The Life And Crimes Of Robert Durst, The Multimillionaire Linked To Three Murders

Published April 17, 2024
Updated April 23, 2024

The oldest son of a New York City real estate magnate, Robert Durst became a suspect in three murder cases — but it took decades before he faced justice.

Robert Durst

HBORobert Durst avoided prison for decades — until HBO’s 2015 docuseries The Jinx helped lead to a murder conviction.

Robert Durst was supposed to live the American dream. Born into a real estate dynasty in New York City, Durst was used to getting his way in all aspects of his life: work, relationships, and even run-ins with the law.

Over the course of three decades, Durst was linked to three murders while on a quest for control: his first wife Kathleen McCormack, his friend Susan Berman, and his neighbor Morris Black. But despite all the evidence against him, the multimillionaire heir nearly got away with everything.

It wasn’t until 2015 — when an HBO docuseries reintroduced Durst’s suspected crimes to the world — that justice caught up with him.

Robert Durst’s Early Life In New York

Young Robert Durst

Scarsdale High SchoolRobert Durst’s yearbook photo from the early 1960s.

Robert Durst was born into a wealthy family in Manhattan on April 12, 1943. Seymour Durst was the family’s patriarch, and he ran the Durst Organization, a successful real estate company in New York City.

Seymour and his wife Bernice Durst welcomed four children: Robert, Douglas, Thomas, and Wendy. Robert was the eldest child, and he and his siblings grew up comfortably in Scarsdale, New York.

However, tragedy struck the family in 1950. According to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on November 8th, Bernice Durst reportedly climbed onto the roof of the family’s three-story home and jumped off. Doctors pronounced her dead upon arrival at the hospital. Robert Durst was only seven at the time and later claimed to have witnessed the traumatic event.

Robert Durst's Mother

HBORobert Durst’s mother, Bernice.

But decades later, after Robert Durst’s crimes were revealed, his brother Douglas Durst said that all four of the children had been staying with a neighbor at the time of Bernice’s death. Douglas believed that Robert was lying about witnessing the incident in an effort to garner sympathy.

Still, Robert Durst insisted that he felt detached from his father and the rest of his family after Bernice Durst died. And a 1953 psychiatric evaluation of then-10-year-old Robert revealed that he had a “personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia,” according to Vulture.

Despite his mental health issues, Durst went on to graduate high school and earn an economics degree from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania in 1965.

He tried to distance himself from his family by enrolling in a postgraduate program at UCLA, but he later dropped out and returned to New York.

While Durst reportedly had no interest in working for his father, he begrudgingly took a position as a developer in the family business — but put more effort into a health-food store that he opened in Vermont. Family tension aside, it seemed as though he was living a relatively normal life.

Robert Durst’s Tumultuous First Marriage — And The Chilling Disappearance Of His Wife

Kathleen McCormack

HBORobert Durst and his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, who mysteriously vanished in 1982.

In 1971, Robert Durst met Kathleen McCormack, a young dental hygienist who worked multiple part-time jobs in Manhattan and on Long Island. The couple dated for two years before getting married in 1973.

From the beginning, the pair had a turbulent marriage. According to Jim McCormack, Kathleen’s brother, Durst was often abusive toward her.

During a Christmas party at the McCormack home, Jim witnessed Robert’s violence firsthand. “He walked over to her, grabbed her by the top of her hair and yanked her. And she went with that pull. My grandmother’s eyes were as big as pizza pies. She grabbed her coat and she turns to me and says ‘It’s OK, Jimmy,'” Jim said in an interview with News 12.

Kathleen McCormack’s diary later revealed that Durst had forced her to get an abortion in 1976, throwing water on her as she left for the appointment.

Durst’s abusive behavior allegedly worsened as the years went on.

Robert Durst's First Wife

HBORobert Durst and Kathleen McCormack on their wedding day.

Then, on January 31, 1982, Kathleen McCormack made a surprising appearance at a friend’s party. While there, McCormack appeared agitated and even more concerned about her husband’s behavior than usual.

McCormack’s friend, Gilberte Najamy, noticed immediately and talked with her briefly before Durst called her on the phone and demanded that she return to the couple’s home in South Salem, New York. Ominously, McCormack reportedly told Najamy, “Promise me if something happens to me you’ll check it out. I’m afraid of what Bobby might do.”

After that, McCormack disappeared.

