LOS ANGELES (CN) — A longtime friend of accused murderer Robert Durst testified Wednesday that the New York real estate heir told her he had been in Beverly Hills around the time he is suspected of killing his best friend, Susan Berman.
Los Angeles prosecutors have charged the 74-year-old Durst with the first-degree murder of Berman in her Benedict Canyon home on Dec. 24, 2000. They say he shot her to keep her from revealing to New York state detectives what she knew about the disappearance and presumed death of Durst’s first wife, Kathleen Durst, in early 1982.
L.A. detectives investigating Berman’s death reportedly knew Durst had flown into San Francisco a few days before Berman was killed, and flew back from there some days later. But they apparently had not developed evidence placing him in Los Angeles.
Testifying Wednesday afternoon, Emily Altman said Durst told her he was there.
“As you sit here today, do you have knowledge of where Robert Durst was at the time of Susan Berman’s murder that you learned from Mr. Durst?” lead prosecutor Deputy District Attorney John Lewin asked her.
“At some point, I believe I learned he was in California,” Altman replied. “I think it was the Beverly Hilton.”
According to Lewin, Berman’s house was 2.8 miles from the hotel.
“Did you ever ask why he was in Los Angeles?” Lewin asked.
She said no.
When Altman said she never asked Durst if he had killed Berman, Lewin challenged her reasons. “Isn’t it true that you chose your friendship with Mr. Durst over justice for Susan Berman?” he asked.
Altman is one of a series of witnesses who are 65 or older testifying in advance of Durst’s trial next year. Superior Court Judge Mark Windham is allowing Lewin to preserve their testimony during conditional examinations in case they die or are unavailable for the trial.
Altman, 68, said she has known Durst for about 45 years, and that her husband, Stewart, has known him since they were in high school together 60 years ago. She said she considers Durst one of her “closest, dearest friends.”
The Altmans vigorously fought Lewin’s subpoena, but a New York judge ordered them to comply.
Stewart Altman is expected to begin testifying on Aug. 28.
Complicating their testimony is that Stewart Altman is an attorney who has represented Durst on and off in civil, real estate and some criminal matters since about 1995, and Emily Altman is her husband’s legal secretary and sole employee.
Durst’s defense team, led by Houston criminal trial lawyer Dick DeGuerin, joined by the Altman’s own attorneys, contend that most of the conversations Stewart and Emily had with Durst while he was in custody are protected by the attorney-client privilege.
In a key victory for prosecutors, Judge Windham ruled Wednesday that none of Emily Altman’s phone conversations with the jailed Durst are privileged — in part because both she and Durst knew the calls were being recorded and so were not confidential.
Also, the dominant purpose of the calls was friendship, not legal representation, the judge ruled. And Durst had waived the privilege in many of the calls by including recordings or transcripts of them as part of a box of materials he gave to the producers of an HBO documentary about his life called “The Jinx.”
“These were waived and waived again,” Windham said. “It’s not even close.”
On the stand Wednesday, Emily Altman continued to be at odds with Lewin, as she had been the day before. She repeatedly insisted she did not remember what she may have learned from or asked Durst or his wife going back to 1982, causing Lewin to ask increasingly pointed questions.
For instance, when Altman recalled Robert Durst’s telling her that Kathleen Durst had gone missing, she said she volunteered to call hospitals. But when Lewin asked her whether she ever asked Durst what had happened or when and where he last saw his wife, Altman said she couldn’t remember.
Lewin was incredulous. “Wouldn’t you have asked ‘What happened?’”
“It’s kind of personal,” she responded.
In response to a long series of similar questions, she said she could not remember ever asking Durst about the details of what happened on the last night he’d seen his wife. “I don’t remember specific conversations,” she said.
Eventually, Lewin told the judge that he “cannot believe the witness does not understand my question.”
Lewin said later: “She is as evasive as she can get.”
Toward the end of the afternoon, Lewin effectively demanded that she allow Charles V. Bagli, the New York Times reporter who has covered Durst for years, to print anything she has ever told him off the record.
She refused, saying she couldn’t remember what she had told Bagli in their many conversations over the years.
“I just don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “It’s hard to answer your questions,” Altman told Lewin. “You’re very antagonistic.”
Although Altman had planned to return to New York Wednesday evening, the judge ordered her to continue her testimony Thursday.
Two other witnesses scheduled for Thursday will testify the week of Aug. 28, along with Altman’s husband, Lewin said.