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Robert Durst Murder Case Featured In HBO Documentary Goes To Trial

A few days before Christmas in 2000, Beverly Hills police received an unsigned note in the mail with the word "CADAVER" written in block letters on one side.

On the other was an address, the home of Susan Berman where police found the body of the 55-year-old friend, confidante and former employee of Robert Durst, the eccentric heir to a massive real estate fortune. Berman had been shot at point-blank range in the back of the head.

The case went cold, but investigators had at least one clue — the anonymous tipoff letter; they believed the writer was key to solving the mystery of Berman's killing.

On Wednesday, prosecutor in Los Angeles will begin presenting evidence to prove that Durst killed Berman to cover up an earlier killing.

Durst was the subject of a 2015 HBO documentary series, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. During the filming, the millionaire appeared unable to distinguish his own handwriting from that on the mysterious note. He even had the same habit of misspelling Beverly as "Beverley."

In the final episode of the HBO series, Durst compared the incriminating piece of paper with a letter he had sent Berman a year earlier. The writing appeared identical, but he insisted he was not the author of the note. "Only the killer could have written" it, he explained.

The scene was captured on camera, but it is what happened next that prosecutors think is the most incriminating evidence tying Durst to Berman's death and two others.

At the end of the interview, Durst wandered into a restroom where he was off camera but still wired to a microphone. As he washed and dried his hands, Durst could be heard muttering and burping.

"You're caught!"

"What a disaster."

"What the hell did I do?"

"Killed them all, of course."

The FBI arrested Durst in New Orleans on the eve of the airing of the bombshell finale episode in The Jinx series. Since then, Durst has maintained his innocence and adamantly denied that he wrote the letter to law enforcement, even going so far as to tell the district attorney's office that he was "high on meth" throughout the filming of the documentary.

Then, in an unexpected twist in December, Durst's lawyers acknowledged he was behind the note but said, "This does not change the facts that Bob Durst didn't kill Susan Berman and he doesn't know who did."

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office doesn't buy that. After nearly 20 years, Durst is on trial, charged with one count of murder.

On Wednesday, prosecutors will start trying to convince a jury that Durst killed Berman to stop her from speaking to law enforcement in New York, where officials had reopened the case of Kathleen McCormack Durst's disappearance. She was Durst's first wife and had vanished in 1982, shortly after the two had discussed divorcing. Her body has never been found.

Prosecutors allege in court documents that Durst enlisted Berman in helping to cover up his wife's death and that it "became [the] defendant's motive for eventually killing Susan as well."

Although Durst, now 76, has never been charged with his wife's disappearance, this is not the first time he has been on trial on murder charges.

Following new questions about his wife's disappearance, the millionaire moved into a $300-a-month apartment in Galveston, Texas, and assumed the identity of mute woman.

In 2003, Durst was accused of killing Morris Black, a 71-year-old neighbor. He told jurors that he had shot Black in the head then dismembered and dumped his body into Galveston Bay after the elderly man waved a gun at him.

Durst's defense team argued that their panicked client shot Black in self-defense and then cleaned up the scene, assuming no one would believe his version of events.

Prosecutors contended that Durst killed Black after the older man discovered Durst's true identity: son of wealthy New York real estate family — once the presumptive heir of a massive fortune — whose name was splattered across tabloid headlines and was suspected in the disappearance of his first wife.

Durst was acquitted.

During jury questioning in the latest case, Judge Mark Windham promised jurors they're in for an extraordinary legal experience.

"This is a fascinating case," Windham said during jury selection last month. "If you're going to have one trial where you're going to be a juror, this is the trial."

"You're never going to have an experience like this," he added.

After a seven-year investigation, the district attorney's office has amassed more than 2,000 exhibits and identified more than 100 witnesses whom prosecutors plan to call to testify.

The trial is expected to last up to five months.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.