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Suspect in Texas Slaying Arrested in Pennsylvania on Shoplifting Charges

Crime: Wealthy fugitive is also seen as a key figure in his wife's disappearance and L.A. friend's death.

December 01, 2001|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A wealthy fugitive charged with murder in Texas and considered a central figure in the disappearance of his wife in New York and the slaying of a woman friend in Los Angeles was arrested Friday in Pennsylvania.

The FBI said Robert Durst, 58, son of a New York real estate mogul, was taken into custody by police in Bath, Pa., on suspicion of shoplifting.

Despite his millions and $500 in his pocket, Durst "had gone to a local grocery store and stolen less than $10 worth of stuff--a hoagie, a newspaper and a box of Band-Aids," said Det. Gary Hammer of the Colonial Regional Police Department.

Record checks showed that Durst was wanted in Galveston, Texas, in the murder of his 71-year-old neighbor, Morris Black.

"Durst gave us his right name, his date of birth, his Social Security number--everything," Hammer said. "But when I asked him if he was wanted for murder, he wouldn't say anything."

Durst was booked on suspicion of murdering Black and was ordered held without bail.

Black's dismembered body was found in September near an isolated pier in Galveston Bay. A tip led police to arrest Durst in Galveston on Oct. 9. In his car, officers found a pistol and a bow saw.

Durst quickly posted $300,000 bail. When he failed to appear in court a week later, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Police said Durst--son of the late Seymour Durst, patriarch of a company that owns several skyscrapers in New York--has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the disappearance of his 29-year-old wife, Kathleen, in January 1982.

He told detectives he last saw her when he took her to a railroad station in Westchester County, N.Y. He said she caught a train for New York City, where she attended medical school.

No arrests were ever made in that case. Police said that after working for his father's firm several years, Durst began wandering the country, staying at company properties in Northern California and Colorado and living off an annual stipend of about $3 million a year.

He kept in touch with old friends, including Susan Berman, a writer who lived in Los Angeles' Benedict Canyon. Berman, whom Durst had met while they were students at UCLA, was the daughter of the late David Berman, once a partner of the notorious Beverly Hills mobster Bugsy Siegel.

Los Angeles police were planning to interview Susan Berman about the disappearance of Durst's wife when they found the writer shot to death in her home last Christmas Eve. Officers said a few days later that Durst was not considered a suspect in Berman's death.

What took Durst to Galveston early this year is not known, police said. They said that despite his wealth, Durst moved into the rundown apartment building where Black lived alone.

Police said that Durst and Black often bickered, but that their arguments were "petty," not the sort that would seem to lead to murder.

Nonetheless, on Sept. 30, a 13-year-old boy found Black's remains in the bay. Police say Durst was linked to the murder by a wealth of physical evidence, including a 9-millimeter pistol, the same caliber as the gun used to kill Susan Berman.

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