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.

February 2002By Comments

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 as he studied Durst’s photograph. No doubt about it, this was the fake mute with the heavily taped eyeglasses.

PEOPLE GO TO GALVESTON TO GET LOST, and that’s what 58-year-old Robert Durst and his 71-year-old neighbor, Morris Black, had been doing until a series of grotesque discoveries put them in the national spotlight. Even before Black’s corpse was fingerprinted, the police had discovered a clue that allowed them to open the first of a bewildering series of Chinese boxes. In one of the garbage bags was a newspaper with a label addressed to 2213 Avenue K. That address was in a typical Galveston neighborhood, halfway between the Gulf and Galveston Bay, a street of mostly restored homes with gingerbread trim and hurricane shutters. Cottonwoods and palm trees lined the street, and at one corner stood a historic church, St. Joseph, completed in 1860 by German Catholic immigrants. Number 2213 was a nondescript thirties-era bungalow that had been converted into a fourplex.

With no name to guide them, police officers searched the garbage cans in the alley. They found several things of interest, including a .22-caliber handgun that they later traced to Durst. They also found an eviction notice dated the previous July in the name of Morris Black and a current receipt for a pair of eyeglasses in the name of Robert Durst. The landlord, Klaus Dillman, informed the police that Durst had signed a lease in November 2000. Dillman remembered it well because Durst had come dressed in drag, pretending to be a mute named Dorothy Ciner (at the time, Dillman had believed she was a woman; he had recognized Durst only later, from newspaper photos). Two months later Morris Black rented an apartment across the hall. Searching the two apartments, police officers found blood on the walls and floors of both, as well as in the hallway between them. In Durst’s apartment the police discovered a paring knife with a four-inch blade and some bloody boots. Another tenant, Maria De Hernandez, told officers that the night Black’s body was discovered she had seen Durst loading garbage bags into a silver car parked behind the apartment.

Acting on a tip, the police arrested Durst, who was driving a silver Honda, in Galveston on October 9. A search of the car turned up a 9mm handgun, a small bag of marijuana, and a bow saw. Though the bow saw initially intrigued the police, the precise dissection of the body suggested that someone had used a paring knife to cut away muscle and a hacksaw to cut through bone.

Over the next few months, investigators slowly put together profiles of the two men. Morris Black seemed to have lived everywhere and nowhere—Del Rio; Fort Stockton; Galena Park; Long Beach, Mississippi; Norfolk, Massachusetts; North Charleston Beach, South Carolina. Several of Black’s relatives still lived in his home state of Massachusetts, but they hadn’t seen him in years. A sister-in-law, Trudy Black, of Plainville, Massachusetts, told Galveston County Daily News reporter Ted Streuli that Black had never married and that he had traveled constantly. “He was the type you wouldn’t hear from for years and then you’d hear from him.” She added that Black would get extremely upset if she wasn’t home when he called. “He always lived in a poor neighborhood,” she said. “If he had a disagreement, he’d go protest. He’d march in front of the building. He could make enemies.” Black’s brother Harry told Streuli that Morris worked as a merchant seaman in the late forties or early fifties. I attempted to reach Black’s sister, Gladys Saslaw, but was told that she was suing Durst for wrongful death and couldn’t comment.

The few people in Galveston who remembered Black at all talked about a scrawny little man in khaki shorts and hiking boots who walked all over the island and spent hours at the library. Those I spoke with described him as cranky, cantankerous, eccentric, and paranoid, a loner who believed the world was out to get him. He had almost been evicted from the apartment on Avenue K because of his angry protestations that he had been overcharged $19 on his electric bill. The police discovered that in 1997 Black had been convicted in South Carolina of making a terroristic threat—he threatened to blow up the electric company over a $16 overcharge.

