Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Durst: Millionaire Murderer

Death of a Mob Princess

Thirteen days after Durst married for the second time, one of his closest friends was found murdered in her Los Angeles home. On Christmas Eve 2000, Susan Berman, 55, was discovered in her house facedown in a pool of her own blood, surrounded by bloody paw prints made by her cats. A single bullet had pierced her skull. Berman, a crime writer, had known Durst since college when they had both attended UCLA.

Given Berman's background and the cold-blooded nature of the crime, her murder was initially assumed to be a gangland hit. After all, she was the daughter of Davie Berman, partner of the legendary mobster Bugsy Siegel in the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and an associate of the infamous Jewish mob boss Meyer Lansky. Susan Berman had written two books about her experiences and observations as a Jewish Mafia princess, Lady Las Vegas and Easy Street, and she was in the process of putting together a television documentary series on Las Vegas for A&E. Some felt that she was about to reveal secrets that the mob wanted to keep buried, so they had her rubbed out.

But the police didn't put much stock in the gangland-slaying theory. What privileged information could Berman have had that she hadn't already revealed in her books? Also, the children of mobsters are relatively minor players in the underworld. What they have to say usually consists of kitchen-table memories, not exposés of the schemes and scams cooked up in the smoky backrooms where the real deals went down. Plenty of other mob children had published books and none of them had been executed for it, so why would the mob single out Susan Berman?

An effusive personality with a gift for telling stories, Berman was prone to falling into fits of depression. According to Ned Zeman, "she was famously phobic. She wouldn't cross bridges or ride elevators alone. She felt unsafe. She nailed closed her bedroom windows. She bolted her doors, even if you just stepped out for a smoke." Her list of eccentricities rivaled her good friend, Robert Durst's. She and Durst had been confidantes for many years, and they shared a unique bond — both of their mothers had committed suicide. Like a surrogate parent, Durst had given Berman away at her wedding.

Berman's paranoid behavior could have been caused in part by the continual frustrations of a career that never seemed to get off the ground. Her books sold poorly. The proposed movie that was going to be made of her book Easy Street fell through as did the Broadway musical she wrote based on the Dreyfus Affair. She was struggling financially as well as mentally, borrowing money from friends, promising to pay them back as soon as her life turned around. In 2000, her old car was breaking down, and she wrote to her friend Robert Durst, asking if she could borrow $7,000 to buy a used Isuzu. For months she waited for his reply, then out of the blue in November she received a check from him for $25,000. He told her it was a gift, not a loan.

The police in Los Angeles believe that Berman's killer was  someone she knew well. There was no sign of forced entry, and she had always been very careful about keeping her house locked, so she had probably invited her killer in. The fact that she was shot in the back of the head indicates that she had trusted her killer enough to turn her back on him. Someone as paranoid as Susan Berman would have only done that with a close friend.

Further investigation revealed that Berman had been contacted by the New York State Police near the time of her killing. She was scheduled to be interviewed by them regarding the 1982 disappearance of Kathleen Durst. Shortly before Berman's murder, New York magazine reported that she had told a friend she had information that was "going to blow the top off things." Strangely before she died, she had received a second check for $25,000 from Durst. Was this more good will from her friend or something else?

Gilberte Najamy suggests that this largesse from Durst might have been hush money to keep Berman quiet. In Zeman's article Najamy claims that someone other than Kathleen Durst had made the call to the dean's office at Albert Einstein School of Medicine in 1982, saying that she was sick. After all, why would a student have called the dean's office to report something so mundane? Najamy believes that it might have been Susan Berman who made the call. Najamy raises the possibility that Berman was blackmailing her old friend with what she knew about his involvement in Kathleen's disappearance.

No matter what the nature of these payments were, the timing of Berman's murder casts suspicion on Robert Durst, and the authorities in Los Angeles would like to talk to him, after his case in Texas has finished.

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