Durst Case Scenarios

How did a human torso end up floating in Galveston Bay? That's just one of the many unknowns that police officers in several states (and true-crime junkies in the popular press) are grappling with as they learn more about the bizarre life of multimillionaire murder suspect Robert Durst.
Robert Durst looks around the courtroom after the jury retired for deliberations in his murder trial Wednesday, November 5, 2003, in Galveston, Texas.
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

Galveston is one of God’s forsaken packages, a place where the desperate and the disenfranchised wash ashore with every tide, so the wiry little man with the bleached peach-pit face and a fishing cap pulled over his ears looked no different from the other drifters waiting for food vouchers. The staff at the Jesse Tree, a small storefront charity on Market Street, a few blocks from the port and hard against a sprawling ghetto of shotgun houses and abandoned cotton-storage warehouses, was always ready to hear a tale of woe. Except Morris Black came not for a handout but with a proposition. He’d been surfing the Internet on a computer at the library, he explained in a high-pitched, rapid-fire voice, and he’d discovered that the same reading glasses that sold for $10 to $12 dollars at Wal-Mart could be purchased in bulk for 46 cents a pair.

“Interesting,” Jesse Tree’s director, Ted Hanley, told him, not sure what else to say.

Black seemed restless and impatient and repeated what he’d just said, then repeated it again, and then repeated it a third and a fourth time. Eventually he came to the point. “I need you to come up with two thousand dollars, and I’ll do the rest,” he said. His idea was to pass out thousands of pairs of eyeglasses to the poor and needy. He made it clear that he intended to supervise the project personally and screen prospective recipients. “This is how it will be,” he said. Hanley tried to explain that although the project sounded worthy, the Jesse Tree didn’t have that kind of money. Black wasn’t interested in explanations. He faded back into the throng of hungry men.

Hanley saw him again two months later, in March 2001. Black was handing out free reading glasses to a group of homeless people in a food line at the First Presbyterian Church. He carried with him eight bags of eyeglasses and moved down the line, businesslike, sizing up the needs and suitability of each man. When one man who had just received a pair of glasses reached for a cigarette, Black demanded that he give the glasses back. “If you can afford cigarettes,” he exploded at the man, “you can afford to buy your own glasses!”

Soon Black was delivering eyeglasses to the Jesse Tree too. Hanley had no idea how he had gotten the money to buy them. Black would show up several times a week, and his giveaways became extremely popular. Still, Hanley wondered if it was worth the price of dealing with Morris Black. “It was like Chinese water torture,” Hanley told me a few months later. “No matter how busy we were, he would break in and demand that I stop everything and see him.” By May Black had become disillusioned with his project, complaining that he couldn’t tolerate so much contact with “freeloaders and lazy people.” In July, however, he reappeared. He said he had heard that the Jesse Tree was interested in purchasing a vacant building across the street from its office. He told Hanley, somewhat mysteriously, that he knew “someone with a lot of money” who might give the Jesse Tree an interest-free loan.

A few days later Hanley made another bizarre acquaintance. A volunteer knocked on the door of his office and told him that there was a mute in the reception room, extremely agitated and demanding attention. The man was small and thin, with gray-white hair that spiked up like a punk rocker’s. He wore dirty jeans and a tattered long-sleeved shirt, and his face was partly concealed by a pair of large-frame eyeglasses that were completely covered with tape except for a small triangular opening over one lens. Hanley attempted to communicate in sign language, but the man motioned for Hanley to follow him to a room adjacent to the reception area. When they were alone, he said, “I don’t speak to women.” Shielding his face with his hand, he told Hanley that he was penniless, that he lived in his car, and that he needed $50 in cash for gas so he could drive to Beaumont and look for work.

“We’re the Jesse Tree, not the money tree,” Hanley joked. But the man was in no mood for levity.

“Is this one of those goddam places that give you the runaround?” he demanded to know.

Hanley explained that the charity didn’t give out cash but that he could give the man a blanket, some food, a place to sleep, and a voucher for gas.

“What the hell am I supposed to do when I get to Beaumont!” the man snarled. Hanley didn’t know what to make of him. He wasn’t crazy, and he wasn’t a crack addict. He decided that the man was testing him to learn how he would deal with an unreasonable request, though for what reason he couldn’t guess. He told the man to come back in three hours. He never saw him again.

Hanley did see Morris Black one last time. One morning in August he spotted Black leaning against the Cotton Exchange Building, apparently distraught and in pain. He stopped his truck and asked Black if he was all right. “No!” Black creaked. “I have terrible, terrible problems.”

“I work every day with people’s problems,” Hanley told him. “Maybe I can help.”

“Nobody can help—ever!” Black cried. “Nobody can understand the nature of my problems. Not you, not anyone!”

A few weeks later Hanley and everyone else in Galveston read that, on September 30, a thirteen-year-old boy fishing in the bay had spotted something washing up against the rocks that turned out to be a human torso whose limbs had been removed with surgical precision. A search by police divers turned up two garbage bags containing the arms and legs but no head. Hanley was shocked to read a few days later that the body had been identified as Morris Black. The name of the man charged in the murder was Robert Durst. Hanley felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle

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