The strangest thing about Black was his apparent wealth. Though he had no job and no visible means of support, he maintained nine separate accounts in a bank in South Dakota, with a total balance of about $137,000. No one had any idea where he had gotten that kind of money, though many now theorize that it had come from his neighbor Robert Durst. There were rumors that Black and Durst had known each other for some time. But nobody turned up evidence that the two had ever met before Avenue K. Black’s secret—his “terrible problems”—seemed to have died with him.

Durst’s story line was less vague, but what did surface was as bizarre as any pulp-fiction plot. Far from being the down-and-outer he presented to the world, Durst came from one of New York’s wealthiest and most powerful real estate families. Later in the investigation, law enforcement authorities froze $1.8 million in one New Jersey bank account alone and believed he had millions more in other accounts not yet located. Another thing the Galveston authorities learned about Durst was that in 1982, his beautiful wife, Kathleen, had vanished without a trace. She was four months short of graduating from medical school and had just told a friend that she planned to get a divorce. Durst had been questioned about his wife’s disappearance by New York State Police investigators but was never charged with anything.

As a young man Durst had rebelled against his family’s wealth, but after marrying Kathleen, he had joined the Durst Organization and helped his father, Seymour, and his younger brother Douglas build skyscrapers on Avenue of the Americas. In 1994, when it became apparent that Douglas would become the head of the empire upon their father’s death, Robert split from his family and began drifting across the country with no apparent purpose or destination. At the time of his arrest in Galveston, he owned homes in Manhattan, Connecticut, San Francisco, and Northern California. While he was renting his grubby $300-a-month apartment on Avenue K, Durst also had a small apartment in New Orleans and a luxury $3,800-a-month apartment in Dallas. He often lived among the homeless, sometimes dressed as a woman, and used a number of disguises and aliases. The real Dorothy Ciner, the police discovered, had attended Scarsdale High School with Durst, where both were members of the class of 1961. But she hadn’t seen him in forty years and had never been to Galveston.

In 1999 New York authorities reopened the investigation into Kathleen Durst’s disappearance. The police were seeking Durst for more questioning around the time he lost himself among the vagabonds of Galveston. They also planned to question one of Durst’s friends, Susan Berman, the daughter of Dave Berman, one of Las Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel’s top lieutenants. Susan Berman had been one of Durst’s closest friends and confidants since their days together at the University of California-Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. At the time Kathleen Durst was reported missing, Berman was living in Manhattan and promoting a book on her life as a Mafia princess. When Kathie’s disappearance broke in the newspapers, Berman served as Durst’s spokesperson. Unfortunately, just as New York State Police investigators were about to interview Berman, she was found murdered in her home in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, 2000, shot coincidentally by the same caliber pistol—9mm—that police officers later found in Durst’s Honda.

But Galveston authorities knew none of this until after Durst’s bail hearing. Otherwise they wouldn’t have set bail at $300,000, which at the time seemed prohibitive. But the $30,000 required to post such a bond was pocket change for someone as wealthy as Durst. One of the phone calls Durst made from the Galveston city jail on the day of his arrest was to a wealthy, attractive 44-year-old New York real estate broker named Debrah Lee Charatan, who arranged to secure his bond. Later, when Charatan attempted to withdraw money from a Durst bank account that the police were monitoring, the authorities discovered that the couple had secretly married in December, a few months after Durst had gone to Galveston and not long after his missing wife was declared legally dead. But by the time the Galveston police began to understand exactly whom they had arrested, Durst had jumped bail and vanished.

Kurt Sistrunk, Galveston County’s first assistant district attorney, told me that he knew that Durst wasn’t just another psychotic tramp when he received a telephone call from a reporter for the New York Post, shortly after Durst failed to show up for his arraignment, on October 16. When the court declared Durst a fugitive, Sistrunk had asked that the bond be increased to $1 million. As he was about to learn, even that was bird food. “This Robert Durst you have in custody?” the reporter asked. “Could he possibly be our Robert Durst?” Once Sistrunk had time to digest the story that everyone in New York knew by heart, bail was bumped to $1 billion. But, of course, Durst was long gone by then.

