Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Durst: Millionaire Murderer


Robert Durst mugshot
Robert Durst mugshot

In the end, accused millionaire murderer Robert Durst was done in by a chicken salad sandwich on pumpernickel. On October 9, 2001, with more than $500 in his pocket, he decided to steal a sandwich, a newspaper and a Band-Aid from a supermarket in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania. He was caught by security guards who called the police. A routine background check on Durst revealed that the odd-looking 58-year-old shoplifter was wanted for a mutilation murder in Texas, was a prime suspect in another murder in Los Angeles, and was also wanted for questioning in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife in New York.

When Durst was apprehended he was wearing a woman's brown wig and a false blond mustache. Underneath the wig, his head was shaved clean like his eyebrows. By all accounts Durst had always been something of an oddball, but a very rich oddball. He is one of the heirs to the Durst Organization, a New York real-estate empire that owns nine major properties in midtown Manhattan and is worth billions. The oldest of four siblings, Robert Durst was set for life, but in 1994 when his father chose his younger brother Douglas to run the business, Robert Durst quit in a huff. As Ned Zeman reported in Vanity Fair, Durst "walked out of the office and never returned." Durst apparently refused to be second fiddle to anyone.

Younger Robert Durst
Younger Robert Durst

Durst is five-foot, seven-inch, fit and trim. He exudes a quiet edginess and sometimes growls like a dog when crossed. He's a habitual marijuana smoker, and marijuana was found in his car when he was arrested. When he was younger, he would think nothing of hopping a plane to Europe or Asia on a lark, and he frequented New York City's infamous celebrity disco palace of the '70s, Studio 54, but Durst was hardly a shallow party boy. He loved to sculpt, and architecture was his passion. Friends and acquaintances have described him as an erratic and sometimes difficult personality, but his quirks never kept him from being with beautiful women. He knew Jackie Kennedy Onassis well, and for a time he dated Mia Farrow's younger sister Prudence. He also spent time with Beatle John Lennon during a period when they were both into primal scream therapy.

What brought him from the Manhattan high life to life on the run, hiding out in modest to run-down quarters all across the country, remains a mystery. While living in Texas, he wore women's clothing and posed as a mute woman named "Dorothy Ciner." In New Orleans, his cross-dressing alter ego was known as "Diane Winn." He was arrested for the murder and dismemberment of Morris Black, a cranky old man who lived across the hall from "Ms. Ciner" and her frequent visitor, Robert Durst. Released on $300,000 bail, Durst fled and proceeded to zigzag across the country until he was finally nabbed for shoplifting near his alma mater, Lehigh University, in eastern Pennsylvania.

Perhaps it was the habitual marijuana use that influenced his strange behavior. Or perhaps he was permanently traumatized by his mother's suicide, which he witnessed when he was seven (she jumped off the roof of the family home). Authorities from New York and Los Angeles are still trying to sort out the extent of his criminality. While he is not an official suspect in the disappearance and probable death of his first wife Kathleen, a number of her friends believe that he might have been responsible, just as he might be involved in the gangland-style murder of his best friend, author Susan Berman. One thing authorities know for sure is that he is responsible for the murder and beheading of Morris Black in Galveston because Durst confessed to that crime, claiming self-defense. What remains a puzzle, however, is his motive.

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