LOS ANGELES (CN) — Testy exchanges Tuesday between attorneys and at one point, the judge, punctuated the cross-examination of the New York detective who investigated the disappearance of Robert Durst’s wife 35 years ago, and conceded that he failed to follow up on leads that could have implicated the eccentric real estate heir.
Under sharp and persistent questioning by Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, retired Detective Michael Struk said he did the best he could, but agreed that in retrospect he could have done more.
“Sitting here today, it would appear to be a mistake” not to have searched the Dursts’ cottage in Westchester County soon after Robert Durst reported his wife missing on Feb. 5, 1982, Struk said.
Kathie Durst, a fourth-year medical student, was last seen alive by friends on Jan. 31 that year as she left a party to return to the cottage. Robert Durst told police that he put her on a train back to their Manhattan co-op late that night. She has never been found.
Police and prosecutors say Durst killed his pretty, 29-year-old wife in Westchester County that night. He has admitted that he lied about seeing her off at the train station.
Durst faces trial in Los Angeles on charges that in December 2000 he murdered a close friend, Susan Berman, to keep her from revealing what had happened to Kathie.
The trial is not expected to start until late next year at the earliest, but Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham is allowing attorneys to examine some elderly witnesses now in case they cannot return to court later.
Struk, now 74, led the missing-person investigation of Kathie Durst for a few years before the case was declared cold. He began his testimony two weeks ago but could not finish because Durst was too sick to come to court one day.
Durst, also 74, is clearly frail and for a time months ago came to court in a wheelchair. Two of his attorneys, Dick DeGuerin of Houston and Donald M. Re of Los Angeles, said Tuesday they were barred by law from disclosing details about their client’s health, but both rejected an online gossip site’s contentions Monday that he was near death in a psychiatric ward.
As Lewin had during his earlier cross-examination, the prosecutor repeatedly tried to get Struk to admit making mistakes in the investigation three decades ago. He asked Struk why he did not dig further into statements by a medical school dean and a co-op building’s employees who claimed to have spoken to or seen Kathie Durst in Manhattan on Feb. 1, the day after she went missing.
Lewin demanded to know why Struk and his team of investigators didn’t interview Kathie’s friends from the party or people on the train she supposedly rode.
He asked why the detectives didn’t search the Westchester County cottage after a friend of Kathie’s gave them an odd note she’d found in trash can at the cottage. In part, the note stated: “town dump, bridge, dig, boat, other, shovel.”
“Did that appear to you to be a list of how to get rid of a body?” Lewin asked.
“It may be,” Struk said.
The prosecutor homed in on the numerous reports Struk and his team received, suggesting that Robert Durst had grown violent with his wife in the year or two before her disappearance, including hospital records and reports from family and friends.
“There were a significant amount of domestic violence incidents that were brought to us,” Struk said when asked about one account in a newspaper.
Lewin asked if those reports should they have been followed up.
“Yes,” the detective said.
For most of Tuesday, Struk’s answers were more defensive.
“I do not know, sitting here today, why I did or didn’t ask” certain questions of Robert Durst in 1982, he said at one point.
Was it a mistake not to request permission to search the cottage?
“I don’t believe it was a mistake,” he replied.
Struk agreed that he grew suspicious of Durst early on and that he later formed the opinion Durst had killed his wife.
But he said Tuesday that the department’s plan was not to confront Durst or declare him a suspect.
“Our strategy at the time was to work behind him and around him and not disclose how much we had on him,” Struk said.
Several times Lewin’s demanding style of questioning drew sharp objections from the defense team.
At one point, Judge Windham commented that Lewin was cross-examining his own cross-examination from two weeks ago.
“You’re asking [Struk] what his opinion is about what his opinion is. This is a meta-cross-examination,” Windham said.
DeGuerin complained at another point that Lewin was trying to browbeat Struk into adopting Lewin’s word “mistake” to describe some disputed issues, and said the prosecutor used the same technique with other witnesses.
Re said the defense is considering moving to recuse Lewin from the case because of those types of questions.
“I’m looking forward to the motion,” Lewin replied.
“I’m not,” Windham said.
Struk lost his temper with Lewin briefly, answering a question about the medical school dean loudly, provoking an equally loud response from the prosecutor.
Windham stayed calm.
“It sounds like an argument, but I can take this as a question,” he said.
At another time the judge became upset.
When he sustained an objection that one of Lewin’s questions had been asked and answered, Lewin demanded the judge tell him what the answer had been.
“Excuse me, Mr. Lewin? Excuse me?” Windham said. “Decorum.”
Windham then abruptly declared a recess and left the bench. He returned a few minutes later, studied the transcript on his computer screen for a while and told Lewin to ask his next question.
Struk was expected to finish his testimony Wednesday.