THE DURST FAMILY WAS ALREADY well known to New Yorkers in early 1982 when the story broke that Kathleen Durst had vanished. It resurfaced as front-page fodder when the investigation was reopened two years ago. And it exploded again when the news from Galveston hit the East Coast last fall. Police officers and prosecutors from New York, as well as police officers from Los Angeles, hurried down to interview Durst—too late as it turned out. Television and print reporters from both coasts, many of whom had barely heard of the place, descended like waves of migraine headaches on what was variously called “the gritty Gulf Coast city” and “the windblown island town.” Prime Time Live was there. So was America’s Most Wanted. Galveston hadn’t had this much attention since it nearly washed off the map in the 1900 hurricane.

That was because family patriarch Seymour Durst was an enormously powerful man. He had been the Donald Trump of the forties and fifties and built skyscrapers all over midtown Manhattan as well as twenty residential buildings. By the time he died, in 1995, the Durst Organization was worth $650 million. Seymour Durst was strong-willed, eccentric, and opinionated. Robert was the eldest of his four children.

Though Robert grew up wealthy in the Westchester County suburb of Scarsdale, his childhood was marred by tragedy in 1950, when his 32-year-old mother, Bernice, jumped to her death from the roof of the family home. Robert, who was then seven years old, witnessed the death, and the memory of it haunted him for years. Robert and his younger brother Douglas fought so frequently that their father sent both boys to a counselor. Robert was a loner, shy and withdrawn. In the 1961 Scarsdale High yearbook, there was a single photo of Robert and no mention of extracurricular activities.

After graduation from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1965, Robert moved to California and enrolled in a doctoral program at UCLA. The California lifestyle appealed to him. He met Susan Berman, a cool, sexy, and flamboyant young writer (a few years later she authored a piece titled “Why I Can’t Get Laid in San Francisco”) who grew up among mobsters in Las Vegas. He met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in California during primal scream therapy with psychotherapist Arthur Janov. He was also a follower of Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Friends say Durst affected a hippie image, living in cheap apartments, and smoking a lot of dope.

In 1969 Robert returned to New York to work for his father. Two years later he met Kathleen McCormack, who had recently moved to the city from her home in New Hyde Park, New York, and rented an apartment in a building owned by the Durst Organization. Robert and Kathie fell in love, moved to Vermont, and opened a health-food store. They made a handsome couple. He was good-looking, athletic, droll, somewhat reclusive but likable. Friends called him “sweet” and “kindhearted.” She was strikingly pretty, funny, smart, and high-spirited. Seymour Durst was less than thrilled by his son’s lifestyle, however, and at his urging the couple returned to New York in 1973 and married. Though Robert joined his father and brother Douglas in the family business, he resisted the trappings of the upper class, preferring to drive an old Volkswagen Beetle and wear casual attire. By contrast, Kathie loved the bright lights and the good life afforded by Robert’s family fortune. “It was as though Cinderella had married Prince Charming,” says her older brother, Jim McCormack. “He had the resources to do the things she had dreamed of doing. Robert was shy, not exactly antisocial but reluctant to enter into conversations. Kathie was the exact opposite, vivacious, witty, ready to enjoy life. She brought out the best in him.”

Still, their life together was far from perfect. In spite of their wealth Kathie drove an old Mercedes and complained that Robert was too cheap to buy her a new one. She told friends that she was unhappy with what she termed “living below our means.” She was also disappointed that Robert refused to have children. Instead of the family she wanted, she decided to pursue a career in medicine, first gaining a nursing degree from Western Connecticut State College. During the week, Kathie stayed at their country cottage on Lake Truesdale, in the Westchester County community of South Salem while Robert remained in the city, at their penthouse at Seventy-sixth and Riverside Drive. On weekends he would come out to visit. “Kathie was very much in love with Bobby when I met her [in 1976],” says Gilberte Najamy, a woman who became Kathie’s close friend while they were undergraduates at Western Connecticut. “From Monday until Friday she would wait by the phone for him to call.” Later, after Kathie was admitted to the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, Najamy and other friends came to the city on weekends to visit and party with Kathie.

