LOS ANGELES (CN) — Before she vanished in 1982, Robert Durst’s wife Kathleen told an emergency room doctor that her husband had hit her and told her divorce attorney that she feared he would kill her, a former New York state trooper testified Monday.
James Harney investigated Kathleen Durst’s disappearance when her husband, an eccentric New York real estate heir, reported her missing that February 35 years ago.
Robert Durst faces a murder charge in the December 2000 death of his close friend, Susan Berman. Los Angeles prosecutors say Durst killed Berman to keep her from telling New York detectives he had indeed killed Kathleen.
Trial is not expected until at least next year. But Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham is allowing Deputy District Attorney John Lewin and his team to question elderly witnesses who might be unavailable at trial.
Harney, 65, retired from the New York State Police in 2008 as deputy superintendent. In 1982, he was a young trooper assigned to the small community in Westchester County where the Dursts had a vacation home.
He told Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian that he was assigned to look into Kathleen Durst’s disappearance on Feb. 5 that year, after a close friend of hers called the police station in a panic because she had not been able to reach her for nearly a week.
During his investigation, he spoke to an emergency room doctor who treated the 29-year-old woman in late January “for abrasions to her face” that may have been caused by Robert Durst.
He also reached a divorce attorney with whom Kathleen Durst had met on Jan. 28, three days before she disappeared. The lawyer said Kathleen “had expressed fear about her safety and that her husband had threatened to kill her,” Harney testified.
He spoke to Kathleen’s brother and sister. They told him they had not heard from their sister for days, which was very unusual. They said the relationship between Robert and Kathleen had been deteriorating.
That evening, Robert Durst called the police station to report his wife missing. Harney interviewed him a little before midnight at the family’s vacation home.
Harney described Durst’s demeanor as “unagitated.” He said Durst became agitated only when questioned about the emergency room visit.
“He was concerned that we knew about it,” Harney said.
On cross-examination by lead defense attorney Dick DeGuerin of Houston, Harney conceded that he had not met Durst before and did not know his personality.
Other witnesses have said Durst did not express emotions well.
“I would say his demeanor as someone who had lost a wife was inconsistent with most people” in similar situations, Harney answered. “I’m just speaking from my experience as a police officer.”
Also testifying Monday was Stephen M. Silverman, a magazine and entertainment writer who met Susan Berman in 1976 in Los Angeles and in 1978 moved next door to her in New York.
“I’d never met anyone like her,” he said about their first meeting. “I got her whole life story in about two minutes,” including that she was the daughter of a high-level Las Vegas gangster. “She was very colorful.”
Silverman said Berman could be “abrasive” and manipulative but was also very loyal, especially to her closest friend, Bobby Durst.
Berman also was a journalist and would sometimes take Silverman along for interviews. “She wanted a sidekick,” he said.
Prosecutors say Robert Durst killed Kathleen on Jan. 31, 1982. However, the dean of the medical school where she was a student has testified that he got a call on Feb. 1 from a woman claiming to be Kathleen, who told him she could not come to the school that day because of stomach problems. She described her symptoms in detail to the dean.
In April, another witness, movie producer Lynda Obst, said that Berman admitted having made that call to the dean.
On the stand Monday, Silverman said that when he heard about the call to the dean, “a bell went off.”
“This sounds exactly like Susan,” he said.
He said it reminded him of the time he had had to rush Berman to see his doctor because she was having stomach problems. On the trip, “I heard all about her impacted bowel,” he said.
Defense attorney DeGuerin objected that it was “a terrible leap” to connect the details of the call to the dean to Berman’s discussion of her own medical issues.
Judge Windham allowed Silverman’s testimony at this early stage of the case, but hinted that he probably would keep it out at trial.
Three other witnesses are scheduled to testify this week, including a former Beverly Hills police official and a neighbor of Berman’s at the time she was killed.
Prosecutors also indicated Monday that they intend to bring in more witnesses for conditional examinations in mid-November.