Robert Durst -- Return of the “Rich Sicko”

Apr 2, 2015 - by Benjamin Welton - 0 Comments

Ever since the release of Andrew Jarecki’s HBO documentary "The Jinx," which carries the subtitle of “The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” public attention has been focused on the long trail of crimes possibly -- and quite probably -- committed by the real-estate scion over many decades.

by Benjamin Welton

While speaking of the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game for the Criterion Collection, novelist and film historian Kim Newman spoke of what he termed the “‘rich sicko’ melodrama,” which constitutes the origin of “the entire ‘torture porn’ subgenre.” The Most Dangerous Game is decidedly not “torture porn” (there isn’t a speck of blood in the film, although there are certainly gruesome moments), but it does present the classic case of the “rich sicko.”

Count Zaroff (or General Zaroff in the film), the Russian big game hunter who is the antagonist in both Richard Connell’s short story and Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s film, represents just how dangerous the intersection of wealth and madness can be. After years of hunting lions and tigers, Zaroff no longer finds pleasure in the killing of mere animals. He needs a new game -- the most dangerous game of all -- in order to satisfy his primal lust. So, from the vantage point of his isolated island, Zaroff uses intentionally misplaced buoy lights in order to steer ships into dangerous coral reefs. From here, Zaroff picks up the ragged survivors in order to later release them on his personal hunting reserve. This is how Zaroff learns to hunt humans.

Unlike Robert Hansen, who repeated the fictional crimes of Zaroff in real-life Alaska, Robert Durst has not been accused or convicted of any Zaroff-like murders. That said, Durst is by any stretch of the imagination a “rich sicko” who has somehow managed to maintain his freedom even despite years of suspicious activity.

Born on April 12, 1943, Durst grew up as the son of New York City real estate mogul Seymour Durst. The Durst Organization has long held control of most of Times Square and currently owns the One World Trade Center after winning a $100 million development bid in 2010. Since birth, Durst has lived the high life of wealth and privilege. But beneath the veneer of inherited success lurked a maladjusted misfit who just needed the right circumstances to unleash his inner monster. 

Arguably, that moment came in 1950. When Robert Durst was 7, his mother, Bernice, committed suicide in their Scarsdale, New York home. In a Journal News article from February 7, 2015, Durst is quoted as saying that during his mother’s suicide, his father walked him towards a hall window in order to show him that his mother was standing on the roof.

“I waved at Mommy. I don’t know if she saw me...It never went through my mind that, ‘What is she doing on the roof in her nightie?’”

Moments later a maid informed the family that Bernice had jumped to her death. This is Robert’s story. It’s full of melodrama and shows a rather twisted view of Seymour Durst as a kind of sadist or depraved voyeur. Understandably, Robert’s brother Douglas Durst, who heads the Durst Organization and has told various media outlets that he has kept security on-call for years due to his fear of his brother, does not agree with this view of family history. Douglas contends that all four Durst children -- Douglas, Robert, Thomas, and Wendy -- were immediately moved to a neighbor’s home when tragedy seemed imminent. Furthermore, Douglas asserts that none of the children saw their mother die.

If Douglas’s version of the events that took place in 1950 are true, then Robert’s tale becomes less about the depravity of his father and more about his own self-serving ego. One can taste an excuse, or at the very least an explanation, in Robert’s version of events. It’s the “rich sicko” saying: “My evil is not completely my own. Monsters are made, after all...”

While in young adulthood, it seems that Durst managed to keep his impulses at bay for a time. He graduated from Lehigh University in 1965 with a degree in economics, and according to his senior yearbook, Durst was an active and engaged student who was the business manager for Lehigh’s The Brown and White newspaper, a lacrosse player, treasurer for the Phi Delta Epsilon fraternity, and a brother in the Phi Lambda Phi fraternity. Durst even managed to enroll in a doctoral program at UCLA before ultimately dropping out in 1969.

While in Los Angeles, Durst met Susan Berman, whom The New York Times has categorized as an “aspiring writer who was the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster.” Even though Durst met and underwent primal therapy with John Lennon around this time, Berman and a certain Prudence Farrow, the sister of actress Mia Farrow and the inspiration behind The Beatles’s song “Dear Prudence,” would prove more important in Durst’s life than the tragic musician from Liverpool.

After dropping out, Durst moved back to his native New York and fell in love with Kathleen McCormack, a dental hygienist who lived in a Durst-owned building. At some point after the fall of 1971, Durst asked Kathleen to live with him. She agreed, and the two became a live-in couple by January 1972.

To most observers, Durst’s life must have seemed blissful. But, according to recently released evidence and the ongoing investigations into Durst’s past, it’s clear that Durst was living a double life. On the one hand, Durst was embroiled in a long simmering sibling rivalry with his younger brother Douglas. Both men were successful real estate developers in New York City, and both believed that they should be the successor to their family’s empire. A year before Seymour Durst died in 1995, Douglas, not Robert, was named as the company’s newest boss. Although the process had been in place for decades, this decision finally provided the right amount of emotional fuel for Robert to sever ties with his already estranged family.

