LOS ANGELES (CN) — Robert Durst, the eccentric New York real estate scion on trial for the murder of his best friend, once kicked an acquaintance in the face hard enough to break a bone under his eye, the man told a packed courtroom Monday.
Exactly a year later, on the day she was last seen alive, Durst’s wife Kathleen urgently called the acquaintance to implore him to sue her husband, that man, Peter Schwartz, testified Monday.
The Los Angeles district attorney’s office has charged Durst with the execution-style shooting of his friend, Susan Berman, allegedly to stop her from telling what she knew about the disappearance and presumed death of Durst’s wife.
Schwartz was the first of four elderly witnesses expected to take the stand this week in pretrial hearings to preserve their testimony in the case.
Prosecutors believe the multimillionaire Durst murdered Berman on Christmas Eve 2000 because she knew he had killed his 29-year-old wife in early 1982.
Kathleen’s body has never been found, and no one has been charged in her disappearance.
Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian told Superior Court Judge Mark Windham that the prosecution’s theory is that Kathleen Durst had confronted or threatened her husband over money she sought in a potential divorce settlement, leading to a violent response.
Prosecutors may be planning to use Schwartz’s testimony to show that Robert Durst could turn violent when angry.
Balian also asked Schwartz on Monday whether Kathleen Durst ever mentioned that Robert Durst had forced her to sign false tax returns or “that she was using fraudulent tax filings to get a better divorce settlement.”
Schwartz said he did not recall such a discussion.
Schwartz, a 69-year-old psychotherapist and former photo store owner from Connecticut, testified that in the late 1970s and early ’80s, he was close to a good friend of the Dursts. Although he barely knew them, he did go to two parties they also attended.
At the first party, Schwartz said, he was standing by a door when the door flew open suddenly and hit him in the head.
“The only person besides me by the door was Bobby Durst,” he said. “I believed it was Bobby who moved the door in my direction.”
Durst “stood there as though nothing at all had happened … like he could care less,” Schwartz said.
The second party took place on Jan. 31, 1982, at the Durst’s Manhattan apartment. Several hours in, everyone headed off to a nightclub across town, but Kathleen Durst changed her mind and quickly returned home, bringing along several other women and Schwartz.
They were sitting in the apartment, with Schwartz seated on the floor, when Robert Durst suddenly showed up, agitated and angry.
“He looked at Kathleen, and he looked at me. ‘You’re the only guy here,’” Schwartz recalled. “He looked enraged. He rushed forward and kicked me in the eye.”
Durst was wearing cowboy boots with hard, “very pointy” toes, he said.
The larger Schwartz managed to wrestle Durst to the floor and hold him down until he quieted.
But when Schwartz let him up, Durst charged again, pushing Schwartz into the radiator and injuring his back.
Schwartz said he brought Durst down again and once more released him. When Durst left the room, Kathleen Durst mentioned that her husband had a gun. She called the police, Schwartz said.
Criminal charges were filed, but Schwartz said he believes they were dropped after Durst stayed out of trouble for six months.
Schwartz filed a civil suit on Jan. 22, 1982. Just a week later, on Jan. 31, he said, Kathleen Durst called him sounding agitated and asked if he had settled his civil claim against her husband. She urged Schwartz to file suit. He said he wouldn’t discuss the situation and she hung up, sounding even more upset.
Schwartz said he thought someone had been listening in because he heard a second phone hang up.
Prosecutors planned to call Emily Altman, a longtime Durst friend, to testify Tuesday. Altman is the wife and legal secretary to Stewart Altman, a high school friend of Durst who has represented the real estate heir often over the years.
Durst’s lead defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin of Houston, told Judge Windham on Monday that any testimony Emily Altman might give should be barred as attorney-client privilege. Altman’s separate counsel Marilyn Bednarski, with Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt in Pasadena, also asked to postpone her client’s testimony until after Stewart Altman testifies, in August.
Windham agreed with Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, the lead prosecutor, that Emily Altman could testify about nonlegal or friendship-related communications she has had with the defendant over the years.
Other witnesses will be Berman friend Richard Markey and Paul Kaufman, who was the murder victim’s boyfriend in the mid-1980s, according to the district attorney’s office.
(Photo shows Robert Durst in Los Angeles courtroom during a hearing in February.)