LOS ANGELES (CN) — Years before New York real estate scion Robert Durst allegedly murdered his close friend Susan Berman, she predicted to another friend that he might someday cause her harm, that friend said in court Tuesday.
Prosecutors have charged Durst with shooting Berman to death in December 2000 to keep her from telling authorities what she knew about the disappearance and suspected murder of his wife, Kathleen Durst, in 1982.
They say that the day after Kathleen Durst vanished, the real estate millionaire pressured Berman into calling Kathleen’s supervisor, pretending to be her, and make an excuse for not going to work that day.
Testifying in a hearing well in advance of Robert Durst’s expected murder trial, Miriam Barnes, once a close friend and neighbor of Berman, described what happened next.
Barnes said she received an urgent phone call from Berman asking her to come to Berman’s home at once. When she arrived, a tense and worried Berman sat her down in the entryway, leaned close and said, “I did something today for Bobby. If anything ever happens to me, Bobby did it.”
Under questioning from Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian, Barnes said she did not go public with her revelation until 2016, when she sought advice from a childhood friend, a columnist with The New York Times, who put her in touch with a reporter.
“I was very frightened of him,” Barnes said of Durst. “I was just petrified. I still am.”
Durst, now 74 and frail from cancer, sat with his attorney during Barnes’s testimony. He pleaded not guilty to murder in December and is being held without bail.
Barnes was one of several potential witnesses whom prosecutors have called to testify in early conditional examinations, in case the witnesses may be unavailable or have died by the time of a preliminary hearing or trial. Most so far have been older, including the 66-year-old Barnes.
The identity of one witness, 72-year-old Nick Chavin, was kept secret until just before he appeared in Superior Court Judge Mark Windham’s court because prosecutors said they feared Durst might try to have him killed. Chavin testified in February that Durst had admitted to him that he killed Berman, and implied that he killed his wife. He also said that before her death, Berman had told Chavin that Durst confessed to Berman that he murdered Kathleen.
Also testifying Tuesday were Rafael Prado, a porter and elevator operator in the building where Robert and Kathleen Durst lived in 1982, and James Varian, a retired New York City police detective.
Varian said he interviewed the Dursts’ neighbors in February 1982, who said Kathleen Durst had appeared at their window one night in her pajamas fearful because her husband had beat her and had a gun. She said she was afraid he wanted to kill her.
A second “secret” witness — one not yet identified publicly and disclosed to the defense about two weeks ago — was scheduled to take the stand Wednesday afternoon.
First, however, Durst’s lead defense attorney, Texas criminal powerhouse Dick DeGuerin, is scheduled to cross-examine Barnes. He likely will focus in part on Barnes’ statement Tuesday that she recalled the tense meeting with Berman to have taken place sometime in the 1970s, though Kathleen Durst disappeared in 1982.
During her direct examination, prosecutor Balian got Barnes to agree that she remembered Berman’s words far better than the time frame.
Tuesday’s hearing also was noteworthy for a 15-minute angry argument by lead prosecutor John Lewin, criticizing the defense for what he called delaying tactics and attacks on his and the district attorney’s office’s ethics.
The defense has criticized Lewin for interviewing Durst without counsel present when Durst was in custody in New Orleans in March 2015. Lewin has insisted the interview was legal under California law.
Lewin said he is considering filing a motion seeking sanctions against the defense attorneys for the comments they’ve made about him in the press.
“I’ve been raked over the coals,” he said.
“My question is, when are they going to be told they can’t make allegations of misconduct when they know they’re not true?” he asked the judge.
Durst defender David Chesnoff of Las Vegas responded that “Mr. Lewin thinks this case is about him rather than Mr. Durst.
“Nobody here is doing anything except trying to help Mr. Durst,” Chesnoff said.
Windham stayed calm and soft-spoken during the dispute. But at one point, when Lewin said the defense attorney were charging millions of dollars in fees yet seemed to have “not done their homework” regarding an item of discovery, the judge mildly rebuked him. “Mr. Lewin, that’s not appropriate,” he said.