HBO six-part documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst is an investigation into a scion of one of Manhattan’s wealthiest real-estate fortunes who may or may not have gotten away with at least two different, elaborate, sensationalistic murders. The Jinx is “Serial” in 3-D, but Robert Durst is the anti–Adnan Syed: Durst walks, more than once. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki examines evidence going back to the 1980s to look at how, why, and whether this defendant is either guilty and very fortunate, or innocent and, as per the series’ tagline, merely “The Unluckiest Man in the World.”
Almost 20 years after Kathie Durst disappeared, in 2000 a newly arrested man volunteers some details that cause police to reopen her case.
1. “No one had ever searched the house, no one had ever attempted to search the house” from which Kathie disappeared, reports the ever-exasperated Jeanine Pirro. “This case was not investigated the way it should have been.”
Recalling this second, more extensive round of inquiry, Durst says, “I wasn’t the least bit concerned … What they don’t announce is what they found.” Nothing.
Investigators from Westchester’s D.A. office reinterviewed everyone who had been examined in the early ‘80s. All of Kathie’s friends said the same thing: “If anyone knows anything about Kathie’s disappearance, it would be Susan Berman.” One of them went so far as to draw a map to Berman’s door for the police. They urged the cops, “Go talk to Susan.”
Susan had been a close friend of Bob’s since they met at UCLA. They had similar backgrounds: Susan was the only child of a former tap dancer and a “rich Las Vegas mobster father” who discovered the truth of what her beloved dad did for a living when she was an undergrad. She later published a memoir called Easy Street: The True Story of a Mob Family.
Perhaps you already sense that this is not going to end well.
Friends of Susan’s assert that she was drawn to Bob because he reminded her of her father. Rich, powerful, able to evade the law … One recounts that she would say, “‘He needs me. We have a special friendship.’” Durst himself remembers asking, “‘Susan, I got a call from this reporter and this reporter. Can you just handle it?’”
“Susan was a writer,” says one friend. “She was used to dealing with the press. She took it upon herself to become his spokesperson.” As it turns out, part of that responsibility was feeding journalists a certain, very specific story.
The story of Kathie’s disappearance as reported by the newspapers — which became the mainstream, accepted narrative — is that Kathie disappeared not from Westchester but from Manhattan, where she had gone alone, after Bob drove her to the train station, and where she spent the night.
This account benefits Bob. It also came from him, via Susan. In the first investigation, the cops apparently overlooked at least one if not both those facts. “I think we all know now, 30 years later, that anything Bob says you have to question,” says one.
Another adds, “There were several people who said they saw Kathie when we know she was dead.”
Two witnesses bolster this account: the doorman, who claimed he saw Kathie come in, and the dean of the medical school, who said that he received a call from Kathie the next morning saying she was ill and would not be coming to clinic. If someone called the dean of the med school pretending to be Kathie, odds are it was Susan.
2. Kathie had initiated divorce proceedings the Thursday before she went missing.
She told Bob that she wanted out. She got lawyered up and offered her husband a settlement. He turned it down.
After showing us a reenactment of Kathie’s murder in the lake house, Jarecki asks Durst, “Did you have anything to do with the death of your wife?” Durst replies, with emphasis if not with emotion, “I don’t know that she’s dead … I don’t know where she is, I don’t know what happened to her, I don’t know how it happened to her, I had nothing to do with what happened to her except very obliquely, in that it was a bad marriage.”
The investigators now say that “there is no evidence, credible evidence, that she ever left South Salem.” (How has the doorman been discredited? We do not learn.) Maybe Durst killed her, put her body in the trunk of the car, and drove to Ship Bottom, New Jersey, a town on the coast near the Pine Barrens. If you were a loyal viewer of The Sopranos, your ears might perk up at that: It is where the mob often disposes its corpses.
On the Tuesday after Kathie’s disappearance, Durst HQ received a collect call from a laundromat in Ship Bottom. Bob was the only one who ever called collect, with the exception of his father Seymour, and Seymour was not out of state at the time.
“Bob didn’t make those calls. Bob was not in Ship Bottom,” says Durst, referring to himself in the third person. He suggests that someone else connected to the family business had a beach house there and could have been the one making the call.
By the time investigators reopened the case of Kathie Durst’s disappearance in 2000, Susan Berman had been living across the country in Los Angeles for some time. Bob and Susan spoke on the phone; as he remembers it, she commiserated with him. Soon after, she, too, was dead — shot, execution-style, in her own home.
“There was no sign of any kind of forced entry,” say the cops. “Whoever killed her had probably been let in by Susan Berman.”
In other words, the only person, besides Bob Durst, who could have been helpful to the second-round investigation of the disappearance of Kathie Durst was murdered before the police could question her.
But what seemed obvious to Jeanine Pirro back in New York was a non-issue to the LAPD. The force largely ignored Durst as a subject and focused instead on Berman’s mob connections and the fact that she was working on an exciting, secret project inspired, yet again, by her family’s connections to the mafia. “Back of the head,” say the police, helpfully. “That’s traditional in mob killings.”
3. Berman was increasingly desperate for funds and had been borrowing money from friends in the time leading up to her death.
Berman’s friends imply that perhaps Berman had reached a point where she would have been willing to suggest, in a pointed way, to Durst, that if he didn’t help her sufficiently, she would speak freely to the police. Not blackmail per se; they could simply imagine her making her position clear.
Jarecki asks, of course, did Durst have anything to do with the murder? Durst replies, “I had nothing to do with Susan Berman’s death.” Was she maybe blackmailing him? Was there anything Berman was going to tell the police that Durst couldn’t stand the idea of her sharing? According to Durst, no. He does not seem shocked or upset by the question.
He called her friends on the West Coast. “He was trying to make allies in Susan’s camp,” says one, who felt threatened by the conversation. Durst also called the young man who thought of himself as Susan’s son; Durst went on to send that man to college. The two of them were supposed to have dinner right before Durst was arrested in Galveston, Texas, for murder and dismemberment. He missed the dinner.
Three episodes gone, three to go. We still need to hear how Durst’s version of the events surrounding the death of his wife was discredited, and yet not discredited to the degree that he was tried for any crime. Moreover, since Durst seems to have only served some time for the dismemberment of Morris Black, how did Durst evade responsibility for Black’s death? Should this be the show dubbed How to Get Away With Murder instead?