‘The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst’

The poster for The Jinx.

I’m seven years later, albeit I do recall the hype around it, but I finally watched HBO’s 2015 documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, mostly in one binge yesterday (it is only six relatively short episodes).

Being as I’m not from New York City, and I’m not into real estate, I wasn’t aware of the Durst family and how for basically a century, they’ve been one of the top five richest real estate families in NYC, including up to the present, as they received the contract to build the Freedom Tower. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, the patriarch of the Durst family was Seymour Durst (today I learned he created the National Debt Clock) and the oldest son, apparent heir to the dynasty, was Robert “Bob” Durst.

In 1982, Robert’s wife, Kathleen “Kathie” Durst, went “missing” after being with Robert at their Westchester County, New York home, and the case was never solved. Just before Christmas 2000, Robert’s best friend, Susan Berman (who was also the daughter of mobster David Berman), was murdered in her Beverly Hills, California home. Then, on September 28th, 2001, Robert, who at that point had went to Galveston, Texas to escape public scrutiny over the case of Kathie’s disappearance being reopened, shot and killed his neighbor, Morris Black, in what he claimed was an act of self-defense. He also acknowledged in open court while on trial that he dismembered the body because he didn’t believe the police would believe his version of events. He was acquitted by a jury of the latter.

Then, rewinding backward to the 1950s, when Robert was just seven-years-old, his mother seemingly ended her life by jumping off the roof of their home, even though the family made it seem like it was an “accident.” It was also the 1950s, and if suicide is stigmatized today (and it is), it was absolutely stigmatized then. In a weird scene, as Robert describes it, his father actually had him wave to his mother while she was on the roof in her nightgown.

Fast-forwarding a few decades later to 1992, instead of being bequeathed the family dynasty, Robert’s younger brother, Douglas, became the president of the Durst Organization.

The events I’ve described became the fictionalized 2010 film, All Good Things, directed by Andrew Jarecki. Jarecki is mostly known for documentaries, two of which I have great respect for, 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans and 2010’s (mind-blowing!) Catfish. After the release of the 2010 film, Robert Durst, who basically hadn’t talked to media for nearly a decade after his acquittal, contacted Jarecki to sit down with him for an interview to tell his version of events. That becomes the documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. What is amusing about this is a.) Durst tells Jarecki he “isn’t interested in doing the true crime sort of stuff,” which laugh-out-loud; and b.) his lawyers (smartly) advised him against doing the interview, fearful he might say something inadvertent to incriminate himself, which again, laugh-out-loud. Always listen to your lawyer! Don’t be a bad, dumb client!

Anyhow, to recap, we have a disappearance, but which is suspected to be a murder in Westchester County, New York in 1982; a murder in Beverly Hills in 2000; and a murder and dismemberment in Galveston, Texas in 2001; and the throughline of all of these is Robert Durst, a many times over multimillionaire from a well-known New York City real estate family.

That is wild. Not that rich, “successful” people can’t commit murders or otherwise engage in violent crime, but the particular details here are rather incredible, especially how geographical disparate it is across three decades.

Since I binged most of the episodes in one day, I might forget which elements appeared in which episodes, so excuse me for that, but in the first episode, “Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay,” we learn about how weird things had gotten for Robert Durst. Like I said, he fled New York City to Galveston, worried about the renewed interest in Kathie’s disappearance — someone can correct me if I missed it, but the documentary never explains the direct reason why the case was reopened; we only are told that a Connecticut man was arrested for exposing his penis in Westchester County, and later told prosecutors (in a bid for leniency) that he had information about Kathie’s disappearance. Who is he, though, and why would he? Also, what was the information he gave them? — and in a bid to truly disappear, he was renting out a dingy apartment that adjoined an apartment with the aforementioned Morris Black. Again, this is, despite not being the new patriarch of the Durst Organization, a multimillionaire. More weird than that, however, is that he felt he wanted to make sure nobody recognized him as Robert Durst, so he bought a wig, disguised himself as a woman (which the landlord in an odd moment at court, when asked to describe the woman, said she was flat-chested and not his type), and was going by the name Dorothy Ciner. Ciner was one of many aliases he was using, apparently, and this one came from a high school acquaintance from his high school days.

We also learn about the discovery of the dumped bags containing various body parts except a head, the bow saw in his vehicle, blood and bone saw scratch marks on his floor, his arrest, him posting bond with the help of his new wife (and her motive seemed all about getting Robert Durst’s fortune), fleeing instead of arriving at his court appearance, and then being arrested in Pennsylvania after trying to steal a chicken salad sandwich. He had $37,000 in cash in his vehicle, and yet, tried to steal a sandwich. It makes no sense. As one detective said, it was as if he wanted to be caught. I think it was the same detective who also said, “He’s not crazy, he’s diabolical.” Perhaps.

For the record, I have to interject at this point that Robert Durst has a very distinctive voice. I think of it as Gilbert Gottfriedesque, but more gravelly. Am I crazy?!

