Robert Durst: Getting Up to Speed on 'The Jinx', the Trial & Key Players

by Stacy Lambe 7:50 AM PDT, March 26, 2015
Photo: HBO

You’ve read the headlines. You may have watched the hit HBO documentary ‑- or even seen the 2010 film starring Ryan Gosling. And the question remains: Who is Robert Durst?

The real estate heir suspected of committing several murders, including that of longtime friend Susan Berman, is the subject of headlines once again following his arrest in New Orleans and a terrifying conclusion to HBO’s six-part documentary.

“What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” Durst mumbled to himself, unaware he was being recorded in the bathroom in the finale of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.

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Now, the 71-year-old is on the verge of a huge media trial as Los Angeles preps to try him on the murder of Berman with a possible death sentence if found guilty.

With so much to understand, ETonline breaks down everything you need to know to about Durst, his suspected crimes, and key players in the case to get you up to speed:

Photo: HBO

The Backstory

Durst is the eldest son of Seymour, a New York City real estate developer and inventor of the National Debt Clock and Bernice Herstein (now dead after committing suicide in 1950). Durst has three siblings, Douglas, Thomas, and Wendy, all of whom were raised in Scarsdale, NY.

Durst and his brother Douglas have a contentious relationship going back to childhood when Robert reportedly would harass him. “We would have constant physical fights,” Douglas told The New York Times. He also detailed a time when he broke his wrist after being shoved onto the ice of a skating rink. Douglas also said that his younger siblings were subjected to Robert’s torture and harassment.

In 1973, Durst married his first wife Kathleen McCormack. For a short period the two moved to Vermont and opened a small food store, All Good Things, before Durst returned to New York City to work in the real estate business.

Kathleen was first reported missing in 1982 and has never been seen since.

In 1994, Douglas was named Seymour’s successor of the Durst Organization, prompting Robert to leave the company.

In 2000, after New York State Police re-opened the investigation in Kathleen’s disappearance with Durst as suspect for her murder. Berman, who served as Durst’s spokesperson after Kathleen first went missing and is believed to have knowledge about the true nature of her disappearance, was executed in her home just before Christmas.

Her death happened just weeks after Durst married his second wife Debrah Lee Charatan. According to The New York Times, the couple has “never lived together as husband and wife.”

That same year, Durst moved to Galveston, TX and assumed the identity of a deaf mute woman. He eventually befriended his neighbor Morris Black, who was later found dead. Durst was promptly arrested for the 2001 murder. In court, he admitted to dismembering Black's body and dumping him into the Galveston River but he was acquitted of the charges. 

Photo: HBO

The Documentary

In February, HBO debuted The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, a six-part documentary detailing three murders that Durst is suspected of committing, including the disappearance of Kathleen and the execution of Berman, and the murder and dismemberment of Black.

The documentary was directed by Andrew Jarecki. The filmmaker previously directed All Good Things, the 2010 fictionalized version of Durst’s story starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst.

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The series allowed Durst to tell his story, as well as refute claims that he was guilty of any of any of the crimes he’s been long suspected of committing. Over the course of 25 hours during two separate interviews, Durst admitted to lying to the police about the night Kathleen disappeared, was discovered to have penned a letter with handwriting that matched a note to police alerting them of Berman’s murder. Both envelopes included the misspelled “Beverley Hills” in the address.

The series’ finale was highly publicized thanks to the New Orleans arrest of Durst less than a day before it aired. When confronted on camera about the two letters, Durst became visibly uncomfortable. And when taping was over, he was recorded on his mic saying what many fans believe is a confession. “What a disaster,” he said at one point.

Immediately following the finale, the filmmakers came under fire for its unclear timeline as to when the final interview took place and whether they withheld evidence from the police. Jarecki and those associated with the film immediately pulled from all press interviews, citing the possibility of being called as a witness.

The Arrest

On Saturday, March 14, Durst was arrested in New Orleans on an out-of-state murder warrant for Berman’s death.

California authorizes reopened Berman’s case in part due to the HBO series. "As a result of investigative leads and additional evidence that has come to light in the past year, investigators have identified Robert Durst as the person responsible for Ms. Berman's death," the LAPD said according to ABC News.

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At the time of his arrest, Durst’s lawyers told ABC News he would not fight extradition “in an attempt to expedite the process of getting into court in LA to answer and defend against the charges.”

In addition to the murder charge, Durst is also facing felony firearms and drug charges. At the time of his arrest, Durst had a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver on his body as well as marijuana, $42,000 in cash, a latex mask, a fake I.D., a legitimate passport, and maps of Cuba. Officials also reported that he was expecting a package with $117,000 in cash and other personal items.

Durst is currently being held without bail and was recently transferred to a mental health facility for an unspecified “acute mental condition,” per reports from NBC News.

A preliminary hearing on the criminal charges will be held April 2. 

Photo: HBO

The Trial

The Durst trial in California is expected to be a media sensation following three decades of headlines, suspicion, and the fallout from the documentary—which has become a point of contention for both sides.

According to the Los Angeles Times, legal experts said the prosecution will likely limit how much evidence from the documentary is used in the case against Durst. There are questions as to whether the off-camera recording is admissible and the doubts surrounding the film’s accuracy could also damage their argument.

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While Los Angeles County wants to try him on first-degree murder for Berman’s death, the case cannot move forward until his criminal charges in New Orleans are resolved. 

The Key Players

In addition to Durst and the three victims, there are several people that have received attention for their involvement in previous investigations, the documentary, and the current legal battle.

Andrew Jarecki, director of The Jinx and All Good Things. He confronted Durst on camera about the suspicious letters, which may be key in linking him to Berman’s murder.

Chip Lewis and Dick DeGuerin, the two attorneys for Durst. DeGuerin is a Texas-based criminal defense lawyer who has also defended Tom DeLay and David Koresh.

Debrah Lee Charatan, the second and current wife of Durst. The two were married suspiciously ahead of Berman’s murder and his eventual trial for Black’s murder. Under spousal privilege, Charatan has never had to go on record about what she may know about any of the three deaths (Kathleen, Berman, or Black).

Douglas Durst, the younger brother of Durst and current chairman of the Durst Organization. After refusing to participate in The Jinx, Douglas has spoken to the press on several occasions stating his relief that his brother was apprehended.

Jeanine Pirro, the former District Attorney of Westchester County who led the investigation into Kathleen’s disappearance. She’s long vocalized her belief of Durst’s guilt in all three murders.

Sareb Kaufman, the stepson of Berman. He discovered the incriminating letter believed to link Durst to Berman’s murder.

Susan Berman, Durst’s longtime friend who was executed in 2000. Berman is the daughter of a mobster and was reportedly working on several lucrative projects -- a Sopranos-like series for Showtime and a memoir -- that could have spilled many secrets.