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Why Robert Durst’s first murder conviction might not be his last

The real estate heir avoided justice for 40 years but now the charges could begin to pile up

Robert Durst at a 2017 court hearing in Los Angeles.
Robert Durst at a 2017 court hearing in Los Angeles. Photograph: Mark Boster/AP
Robert Durst at a 2017 court hearing in Los Angeles. Photograph: Mark Boster/AP

Last modified on Wed 13 Oct 2021 02.53 BST

For years, the wheels of justice moved so slowly against Robert Durst, the New York real estate heir with a trail of dead bodies dotting his improbably charmed life, that his victims’ family and friends feared he’d never pay the consequences.

Now, though, it’s open season. After Durst’s first murder conviction last month – the culmination of a sensational trial in Los Angeles featuring close to 40 years of devastating evidence – prosecutors and civil litigators are working at lightning speed to haul him back to court any way they can.

In Westchester county, New York, the district attorney’s office has assigned a newly formed cold case unit, headed by a top-flight prosecutor, to reopen an investigation into the death of Durst’s first wife, Kathie, whose disappearance from their suburban home on a cold winter’s night in 1982 has at last been reclassified as a murder. According to local news reports, a grand jury could be empaneled as early as this week.

Kathie’s surviving siblings are intent on suing Durst and believe, if he is charged in Westchester, they can overcome a technical problem with the statute of limitations that stymied a previous effort to hold him liable in civil court. They also want to pursue Durst’s family, whom they accuse of participating in a cover-up after her disappearance by persuading the police they were dealing not with foul play but with a runaway wife. (The family has always denied any wrongdoing.)

And there may be more. Since the jury in California has established that Durst murdered Susan Berman, a close friend he didn’t trust to keep quiet about the events of 1982, investigators in New York City may now want to re-examine the activities of Durst and his associates in the weeks running up to Berman’s death – a time when, in his own words, he was “setting myself up to be a fugitive” – and decide if anyone else was complicit in the crime.

Asked by the Guardian if they were conducting such an investigation, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said: “We will decline to comment.”

Many people who have willingly talked about the Durst case in the past – former investigators, Kathie’s family, prosecutors and defense lawyers – have gone quiet in the past two weeks, possibly in advance of a formal grand jury announcement by Westchester county. The Westchester district attorney, Miriam Rocah, told reporters at the end of last month her team was working “very hard” but would not be drawn on specifics.

Durst, who is 78 and in poor health, still has two years to serve in prison for violating federal gun laws at the time of his arrest for the Berman murder in 2015. He also faces a sentencing hearing in Los Angeles on 18 October, making it more than likely that he will die behind bars. Still, legal experts say, there are at least two compelling reasons Westchester county and others would want to pursue him.

The first is to offer Kathie Durst’s family and friends the justice they have been demanding in vain for four decades. In a statement issued in response to Durst’s conviction, Kathie’s family said it was “bizarre and unacceptable” that Durst would be tried for killing an accomplice to Kathie’s murder before being held accountable for the original crime. In launching her investigation in May, Rocah said: “The family obviously wants and needs closure … A whole community wants and needs closure.”

A photo of Durst and Kathie McCormack on their wedding day in 1973 was shown at his murder trial in Inglewood, California.
A photo of Durst and Kathie McCormack on their wedding day in 1973 was shown at his murder trial in Inglewood, California. Photograph: Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

The second is as an insurance policy. Durst’s high-priced lawyers have signaled their intent to appeal the murder conviction, and while their chances of overturning the jury verdict seem slim, they have a track record of pulling off the seemingly impossible for their client. (In 2003, Durst was acquitted of murdering a man in Galveston, Texas, even though he admitted delivering the fatal blow and dismembering the body.)

“You never know what’s going to happen on appeal,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Especially here, when you had the Covid outbreak, and a long break in the trial, and a prosecutor who was very aggressive.”

For many decades, the Kathie Durst case was considered too difficult to pursue. Many early investigative leads were lost because Durst and others misled the police into thinking they needed to investigate in New York, where Kathie was close to finishing medical school, and not in Westchester county, where prosecutors now believe she was killed. Her body was never found, and to this day there is no certainty about how she died.

Thanks to the exhaustive efforts of the Los Angeles prosecution team, however, the Westchester authorities can now draw on numerous statements by Robert Durst that point to his guilt. (He told one interviewer: “Whatever happened to Kathie was a big chunk my fault.”)

Phone records show that he was in the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey two days after the presumed day of her death, suggesting that he might have disposed of her body “Sopranos-style”, as a Los Angeles prosecutor put it to the jury. A list recovered by a friend of Kathie’s from the Dursts’ garbage, much discussed at the Berman trial, read in part: “Town dump, bridge, dig, boat, other, shovel or ?”

Further investigation may of course provide even more evidence – against Durst or possible accessories. Levenson, the law professor, said this might be another reason prosecutors and others wanted to keep going. “Spin-off cases are possible, and it’s another way to tie up loose ends,” she said. “Until you do the investigation, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

For the past 20 years, the Durst family has issued repeated public statements distancing itself from Robert and expressing sorrow for the harm he has caused. Durst’s brother Douglas, who heads the family real estate business, has even said his brother would like to kill him because of his refusal to offer more support.

The Berman verdict – and the prospect of further criminal prosecution – could raise troubling questions, however, about the family’s actions in 1982, when Kathie disappeared, and again in 2000 when Durst received a tip-off – investigators say it was from his sister – that he might be under renewed investigation.

Jordan Barowitz, a a Durst Organization spokesman, told the Guardian the family would continue to cooperate “in any criminal investigation of Bob”. He indicated he was unafraid of any civil suit that Kathie’s family and their hard-charging attorney, Bob Abrams, might file against anyone in the broader family or the company. “None of Mr Abrams’ lawsuits have progressed past being dismissed in summary judgment,” Barowitz said.

Not everyone in Kathie’s old circle supports the continuing quest for justice. Ellen Strauss, herself a lawyer, told the Guardian the Los Angeles trial was clear enough in establishing Durst’s culpability, and she felt no need for more. “He’s going to die in prison anyway. A lot of us, Kathie’s friends, are dead at this point,” Strauss said. “Why waste taxpayer money to keep going after this guy?”

Durst himself has, to this point, remained quiet on the topic of possible further prosecution. His longtime lead defense lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said he was “not comfortable in making any statements until after sentencing”.

  • This article was amended on 12 October 2021. An earlier version incorrectly identified Jordan Barowitz as a Durst Corporation lawyer.