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Robert Durst, real estate heir and convicted murderer, dies at 78

Durst had been pursued by investigators for decades in multiple deaths.
Robert Durst during the making of \"The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst\" on HBO.
Robert Durst, during the making of "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" on HBO.Courtesy HBO

Robert Durst, the Manhattan real estate heir and convicted killer who eluded justice for decades, died Monday in a California hospital.

He was 78 and serving a life sentence for the execution-style murder of his close friend Susan Berman at a state prison for ailing inmates in Stockton. He died at San Joaquin General Hospital.

"We understand that his death was due to natural causes associated with the litany of medical issues we had repeatedly reported to the court over the last couple of year," Durst's lawyer, Chip Lewis, said in a statement.

Until his arrest in 2015 in the Berman murder, Durst had managed to escape punishment for the deaths of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst, and an elderly Texas neighbor, Morris Black, whose body he admitted dismembering and dumping in Galveston Bay.

But Durst, who had pleaded not guilty to murdering Berman, was convicted last year of killing her two decades earlier and sentenced to life in prison. He had been arrested a day before the finale of an HBO documentary called "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," in which Durst appeared to confess that he "killed them all, of course."

Then in November 2021, Durst was indicted for the death of his first wife.

“When Kathleen Durst disappeared on Jan. 31, 1982, her family and friends were left with pain, anguish and questions that have contributed to their unfaltering pursuit of justice for the last 39 years,” Westchester County District Attorney Miriam Rocah said at the time.

But Durst died unrepentant, said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, who successfully prosecuted the real estate baron for the Berman murder.

Robert Durst in a courtroom in Inglewood, Calif., as Judge Mark E. Windham gives instructions before opening statements in his trial in the murder of Susan Berman on May 18, 2021.Al Seib / Pool via Reuters file

"It's a shame when anybody loses their life, however, it's important to keep in mind that Bob Durst lived to be 78 years old, decades longer than two of his victims," Lewin said in a statement. "To the end he was hostile, unrepentant, and unremorseful. My thoughts and sympathies lie with his victims."

Born April 12, 1943, and raised in the swanky New York City suburb of Scarsdale, Durst was the eldest son of Seymour Durst, who ran the Durst Organization, one of the most powerful real estate empires in Manhattan. At the time of his death, Durst was said to be worth over $100 million.

When he was 7, Durst's mother died after either falling or jumping from the roof of the family home — a tragedy he claimed to have witnessed.

His brother Douglas told The New York Times that Durst's claim about having seen his mother's demise was a lie. He also recounted how his brother had been diagnosed with mental problems and had repeatedly beat him and their two other siblings up.

"He would torture them more than he would torture me," Douglas Durst said of his sister, Wendy, and brother Tom.

Before he joined the family business in 1969, Durst was briefly enrolled in a doctoral program at UCLA when he met Berman, who was the daughter of a well-known Las Vegas mob boss and became his lifelong friend.

Two years later, Durst met his first wife, who was a medical student at the time. Together they moved to his house in Vermont, where Durst had opened a health food store. But under pressure from his family, the young couple moved back to New York City and were married in 1973 on Durst's 30th birthday.

Nine years later, Kathleen McCormack Durst disappeared, and suspicion quickly fell on her husband after he gave police conflicting accounts about when he last saw her and after investigators learned that she had been talking about a divorce. Her body was never found, and police could not pin the crime on Durst.

Meanwhile, Durst was at loggerheads with his family, an increasingly tense situation that turned into open warfare after Seymour Durst decided in 1992 to appoint Douglas Durst to run the organization. Durst responded by suing for his share of the family fortune.

Robert Durst, left, during a pre-trial hearing at the Galveston County Courthouse in Galveston, Texas, on Aug. 18, 2003.Kevin Bartram / Galveston County Daily News via AP file

Berman was found dead of a single shot to the head at her rented home on Dec. 24, 2000. This was a little over a month after word got out that the New York State Police had reopened its investigation into the disappearance of Durst's wife.

Los Angeles police announced in February 2001 that their detectives were seeking to speak with Durst about Berman's death, but they stopped short of calling him suspect. By then, Durst had fled to Galveston, Texas, and had taken to disguising himself as a woman to throw police off his trail.

Durst was arrested in October 2001 after garbage bags containing Black's dismembered body parts were found floating in the water off Galveston. After he posted $300,000 bail, Durst took off and was re-arrested a month later at a Pennsylvania grocery store after he was caught trying to shoplift a chicken salad sandwich and other items, even though he had $500 cash in his pocket.

Durst was also reported to have stalked his brother Douglas while he was on the run.

Having been returned to Texas, Durst claimed that he killed Black in self-defense and was acquitted in November 2003.

Robert Durst is escorted into Orleans Parish Prison after his arraignment in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in New Orleans on March 17, 2015. Gerald Herbert / AP file

Hollywood had already taken notice of the Durst drama and in December 2010 released a movie called "All Good Things," starring Ryan Gosling as a Durst-like character whose wife suddenly disappears and who becomes a suspect in a series of murders. It was directed by Andrew Jarecki.

In 2015, HBO released its documentary about Durst, which Jarecki directed with Marc Smerling. And in March of that year, Durst was arrested at a Marriott Hotel in New Orleans and flown to Los Angeles, where he was formally charged with Berman's murder.

The same week Durst was sentenced to life for killing Berman, he tested positive for Covid-19 and placed on a ventilator.

Despite his underlying health problems, Durst survived, but he was much weaker when he was taken back to the California Health Care Facility. But upon his return to the hospital Monday for more medical tests, Durst went into cardiac arrest and this time he did not recover, Lewis said.