Robert Durst was a fabulously wealthy heir to one of the most powerful real estate companies in New York City, and a convicted murderer and suspected-serial killer who avoided appropriate punishment for more than 40 years by changing his name, disguising his face, moving from place to place, and finally dying while waiting for an appeal. In the years before his death he had several medical issues. He had surgery for esophageal cancer, had a shunt put in his brain to remove excessive fluid, and had cervical spinal fusion for pinched nerves in his neck. During his 2021 trial for killing “close friend” Susan Berman, his lawyers told the court that he had bladder cancer. On October 16, 2021, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was placed on a ventilator. He died on January 10, 2022 at age 78, three months after he was given a life sentence without parole for murdering Berman and two months after he was charged with the death of his wife 39 years ago.
Lifelong Anti-Social Behavior
Durst was born the eldest of four children in 1943 during World War II. He later said that at age seven, his father had walked him to a window where he saw his mother standing on the roof, shortly before she died on the ground below. Durst and his younger brother, Douglas, received counseling for fighting and a 1953 psychiatrist’s report stated that ten-year-old Robert had “personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia.” His high school classmates described him as a loner. He received a bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University and did some graduate work at UCLA, but then instead of joining his family’s huge real estate operation, he chose to open a small health food store in Vermont. He later closed the store and returned to New York City to work in the Durst Organization. In 1992, when Robert Durst was 49, his father appointed his younger brother to succeed him. Robert sued and in 2006, at age 63, he was bought out of the family trust for $65,000,000.
Disappearances and Deaths
• His first wife, medical student Kathleen McCormack Durst, disappeared in New York in 1982 at age 29, and Durst was suspected of killing her but her body was never found.
• In 2000, he killed Susan Berman at her Benedict Canyon home to stop her from testifying on the death of his wife.
• He changed his name and disappeared in Texas, wearing wigs and women’s clothes. In 2002, he shot and dismembered his neighbor Morris Black, who had apparently uncovered Durst’s identity. In 2003, Durst was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, even though he had previously admitted that he dismembered and dumped his neighbor’s body in the Galveston Bay. Durst claimed that he shot Black while wrestling a gun from him.
• He had a history of difficulty avoiding conflicts, many other personal confrontations with family, friends and acquaintances, and was suspected of being responsible for several other disappearances, but not proven guilty. These incidents are listed, with multiple references, in the “Other Cases” section of the Wikipedia article on Robert Durst.
Apparent Confession in a Documentary Series
The media stories about Durst’s alleged killings led to production in 2015 of “The Jinx,” a six-part HBO documentary series. Durst agreed to cooperate with the movie makers. He had not been charged previously because no witnesses came forward to describe his crimes. An anonymous note was sent to Beverly Hills police that they would find “a cadaver” at his close friend Susan Berman’s house. The note had all capital letters and misspelled the city’s name as “Beverley Hills.” Durst repeatedly denied writing that letter, but in “The Jinx,” it was reported that his adopted son found another letter written by Durst with the same misspelled “Beverley” and also written in all capital letters. In the documentary, Durst can be seen responding to questions aboout this letter by burping, stumbling over his words, and touching his ears. Then Durst went into a bathroom with the microphone still open and said, “I don’t know what you expected to get. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. Killed them all, of course. I want to do something new. There’s nothing new about that . . . He was right. I was wrong. The burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do?”
During his trial in 2021 for Berman’s death, Durst admitted to writing this note but claimed that he found Berman dead at her house rather than having killed her. He said, “I have difficulty believing it myself, that I would write the letter if I had not killed Susan Berman.”
Lessons from Robert Durst’s Life and Death
The rules for society are based on the most good for the most people. People who break the most serious rules against taking a person’s life are almost always guilty of a lifetime of breaking lesser rules of behavior towards their fellow humans. This is the very sad history of a person who broke lots of the rules of acceptable behavior.
April 12, 1943 – January 10, 2022