Worst still, Robert Durst was not only the black sheep of his family, but a murderer to boot. Ever since the release of Andrew Jarecki’s HBO documentary The Jinx, which carries the subtitle of “The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” public attention has been focused on the possible crimes committed by Durst. In particular, attention once again focused on Durst because of his final monologue in the film. With a hot mic on, Durst, while by himself in a bathroom, began an insane soliloquy that the New Yorker magazine’s Adam Gopnik has compared to the works of William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett:

“There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Durst’s schizophrenic call-and-response was not merely a moment of great dramatic intensity; it also serves as the tipping point which put police finally back on his trail. The day before Durst’s intimate confession aired, he was arrested in a New Orleans hotel where he was staying under a false name. On March 14, 2015, FBI investigators searched Durst’s room and found a fake ID for an “Everett Ward,” 150 grams of marijuana, stacks of $100 bills totaling $42,000, a gun, a map of Cuba (police believed that Durst was planning on fleeing the country), and a latex mask that came with an attached wig. Durst was arrested and charged with the 2000 murder of Susan Berman. But in just a short time, Durst has come under suspicion for a whole lot more.

Lynne Schultze
Lynne Schultze (PBC)

Reported by the Associated Press on March 24, Vermont police are currently looking at Durst for the 1971 disappearance of Middlebury College student Lynne Schulze. An 18-year-old originally from Simsbury, Connecticut, Schulze went missing on December 10, 1971 after returning to her room in order to grab some pencils for an exam. When Schulze failed to show up for that day’s exam, people in the small college town community immediately began to worry. But despite numerous fliers promising rewards, Schulze was never found. Until now, the case has remained ice cold since being reopened in 1992.

Suspicions concerning Durst’s involvement in Schultze’s disappearance intensified after detectives in Vermont received a tip in 2012. Until that point, investigators, according to the New York Post, were unaware that Durst had once owned a health food store called All Good Things in Middlebury during the early 1970s. Now, in the light of serious media attention, Vermont detectives are focusing their energies on any possible connections between Durst and Schultze.

While Durst’s involvement in the Schultze case is based on time and geography (besides running the store, Durst and Kathie lived in Middlebury as well), his connections to later deaths and disappearances are far more solid. In 1980, Kathie, who married Durst when she was 19 in 1973 (Durst was 30 at the time), began telling friends about Durst’s controlling behavior. Friends admitted that Kathie not only called Durst “abusive,” but she even confessed that he had once forced her to have an abortion. On top of this, Kathie knew of Durst’s ongoing affair with Prudence Farrow, who lived in a New York apartment owned by the Durst family. At this point, Kathie began thinking about a divorce.

On January 6, 1982, Kathie, taking the advice of her friend Eleanor Schwank, checked herself into the Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx in order to be treated for multiple contusions on her head and face. The bruises were Durst’s fault, for despite being a slight man, Durst had a notorious temper and would often scream and even growl during therapy sessions. After coming out of the hospital, Kathie finally approached Durst with a request for a divorce and a $250,000 settlement. The request made Durst furious, and after receiving an angry call from Durst while attending a party at Gilberte Najamy’s house in Connecticut on January 31st, Kathie returned home in order to calm the situation down. Najamy later stated that before leaving, Kathie had told him that: “If something happens to me, check it out. I’m afraid of what Bobby will do.”

Kathie Durst goes missing

(Daily News)

Six days later, Durst reported Kathie missing. He told police that after a fight in their South Salem cottage, he had dropped Kathie off at the Metro-North station in Katonah in order for her to return to their Manhattan apartment. This statement was corroborated by a doorman, who claimed to have seen Kathie enter the apartment building that night, as well as the dean of the medical school that Kathie attended, who told police at the time that someone claiming to be Kathie had called in sick on February 1st. Although suspicious of Durst, police did not have enough evidence to charge Durst with any crime.

As early as 1982, Durst’s story began to unravel. Not only did the doorman admit that he only saw what he thought was Kathie Durst from behind, but Kathie’s friends also found unopened letters addressed to Kathie in a wastebasket at the Durst’s home in Westchester. After coming under increasing scrutiny, Durst withdrew from the public eye and began relying on long-time friend Berman, now a writer for the New York Magazine, as his media go-between. The case of Kathie Durst still remains a cold case filed under the heading of Missing Person.

For years, Durst went under the radar. He returned to his family’s company in 1983 and even secretly divorced Kathie in 1988. Two years later, he sold the couple’s South Salem cottage and moved into an Upper East Side apartment with Debrah Lee Charatan, a real estate broker who Durst started dating in 1988. Again, for a few years, Durst managed to live an ostensibly normal life. But when Douglas was tapped to be the Durst Organization’s head instead of him, Robert Durst snapped and snapped bad.

