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Robert Durst: How a troubled child became a detested tycoon suspected of killing his wife and two others

Robert Durst has been in the news ever since the disappearance of his wife in 1982 and since then he has also been accused in the murder of two other people
UPDATED MAR 19, 2020
Robert Durst (Getty Images)
Robert Durst (Getty Images)

Robert Durst, a multi-millionaire and real-estate mogul had always enjoyed the perks that came with being a Durst. He had been in the spotlight for years, thanks to his family's legacy and reputation in the corporate world. However, he soon found himself headlines, following the mysterious disappearance of his wife Kathleen McCormick in 1982.

Having been a problematic child, his erratic behavior made him easily detestable even in his adulthood. Most people who knew him loathed him or found him to be peculiar. Here is all you need to know about the strange life of Robert Durst, the jailed-scion who is on trial for committing three murders.

A troubled early life

Born to Seymour B Durst and Beatrice Durst, Robert was the first among four children — his younger brothers are Douglas and Thomas and his younger sister is Wendy. Robert did not share a close relationship with his family, simply because he was rather troublesome.

Douglas described their relationship as one that had a toxic trait, where they would never get along even as children. In fact, in an interview with The New York Times in 2015, Douglas divulged that their long-standing rivalry included keeping weaponry in hand in their Durst Organization offices back in the 1990s. Robert would keep a sharp plumber's wrench and Douglas, a piece of pipe.

Real estate heir Robert Durst appears at the Airport Branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court on November 7, 2016, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Trouble seems to have followed Robert throughout his life. He had a difficult upbringing following the death of his mother, Beatrice, in 1950. His 32-year-old mother died after falling from the roof of their Scarsdale residence in New York. However, Robert, only seven at the time, claimed he saw her jump from the roof.

As children, he and his brother Douglas had been subjected to years of counseling to overcome their heated sibling rivalry. Robert grew up eccentric and aberrant. This one time, he pretended to be in a school band and would often hide his tuba in the woods.

Despite being wealthy, Robert sought to indulge in the hippie culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When he enrolled at UCLA, he dabbled with marijuana and was also engaged in primal scream therapy with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He also became a disciple of the Beatles' guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Family drama

He met Kathleen McCormick in the early 1970s. The two married and moved to settle in Vermont, where they ran a health food store. In the mid-1970s, however, the two moved back to New York and Robert assumed his position in the family business.

His work ethics were less than favorable and he was frequently absent from the office. He was also known to stir family drama with his words, as his cousin Jonathan Durst attested.

Robert was next in line to take over the reins of the company, which meant that he would gain access to various company trusts while also running the million-dollar business. But seeing his erratic behavior, his father Seymour and uncle David Durst decided to replace Robert as the heir in 1994.

They had lost all their confidence in the first-born when it was revealed that he had been siphoning company money. So, Douglas was chosen as the successor and Robert stopped showing up to work altogether and subsequently cleaned out his office.

Douglas said the decision of the succession was made right after it came to light that his brother had peed in his uncle's wastepaper basket.

Robert severed ties with the rest of his family after Douglas came to power. Robert was granted a $65M payout from the company's trust. His father died six months later, but Robert was a no-show at the funeral too.

After the disappearance of Kathleen, Robert remarried in 2000. He married Debrah Lee Charatan, a real estate broker who also was estranged from her family. Investigators say she knows Robert's most guarded secrets, according to The New York Times.

The murders

In 1982, Robert's wife Kathleen went missing and all fingers pointed at him. He waited five days before reporting it to the police and conjured an alibi about walking his dog. Later, in Andrew Jarecki's documentary, 'The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst', Robert conceded that it was indeed a lie.

On several occasions, Kathleen's friends had said that their marriage had turned sour. They even said that the couple was on the verge of a divorce. They described Robert as a controlling and abusive husband and said that Kathleen was terrified of him and that she often fled to a neighbor's house to escape his wrath.

At the time, a close friend of Robert's from his UCLA days, Susan Berman, had served as a witness for the police questioning in Kathleen's case.

Kathleen's body was never found and Robert insisted he had no idea what had happened to her. There wasn't enough proof or tangible evidence to convict him of a crime at the time either. 

In 2000, around the same time that the FBI had contacted Berman for details surrounding Kathleen's case, Berman was found dead in her home. She had taken a bullet to the back of her head. Robert was suspected to be behind Berman's murder. Prosecutors said he killed Berman because he did not want her to reveal anything about his wife's sudden disappearance.

Soon after, Robert fled to Galveston, Texas. According to court documents, he dressed in drag attire and was pretending to be a mute woman, Dorothy Ciner. 

Again in 2001, Robert is suspected to have killed his neighbor Morris Black in Texas. Black's body was decapitated and dumped in a shallow bay. When his body parts washed ashore, the police found clues leading to Black. Robert was arrested but he jumped bail and was arrested again in Pennsylvania after a 45-day manhunt. When he was absconding, this one time Robert pulled into the driveway of Douglas’s home in Katonah, New York City, with two loaded guns.

However, the Texas court acquitted him of Black's murder in 2003 after he testified that he acted in self-defense.

Final arrest and acquisition

Robert's spiraling story has been a subject for the silver screen. He was the inspiration behind Andrew Jarecki's 'All Good Things', starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. He reached out to Jarecki to congratulate him on a job well done. Jarecki then went on to produce and direct a docuseries called 'The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst', based on personal interviews with Robert. The six-part docuseries chronicled all the suspicions that surrounded him.

It was this very documentary that sealed his fate. At the end of the last episode, Robert was caught on tape talking to himself, "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course." This essentially helped reopen the Berman case and Robert was arrested in 2015 and charged with murder.

As of 2020, Robert is awaiting trial for Berman's murder. The 76-year-old still insists that he is innocent.