The friend, New York advertising executive Nick Chavin, said Durst invited him out to dinner in late December 2014 to talk about Berman, who had been shot to death in 2000, and about Kathie Durst, Robert Durst’s first wife, who had vanished in 1982. But they discussed neither woman.
As they left the restaurant, Chavin reminded Durst he had wanted to talk about Berman.
“Bob said, ‘I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice,’” Chavin told the small, crowded courtroom.
Chavin said he then asked: “You wanted to talk about Kathie?” But Durst said nothing and walked away.
The eccentric multimillionaire, now 73, has long been suspected of having killed Kathie, but no charges have ever been brought.
In 2015, Los Angeles prosecutors accused Durst of fatally shooting Berman in the back of the head in her Benedict Canyon home. They say he acted out of fear she would reveal what she knew about Kathie’s fate.
According to Chavin, she knew a great deal. On at least three occasions, Berman insisted to him that Durst had admitted killing his wife.
“Susan said to me that Bob killed Kathie,” Chavin testified Thursday morning. He said he objected and asked how she knew.
“He told me,” he quoted Berman as saying.
He said that Berman went on to say that Kathie was gone, there was nothing they could do, and that as close friends of Durst, “We have to do what we can to protect him.”
Under questioning by the lead prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, Chavin said he still feels that Durst is a close friend.
At one point during his testimony, he seemed near tears and had to stop to compose himself.
“This is not easy,” he said another time. “I feel like it’s something I have to do.
“It sounds ridiculous, but yes, this was my best friend, who killed my other best friend.”
Chavin, 72, had told the court Wednesday that he owes his career in high-end real estate advertising to Durst and his father, Seymour Durst, who in the early 1980s awarded him an account worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Yet he is giving evidence this week in a “special examination” — well in advance of Durst’s expected trial next year — in part because prosecutors say they fear for his life. Superior Court Judge Mark Windham ordered his identity kept secret even from the defense until Jan. 31 and from the public until he took the stand Wednesday.
Chavin said that for a long time he had trouble believing Durst could have murdered his wife, preferring the theory she was killed by a drug dealer. He said he argued with Berman when she brought up the subject.
His feelings began to change after the Durst saga took a particularly bizarre turn. When police in Westchester County, New York reopened the investigation of Kathie Durst’s disappearance in 2001, Robert Durst went into hiding, disguised as a mute woman and lived in a small apartment in Galveston, Texas.
There, he killed a neighbor, Morris Black, and dismembered his body. Prosecutors said he feared Black would expose him. He claimed he acted in self-defense, and in 2003, a Texas jury acquitted him of murder.
But on Thursday Chavin said the fact that his longtime friend could shoot a man and cut up the body made a difference to him.
“The Bob Durst I knew couldn’t have done that,” he testified.
“I couldn’t believe he was capable of that level of violence. It was like taking the gloves off. All things were possible.”
So when Durst effectively admitted killing Berman after their dinner in December 2014, Chavin said he wasn’t surprised.
“My response was, ‘Now I know.’”
Chavin was to be cross-examined Friday by Durst’s lead defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin of Texas, who defended him in the Morris Black murder trial.