Durst told New York City police that he and his wife had a fight that night and decided she should stay at their Manhattan apartment. Then, Durst claimed that he dropped her off at a train bound for the city. Durst even said he had spoken with her by payphone after she arrived in Manhattan.

During the initial investigation, workers at the couple’s Manhattan apartment also claimed they’d seen McCormack at the building that same night. However, evidence later revealed they were likely mistaken. Strangely, the medical school that McCormack had been attending also reported that she’d called in absent, apparently after she had already disappeared. (It’s now believed that the call was actually made by one of Durst’s female friends.)

Police later uncovered that McCormack had asked for a $250,000 divorce settlement a few weeks before her disappearance, and Durst did not take it well. According to Vulture, Durst canceled her credit cards, removed her from their joint bank accounts, and stopped paying her tuition.

Despite this, authorities didn’t find any conclusive evidence that Durst was involved in his wife’s disappearance, and therefore didn’t arrest him.

In 1990, Durst filed for divorce on the grounds of “spousal abandonment.”

As for Jim McCormack, he had no doubt about what happened to his sister: “None, absolutely none. Bob Durst killed my sister in 1982.”

The Sudden Murder Of Robert Durst’s Close Friend Susan Berman

Susan Berman And Robert Durst

HBORobert Durst and Susan Berman, his friend who he was later convicted of killing.

As Robert Durst evaded suspicion for his likely involvement in Kathleen McCormack’s disappearance, his friend Susan Berman became his unofficial spokesperson, fiercely defending his reputation in the public eye.

Durst had known Berman for years, as he had met her while attempting postgraduate studies at UCLA. The daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, Berman had become a respected journalist and author, making her a powerful ally.

After McCormack vanished in 1982, it was Berman who carefully arranged Durst’s interviews with the press. She also handled numerous confrontations with McCormack’s furious family members and friends. And she may have even been the one to place the suspicious phone call to McCormack’s school, pretending to be her after she had already disappeared.

Then, about 18 years after McCormack’s disappearance, Berman was found fatally shot “execution-style” at her home in California on December 24, 2000. Investigators’ first theory was that the murder had been a mob hit. After all, her father was involved in the criminal underworld. The second theory was that her landlord, who wanted to evict her, was behind the crime. And the third theory was that her business manager had killed her.

But according to the Los Angeles Times, an unexpected letter soon arrived at the Beverly Hills police station, prompting investigators to develop a new theory. Postmarked a day before Berman’s body was found, the letter was addressed to “BEVERLEY HILLS POLICE” (with a misspelling for “Beverly” that Durst often used) and simply read “CADAVER” under Berman’s address.

Cadaver Note

Beverly Hills Police DepartmentA copy of the infamous “cadaver note,” which would later be linked to Robert Durst.

As it so happened, investigators had reached out to Berman about the unsolved McCormack case shortly before her death. The investigation had been reopened years after the case had gone cold, and some believe that Berman was finally ready to tell the authorities everything she knew.

That, plus the misspelling on the “cadaver note,” put Durst back in the spotlight. Durst denied writing the note or having anything to do with Berman’s death, but it was impossible to ignore the connection between Berman, Durst, and McCormack, especially since Durst was still in contact with Berman in the months leading up to her death.

Suspiciously, Durst had apparently given her $50,000 shortly before she was found dead. But as authorities began to piece together the puzzle, Durst used his wealth to disappear — until he found himself in trouble again.

The Brutal Death Of Morris Black

Morris Black

HBOMorris Black, the neighbor of Robert Durst found dismembered in Texas in 2001.

In the city of Galveston, Texas, an elderly man kept to himself in his apartment for years. Many considered Morris Black a loner, as he rarely left his apartment and was rarely seen socializing with other people.

It was a shock, then, when the 71-year-old’s dismembered remains were found floating in Galveston Bay in September 2001.

Luckily, Black’s remains were in good enough condition for the police to identify him, leaving investigators to wonder who would want to hurt him. He had few friends or relatives, and few connections in general, other than one of his neighbors, a harmless old woman known as Dorothy Ciner.

As it turned out, “Dorothy Ciner” was Robert Durst, who had assumed a new identity and adopted a disguise. (Shockingly, before going into hiding, he had also quietly gotten remarried to New York real estate broker Debrah Lee Charatan.) While in Texas, Durst sometimes went outside in full disguise, and other times, he’d wear men’s clothes, but his cover was completely blown after police discovered an eyeglass prescription for Robert Durst while investigating Black’s death and the two neighbors’ apartments.

