Robert Durst, a real estate heir, was suspected of three murders and became a fugitive until he was caught in 2001 and confessed to killing his neighbor Morris Black in Galveston, Texas, claiming self-defense. A jury agreed and found him not guilty. A Los Angeles jury last September, however, found Durst guilty in the fatal shooting of his longtime confidant and mob daughter Susan Berman. He was sentenced to life in prison. Then prosecutors in Westchester, N.Y., charged Durst with murder in the disappearance 40 years earlier of his wife Kathie. Durst, 78, worth $100 million, died of cancer this January while in a California prison medical facility.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, four women journalists stand out who covered Durst and his serial killings, namely magazine writer Lisa DePaulo, freelance writer Vanessa Leggett, national broadcast journalist Pat LaLama, and TV 12 investigative reporter Tara Rosenblum. Here are their answers.
Question: When did you become aware of the cases involving Durst?
Lisa DePaulo: I had never even heard of Robert Durst, though I lived in NYC when my editors at New York Magazine called me in early January 2001 to say that Susan Berman had been murdered and could I hop the next plane to LA? Susan was a writer for NY Magazine but she was a bit before my time so I never met her. As the case evolved over the next two decades, I learned more and more about “Bobby,” as Susan called him. She always said, “Bobby, Bobby, wonderful Bobby.” I never met him, but I really wanted to.
Vanessa Leggett: The first I heard of Robert Durst when I was incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center in Houston—the same jail Durst would eventually be in. It was my 135th day in custody for protecting sources on a murder-for-hire case which I was writing a book about. I was in the rec room reading a newspaper and ran across an article about him being arrested in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a sandwich. The facts were jaw dropping.
Pat LaLama: I began my own long journalistic journey with this story when Susan Berman was murdered in 2000. My husband Anthony Brooklier, a criminal defense attorney, and I had many discussions about the case because his father Dominic was "Il Capo" for a time in the Mafia. We spoke often about the consequences of being the child of a mobster. We wondered if that connection spelled doom for Susan. We know now that she was an inconvenient witness in Durst's twisted life.
Tara Rosenblum: My team and I have been covering Durst on and off for about two decades. In the past year, I covered the case weekly. It was the main story I focused on for most of 2021.
Question: Did you ever feel your life was in danger of being targeted by Durst because you were writing about him?
Lisa DePaulo: Friends were worried. I wasn’t. Once, I think around 2015, there was a thing on “Page Six” about Durst seen on the streets of Long Island City near the apartment building where I lived at the time. So many friends said, ‘Are you okay? Stay inside.’ But my gut feeling was, Let me run into him. I have questions to ask.
Vanessa Leggett: I did worry about turning down Durst’s request to meet for lunch. He’d spent weeks trying to set up a meeting with me, messaged me on LinkedIn, asked for my phone number—which I never provided—and tracked me down at work, leaving a message for me during a criminal justice class I was teaching at the University of Houston. I was lecturing on deception detection, ironically a class where I used excerpts from The Jinx. I knew I’d have to meet with him to get him to leave me alone and couldn’t avoid him indefinitely. We lived in the same neighborhood and frequented the same Starbucks. I didn’t want to tick off Bob Durst. So, I agreed to meet him, knowing I would never work with him on a story.
Pat LaLama: I believe Robert Durst fancied himself a master of manipulation and intimidation.He glared at several of us in the courtroom during the trial. One day he locked eyes with me as I sat in the second row. I wouldn't call it disarming. I've interviewed serial killers, face to face, on death row. Surreal might be the word that describes the moment I stared back at Durst. I told myself not to be the first to look away. And I wasn't. After about 20 seconds, he spun his chair back around to face the front of the court. He did not scare me.
Tara Rosenblum: I have been at this for a long time and have covered several high-profile criminal cases involving alleged sociopaths. This risk is just inherently part of my job. I did find it highly unusual and telling when Durst's brother showed up to the courthouse in Los Angeles with his own private security detail and stated on the stand that he remained fearful for his life. I think that caused everyone to pause for a moment for those connected to this case.
Question: Did you hold out hope that Durst would eventually be held accountable for his actions?
Lisa DePaulo: Absolutely. I also held out hope that he would tell where Kathie’s remains were before he died. I thought maybe, maybe he would do the right thing at the end. I was actually being interviewed about him when the news broke that he died. My first reaction was, “Darn. We’re never going to know what he did with Kathie.”
Vanessa Leggett: After the shocking acquittal in Galveston, I assumed Durst would never be brought to justice. In my opinion, he wasn’t. There was supposed to be justice for Kathie. The only reason Susan Berman and Morris Black had to die was because they could tie Durst to Kathie's disappearance. It makes me sad for the McCormack family that there was no justice for Kathie. The McCormacks waited 40 years for Durst to be convicted, but Kathie was just a footnote at the trial for Susan Berman's murder. I wouldn't call that justice.
Pat LaLama: I can't honestly say that I ever hold out hope that anyone is held accountable. Perhaps when I was a correspondent with the original “America's Most Wanted with John Walsh” I may have felt that way. The reporter's role involved an aspect of advocacy, in that we wanted to help police get the bad guy. But in straight journalism, my only role is to research and tell the story as accurately as possible.
Tara Rosenblum: I have always held out hope above all else that the McCormack family would get some sort of resolution or closure. Kathie's family has suffered unimaginable pain for four decades, and I felt they deserved answers and the chance to hold a proper burial. In the end, he died before the case could make its way to trial in Westchester County. That felt unfair.
Question: Do you consider the Durst murder cases to be one of the most important stories you have written over the span of your career?
Lisa DePaulo: Yes, but there were other murder cases that haunted me more. One was a woman in New Jersey who was stabbed to death on her kitchen floor around Christmas time, with the tree twinkling next to her and her kids’ cereal bowls on the table. I have no doubt who did it, but he was never charged. This was a good 25 years ago, but I think of Janice Bell all the time. I think all of us who cover crime consider every case the most important.
Vanessa Leggett: My meeting with Bob Durst was one of the strangest in my career, and I've interviewed more than a few, including a mass murderer, who didn't seem to blink an eye at taking the lives of women close to them. Even though Durst was my briefest encounter, it was certainly one of the most memorable. I think it's probably that way with anyone who ever sat down with Durst. I'm just glad I was able to walk away.
Pat LaLama: I most definitely believe the Durst case is one of the most fascinating cases I've ever covered. But not the most important. I've covered mass shootings, riots, natural disasters, missing and abused children, sex trafficking, the opioid and fentanyl scourge, and domestic violence. These issues are important. But the Robert Durst saga on its own? Purely sensational and unforgettable.
Tara Rosenblum: Durst was not the most important assignment, but it was the most sensational, bizarre, and fascinating one. I know I will never cover another case like it in my career. I never lost sight of the fact that there were multiple families separated from justice and engulfed in grief.
Scott, Cathy (2022). Murder of a Mafia Daughter 20th Anniversary Edition.