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Robert Durst charged with murder in wife’s disappearance

  • LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA AP / AUG. 9
                                New York real estate scion Robert Durst answers questions from defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, while testifying in his murder trial at the Inglewood Courthouse in Inglewood, Calif., in August.

    LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA AP / AUG. 9

    New York real estate scion Robert Durst answers questions from defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, while testifying in his murder trial at the Inglewood Courthouse in Inglewood, Calif., in August.

Kathie McCormack Durst, the young wife of a real estate scion, returned to the couple’s weekend cottage in South Salem, New York, on the evening of Jan. 31, 1982, and after yet another argument with her husband, she vanished.

There was no note to her mother, Ann, to her sisters and brother, or her friends. Her disappearance started a nearly 40-year-long saga that has included criminal investigations, breathless media coverage, books, a film and a documentary, much of it centered around her now-notorious husband, Robert Durst.

Now, decades after her disappearance — and just weeks after Durst was convicted of murder in another woman’s death in Los Angeles — prosecutors in Westchester, New York, say they can finally prove what many have long suspected.

Durst, a one-time heir to a real estate empire whose towers are strung across Manhattan, was indicted in White Plains, New York, today on a single count of second-degree murder that accuses him of killing Kathie Durst when she was 29 and months away from fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor.

“For nearly four decades there has been a great deal of speculation about this case, much of it fueled by Robert Durst’s own highly publicized statements,” Miriam E. Rocah, the Westchester district attorney, said in a statement. “An indictment is a crucial step in the process of holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions.”

Durst, who has since been tried for two different murders and convicted once, has long insisted that he did not kill his wife, whose body has never been found. Chip Lewis, a Houston criminal defense lawyer who represented Robert Durst at trials in Texas in 2003 and Los Angeles in 2021, called the new charge “fake news.”

But Robert Durst has acknowledged that he was violent toward his wife on the night of her disappearance. He told the producers of the 2015 documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” that he engaged in a “pushing, shoving argument” with Kathie Durst that night in South Salem, about 50 miles northeast of Manhattan.

The case, the first in which Durst was implicated, in some ways represents a fitting conclusion to the long, strange legal odyssey surrounding him. Over the years of suspicion that followed his wife’s disappearance, his bizarre affect and disarming manner in interviews made him an irresistible subject for true-crime stories.

For the investigators who long pursued him, Durst proved to be a challenging adversary. Only this year was he finally convicted of murder. Just two weeks before the Westchester County indictment, Durst, 78 and frail, was sentenced in Los Angeles to life without parole for the murder of his confidante Susan Berman in December 2000. The jury in that case found that Durst had shot Berman in the back of her head because he feared she was about to reveal to investigators what she knew about the disappearance and murder of Kathie Durst.

Berman, a journalist and screenwriter who was living in New York in 1982, arranged interviews with the city’s tabloids for Durst at the time his wife disappeared. Both of them told police and reporters that Kathie Durst was drug-addled and in danger of flunking out of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, contrary to school officials and academic records.

Absent new physical evidence in Kathie Durst’s disappearance, the Los Angeles case is likely to provide a road map of sorts for prosecutors in New York.

Many of the prosecution witnesses in Los Angeles are likely to show up in Westchester, including Mike Struk, the now-retired detective who first got the case; Karen Minutello, the building manager who said that Robert Durst threw out Kathie Durst’s textbooks and other belongings days after she disappeared; medical school classmates in whom Kathie Durst confided her fears about her husband’s violence; and Kathie Durst’s sister Mary and her husband Tom, who discovered the so-called Dig Note in a wastebasket in the South Salem cottage.

Robert Durst testified in Los Angeles that the note was not a to-do list for getting rid of a body, but rather shorthand for “digital,” an uncommon word in 1982.

Fadwa Najamy, one of the last people to see Kathie Durst alive, testified in Los Angeles that Kathie Durst had shown up at her family’s house in Connecticut before she disappeared and that Robert Durst had phoned there asking her to come home. After Kathie Durst’s disappearance, her close friend, Gilberte Najamy, Fadwa Najamy’s sister, frantically searched for clues to what happened to Kathie Durst and told police that Robert Durst was responsible.

“May he live to be 100 so he can spend more time in jail after what he did to Kathie and my sister,” Fadwa Najamy said last week. Gilberte Najamy is no longer alive.

Ruth Mayer, who lived next door to the Dursts in 1982, said she was fond of Kathie Durst and has long felt “an obligation to do whatever I can do.”

On the Sunday morning when Kathie Durst was last seen, Mayer brought her a hat to fend off the icy temperature, she said.

“It is justice delayed,” she said of the indictment.

Robert Abrams, a lawyer representing the McCormack family, declined to comment.

Robert Durst, who was briefly on a ventilator after testing positive for COVID-19, was transferred Oct. 27 from Twin Towers Correctional Facility to the California Health Care Facility, a prison for inmates with long-term or severe health problems in Stockton, California, 90 miles east of San Francisco. It is the same prison where Phil Spector, the once-celebrated music producer, spent his final years after his conviction for killing a woman in his home.

Now, Robert Durst faces the prospect of extradition to New York and a cell in the New York prison system. His credibility has been shredded by the conflicting accounts that he offered to investigators and interviewers, especially after he admitted in Los Angeles that he lied five times in sworn testimony and twice while testifying in a separate trial in Texas.

The story of Robert Durst is as much a string of mysteries stretching over four decades as it is a story of wealth and privilege. His marriage to Kathie McCormack in 1973 had a fairy-tale quality, her family said. She was from a lower middle-class family on Long Island. He was the son of a wealthy New York family, who showed her exotic vacations and the best tables at restaurants and discos.

But after he forced her to have an abortion, their marriage descended into bickering, multiple affairs, pushing and violence.

After Kathie Durst disappeared, Robert Durst said he had put her on a Manhattan-bound train because she planned to attend a clinic rotation the next day. He waited until Friday to report her missing at a police precinct on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

An elevator operator at their penthouse apartment in Manhattan reported seeing Kathie Durst; and a woman who identified herself as Kathie Durst — but who police came to believe was Berman — called Kathie Durst’s medical school to say that she was ill.

“It’s clear that Berman and Durst duped us,” the retired detective, Struk, said. “I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

There was never a forensic search of the Dursts’ cottage in 1982, because the investigation was centered in Manhattan, where Robert Durst reported his wife missing.

The case against him in New York is circumstantial. There is no witness, no weapon and no body. And Robert Durst has acknowledged lying to police about his whereabouts at the time his wife disappeared. “I wasn’t used to anyone questioning my veracity,” Robert Durst told The Jinx.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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