LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A black-and-white photo displayed on a courtroom wall Monday provided a stark reminder of how much had changed in Robert Durst’s life over nearly four decades.
The photo dating to at least the early 1980s showed the New York real estate heir’s best friend, Susan Berman, beaming, flanked by a bearded Durst wearing a smirk and his wife, Kathleen, with an electric smile.
Today, Berman is long dead and Kathleen Durst has been missing for more than 35 years and is presumed deceased. Durst, an old, frail man with a shaved head, wore a scowl in a courtroom where he is accused of killing both women.
Prosecutors began presenting evidence in Los Angeles Superior Court to link Durst to the killings in the first day of a hearing to determine if he will be tried on a murder charge in the point-blank shooting of Berman.
Prosecutors say Durst killed his college friend, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, because he believed she was going to tell police what she knew about Kathleen Durst’s death.
Robert Durst, 75, an eccentric multimillionaire, has never been charged with a crime related to his wife’s 1982 disappearance in New York. He has pleaded not guilty to Berman’s 2000 death at her Los Angeles house.
The first day of the hearing revealed little that was not previously disclosed in an HBO documentary series, court filings and other proceedings, but it made the connection between Berman’s death and the mystery around Kathleen Durst’s disappearance, which prosecutors want to show as the foundation for the motive for Berman’s slaying.
Karen Minutello, manager of the Manhattan building where the Dursts lived in a penthouse apartment, said Kathleen Durst called her about a week before her disappearance and asked to rent her own unit because she didn’t want to live with her husband anymore.
“She was hesitant, she didn’t just blurt out why. Then she did say she needed to get away from him,” Minutello said. “She was afraid of him.”
Days after Kathleen Durst vanished, Minutello said she was alerted to a broken trash compactor that she found jammed with the missing woman’s possessions, including notebooks with her name, dresses, makeup and a hair dryer. She made notes about the finding because it seemed significant.
“Who does that?” Minutello said. “Whose loved one is missing and they throw out their stuff?”
Minutello also revealed that doormen at the building said tenants suspected Robert Durst of stealing their bicycles occasionally from a communal storage room. She said it happened about five times, but no tenant ever filed a complaint.
After the disappearance, Berman served as Robert Durst’s unofficial spokeswoman. But prosecutors and witnesses in a series of earlier hearings said she did much more.
Berman told friends over the years that Durst acknowledged killing his wife and said she helped him cover his tracks. Prosecutors are hoping to use many of those hearsay statements at trial, which defence attorneys have vigorously challenged.
Berman told one friend who testified at an earlier hearing that if anything happened to her, Durst would be the culprit.
Judge Mark Windham threw both sides a curve when he said he was inclined to allow the testimony because he didn’t think it was hearsay. He said they could be characterized as statements Susan Berman would have made as a witness if she had been alive.
After several minutes of arguments by defence and prosecution, Windham put off a ruling until the hearing resumes Tuesday.
Durst, dressed in a light blue sport coat and khakis, appeared to be intently listening at times through headphones that enhanced the volume, while dozing at other moments.
He perked up during testimony from the former Los Angeles medical examiner-coroner, who reviewed the autopsy in 2015, to view another photo of Berman.
It was an image from Berman’s autopsy. Her right eye was blackened, and her tongue was between her lips.
A subsequent photo showed what killed her: a single jagged bullet wound in the back of her head was exposed where a patch of her jet-black hair had been shaved.
Dr. Mark Fajardo, now chief forensic pathologist in Riverside County, said Berman was shot by a gun within an inch of her head. The evidence indicated the shooter was behind her, Fajardo said.
The bullet was found in her brain and the shot would have rendered her unconscious immediately, he said.