars.”
JP: You know what? Thank you so much for telling me that, Lisa. Thank you. For the longest time I thought they all hated me.
LDP: Are you worried that before they get him, he could strike again?
JP: I believe, and Detective Cazalas says this, he said, “You know, did he kill for the thrill of it? No. He kills when he’s backed into a corner.”
LDP: Another thing that came out through this docu-series is that it does seem that he was thinking of killing his brother, Douglas [who is now head of the Durst empire].
JP: Let me tell you something. I think Douglas Durst has some answering to do. I think the fact that Robert has indicated that Douglas Durst was in many of the meetings with Nick Scoppetta, his criminal defense attorney, that tells me that Douglas Durst knew what was going on, knew Kathleen was missing. It tells me that Tom Durst knew what was going on, too. Seymour knew what was going on, too. This is a family that’s got a lot of answering to do. And again, kudos to Jarecki.
LDP: I thought the interview that Douglas did with the New York Times just before the docu-series aired was so interesting. He said he was worried that Seymour’s reputation would be harmed, but I think he was more worried about his own. And it was weird to me that he never even mentioned Kathie, his missing sister-in-law.
JP: Well, you know what? Douglas Durst, toward the end of the making of this series—and I didn’t understand why Andrew was so cool about this—Douglas Durst got his lawyers, one motion after another, to stop this miniseries from going forward. And that’s because Douglas Durst knew that this was not only about Robert Durst but about Douglas Durst and the Durst family, as well. And you have to watch “The Jinx” to realize the implication. The implication of Douglas Durst being involved from the get-go, when Kathleen disappeared, sitting in on the interviews with the criminal defense attorney that they hired, and aware of the investigator who said that even Robert Durst’s excuses at the time did not pan out. And here you have Douglas Durst repeatedly trying to stop the airing of this. And trashing me as well, by the way. All this craziness came out before right before the series was aired. And it told me that Douglas Durst is shitting in his pants.
LDP: Do you think he’s complicit?
JP: Do I think Douglas Durst is complicit? I think Douglas Durst has a lot of answering to do. I think Douglas Durst is not the man that he wants the New York City real estate world to believe that he is. I think Douglas Durst—and they show him receiving a child abuse award?—I’m not sure that Douglas Durst is the man that many in New York think that he is.
LDP: Let’s talk about Debrah Lee Charatan, Robert Durst’s wife. Apparently they don’t live together, never have. He married her soon after you reopened Kathie’s case and soon before Susan was killed. And she remained married to him when he was a cross-dresser living in Galveston. And so on. Is it purely money?
JP: You know, I can’t say that Debrah and Robert Durst are in love. [A chuckle.] Who knows? The prosecutor in me tells me that they are definitely not in love. And that it’s a marriage of convenience. And that Debrah Lee Charatan, when you actually hear the discussion of money, she is very concerned about the money.
LDP: Aren’t you worried that Durst is going to flee between now and the final episode on Sunday? I mean, he fled before. And it would be easy to go further than Allentown or Bethlehem.
JP: You know, I don’t know what is happening on Sunday, but what I can assume right now is that someone is watching him. There’s too much at stake. And I think, having been in law enforcement for 30 years, my instincts tell me that everybody realizes that there appears to be sufficient evidence to go before a grand jury in California, and Robert Durst knows it, and so his first instinct would be to run. I mean, the guy has been a deaf-mute woman! So I imagine he understands the idea of running and disguising himself. But my concerns are really allayed by the fact that I believe law enforcement recognizes the danger of him fleeing and are watching him very closely.
[She pauses to take a text message from Andrew Jarecki.]
Hold on. Let me read it to you. Let me make sure I’m accurate. About the last episode: “It will be emotional and good for closure.”
LDP: Wow. I have to say I’m kind of obsessed.
JP: We’re all obsessed! We’re all wild. This is huge. And you know what? I said to Andrew, I said, “You’re gonna get an Academy Award. Because you did what law enforcement in three states could not do.”