Robert Durst, the eccentric outcast of a powerful New York real-estate dynasty, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole Thursday for the execution-style murder of his best friend Susan Berman more than two decades ago.
“There is sufficient evidence, indeed overwhelming evidence, of guilt,” Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham said during the afternoon hearing as a frail-looking Durst, 78, leaned back low in his wheelchair, his head cradled by the soft back.
“Susan Berman was an extraordinary human being. I personally wish I could have known her,” Windham said, calling her death at the hands of the skyscraper scion an “awful, disturbing crime.”
Durst was convicted of the first-degree murder last month after prosecutors laid out a sprawling theory of the case that dated back to the mysterious 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen “Kathie” McCormack, in New York. They said Durst killed Kathie as their marriage crumbled and then sidestepped suspicion by drafting Berman to help cover his tracks. When investigators took another look at Kathie’s cold case in 2000, Durst felt the walls closing in and shot Berman at close range inside her Los Angeles bungalow to guarantee her silence, they said.
“Bob is a sociopath and narcissist in the extreme,” Berman’s de facto stepson Sareb Kaufman said in his victim impact statement Thursday, calling the aftermath of her murder a “daily soul-consuming and crushing experience.”
“You have murdered the only people you have ever inspired to love you,” he said, addressing Durst directly. “Any hope of any kind of redemption you can find is in letting (the McCormacks) know where to find Kathie.”
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John Lewin later joined Kaufman in calling on Durst to speak up Thursday, admit to Kathie’s murder and reveal where her long-sought remains might still be found. Durst declined to make a statement of his own. “We intend to appeal,” his lead defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin told the court.
Reached by phone after the hearing, Kathie’s brother Jim McCormack told Rolling Stone he wasn’t surprised Durst stayed mum. “I know Bob. He’s going to pick and choose his moments. This wasn’t it,” he said. “But I still hope he has an epiphany of conscience. He could still do such a good thing. Justice has been served for Susan, her family and her friends, and there’s a small, incremental measure of justice with this conviction for Kathie, but I’m looking for courage, not cowardice, from Westchester County. Now that this trial and the sentencing are over, everything pivots to Westchester County.” The brother said he wants Durst charged with Kathie’s murder next and brought to trial in New York.
In Los Angeles County, the jury heard from more than 70 witnesses over four months of testimony before convicting Durst of first-degree murder and the special allegations he was “lying in wait” and killed Berman to eliminate a witness to another crime, namely Kathie’s disappearance.
“I was robbed, and my beautiful son was robbed, of an absolutely extraordinary, unforgettable brilliant person whose life was savagely taken when she was 55,” Berman’s cousin Deni Marcus told the court Thursday, calling Berman “undeniably unforgettable” and “priceless.”
After eluding charges in Berman’s death for years, Durst found himself back in the criminal crosshairs when he agreed to cooperate with the 2015 HBO documentary about his life, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, from filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who attended the sentencing hearing Thursday. The docuseries was a sensation, weaving together all the hallmarks of a true-crime thriller, from a beautiful 29-year-old medical student who disappeared without a trace to a mobster’s daughter shot in the back of her head and the subsequent shooting death and dismemberment of a Texas man by a millionaire who donned a woman’s wig to live undercover in a cramped Gulf Coast apartment. The Jinx included rare and damaging commentary from Durst himself and unearthed new evidence that Los Angeles authorities used to jumpstart a case that otherwise had been gathering dust.
During the trial that started in March 2020 before going on hiatus for 14 months due to the pandemic, prosecutors told jurors that it was Berman, posing as Kathie, who called in sick to Kathie’s medical school dean after she was last seen alive in 1982. The call was critical, they said, because it led investigators to believe Durst’s claim his wife had made it back to their Manhattan penthouse after he allegedly drove her to a Westchester train station following a turbulent, argument-filled weekend at their lake house.
Berman — an author who wrote about her unconventional life as the daughter of David Berman, a Vegas gangster who worked with Bugsy Siegel — stepped in to help Durst in 1982 after they met as students at UCLA in the late 1960s and became close confidants, Lewin argued. In damaging testimony over the summer, Sareb Kaufman’s sister Mella Kaufman testified that Berman once made the startling admission to her that she “had been an alibi, or made a phone call for (Durst).” Other witnesses gave similar testimony.
In The Jinx, it was Sareb Kaufman who unearthed the 1999 letter from Durst to Berman that bore the same distinct block lettering and misspelling of “Beverley” as the anonymous so-called “cadaver note” sent to Beverly Hills police that alerted authorities to Berman’s body. After Durst was confronted with the similarities on camera, he wandered into a bathroom with his microphone on and muttered to himself what seemed to be a confession, though it was later picked apart and dismissed by DeGuerin.
After the penultimate Jinx episode with the letter bombshell, but before the series finale where Durst was confronted on camera, the millionaire went on the run and was arrested on the Berman murder warrant in Louisiana. Authorities found in his possession a revolver, $45,000 cash, and a full-head latex mask complete with a spiky silver hairdo.
The mask was an echo of another elaborate disguise employed by Durst in Texas. The millionaire admitted to jurors he posed as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner to hide out in Galveston around the time of Berman’s death. Durst said he trying to keep a low profile because he was afraid the Westchester District Attorney at the time, Jeanine Pirro, was gearing up to charge him with Kathie’s death.
It was in Galveston that Durst fatally shot and dismembered his neighbor Morris Black in 2001. He was acquitted of murder in the case after claiming he killed Black in self-defense amid a struggle over his gun. Durst said he hacked up Black’s body in a drunken panic and dumped his body parts in Galveston Bay. Jurors saw gruesome photos of the severed limbs during Berman’s trial after Durst’s lawyers fought but failed to exclude them. According to Lewin, Durst killed Black because the neighbor discovered his true identity while Durst was on the run after murdering Berman.
During lengthy and bizarre testimony offered in his own defense, Durst admitted he wrote the cadaver note but claimed he only stumbled upon Berman’s body and didn’t know who actually shot her. The jury didn’t buy that story and deliberated only about seven hours before unanimously voting to convict.
Judge Windham blasted Durst’s trial testimony as “profoundly incredible and incriminating” and ended the sentencing hearing Thursday saying that while Kathie’s relatives were not invited to give statements, he understood their “heartbreak” and wished them “peace.”