LOS ANGELES — A black-and-white photo beamed on a courtroom wall on Monday provided a stark reminder of how much had changed in Robert Durst’s life over three decades.
The photo, dating to at least the early 1980s, showed the New York real estate heir’s grinning best friend, Susan Berman, flanked by a bearded Durst wearing a smirk and his wife, Kathleen, with an electric smile.
Today, Berman is long dead and Kathleen Durst has been missing for more than three decades and is presumed dead. Durst, an old, frail man with a shaved head, wore a scowl in a courtroom where he is accused of killing both women.
Prosecutors began presenting evidence in State Superior Court here to link Durst to the killings on the first day of a hearing to determine if he will be tried on a murder charge in the execution-style death of Berman.
Prosecutors say Durst killed his college friend, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, because he believed that she was going to tell police what she knew about Kathleen Durst’s death.
Robert Durst, 75, an eccentric multimillionaire, has never been charged with a crime related to his wife’s 1982 disappearance in New York. He has pleaded not guilty to Berman’s 2000 death at her Los Angeles house.
The first day of the hearing revealed little that was not previously disclosed in an HBO documentary series and a string of other court proceedings, but it made the connection between Berman’s death and the mystery around Kathleen Durst’s disappearance, which prosecutors want to show as a motive for Berman’s slaying.
Karen Minutello, manager of the Manhattan building where the Dursts lived in a penthouse apartment, said Kathleen Durst called her about a week before her disappearance and asked to rent her own unit because she didn’t want to live with her husband anymore.
“She was hesitant, she didn’t just blurt out why. Then she did say she needed to get away from him,” Minutello said. “She was afraid of him.”
Days after Kathleen Durst vanished, Minutello said she was alerted to a broken trash compactor that she found jammed with the missing woman’s possessions, including notebooks with her name, dresses, makeup and a hair dryer. She made notes about the finding because it seemed significant.
“Who does that?” Minutello said. “Whose loved one is missing and they throw out their stuff?”
After the disappearance, Berman served as Robert Durst’s unofficial spokeswoman. But prosecutors and witnesses in a series of earlier hearings said she did much more.
Berman told friends over the years that Durst acknowledged killing his wife and said she helped him cover his tracks. Prosecutors are hoping to use many of those hearsay statements at trial, which defense attorneys are challenging.
Berman told one friend that if anything happened to her, Durst would be the culprit.
Durst, listening to the hearing through headphones to enhance the volume, dozed off in the courtroom. As another photo of Berman was projected on the wall, he stirred and stared ahead.
It was a photo from Berman’s autopsy. Her right eye was blackened, and her tongue was between her lips.
A subsequent photo showed a single jagged bullet wound to the back of her head.
Dr. Mark Fajardo, now chief forensic pathologist in Riverside County, said Berman was shot by a gun within an inch of her head. The evidence indicated that the shooter was behind her, Fajardo said.