LOS ANGELES (CN) — Nearly 20 years after Susan Berman was shot dead, Robert Durst, the eccentric New York multimillionaire made infamous by an HBO true-crime series, went on trial Wednesday charged with murder in Los Angeles Superior Court.
For much of his opening statement, however, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin talked neither about the victim nor the defendant but about Kathie Durst, Robert Durst’s young wife, who vanished in early 1982.
“It all goes back to his relationship with Kathie Durst,” he said.
Lewin told the eight-woman, four-man jury that Durst murdered Berman, who once was his closest friend, to keep her from revealing what she knew about Durst’s involvement in his wife’s disappearance and presumed death.
He said Durst, now 76, frail, stooped and hard of hearing, also killed and dismembered a neighbor, Morris Black, when Durst was in hiding in Galveston, Texas. A Texas jury acquitted Durst of murder in that case on grounds of self-defense.
This trial is predicted to last about five months. Prosecutors have said they may call up to 100 witnesses. As he called the case to order Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham said: “Ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seatbelts. We’re about to begin.”
Durst once was heir apparent to one of New York’s most powerful real estate conglomerates, and, Lewin said, believed the rules of society didn’t apply to him. Using a PowerPoint presentation, Lewin played bits of interviews in which Durst bragged about lying to qualify for food stamps, stealing water at an airport convenience store, and belching loudly in business meetings.
“I could do what I want and there was nothing anybody could do about it,” Durst said in one interview.
Kathleen McCormack was a dental hygienist from a lower middle-class family who was looking for an apartment when she met Durst in 1971. They married in 1973. Early on, the couple ran a health food store in Vermont. When they returned to New York, Durst worked in the family business while Kathie studied nursing and then went to medical school.
In portions of interviews with the producers of the HBO series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which Lewin played for the jury, Durst described himself as a controlling husband. He decided what they would do and when. He would tell her what to order at restaurants so they could share food he wanted, he said.
Eventually, as she progressed in school, she grew more confident and began to stand up for herself.
He disliked her family and would set strict time limits on their visits. After one visit, she refused to leave when Durst wanted, so he grabbed her by her hair and dragged her outside.
“She’s wrong. I’m right. Let’s go,” Durst said about the incident in one of the interviews Lewin played.
“Much of the most damaging evidence is going to come directly from Mr. Durst himself, out of his own mouth,” Lewin said. “He will admit things that most of us would never admit to.”
For instance, Durst said he pressured Kathie to have an abortion by threatening to divorce her if she didn’t. He also admitted that he was violent with his wife as their marriage deteriorated, including in many “pushing and shoving” fights.
Lewin said he would show that some of those fights were much worse.
The prosecutor has said he believes Robert Durst somehow killed his wife in such a fight and then hid the body in stretch of sandy soil on the New Jersey coast rumored to be a Mafia burial ground.
Durst’s attorneys, led by Dick DeGuerin of Houston, has stipulated that their client wrote a list found soon after Kathie’s disappearance that said in part: “Tow, dump, Bridge, Dig, Boat, Other.”
Kathie was last seen by friends on Jan. 31, 1982, at a party not far from the Dursts’ vacation cottage in upstate New York. Durst filed a missing-person report with police in Manhattan four days later, claiming he had put her on a train to the city after the party.
But Lewin played pieces of much later interviews in which Durst admitted he had lied to the police about the train and about going to visit neighbors that night.
Durst said he had told those lies because he felt harassed by the police. They were “questioning my motives, questioning my veracity,” he said.
According to Lewin, Durst drew his friend Berman into helping him muddle the timeline of his wife’s disappearance by having her impersonate Kathie on a call to a dean at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine the day after Kathie was last seen. Berman told bits of the story to several friends who testified in earlier proceedings in the case, including Miriam Barnes and movie producer Lynda Obst.
Obst and several other friends have testified that Berman would have helped Durst because of her sense of loyalty to friends, which she had learned from her late father, an organized crime leader from Las Vegas.
Over the years since Durst was arrested for Berman’s death in 2015, Lewin and the defense attorneys have developed a somewhat combative relationship that sporadically becomes heated. That happened briefly Wednesday when DeGuerin objected to something Lewin said.
Lewin shot back: “You present what you want to present, and I’ll present what I want to present.” DeGuerin objected to that statement.
Judge Windham jumped in at once. “Stop. Breathe,” he said.
After the lunch recess, Windham said that he had used the time to meditate. “I recommend it to anyone who has the space for it,” he said.
Lewin’s opening statement was to continue Thursday. DeGuerin and defense co-counsel David Chesnoff of Las Vegas are expected to finish their opening statement on Monday.