Just before Christmas 2000, Susan Berman, a screenwriter and author, was found murdered in the spare room in the Beverly Hills community of Benedict Canyon, the victim of a single gunshot wound to her head.
At the time of her murder, Susan, the daughter of Davie Berman, a Mafia figure with "Bugsy" Siegel and co-owner of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in the 1950s, had been working on a screenplay for Showtime's sitcom "Sin City." After lots of highs and lows, she was back on her game and getting writing gigs again. But the high point was cut short on a cold December night.
Breaking down the details and evidence surrounding Susan’s death has been a 12-year odyssey for me. It started not long after her death, when I landed a book deal and began interviewing friends, relatives, investigators, poring through police documents, death records and autopsy reports, and traveling to the scene of the crime as well as to San Francisco and New York City, where Susan once lived, and visiting her childhood English Tudor home in downtown Las Vegas.
It culminated in the book Murder of a Mafia Daughter in 2002. More than a decade later, an expanded, updated version, Murder in Beverly Hills: The Mob-Style Execution of Susan Berman, Her Crime Boss Father, and the Deadly Secret She Took to Her Grave, was just released, on Black Friday.
Someone once said the devil is in the details. In the case of Susan Berman’s murder, there are plenty of details and no direct evidence, at least none that police have made public. There is, however, an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence. The devil is, indeed, in those details.
In crime investigations, three things are paramount to solving crimes and holding the perpetrators responsible: opportunity, motive and evidence. Those three elements, according to police, were there for Susan's best friend Robert Durst. While Durst has not been charged in connected with Susan's death, he has been named a person of interest in the investigation. This time, a new piece of circumstantial evidence may be just what police have been looking for.
One of Susan’s friends not long after her murder said Susan would have “taken a bullet for Bobby.”
The latest information in the case, according to the LAPD and sources in northern California, Robert Durst, a lifelong friend Susan met during her college years at the University of California, Los Angeles, is being looked at once again as a person of interest. The looming question is did Susan end up taking a bullet for Durst?
Here are the facts, as they are included in the latest edition of my book and are based on interviews with detectives close to the investigation: According to receipts from Eureka, California police detectives obtained during a search warrant of Durst’s bank records, they place Durst in Los Angeles at the time of Susan's murder. Susan was believed to have been killed after 9 p.m. on December 22, based upon the last time she was seen and on eyewitness accounts of when her dogs began running lose in the neighborhood.
Also, Durst’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, confirmed with me in an interview that Durst was on a plane from San Francisco to New York City the day Susan’s body was found -- about a day and a half after she was killed -- leaving plenty of time for Durst to travel the 375 miles by car back to San Francisco from Susan’s house. The other thing is Susan told her cousin, Davy Berman, that Durst was planning to visit her around the holidays and drive her to San Francisco for a holiday.
What detectives surmised is that Susan knew her intruder. There was no sign of a forced entry into her house, and, her friends said, she was paranoid about opening her door to strangers. Nothing was taken from her house or disturbed, indicating that it was not a burglary-gone-wrong. Whoever it was, Susan trusted the person enough to turn her back as she walked into her spare room.
Breaking down the case, opportunity to commit the crime and circumstantial evidence have been shown. The one thing left is motive.
Not long before Susan’s death, in late 2000, New York investigators released to the media that they were reopening the two-decade-old unsolved missing person case of Kathleen Durst, Robert’s wife, who disappeared in 1982 after she attended a dinner party with friends. Included in a police release exclusive to New York magazine -- information later picked up and reported by other news outlets as well -- was that investigators were planning to re-interview Berman about Kathie Durst's disappearance and what Susan might have known. Specifically, Berman has long been believed to be the person who telephoned Kathie’s medical college in Manhattan, calling in sick for her, in an attempt to make it appear Kathie had disappeared from Manhattan and not from the home in South Salem she shared with Durst. Also, Susan Berman had fielded questions for Durst from the press, serving as Durst’s public relations person and shielding her best friend from the media.
Did advance notice of the reopening of the case and the leaking of news that police were about to interview Susan spook Durst? Former Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro said at the time that the scenario was worth looking into. “The timing of Susan Berman’s death is extremely curious,” Pirro told me in a phone interview after Susan’s murder.
In the months before Susan's death, she had been unable to reach Durst. Unbeknownst to Susan, Durst had fled New York not long after reports of the reopened investigation hit newspapers. Durst had been living in disguise as a mute woman in a seedy apartment in Galveston, Texas.
It was there that Durst admittedly fatally shot his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, chopped up his body, bagged it and dumped it in Galveston Bay. Once the body parts surfaced and police went to the apartment building, they discovered Durst's apartment and blood evidence left behind from shooting and then chopping up Morris Black's body. Durst was eventually arrested, charged and prosecuted for Black's murder. Durst pleaded self-defense, and was acquitted. He did, however, have to serve three years in prison for jumping bond and was released in 2008.
Robert Durst has denied, through his attorney, any knowledge or involvement in Susan Berman's death. He has also denied any involvement in his wife's disappearance. Both cases remain officially unsolved.