Using Robert’s connections, the group got reservations at expensive restaurants and nightclubs like Studio 54 and Xenon. Sometimes Robert accompanied them, but he seldom seemed to enjoy it. “Bobby was not thrilled with her circle of friends,” Najamy told me. “I think he suspected that we were telling her that she didn’t need him or his money, which we were.” Robert became possessive and abusive, Najamy recalls, sometimes taking his anger out on bystanders. At the penthouse after a night of clubbing, he assaulted one of Najamy’s friends, a photographer named Peter Schwartz, because Schwartz was too slow to move when Durst ordered everyone out of the apartment. Jim McCormack told me of watching Robert grab his sister by the hair and jerk her off the sofa one night at their mother’s home in New Hyde Park.

By early 1981 their eight-year marriage was clearly in trouble. “He had closed her charge accounts and canceled her credit cards,” Najamy told me. “She borrowed money from me, fifty, a hundred dollars, and begged cigarettes from the doorman. She needed to keep Bobby happy until she finished school, but she made it clear that as soon as she graduated, she was out of there.” In March 1981, while they were vacationing in Puerto Rico, Kathie confided to Najamy that she was getting a divorce. Back in the city, Kathie had rented her own apartment on East Eighty-sixth Street and hired a divorce lawyer. At this time Robert’s old friend Susan Berman was in New York, promoting her book, and Durst was not only seeing her but also dating another old friend, Prudence Farrow, Mia Farrow’s sister and famous in her own right as the inspiration for the Beatles’ song “Dear Prudence.” But the thought of losing Kathie was obviously tearing at him, and he became even more possessive and abusive. Kathie began to fear for her life and told Najamy and others that if something happened to her they should look first at Bobby.

Friends advised Kathie to simply walk away from the marriage, but she was determined to get her share of Robert’s fortune. She began to collect his financial records and other documents. One of the key documents was the police report of the assault on Peter Schwartz. A felony assault conviction could have given her leverage in a divorce. But to her astonishment and dismay, she discovered that the assault charge had been reduced to disorderly conduct. Her dismay deepened when Schwartz told her that he had settled his civil suit against Durst “for pennies on the dollar.”

Najamy recalls, “Suddenly she realized that she had no power in her divorce case. She told me, ‘Gilberte, this man thinks he can do anything he wants to do and get away with it.'” Friends from nursing school counseled Kathie to report to the emergency room the next time Robert hit her so that the abuse would get on record. She was reluctant but on January 6, 1982, she showed up at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx with bruises on her face.

Three weeks later she vanished. She was 29.

THE INVESTIGATION INTO KATHLEEN Durst’s disappearance on the night of Sunday, January 31, 1982, was halfhearted at best. That was one of the first things New York State Police investigator Joseph Becerra realized when he opened the long-dormant file almost eighteen years later. Becerra was acting on information from a man who had been arrested for exposing himself to several women and claimed to know something about the Durst case. Becerra had never heard of the case or of Robert or Kathie Durst. “I was still in high school at the time she disappeared,” he told me. “The tip didn’t pan out, but the more I read, the more intrigued I got.”

That was because so much of the evidence seemed to point in the direction of Robert Durst. Durst hadn’t reported his wife’s disappearance for five days and only after State Police officers came to his lake cottage in response to Najamy’s repeated suggestions that something bad might have happened to her friend. He then filed his missing person’s report not in Westchester County but in Manhattan, where his family had enormous influence. Even before filing the report, he had sublet her apartment on East Eighty-sixth Street. He did it to save $900 a month in rent, his lawyer explained. In spite of all this, New York City police officers had accepted Durst’s story that he had put her on a train back to the city that night and that she ran away because she was unhappy with her marriage and her studies. Either that or she’d been killed by drug dealers. Durst informed the officers that Kathie was a cocaine user, and his lawyer took some coke to detectives, saying it had been found in her apartment. The police never troubled themselves to search the lake cottage or the surrounding woods, nor did they drag the lake.

