Secret Witness in Durst Murder Case Was Longtime Friend

In this Dec. 21, 2016, file photo, real estate heir Robert Durst is brought into a courtroom in a wheelchair for a hearing in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, Pool, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Pretrial hearings in the Robert Durst murder case continued Wednesday with testimony of a “secret” witness who was revealed as Nick Chavin, a man who once counted himself among the real estate heir’s closest friends.

Chavin, 72, detailed his relationship with Durst, whom he credited along with Durst’s father, Seymour, as giving him his start as a real estate advertising executive in the early 1980s, by handing him an account worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Chavin testified that he was a close friend of Durst’s and of the woman Durst is accused of killing, Susan Berman.

Prosecutors wanted to question Chavin before an October preliminary hearing because they said they feared his life might be in danger. To hammer that point home, security personnel sat to Chavin’s left in the jury box. Two more guards were seated in the courtroom before Chavin made his entrance.

That move was roundly condemned by Durst’s attorney Dick DeGuerin, who felt that prosecutors were playing to the press. DeGuerin said that security screening in the courthouse already ensured the witness’s safety.

“It’s going to really affect our ability to get a fair trial,” DeGuerin told Superior Court Judge Mark Windham.

Durst, 73, pleaded not guilty in November last year to charges that he murdered Berman, a journalist and author, on Christmas Eve 2000, by shooting her once in the back of the head.

Chavin said Wednesday that he was close friends with Berman and had been a confidant for Durst’s wife, Kathie Durst, who vanished in 1982 during her final year of medical school. Durst is a suspect in his wife’s disappearance.

Chavin said that before her disappearance, Kathie sometimes visited him at his home in New York to complain about the marriage.

“She said she was afraid of him. She never said he hurt her but she was afraid of him,” Chavin said.

On Tuesday, retired physician Dr. Albert Kuperman testified about a mysterious, decades-old phone call he received while associate dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine where Kathie was studying.

Prosecutors say the call links Durst’s missing wife Kathie to Susan Berman.

Kuperman said he believed for nearly 33 years that the call on Feb. 1, 1982 was from Kathie. He revised that story after county prosecutors visited him in 2015 and asked him if he could be certain that the call came from Durst’s wife.

The call was made after Kathie had disappeared; prosecutors believe Berman made the call. Prosecutors allege that Durst silenced Berman because she had information about Kathie’s disappearance. Her body has never been found.

Kuperman and Chavin appeared to preserve the testimony of aging witnesses who prosecutors fear could die before the trial begins.

Also Wednesday, Susan Giordano, 50, took the stand in the pre-trial proceedings to talk about her relationship with Durst, whom she met through Chavin. Prosecutors believe Durst is romantically involved with Giordano, though she maintains they are just good friends.

She said she got to know Durst better after he was arrested in the murder of Morris Black, whom Durst had beheaded and dismembered, dumping the remains in Galveston Bay. A jury acquitted Durst of the murder in 2003, accepting his argument of self-defense.

Giordano said that after Durst was arrested she wrote to him and visited him in jail.

“He’s my closest friend,” Giordano said.

She said Durst, through a combination of gifts and loans, had given her $350,000. She acknowledged that she told him they should buy a “love nest” together – an art studio where Durst would live. She said, however, that Durst would have had his own living space.

Deputy District Attorney John Lewin asked her if she would like to spend the rest of her life with Durst.

“I would absolutely spend the rest of my life. Yes,” Giordano said, adding that that did not mean that their relationship was anything other than platonic.

Lewin also questioned Giordano about the contents of 60 boxes that police took from her property in Campbell Hall, N.Y. She testified that Durst’s wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, had given her the boxes and that she stored them at the residence before state police Detective Joseph Becerra arrived at her home in March 2015 and took them away.

Last year, Superior Court Judge Mark Windham appointed a special master to sift through the boxes. Durst’s legal team says the boxes contain papers that could be protected by attorney-client privilege.

Prosecutors say Durst gave up that right when he allowed “The Jinx” filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Mark Smerling to sift through the boxes at Giordano’s property.

Giordano said she urged Durst not to allow Jarecki to look through the boxes, which she believed included sensitive financial documents related to Seymour Durst’s businesses. But Durst insisted she give Jarecki access.

Lewin asked Giordano whether she believed it was a mistake to allow the filmmakers to look at the documents because they included information that could damage Durst.

“The mistake was ever meeting him [Jarecki],” Giordano said.

Durst, wearing a baggy blue dress shirt and tan pants, said little during the hearing but occasionally turned to look at the audience in the gallery or at witnesses.

In the morning, Judge Windham denied a request by the defense to remove New York Times reporter Charles Bagli from the courtroom. The defense team described Bagli and Chavin as friends and said they did not want him in the courtroom to hear the testimony in case they were compelled to call the reporter to the stand.

Berman was found in her Benedict Canyon residence on Christmas Eve 2000.

Durst was charged in March 2015 with first-degree murder with the special circumstances of murder of a witness and lying in wait.

The FBI arrested Durst in New Orleans on the cold-case warrant out of Los Angeles. He also 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 that he committed the murders.