LOS ANGELES (CN) — When New York real estate heir Robert Durst told a close friend in early 1982 that his wife, Kathleen Durst, had gone missing several days earlier, Durst didn’t sound especially concerned, the friend told a Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday.
The friend, Stewart Altman, acknowledged that he thought Durst’s attitude seemed strange when he called to ask if Altman had seen the pretty young medical student he’d married nearly a decade before.
Authorities believe Durst murdered his wife that Jan. 31. She has never been found.
The eccentric multimillionaire, who confessed to killing a man in self-defense and dismembering the body in September 2011, faces trial soon on charges he murdered a very close friend, Susan Berman, in December 2000 because she knew too much about Kathleen Durst’s disappearance.
On the stand Wednesday, Altman said Durst “has problems relating” to other people.
“I believe he has some sort of problem expressing emotion,” Altman said. “He doesn’t express it well.”
He also said that his old high school chum and sometime legal client is smart and can be very funny.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, the lead prosecutor, tried to show that Altman also reacted strangely to the news of Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
Did Altman offer to help search? Lewin asked.
No, Altman replied. “I don’t do those things. I don’t find people.”
Lewin asked if Altman had not bothered to suggest searching because he believed Kathie was already dead. “Did you say to yourself, ‘My god, Bob may have killed her’?”
“Never,” Altman said.
Nor did he ask Durst for more information about Kathleen’s last hours, another point Lewin stressed.
Altman said he thought Kathleen Durst may have run off. He said he did not ask Durst about any new information for perhaps a year.
If something had come up, Durst would have said so, he explained. “Bob didn’t want to talk about it.”
Lewin spent much of Wednesday trying to demonstrate that Altman was biased in favor of Durst and would shade his answers to protect his old friend.
Superior Court Judge Mark Windham pointed out that Altman, as one of Durst’s attorneys, had acknowledged being biased early during his first day of testimony Tuesday.
But Lewin more than once suggested Altman was lying on the stand, and he asked the judge to make a formal finding that he was “being deliberately evasive.”
“I’m not going to do that now,” Windham said, telling Lewin to put his request into a motion “with points and authorities.”
At another point, tensions between Lewin and Durst’s high-powered defense team briefly erupted in the courtroom and outside in the hallway.
Lewin had asked Altman about Durst’s affair in the early 1980s with Prudence Farrow, the sister of Mia Farrow and subject of the Beatles song “Dear Prudence.” Altman said he could not reply because his discussions with Durst on that subject were protected by attorney-client privilege.
Lewin scoffed at that assertion and read from a declaration Altman had filed to describe his legal work for Durst — “which I don’t believe is true,” he said about the declaration.
David Chesnoff, one of Durst’s attorneys, stood to denounce Lewin’s statement as “completely improper … under the law,” especially because it was said in front of the witness, several journalists and a handful of law student interns from the district attorney’s office.
“The only reason Mr. Lewin said that is because he doesn’t always get the answer he wants. To attack the witness is really beyond the pale.”
The dispute then devolved into sotto voce attacks, with Chesnoff apparently saying he would “bust [Lewin’s] balls” and Lewin apparently telling the interns the defense attorney might engage in what Chesnoff would only describe as a sex act.
While Windham was in a conference in chambers exploring the privilege claim with Altman and his private attorneys, Chesnoff steamed to his co-counsel in the hallway.
Back in the courtroom a few minutes later, Chesnoff and Lewin apologized to one another.
Soon after, the judge allowed Altman to claim the attorney-client privilege concerning Durst and Farrow.
Later in the day, the judge told Lewin and the other attorneys to “all be mindful of decorum.”
Altman was to continue testifying Thursday.