There were a number of glaring inconsistencies in the case that the original investigators had never resolved. For one thing, the timeline was highly suspect. It seemed to indicate that, at a minimum, Durst knew more about Kathie’s disappearance than he had admitted. Kathie had agreed to accompany Robert to their lake cottage that weekend. Gilberte Najamy was preparing for a family dinner party at her home in Connecticut when Kathie telephoned Sunday at around noon. She told Najamy that things were not going well. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she said. An hour later Kathie arrived at Najamy’s house in her Mercedes, wearing a sweat suit. She was extremely upset and talked about the Peter Schwartz incident. That afternoon Durst telephoned several times; as Kathie spoke to him, Najamy could hear him screaming through the receiver. At about seven o’clock Kathie called Durst. After Kathie hung up, she told Najamy, “I have to leave. Bobby wants me home. He’s really upset.” At the time Kathie was four months short of graduation and according to Najamy felt she needed to pacify her husband at all costs. As Kathie was preparing to leave, at about seven-fifteen, to drive to the lake cottage to meet her husband, she repeated her fear to Najamy. “If anything happens to me,” she said. “Check out Bobby.” Then she drove away in a snowstorm. Najamy never saw her again.

If Najamy is correct about the time, Durst’s story is shot full of holes. He told police officers that the quarrel continued after Kathie had returned to their cottage. “She was in a tear about something,” he said. Considering the driving conditions that night, she couldn’t have arrived before eight-thirty. They ate a hamburger and Kathie drank a bottle of wine and changed clothes, Durst recalled. Then he drove her to the train station at Katonah, a trip of about twenty minutes, and watched as she boarded the 9:17 back to Manhattan. He told the police that he stopped to have drinks with some neighbors. When the neighbors denied this, Durst changed his story and said he ate alone at a cafe in town. He claimed to have phoned his wife at about eleven-thirty that night, at the penthouse on Riverside Drive. When a detective suggested that phone records could verify the call, Durst changed his story again, saying that he had called Kathie from a pay phone while walking his dog. This seemed implausible: It was a miserable night, cold and sleeting, and the nearest pay phone was three miles across the lake. Nevertheless, back in 1982, the police had bought his story that Kathie had indeed boarded the train back to New York and had concentrated their investigation in the city. After a few unproductive weeks, both the police and the media lost interest.

But Gilberte Najamy didn’t. Along with Kathie’s brother and sister and her other friends, Najamy has hounded the police and tried to arouse public attention for years. “I thought a thousand times: What if I had invited her to stay with me that night? But Kathie didn’t ask and I didn’t offer.” Najamy began her own investigation after Kathie failed to show up for a dinner date the following night. She says she had a “gut feeling” that Kathie had been killed and made a number of phone calls. By Thursday, she was convinced that Kathie had been murdered and said so to the police. On the following Sunday she boarded the same 9:17 train to Manhattan that Kathie was supposed to have taken. It was only two cars long, she was surprised to discover—one for smoking, another for non-smoking. No question which car Kathie would have chosen: When she was drinking or upset, Kathie would fire one cigarette from another. “The same group of people rode that train every Sunday night,” Najamy told me. “I talked to all of them. Kathie was not on that train.”

FOR 45 DAYS RUMORS, TIPS, and sketchy reports of the whereabouts of the fugitive Robert Durst piled up on the desk of Galveston police detective Cody Cazalas. When Cazalas wasn’t sifting through reports, he was fielding questions from scores of newsmen who arrived almost daily. Writers for magazines from Vanity Fair to GQ to Talk sniffed the salt air and interviewed hundreds of locals, hoping to find some new piece of information. There was a rumor that Durst had fled to Mexico, dressed in drag. A more reliable account placed him in Plano, again dressed as a woman. Another had him holed up in a New York homeless shelter. Still another said he was camping in a pup tent among a group of retired police officers on the Trinity River in Northern California. “With his money, he could be almost anywhere,” Cazalas admitted.