By 1994, Durst had cut all ties with his family and began wandering around the country, often while in drag. Although he kept in contact with Charatan and maintained the couple’s New York apartment, Durst lived as a drifter, crossing endless miles into Texas and Southern California.

Then, in the summer of 2000, Durst received a letter from Berman. At the time, Berman was living in Los Angeles and was low on money. She asked Durst for help, and the older man complied with two checks worth $25,000 each. Things went back to being quiet until December 2000, when Durst, after having married Charatan in a private ceremony that lasted some 15 minutes, began routinely flying out to California. Not long after, on December 24, 2000, Berman was found dead in her Beverly Hills home. She had been killed “execution style” with a bullet to the back of her head. At the scene, police found no signs of forced entry and no indications that robbery had been a motive. Among Kathie’s friends, who still maintain that Durst was responsible for Kathie’s disappearance and death, it is accepted that Durst killed Berman in order to keep what she knew about Kathie’s disappearance quiet forever, especially since Kathie’s case had been reopened by New York police in late 1999.

Susan Berman

Susan Berman and Robert Durst


In an interesting twist, the Beverly Hills Police Department was sent an anonymous letter postmarked December 23, 2000 -- the most likely date of Berman’s killing. The letter merely stated that there was a “cadaver” in Berman’s home. In November 2014, months after reopening the Berman case, four handwriting experts with the LAPD confirmed that Durst was the man most likely responsible for the cryptic “cadaver” letter.

Miraculously, like the NYPD before them, the LAPD suspected Durst but could not tie anything definite to him. While focusing on Berman’s manager Nyle Brenner, L.A. authorities allowed Durst to escape and move to Galveston, Texas. In Texas, Durst posed as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner and lived in a cheap boarding house. One of his neighbors in Texas was an elderly man named Morris Black.

On September 30, 2001, a family out fishing in Galveston found a torso floating in the water. Investigators later found more dismembered body parts, packaging for a bow saw, and a newspaper stamped with the address of Durst’s boarding house. Less than a week later, police, armed with a search warrant, found blood not only in Black’s room, but also discovered a trail of blood leading to “Dorothy Ciner’s” room. In Ciner’s room, police found a bloody pair of men’s boots and a bloody knife. Police were now convinced that they had found their murderer, but unfortunately, “Dorothy Ciner” was nowhere to be found. Before the police could close in on him, Durst, while posing as Morris Black, had fled to Mobile, Alabama.

The hunt for Durst, alias “Dorothy Ciner,” lasted until November 30, 2001. On that day, Durst was arrested in Pennsylvania for shoplifting. On his person was found $500 in cash, two guns, and Morris Black’s driver’s license. In his car another $37,000 was found.

Despite the forensic and circumstantial evidence pointing to Durst's guilt in the murder of Morris Black, Durst was found not guilty of murder on November 11, 2003. At trial, his defense was that he had killed Black in self-defense after being threatened with a gun and later dismembered Black in a state of confusion.  

Much to his chagrin, Durst’s legal problems continued after being acquitted in 2003. On September 29, 2004, Durst pled guilty to tampering with evidence and jumping bail. He was sentenced to five years, but Durst earned a release in 2006 after filing a successful petition that claimed his parole restrictions were too invasive. Durst, now armed with a $65 million settlement from his family, quickly returned to his old habit of finding trouble. In 2013, he was arrested for violating Douglas Durst’s restraining order against him (he was eventually acquitted), while on July 24, 2014, Durst turned himself in to Houston Police after committing a bizarre case of criminal mischief which involved him urinating on a CVS candy rack.

Looking at Durst’s life as a whole, it’s hard not see the maniac standing in plain sight. Yet somehow, Durst has managed to avoid serving serious jail time for any crime worse than bail jumping. It’s not as if the signs haven’t been there all along, from the self-serving and elaborate story of his mother’s suicide to his connections to two missing persons and one homicide victim. Also, according to a woman named Linda Walker Zevallos, who dated Durst while he lived in Texas, Durst exhibited an unnatural fascination with guns and had a habit of keeping multiple firearms in his car. Chillingly, Zevallos told the Los Angeles Times that while on a date in 2000, during a time when Durst would frequently fly out to California in order see Berman, Durst insisted on renting and watching a certain film.

Durst’s film of choice was American Psycho. Like The Most Dangerous Game, American Psycho is a “rich sicko” horror story about a successful New York investment banker named Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) who lives a second life a sociopathic serial killer. The parallels are obvious, and even though Durst’s trial is far from its conclusion, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of Patrick Bateman in Robert Durst. It’s a tragedy that some sort of Sanger Rainsford, the man who bests Count Zaroff in both versions of the story, didn’t get to Durst sooner.

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