LOS ANGELES (CN) — In March 2015, New York multimillionaire Robert Durst was arrested in New Orleans and turned over to Los Angeles authorities on suspicion of murdering his dear friend more than 14 years earlier. On Tuesday, a judge began hearing arguments challenging every aspect of that arrest, including the search of Durst’s hotel room and the lengthy interview he later gave the man in charge of prosecuting him.
His defense attorneys, including Dick DeGuerin of Houston, contend in a pair of motions to suppress evidence that FBI agents improperly arrested Durst and searched his belongings without warrants and that the arrest and search warrants they obtained afterward were tainted.
Los Angeles prosecutors, led by cold-case expert Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, argue that both warrants were valid and that the defense attorneys are grasping at straws.
On Tuesday, at the beginning of what is expected to be a two- or three-day hearing, Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham offered tentative rulings on more than a half dozen issues in what he called an attempt to focus the two sides’ presentations.
He said that the arrest warrant appears to have been valid and lawfully served. But he also said prosecutors need to justify using any statements Durst made before he was given a Miranda warning.
“There are some very specific factual questions to which I need answers,” Windham told the attorneys.
The eccentric real estate heir, 76, is to go on trial in September, charged with shooting Susan Berman in the back of her head just before Christmas 2000. Lewin and his team claim Durst murdered Berman, a friend and confidant since college, to prevent her from disclosing that he had killed his young wife, Kathleen Durst, who disappeared in 1982.
The bizarre saga was the subject of an award-winning documentary series on HBO called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”
By the time of his arrest in 2015, Durst had won acquittal on self-defense grounds of murdering a neighbor in Galveston, Texas, where he had been living disguised as a mute woman. Durst did serve some time in prison for dismembering the neighbor’s body and tossing it into the ocean.
The producers of “The Jinx” discovered some new evidence apparently linking Durst to Berman’s death, including an accidental open-mic recording of him whispering to himself that he had “killed them all, of course.”
DeGuerin and his colleagues say the producers were working too closely with Los Angeles police and prosecutors while they were making the documentary. The defense claims Durst’s arrest was timed to take place the day before the final episode of the series broadcast on March 15, 2015.
“Thus, it is clear that the Jinx producers/staff had been in regular communication with the authorities for years before ‘The Jinx’ aired, and the Jinx staff were acting as agents for law enforcement,” the defense wrote in a motion to suppress.
Most of Tuesday’s hearing involved testimony by the FBI agent from New Orleans, William C. Williams, who arrested Durst. Under close questioning by Deputy District Attorney Eugene Miyata, Williams said that he and a colleague had been sent to a Marriott Hotel, where Durst was staying under an alias, because authorities believed he was planning to flee, perhaps to Cuba.
When they spotted him entering the hotel, Williams said they asked for identification, told him there was a warrant for his arrest and took him up to his room. There, they began what Williams described as cataloging and inventorying Durst’s possessions.
They found a map and travel books on Florida, a loaded revolver with one spent shell, several ounces of marijuana, a latex mask and about $46,000 in cash, including about $1,700 in a backpack he was carrying when stopped. They also found a FedEx tracking number that led to a package containing a suitcase containing another $115,000 in cash.
Prosecutor Lewin stipulated to Windham that the inventory amounted to a warrantless search, and Williams said that about an hour after starting, a Los Angeles Police Department detective told him by phone to stop searching until a search warrant could be obtained.
DeGuerin argued that the warrant the L.A. police finally got from a New Orleans judge listed precisely the items the FBI agents already had found.
“What we really contest is the motivation for the warrant and whether it came from the warrantless search,” he told the judge. “It’s very curious what they asked for.”
Lewin argued that the L.A. officer had written the warrant before the FBI search. It was dated after it because it had to be signed by a New Orleans judge after the Los Angeles investigators arrived there from Houston, where Durst had a home.
That officer, retired Detective Michael Whelan, took the stand in the late afternoon and was to continue testifying Wednesday.
The defense also hopes to put Lewin himself on the stand, defense attorney David Z. Chesnoff of Las Vegas said. They apparently want to ask him about the connection with the documentary producers, how the arrest was timed and, especially, Lewin’s nearly three-hour interview with Durst in New Orleans before any defense lawyers were available to him.
Asked if he would testify, Lewin said not to bet on it.
“You’d have a better chance betting on Powerball and Mega Millions both,” he said.