Cazalas and New York police officers questioned Debrah Lee Charatan, who reportedly had had a nearly twenty-year affair with Durst before their secret marriage in December 2000. Charatan said she didn’t know his whereabouts and speculated that Durst could have killed himself as his mother did. As records would later show, on October 15, the day before his hearing in Galveston, Durst was in Mobile, Alabama, registered at a Residence Inn. Two days later he took possession of a red Chevrolet Corsica from the local Rent-A-Wreck, shelling out $2,500 for a deposit and another $1,056 for four weeks advance rent. For identification he used Morris Black’s expired South Carolina driver’s license and Black’s Medicare card. At that point the trail went cold.

The police know now that Durst had headed north to Atlantic City, where on November 18 he stole a new license plate for the Corsica. A few days later he began a nostalgic journey, visiting many of his old haunts. First he checked into a motel near his alma mater Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He visited his boyhood home in Scarsdale and the school Kathie attended in Danbury, Connecticut. He drove past the Durst family compound in Katonah.

Durst eluded a nationwide manhunt for six weeks. He might still be on the lam, except for an almost willfully stupid act on the afternoon of November 30, at a grocery store in Bethlehem. A security guard noticed a thin, haggard man wearing a black windbreaker and black sneakers, his head and eyebrows shaved. The man took a single Band-Aid out of a box and put in on a cut under his nose. Then he grabbed a newspaper and a chicken salad sandwich and left without paying. Nabbed in the parking lot, the man gave his name as Robert Durst, which meant nothing to the local police. Durst had $500 in his pocket, which made it seem unlikely that he would risk stealing merchandise valued at less than $7. The police would have given him a summons and set him free, except Durst gave them a real address in New York. A computer check revealed that shoplifting was the least of Durst’s alleged crimes. Again reporters flew in from all over the country.

The Bethlehem police delayed opening the trunk of the red Corsica until December 5, after detective Cody Cazalas had flown in from Galveston and investigator Joseph Becerra and district attorney Jeanine Pirro had arrived from Westchester County. Searching the trunk, officers found clothing, an elaborate list of directions, $37,000 in $100 bills, a small amount of marijuana, and Morris Black’s driver’s license. They might have hoped to find Kathie’s body and Black’s head too. But that would have been too easy.

There is certain to be a lot of legal toe dancing before Durst is tried in Galveston, much less in Westchester County. Durst’s family has hired two brilliant, high-profile attorneys, Michael Kennedy, of New York, and Dick DeGuerin, of Houston, and the struggle to manipulate public opinion has already begun. In a hearing shortly after Durst was extradited back to Texas, Galveston district judge Susan Criss approved DeGuerin’s motion that police officers, prosecutors, and potential witnesses in the case be barred from discussing it with reporters. In that same hearing DeGuerin artfully disclosed that ballistic tests show that the 9mm pistol found in Durst’s car is not the gun that killed Susan Berman.

Any charges brought against Durst in Westchester County will probably be delayed until after the trial in Galveston. New York State Police investigators have talked to a number of friends and neighbors of the Dursts who were ignored by the original investigators, and they have ripped a wall out of the lake cottage and may have collected additional physical evidence from their search of the lake bottom. But they apparently have no body and no witnesses to a crime. The Galveston police have a body but no head. They can’t even prove for certain how Morris Black died. There is, of course, the evidence from the apartments on Avenue K, including blood, but is it enough to convict? For the moment, nobody is talking. Except of course most of the media and everyone in Galveston. They can’t wait for the next Chinese box to pop open.

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