Sunday, February 08, 2015

Robert Durst and the Murder of Susan Berman

In 2000, Susan Berman—a writer, Vegas aficionado, and the daughter of Vegas mobster David Berman—was found dead in her Benedict Canyon home in California. She had been shot execution style, in the back of the head.

Investigators soon came to suspect  her long-time friend Robert Durst, who is the subject of a recent “Investigation Discovery” episode and a six-part HBO series (in which he appears), “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” premiering tonight.

Berman’s life (including her years in Las Vegas in the 1950s) and her untimely death are well documented in Cathy Scott’s book, “Murder in Beverly Hills: the Mob-Style Execution of Susan Berman, Her Crime Boss Father, and the Deadly Secret She Took to Her Grave.” She was the privileged only child of a noted mobster, one of the men who took over the Flamingo after “Bugsy” Siegel.

I remember Berman, and her murder. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew her work about Las Vegas, in particular her memoir, “Easy Street,” and her book “Lady Las Vegas,” which was the companion book to a documentary she co-wrote for A&E.  Since I’m a “casino kid,” to borrow a phrase from Moe Dalitz’s daughter, I found Berman’s work fascinating.  

Although Berman’s killing was described as “Mob-style,” the idea that her death could be connected to the Mafia was quickly dismissed. Her father was the mobster, and he had died in 1957 in a totally non-Mob way—in surgery.

Berman’s close friend Durst, however, had a disturbing past. He’d also been giving Berman money, which could be indicative of many things… or of nothing.

Whoever killed Berman knew her. She was ultra-security conscious—definitely not a person who would open the door to a stranger—and there were no signs of forced entry. 

Berman was shot just a few days after investigators had contacted her about the 1982 disappearance (and presumed death) of Durst’s wife, Kathie, whose body was never found. Her case remains unsolved, as does Berman’s.

In 2003, Durst was charged but acquitted for the murder of Morris Black, whom Durst lived next door to during the time that he, Durst, was pretending to be a mute woman. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Not only did he kill Black, Durst dismembered him and tossed the remains into Galveston Bay. He served time for lesser charges related to the incident, but Durst wasn’t convicted of murder largely because a key piece of evidence—Black’s head—was never recovered. The jury bought Durst’s self-defense argument.

Oh, and the fact that Durst and his family are incredibly rich probably helped his case. Great lawyers don’t come cheap.

Is Durst just unlucky, as the title of the HBO documentary suggests, or is he incredibly, get-away-with-murder lucky?

Since there isn’t an official trial ahead (yet), it looks like the case of Robert Durst is in the court of public opinion. 

In July 2014, Durst was arrested for urinating on candy in a drugstore, for which he paid a fine. According to recent reports, there are 19 protective orders filed against him from his family members, who claim to be frightened of him.

UPDATE March 16, 2015: Robert Durst was arrested on March 14 in connection with Susan Berman's murder. In the final episode of "The Jinx," which aired just one day later, Durst made several self-incriminating statements (while unknowingly still miked) that will surely keep his defense team very busy for a while.
Full disclosure:  Berman’s cousin, novelist Rosalie Bruce, is a friend of mine, which biases my opinion somewhat. I believe Durst is guilty. Unfortunately, the evidence is all circumstantial.   Evidence now exists. Filmmakers unearthed a key piece of evidence when they found an envelope with Durst's handwriting that appears to match the letter mailed to the police about Berman's body--a note only the killer could have written.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Skley at flickr

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