I digress. This seems like, as detectives told Kathie’s brother, a “slam dunk” case for prosecutors, right? He clearly killed Morris Black, dismembered his body — and made a particular effort to ensue the head of Morris Black was never discovered, and I’m surprised Jarecki never asked him, “What did you do with the head?” — and when he was bonded out of jail, he fled. These are not the actions of someone who killed Morris Black in self-defense or in a struggle that led to an accidental shooting, as his defense claimed at trial.

But. The prosecutors took a “slam dunk” case and somehow air balled. Their biggest mistake, in my humble opinion as a legal layman, is that they only charged Durst with murder. That makes zero sense. You have clear evidence he dismembered the body and dumped it in a nearby body of water. I don’t know what the criminal statues are called in Texas, but why wouldn’t you charge him with gross abuse of a corpse and/or destruction of evidence? Or with interfering with a criminal investigation? Because at trial, both sides made it all about the dismemberment. That is, the prosecution, without the head, couldn’t prove it wasn’t self-defense and/or an accident, so they focused on the dismemberment. And the defense, since they knew the prosecution couldn’t prove it wasn’t self-defense and/or an accident, focused on hammering home that the focus for the jury shouldn’t be the dismemberment. Robert Durst wasn’t indicted and on trial for what he did to the body. Ignore that. The jury did, rightly to be honest. And Robert Durst was acquitted.

I can get frustrated with the jury — and I was frustrated with the one female juror who was in the documentary talking about how she thought Durst, who took the stand in his own defense, spoke from the heart; that is the kind of stuff I don’t like to hear factored into a juror’s deliberations in a criminal trial — but at the end of the day, the burden was on the State of Texas to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Robert Durst murdered Morris Black and they couldn’t and didn’t. So, they lost, and Robert was freed.

That still leaves the matter, however, of his wife, Kathie’s, disappearance, and his best friend, Susan’s, murder. Leading the charge on the former, in what feels so weird to me because it occurred prior to Donald Trump entering the race to be the presidential nomination for the Republican Party ticket in 2016, is that Jeanine Pirro in 2000, as Westchester County district attorney, was leading the reopened investigation into Kathie’s disappearance. In fact, at the Morris Black trial, she became one of the principle focuses of the defense to garner sympathy for Robert Durst. That because of her “vendetta” against Robert Durst, he had to flee New York City to Galveston. Somehow, this bid for sympathy worked with the aforementioned female juror.

And, if you’re not in the know, the reason I say it feels weird to me to see Pirro back then and sometime in 2011-ish being interviewed for the documentary, and being rather normal, as far as that goes for a prosecutor/judge type, is that nowadays, she’s all-in on Trump and his election lies. It made me think, what happened to her? Or maybe she was always a cuckoo bird.

Much of the trial details I described above come from the episode, “Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst.” I have to note, I’m typically sympathetic to defense attorneys (they’re usually my heroes!), but I thought Robert Durst’s attorneys, while clever, were slimy to the bone, not just then, but in retelling their defense during interviews for the documentary.

With, “Chapter 2: Poor Little Rich Boy”, the documentary goes over the aforementioned suicide of Robert Durst’s mother, and then his relationship with Kathie. In what is surely psychotic behavior, Robert Durst talks about this time with Kathie in third person, and talks about how aggravating it was to meet her family, the “average American family.” We come to learn a number of things about their relationship, primary among them being a.) Robert Durst was a controlling monster, who physically and emotionally abused her, and he made her get an abortion because he didn’t want children (that is where “Jinx” for the documentary title comes from because Robert thinks he would be a jinx on any children he fathered); and b.) she sought divorce and a settlement from him only days before her disappearance, which to me screams “triggering event.”

We also learn, along with the help of the third episode, “Chapter 3: The Gangster’s Daughter,” that Robert Durst’s timeline of events leading to Kathie’s disappearance was bogus, and that he likely had the help of Susan Berman to fabricate his information. She was the one who called Kathie’s medical school to say she was sick and couldn’t come in; and she was the one who likely planted the information about the doorman to their New York City building seeing Kathie coming into the building. Her motivation for doing this, according to her friends interviewed for the documentary, was that she was a loyal friend. Well, you can be a loyal friend without aiding and abetting the cover-up of a murder. I have no sympathy for Susan in that regard. She obviously didn’t deserve to be murdered in cold blood, however.

Robert Durst also admitted to lying about going to his neighbor’s after dropping her off at the train, and lied about calling her at a payphone while walking his dog.

