Robert Durst Trial: Inside Secret Witness's 'Country-Porn' Past

Meet Chinga Chavin, the rocker-turned-ad-exec who took the stand to testify against his former friend Durst, subject of HBO's 'The Jinx'

New York real estate scion Robert Durst appears in the Los Angeles Superior Court Airport Branch for a pre-trial motions hearing involving witnesses that are expected to testify before the trial in Los Angeles, California on January 6, 2017. Credit: Mark Boster/AFP/Getty

The secret witness arrived at Los Angeles International Airport after flying first class from New York. When the plane landed, the passengers were ordered to stay seated while two plainclothes police officers escorted the witness and his wife out a back exit and into an unmarked car on the tarmac.

For the next two and a half weeks, Nick Chavin never went anywhere without his escorts. At his downtown L.A. hotel, they remained stationed outside his two rooms. If he wanted a drink from the bar, they brought it up. They were with him when he visited the California Science Center to see the space shuttle Endeavour. They accompanied him to the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Griffith Observatory and when he went out to eat. "They knew the best restaurants," he says.

Chavin's high-security trip was the latest twist in the 35-year saga of Robert Durst, scion of a wealthy New York real estate family. His problem is that people close to him often end up dead, and the prosecutor didn't want that to happen to Chavin, at least until he could testify that Durst had confessed to killing their close friend Susan Berman.

Durst had long been a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, and he had been acquitted of killing his 71-year-old neighbor in Galveston, Texas – though he'd shot him, cut him into pieces and dumped him in the bay, Durst claimed self-defense, and won. He was the subject of the six-part HBO documentary The Jinx: the Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, where a hot mike recorded him saying, "I killed them all." He says, "Killed them all, of course."

The documentary gave new life to the Berman investigation and, last year, Durst was charged with killing her with a shot to the back of the head and extradited to Los Angeles.

The trial hasn't been scheduled, but the prosecutor wanted to ensure that Chavin testified under oath in case something happened to him. As Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told the judge, Durst "kills witnesses... When pushed into a corner, he murders people." (The D.A.'s office told Rolling Stone that Lewin is not giving interviews, and the office declined to comment.)

Chavin's name wasn't made public until he walked into the courtroom last February. While Durst's attorneys knew his identity, they were sworn to secrecy. A court reporter took down his words, and his testimony was videotaped.

According to Chavin's testimony, before her death, Berman told Chavin that Durst had admitted to killing his wife. In 2000, after Berman's death, the two men met for dinner in Manhattan. "You wanted to talk about Susan?" Chavin said. According to Chavin's testimony, Durst answered, "I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice."

Throughout the two-and-a-half day hearing, Chavin, a 72-year-old New York advertising executive, described how Berman had introduced him to Durst decades ago. The three became best friends, and the relationship turned out to be the big break of Chavin's career when he began promoting Durst Organization properties in New York. (The work led to a relationship with another New York developer, Donald Trump. Chavin says he worked on ad campaigns for several of his properties, including Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. "Trump is so fucking insecure," Chavin says. "He yelled at secretaries. It was embarrassing.")

While some people were riveted by the latest turn in the Durst case, I paid little attention – until I saw Chavin's name. I had been a fan of Kinky Friedman, a mystery novelist, singer and songwriter who had fronted the band Texas Jewboys, and had long ago purchased an oddball album by Chinga Chavin, Friedman's roommate at the University of Texas. On the album cover, Chavin stands behind a topless woman, his face covered by a cowboy hat. A guitar-shaped like a toilet seat is slung over his shoulder. The album, financed by Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, sold more than 100,000 copies. A decade and a half later came a follow up, Live and Politically Erect.

Some news outlets mentioned in passing that Chavin had been a musician, but his career as a country-western singer is far stranger than anyone wrote. His 1976 album, Country Porn, includes songs like "Cum Stains on the Pillow (Where Your Sweet Head Used to Be)," with weeping pedal steel; the rocking "Dry Humping in the Back of a '55 Ford," ("passed down," he says in the intro, "in the anal tradition,") and "Asshole from El Paso," sung to the tune of "Okie from Muskogee."

I'd heard that Chinga – whose nom-de-plume Chinga means "fuck" in Spanish – had moved from singing porn to slinging advertising – so I decided to look him up. When I called him, instead of running away from his past, Chavin embraced his Chinga persona. "People who are my friends only call me Chinga, and a lot of clients do, too," he says. His live act, he recalls, had two topless dancers; Sister Posterior, the stripping nun; and a shirtless singer who was dating Bob Dylan. His band on the album includes well-known session musicians like drummer Kenny Buttrey, bass player Norbert Putnam and guitarist Chip Young. They insisted their names not appear on the credits, Chavin says, but he and his manager stamped their names on some copies, anyway.

Friedman and Durst were co-best men at Chavin's 1988 wedding. Chinga appears as a character in several of Friedman's detective novels, along with Kinky's other real life friends, like Willie Nelson. In Curse of the Missing Puppethead, Chavin overindulges in a variety of substances and is framed for the murder of a mob boss's son. Friedman, the amateur P.I. protagonist, figures out who the real killer is and saves Chavin's life. But when it comes to the real-life saga of their friend Durst, it's doesn't look like a wise-cracking, whiskey-drinking P.I. will emerge to save his head.

Chavin recalls the days he and Durst ran around New York together, going to sex clubs like Plato's Retreat, and slam dancing at the Mudd Club. Durst would fire up a joint just about anywhere. "I was a lot more conservative than he was," Chavin says. "When you've got the money to buy your way out of stuff you can do a lot of shit."

Chavin still performs several times a year in the New York area, and joins Kinky onstage when he's in town. The occasional royalty check lets him know he gets played on Howard Stern's radio show.

Durst's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, who had gotten the real-estate millionaire off in Galveston, knew about Chavin's background. Toward the end of Chavin's cross-examination, the attorney delved into his musical career, hoping its outrageousness would cast doubt on his credibility. He projected the Country Porn cover on a screen and asked him to read the song titles aloud. "The courtroom was laughing," DeGuerin recalls. "The judge tried to keep a poker face, but I thought I detected some amusement on his face." When he came to "Asshole from El Paso," Chavin said that one of DeGuerin's favorite performers sang it. DeGuerin asked who. "Kinky Friedman," he replied. DeGuerin asked whose version was better. Willie Nelson's, Chavin replied.

His testimony complete, Chavin's bodyguards drove him back to the airport and put him on a plane. When he landed in New York there were no cops to greet him. 

"This is going to sound sick," Chavin says Lewin, the deputy D.A., joked to him. "But if anything happens to you after we videotape you, we really don't care."