Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Durst: Millionaire Murderer

The Crank and the Cross-Dresser

On September 30, 2001, a 13-year-old boy was fishing with his family on a slip near his home on Channelview Drive in Galveston, Texas, when he spotted something floating in the water. He called to his father, who initially thought the object was a dead pig. It was, in fact, a human torso with the head and limbs removed.

Morris Black, victim
Morris Black, victim

That same day nearby residents reported seeing trash bags floating in with the tide. The police checked these and found the legs and arms that belonged to the torso. The head, however, was not recovered. The bags contained other items as well — a plastic sheath for a bow saw, a drop cloth, a receipt from a local hardware store dated September 28, and a copy of the Galveston County Daily News with a mailing label addressed to 2213 Avenue K, Galveston. Days later another washed-up trash bag yielded a .22-caliber automatic with two loaded clips. Fingerprints were taken from the dead man's hands, and a match was found on file in South Carolina. The prints belonged to a man named Morris Black who had been convicted of a misdemeanor there in 1997.

By all accounts, 71-year-old Morris Black was just a cranky old man with a quick temper. He was a loner and a drifter who'd been estranged from his family for many years. He'd worked at various times in his life as a merchant seaman, a maintenance man, and a watch repairman, always on the move, never setting down roots. He'd lived in places as diverse as Long Beach, Mississippi; Malden, Massachusetts; North Charlestown Beach, South Carolina; and several towns in Texas. His last address was 2213 Avenue K in Galveston, which is a four-unit apartment building. Though he lived very modestly there, he had nine bank accounts at a bank in South Dakota with balances totaling almost $137,000.

While living in South Carolina, he'd been convicted of making threats to a utility company. After receiving an electric bill that he felt was excessive, he'd called the utility and threatened to blow up their offices.

Durst's Texas home
Durst's Texas home (AP/WorldWide)

As cantankerous as he was, Black did have a charitable side. He'd found a source for discount reading glasses on the Internet and purchased five cases of them, which he then gave to the Jesse Tree, a Galveston charitable organization, with strict orders that they be given away to the needy. When he found out that the Jesse Tree was trying to raise funds to a buy a building for its headquarters, Black told the director that he knew someone who might be able to help them out.

"Dorothy Ciner" lived across the hall from Black at 2213 Avenue K. According to the landlord, Ciner suffered from a debilitating throat condition and communicated exclusively through written notes. She was about five-feet, seven-inches and flat-chested, and wore glasses held together with tape and what was obviously a wig. Her apartment usually seemed unoccupied, but she did have a friend who stayed with her from time to time, a man who had introduced himself as Robert Durst. In hindsight, the landlord had to admit that he had never actually seen Ciner and Durst together.

When the police went to Black's apartment to investigate his murder, they found a trail of blood leading from the victim's apartment to Ciner's. When they searched her apartment, they discovered a pair of blood-encrusted boots and a bloody knife. There were traces of blood on the kitchen floor, the carpets and the apartment door. "Dorothy Ciner" could not be located, but the police did track down another Dorothy Ciner who lived in another state. She said that she had been a classmate of Robert Durst's once, but she'd lost contact with him years ago.

Robert Durst mugshot
Robert Durst mugshot

The police ran a check on Durst's name with the Division of Motor Vehicles and learned that Durst had a silver Honda CRV mini-SUV registered under his name in Texas. Nine days after Black's body was found, Durst's car was spotted by a Galveston patrolman and pursued. The silver Honda was pulled over, and Durst was behind the wheel. The patrolman noticed a bow saw on the floor of the vehicle. Durst was arrested and charged with the murder of Morris Black.

The authorities were certain that Durst had committed the murder, but they didn't know why. Had the meddlesome Black been too nosy about his peculiar neighbor "Ms. Ciner?" Had he discovered that the lady across the hall was in fact Robert Durst? Had Black threatened to expose Durst? Investigators were stumped as to Durst's motive for the murder, but they hoped to get to the bottom of it before Durst went on trial.

Durst's case, bail was set at $300,000, a high figure for Galveston but not much of a sacrifice for a multimillionaire. Durst's wife Debrah Charatan posted bail through a bondsman, and Durst was free to go, pending his arraignment, which was set for October 16.  As part of the terms of his release, he had to promise to be in court that day.

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