Push that all aside for the moment, though. I still think the Kathie disappearance and likely murder in 1982 could have been solved, if not for two elements:

  • I am absolutely convinced that the Durst Organization helped to cover up the murder of Kathie Durst, from Seymour Durst through to Douglas Durst. At the time, the Durst men took no interest in their sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, etc., “missing.” And as Robert Durst’s nephew explains in the documentary, even after 30 years, the Durst family still won’t talk about the situation in anything approach great detail. Those are red flags to me. So, their obviously powerful influence made it difficult to achieve justice.
  • Michael Struk, who actually agreed to be interviewed for the documentary about his incompetence (although he obviously wouldn’t agree with my labeling it as such), was the New York City police detective at the time; he was atrocious. Naturally, all these years later, he still defended the way he “investigated” her disappearance. To him, Robert and Kathie were having a marital spat and she just fled him. So, what is there to look into? Of course, even if that theory of the case was true, why wouldn’t Kathie ever link back up with her family, a family concerned about her? Kathie’s friends, who are awesome and also interviewed for the documentary, did more shoe-leather detective work than Struk ever did. Struk failed Kathie and I wish police were more open about their mistakes.

Another character of note for me is Sarah Berman’s son, Sareb Kaufman. He almost redeemed himself at the end of the documentary, but you can’t ignore the fact that he ignored the suspicion around Robert Durst being his mother’s killer because Robert Durst was rich. He acknowledges that Robert Durst paid his college tuition. That is gross on every level to me. The way he almost redeemed himself is that he found a letter Robert had written to Susan. Let me back up, though. After Susan’s murder, someone mailed a letter to the police that spelled Beverly Hills as “Beverley,” mentioned that police would find a “cadaver,” and the style of writing was in blocky letters. In other words, police theorized that only someone who cared about Susan would have gone to the effort of ensuring her body was discovered at her home, i.e., someone like her best friend Robert Durst.

The letter that Kaufman found also included the misspelling “Beverley” and in the estimation of many, the handwriting seemed eerily similar to the cadaver letter. That changes Sareb’s entire thinking about Robert Durst and even changes Jarecki’s thinking. Much of the final episode, “Chapter 6: What the Hell Did I Do?” is Jarecki trying to get Robert Durst to sit down for another interview so he can confront him with the handwriting comparison.

I have to be the party pooper here and note for posterity: Handwriting analysis, even by the dude in the documentary with the fancy title of forensic document examiner, is bupkis. It’s junk science. There is no science to comparing handwriting. Yes, we all can sit here and eyeball it and think it is similar, but that doesn’t make it science. But two things specifically I want to note about our forensic document examiner: a.) He’s already biased by Jarecki because Jarecki is presenting it as Robert Durst likely having written both, whereas something actually approaching science would have been a blind test; and b.) This fancy forensic guy, with all due respect, tells Jarecki after doing his nonsense science, “I would say they’re pretty bang on!” That made me laugh-out-loud, but I digress.

Robert Durst does end up coming to Jarecki for one more interview and does get confronted with the handwriting of his letter to Susan and the handwriting of the cadaver note. He denies he wrote the latter. Then, when they’re seemingly done and Robert Durst has to use the bathroom, in a moment I knew was coming because of the hype of it I saw on Twitter at the time, although I didn’t know exactly what he said, Robert Durst is mumbling to himself while still on a hot mic. In other words, the very thing his lawyers warned about and something that had already happened in a prior interview and his lawyers noted to him. Stupid clients are going to do stupid things and end up in prison, though.

Robert Durst.

He mumbles to himself: “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. burping He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. burping again I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? burping again Killed them all, of course.”

The day before this finale aired on March 15th, 2015, Robert Durst was charged with first-degree murder in Susan Berman’s death. After a slew of delays, including because of Hurricane Harvey and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the jury convicted Durst of first-degree murder on September 17th, 2021. The following month he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He died on January 10th of this year at the age of 78.

Apparently, as it came out at trial, Jarecki and the other filmmakers for the documentary edited Robert Durst’s mumblings for, I suppose, dramatic effect. The actual order his mumblings were:

“[Unintelligible] I don’t know what you expected to get. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. Killed them all, of course. [Unintelligible] I want to do something new. There’s nothing new about that. [Inaudible – possibly “disaster.”] He was right. I was wrong. The burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do?”

Jarecki is a filmmaker, so I don’t expect him to be an ethical journalist, but still, I don’t see why they felt the need to rearrange the order for dramatic effect.

And not that I’m sympathetic to Robert Durst, but I was actually … underwhelmed by the big hot mic reveal. I mean, it is extraordinary in a way, but also, it just seemed like the confused mumblings of an old man. In any event, I do believe, as far as that goes, that Robert Durst killed Kathie, Susan, and Morris Black (it wasn’t self-defense or an accident, that is).

Overall, I thought The Jinx was a worthwhile, fascinating documentary because it is such a fascinating subject and the subject himself, Robert Durst, inexplicably sat down with the filmmakers. I do think, while still interesting, even if I thought the handwriting stuff is junk science, the final two episodes felt like filler — that the filmmakers sort of ran out of material — and I mostly think that because it had too much focus on Jarecki and the other filmmakers in how they were conceiving the process in real time to talk to Robert Durst.

But, contrary to Robert Durst’s aversion to that “true crime stuff,” this is essential true crime viewing for the true crime obsessed. If you’ve already seen it, what did you think?

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