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.”
The penultimate episode, “Family Values,” begins with an assembled litany of shocked reactions in New York to Durst’s acquittal in Texas, as detailed in episode four. Jon Stewart made fun of the verdict. So did the Times and the Post. When was the last time they agreed on anything? Fred Armisen played Durst on SNL. He’s pretty good, though insufficiently twitchy.
“Nothing happens the way it’s supposed to happen when it comes to Bobby Durst,” says one of Kathie’s friends, resigned.
Part of that has to do with the Durst family, who maintain “a Berlin wall of silence” around the subject, as Bob’s nephew puts it. The police have no interviews with any Durst family members in the original case files; and the older generation, including Kathie’s father-in-law, made no attempt to either reach out to Kathie’s distraught family or to try to find her. That leads us to our first major realization of the episode:
1. Bob’s family acted as though Bob was guilty from the start, and though no one seems to have liked him — and his brother Douglas was actively afraid of him — no one turned him in, either.
When Bob’s nephew tried to get some questions answered within his own family, he had to undergo the equivalent of settlement negotiations. Ultimately he was allowed to approach his Uncle Douglas with three questions and no follow-ups.
Q: What are your memories of Aunt Kathie?
A: My memories are my memories.
Q: Did you see the movie All Good Things, and do you know they’re making a documentary?
Q: Do you think the Westchester DA will reopen the case?
A: I have no knowledge of the Westchester DA’s office.
Jarecki tries to track down Douglas and speak with him about the documentary and is stonewalled as well. When he calls, a spokesman tells Jarecki that “Douglas has no interest in speaking with you.”
Finally Jarecki goes to a dinner in Douglas’s honor, where a speaker declares, “Douglas Durst is the patriarch of the Dursts. The Dursts are a symbol, nationally, of family values, accomplishment, and success.” Really! As Jarecki sums it up later, “It’s as if Doug has become the oldest son of the Durst family. It must be very strange for Bob to not exist.”
After the dinner, Jarecki manages to shake Douglas’s hand and get two minutes of face time, during which he makes his case: This film is getting made, Douglas is a character, and Jarecki would very much appreciate getting Douglas on tape. Douglas is not thrilled but does not immediately instruct Smithers to release the hounds.
Douglas continues to send security minions to follow Jarecki, Bob, and the crew as they walk around Manhattan. They wind up at Douglas’s Manhattan townhouse. “I want you to photograph me in front of Douglas’s house,” says Bob, “now that I know it’s Douglas’s house.” One almost expects him to unzip his pants and piss on the fence, the way Frank Underwood paid homage to his father’s gravestone in the season-three premiere of House of Cards.
He doesn’t. Perhaps he is merely remembering back to the time when, while on the lam, he drove to Douglas’s Westchester house with two guns in the car.
No wonder these brothers do not get along. But if Douglas is really scared of Bob, why close ranks? Why not help put him behind bars?
2. The family hired a PI back in 1982, who discovered some unsettling facts about Kathie’s disappearance.
Bob insists that his criminal defense attorney, a man he hired during the initial investigation, “was my lawyer, but he was supposed to find Kathie Durst. If he could find Kathie Durst, there’d be no accusations.” The lawyer brought in a private eye. His report from 1982 was confidential. The filmmakers manage to get a copy anyway. The music at this point goes from ominous to downright creepy.
The report highlights what it calls “discrepancies,” such as the fact that Bob changed his story regarding the place from which he called Kathie. In one version, he called her from the South Salem house; in another, he called from a restaurant. Later still, he said he called from a pay phone while walking the dog. Similarly, the PI uncovers that Kathie’s doorman — the sole witness who supposedly placed Kathie in Manhattan — never said he saw Kathie enter the building.
Shortly after this report, the PI and the Dursts agree to go their separate ways. The PI refuses to say more now; one could conclude he has been paid well for his silence. And, naturally, the Durst family never offered to share any of the information gathered by the investigator.
That’s okay, though, because if this show is any indication, the police wouldn’t have done anything useful with the material anyway.
3. According to evidence discovered by the filmmakers afterabout five minutes of looking, which the LAPD never found, it seems pretty clear that Bob was involved in the murder of Susan Berman, who once wrote for New York magazine.
When Bob suspected that the Westchester DA’s office was going to reopen the case, in 2000, he bought a $77,000 engagement ring and proposed to his girlfriend, Debrah Lee Charatan. Once she accepted, he gave her power of attorney. “A lot of people believe Debbie knows Bob’s secrets, whatever they may be,” someone muses. Because of spousal privilege, however, Debrah cannot be compelled to testify against him.
Then Bob disappeared for a while. Even though Debrah and Bob were newlyweds that Christmas, when Susan Berman was killed, Debrah claims she doesn’t know where he was. Spoiler alert: He was in California.
“I’ve never been able to put Bobby in Los Angeles at the time of the murder,” says one detective. “I could put him in California.”
“California is a big state,” says Bob with a smirk. He wipes his mouth and the smirk is gone.
Seriously, where is Veronica Mars when you need her? She could have closed this case years ago.
Bob went out to Northern California “sometime close” to Susan’s murder. He got his car out of the long-term parking lot on December 19. Next, the police traced him via calls made on pay phones to a town 80-90 miles south, toward L.A. His phone was turned off, and he remained off the map for a few days, until he reappeared in San Francisco on the 23rd to fly back to the East Coast. Susan’s body was discovered the next day.
Among Susan’s belongings is a letter to her from Bob from the previous March. The distinctive, blocky handwriting looks identical to that of “cadaver note” received by the Beverly Hills Police Department directly after Susan’s murder; and, more, “Beverley” is misspelled in the same way it is misspelled in that letter. It seems very clear that Bob is the one who alerted the police to Susan’s murder, and reasonably clear that he is guilty of the crime.
The filmmakers decide to confront Bob, to get his immediate reaction to this “hugely important piece of evidence” on camera, rather than go straight to the cops. That’s their plan for the next and final episode of this series.
Read both a 1977 Susan Berman-penned feature on Bess Myerson and a 2001 piece about the killing of Susan Berman from the New York magazine archives.