Black’s blood was found in both units, with the spatter in Durst’s room indicating a gunshot wound. Police determined that Black had likely been shot in the head before his killer dismembered his body parts.

By October, Durst was arrested on a murder charge, but he didn’t stay in custody for long. He soon jumped bail and fled, going on the run for 45 days until he was located in Pennsylvania after being arrested for shoplifting. Damningly, a search of Durst’s rented car revealed Black’s driver’s license.

It may have seemed like an open-and-shut case, but Durst was able to successfully argue at his 2003 trial that he had only killed Durst in self-defense after Black had allegedly entered Durst’s apartment and threatened Durst with Durst’s own gun, leading to a fatal altercation. (Authorities now believe that Black may have become suspicious of Durst and may have even figured out his real identity and why he was in hiding.)

Unsurprisingly, Durst’s wealth and resources meant that he was able to hire some of the best lawyers in Texas, who helped him every step of the way with his trial. And in the end, the jury acquitted Durst.

How A Docuseries Cracked The Case Open

The Jinx

HBO Documentary Films/Hit The Ground Running Films/Blumhouse/Album/Alamy Stock PhotoThe 2015 HBO docuseries The Jinx was widely credited with leading to Robert Durst’s murder conviction.

In 2010, the film All Good Things, based on Robert Durst and his relationship with Kathleen McCormack, came out. The film apparently captured the real Robert Durst’s attention. He reached out to the movie’s director, Andrew Jarecki, and expressed his admiration for the narrative the film told.

The two eventually met up for a series of long interviews. These interviews would go on to form the basis of Jarecki’s docuseries The Jinx, which aired on HBO in 2015. (A sequel, The Jinx – Part Two, was released in 2024.)

The original 2015 series not only featured exclusive commentary by Durst, but also involved the filmmakers getting access to boxes of Durst’s records. And during the filming, striking new evidence emerged in the case.

One piece of evidence was a sample of Durst’s handwriting that matched the infamous “cadaver note,” with the exact same misspelling of “Beverley” Hills. Another piece of evidence was a confession from Durst that he had lied to authorities during the initial investigation of McCormack’s case.

Perhaps most damningly, he was caught on a hot mic saying this:

“There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong… What the hell did I do?… Killed them all, of course.”

Shortly before the final episode of The Jinx aired, 71-year-old Durst was arrested by FBI agents while he was hiding out at a hotel in New Orleans, possibly planning to escape to Cuba. But he wouldn’t get away this time, and he was soon charged with the murder of Susan Berman.

Robert Durst’s Conviction And Death

Robert Durst In Prison

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Wikimedia CommonsRobert Durst was ultimately convicted of murdering Susan Berman, but he died in prison soon thereafter.

Robert Durst’s trial for the murder of Susan Berman began on March 2, 2020. For months, both the COVID-19 pandemic and Durst’s medical problems caused delays with the trial, but the trial eventually resumed in June 2021.

The trial included 80 witnesses and 300 exhibits from the prosecution, according to The New York Times. Included among the witnesses was Durst’s own brother Douglas, the president of the Durst Organization.

On September 17, 2021, the jury found Robert Durst guilty of the murder of Susan Berman. The following month, Durst was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Shortly thereafter, he was charged with the murder of Kathleen McCormack, but he died before that trial could proceed.

Indeed, the 78-year-old Robert Durst was only months into his sentence when he died of cardiac arrest on January 10, 2022.

For Douglas Durst, it was bittersweet news. After all, the man was his brother, but Douglas no longer had to worry about the threat Robert posed to other people. He said in a statement: “Bob lived a sad, painful and tragic life. We hope his death brings some closure to those he hurt.”

For others — especially McCormack’s loved ones — the news was devastating. He would never be officially convicted of murdering McCormack.

An attorney for McCormack’s family, Robert Abrams, said in a statement after Durst’s death: “Kathie’s family hopes that her story will, at the very least, shine a light on the extent to which rich and powerful people are able to manipulate and control the criminal justice system. Robert Durst died having never been held accountable for Kathie’s murder.”

After reading about Robert Durst, go inside the story of the Long Island Serial Killer and his recent alleged capture. Then, learn about Joel Rifkin, the New York serial killer responsible for the deaths of up to 17 women.

Amber Morgan
Amber Morgan is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Morgan, Amber. "The Life And Crimes Of Robert Durst, The Multimillionaire Linked To Three Murders.", April 17, 2024, Accessed June 22, 2024.