LOS ANGELES (CN) – A witness in Robert Durst’s murder case testified Tuesday about a mysterious decades-old phone call that prosecutors say links Durst’s missing wife Kathie to Susan Berman, whom the real estate scion is accused of killing 16 years ago.
In November, Durst pleaded not guilty to charges that he murdered his friend, journalist and author Susan Berman, by shooting her once in the back of the head. Though he made his first court appearance last year in a wheelchair and with a neck brace, the frail-looking 73-year-old was able to hobble into the courtroom at a state criminal court near Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday. Dressed in a checked shirt, gray dress pants and large glasses, he arched round to stare out the packed gallery before turning around and sinking into his seat.
Dr. Albert Kuperman talked about his brief interactions with Kathie Durst when she was a medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Robert Durst, the heir of New York real estate magnate Seymour Durst, is a suspect in the investigation of wife’s 1982 disappearance.
Kuperman described her as a smart-dressed woman who, despite some absences, was on course to graduate during her final year of medical school.
“She struck me as a very bright and attractive woman,” Kuperman told county prosecutor Habib Balian.
Balian asked the retired physician, who had been associate dean of the school, if she had ever retaken the rotation.
“No. She never got to it,” Kuperman said. When Balian asked him why he replied: “She disappeared.”
An evaluation of Durst’s final rotation in radiology shown to court read: “Ms. Durst is a very pleasant student who displayed a keen interest in the subject although she missed several sessions.”
Durst completed that rotation on Jan. 24, 1982, and was due to begin another rotation in Outpatient Pediatrics on Feb. 1, after a one-week vacation. Kuperman said he received a call at his office on that day, a Monday morning. The woman on the end of the line had said she was Kathie Durst and during a brief conversation told the doctor that she would not be coming in because she was suffering from an upset stomach and headaches.
Kuperman said that a week later, an NYPD detective visited him to ask him about the call. Over the years, police investigating Kathie Durst’s disappearance asked the doctor about it several times.
Balian asked him if could be sure that the woman on the other end of the line was really Kathie, and not someone else. Kuperman testified that he did not know if it was Kathie on the line because he had never heard her voice on the phone before that day.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said during the hearing that the identity of the caller has yet to be proven. But prosecutors have evidence that Berman made the call, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Robert Durst has emphatically denied a connection.
“She would not have risked her life for something like that,” he said, according to the Times.
In the afternoon, Durst’s attorney Dick DeGuerin pointed to interviews with the makers of the HBO series about his millionaire client, “The Jinx,” in which Kuperman told the movie’s producers during an interview that the caller “sounded like” Kathie and that he felt pressured by investigators to change his story.
Kuperman said that he did not recall telling the filmmakers that, but the transcript of the interview shown to the court told a different tale.
According to the transcript, the interviewer asked: “Had you had enough contact with her prior to that to recognize her voice?”
“Well, I don’t know. Phones are different. But it sounded like her.”
Kuperman said he did not recall making the comments but when DeGuerin cited another example, the doctor replied: “That’s what it says. I can’t deny it.”
The physician also conceded that in the 33 years prior to a meeting with county prosecutors that he had believed it was Kathie on the other end of the line. He had started to doubt that assumption after the prosecutors raised the possibility that it might not be Kathie who had made the call, Kuperman said.
DeGuerin tried to chip away at Kuperman’s resolve through the afternoon proceedings. He questioned Kuperman’s assessment of Kathie as a good student, citing a 1980 evaluation in which a doctor said that she should repeat a rotation because of absences.
Kuperman told the defense attorney that it was not unusual for students to struggle with the demands of some rotations.
Proceedings are expected to continue on Wednesday with the testimony of a “secret” witness whose identity has been protected amid safety concerns.
This is the second time that Robert Durst has faced murder charges. He successfully persuaded a jury in Texas that he had acted in self-defense when he beheaded and dismembered his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, and dumped the remains in Galveston Bay.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles say Durst shot and killed Berman execution style in December 2000. Some believe that Durst silenced Berman because she had information about Kathie’s disappearance. Berman was found in her Benedict Canyon residence on Christmas Eve that year.
Durst was charged in March 2015 with first-degree murder with the special circumstances of the murder of a witness and lying in wait.
The FBI arrested Durst in New Orleans on the LA cold-case warrant, and he was charged and convicted after a firearm and marijuana were found in his hotel room. He was sentenced to seven years and one month in federal prison, delaying his arrival in Los Angeles until late last year.
The night after FBI agents arrested Durst in New Orleans, HBO aired the sixth and final episode of “The Jinx.”
The series producers discovered that the handwriting in an anonymous note alerting authorities to a “cadaver” in Berman’s residence matched the handwriting on the envelope of a letter that Durst had sent to Berman, including the misspelling of Beverly Hills as “Beverley Hills.”
After Durst was confronted with this evidence on camera he retreated to the bathroom while his mic was still hot. Durst said off-camera: “What did I do? I killed them all, of course.”
Many have construed Durst’s comment as an admission of murder.