The Evidence Room, Episode 19 - The Evil Next Door

Robert Durst spent most of his adult life under a cloud of suspicion. ‘The Evidence Room’ looks at the case from the disappearance of his first wife to the death and dismemberment of his next-door neighbor, Durst was the target of multiple investigations in several states.

“He had a very sharp mind, he was a good businessman, but he’s also terribly flawed,” said retired KPRC 2 journalist Phil Archer. “He was always doing things that shocked or surprised people.”

Robert Durst Timeline (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Durst was heir to a New York real estate fortune but was cut off from the family due to odd and, what Archer said, was threatening behavior towards his family.

“The Durst family is a Great American Story that truly is a rags-to-riches story. Seymour Durst came to this country at the turn of the last century with $3 in his pocket, and now that family business is worth about $8 billion, according to Forbes,” said Archer.

“Why did the family decide to cut ties with Durst?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“His behavior was problematic,” said Archer. “He spent most days walking around the office, muttering to himself and peeing in the wastebasket, and at a certain time, after a little while, the family decided, well, we can’t run a business this way. Durst didn’t walk away empty-handed. [He] made a nice settlement in the tens of millions of dollars. They essentially bought him out of the family business. But he never got over that he always carried a grudge toward his brother, Douglas.”

Durst’s first wife, Kathleen McCormack, disappeared less than nine months into the marriage. Durst claimed he dropped his wife off at the train station in Jan. 1982, which was the last time he saw her. Archer said information came to light about there being problems in the marriage and accusations Durst abused his wife.

Flash forward to the year 2000, and police reopened the investigation into Kathie’s disappearance. Durst’s longtime friend, Susan Berman, then acted as somewhat of a spokesperson, defending him against accusations he was involved in his wife’s disappearance. However, in Dec. 2000, Berman was murdered in her California home shortly after police started talking to her about Kathie’s disappearance. By this time, Durst was living in a Galveston boarding house, pretending to be a mute woman by the name of Dorothy Ciner.

“That’s why he came [to Galveston], he was scared he was on the run,” said Archer.

Robert Durst and Kathie McCormack (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Durst pretended to be a woman named Dorothy

In 2015, KPRC 2 spoke with Clair Schuler, who went by the stage name CC Ryder. He told us he thought Durst, who became a regular at Island drag shows, was an older divorcee coming to terms with his sexuality. Schuler said he helped Durst with make-up tips.

“When you saw him in drag honey, eww, it was not pretty. It was blue eye-shadow and red lips, not pretty,” Schuler said during a 2015 interview.

Schuler got quite the shock when police knocked on his door, asking questions about Durst’s neighbor, Morris Black.

“‘Hey, we’re here to interview you about the Robert Durst situation,’ And I was like, ‘Who is Robert Durst?’” Schuler said at the time.

In Sept. 2001, Durst was charged with murdering Black, dismembering his body, and throwing the parts into Galveston Bay. Archer said a teen boy fishing was the first to spot the body parts and alert the police. Archer said police found a slip of paper with the address of the boarding home where Black lived in one of the garbage bags containing a portion of his remains.

“They went to that address, found out who lived there, found out who was missing, and that was Morris Black,” said Archer.

Durst never denied killing Black and dismembering his body but claimed self-defense. Durst said Black attacked him, and a gun the pair was struggling over accidentally went off. Durst then jumped bail. He was arrested for shoplifting a sandwich and newspaper at a Pennsylvania grocery store. Durst then assembled an incredible defense team, and in 2003, he was found not guilty of Black’s murder. A juror at the time said prosecutors never proved the gun did not go off accidentally.

“So, you have reasonable doubt,” the juror said.

The judge presiding over the case, Susan Criss, spoke publicly about the case after retiring from the bench.

“I think the Galveston prosecutors did a lousy job, I think they didn’t prepare. They didn’t try hard enough, and at some point in the process, they gave up,” Criss said during a 2019 interview.

In July 2014, Durst was caught on camera urinating on a candy display at a CVS pharmacy in Kirby. His attorneys claimed it was the result of a medical condition, but Durst wound up pleading no contest to charges of criminal mischief.

Robert Durst (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

In 2015, HBO aired a six-part documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” This was the first time Durst spoke publicly about the investigations into Berman’s death and his first wife’s disappearance. As part of the filming, Durst was caught on microphone saying to himself, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Durst was recorded making this statement in the bathroom while still wearing his microphone. During the filming of the documentary, filmmakers received a letter written by Durst to Berman. Investigators analyzed the handwriting of that letter and determined it match an anonymous letter sent to police notifying them of Berman’s murder.

Durst was then arrested in New Orleans carrying a gun, $40,000 cash, marijuana, and a mask. He was then charged with Berman’s murder. Durst denied killing Berman but later admitted to finding her body and writing the anonymous letter to police notifying them of her death.

Durst was found guilty of Berman’s murder in Sept. 2021 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. A criminal complaint was then filed against Durst, accusing him of murdering his first wife, Kathie. Durst then died in prison in Jan. of 2022. He was 78 years old.

In addition to the murder cases, Durst was also investigated in connection with the disappearance of a college student in Vermont in 1971 and the 1997 disappearance of a 16-year-old girl in Eureka, California.

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About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”