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Real Estate Heir Tells of Fatal Struggle and Panicked Flight

October 24, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

GALVESTON, Texas — A friendship between two loners who shared an interest in guns devolved into a fatal struggle over a .22-caliber pistol, New York real estate heir Robert Durst told a Texas jury at his murder trial Thursday.

"I did not cause the gun to go off," said Durst, who is accused of shooting and dismembering 71-year-old Morris Black, then heaving the man's bagged body parts into nearby Galveston Bay in September 2001. "I don't think I did shoot Morris."

Prosecutors contend that Durst is a calculating killer who disposed of the body and fled, using his considerable financial resources to elude police. Durst said that he panicked after Black was accidentally killed during a fight that started with Black pointing a gun at him.

Durst testified that, in a marijuana- and Jack Daniels-induced haze, he decided to roll up the body in a dropcloth and get rid of the evidence. When it became clear that Black's body was too heavy to lift, "I got this idea that the body, that I was going to cut it in half," Durst said.

Durst, 60, is the son of the late real estate mogul Seymour Durst, whose company owns many Manhattan skyscrapers and helped redevelop Times Square.

In late 2000, after New York authorities reopened a decades-old investigation into the disappearance of Durst's first wife, Durst moved to Galveston. Dressed as a woman, Durst rented a cheap apartment here and was often seen talking loudly to himself. His defense lawyers said that Durst has a mild form of autism that prevents him from appropriately responding to crises.

During a matter-of-fact accounting of his time in this Gulf coast town, Durst on Thursday called Black, his neighbor, a "good" though sometimes volatile friend. Both men were gun enthusiasts who made regular trips to a local shooting range.

Durst said he gave Black a key to his apartment in 2001 so Black could watch television coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks. In the weeks that followed, Black twice took one of Durst's guns and shot it "as a prank" inside the apartment, Durst said. After the second shooting incident, Durst demanded his key back.

On Sept. 28, 2001, Durst said he returned to his apartment to find Black inside, evidently having entered with a duplicate key.

Durst said Black was holding a Ruger pistol that Durst had hidden in the oven. "I was concerned that Morris was going to shoot the gun, most likely at my face," he said.

Durst said he stepped toward Black and put his right hand on the gun barrel. The two struggled for possession, Black slightly off balance after tripping on a chair leg. Both men began to fall. As Durst's left elbow hit the floor, he said, "the gun went off." "I kept going over the situation in my mind, that Morris was shot in the face with my gun in my apartment, and I rented this apartment disguised as a woman, and the police -- they would find out I was a wealthy guy who had rented this apartment well beneath his means," Durst testified. "I just didn't think they would believe me."

Durst testified that he dismembered Black's body the next day, stuffing the remains into garbage bags and a large suitcase and dumping them into the Gulf of Mexico. The following day he returned, he said, finding to his horror that the remains were floating and visible.

Durst said he retrieved $500,000 in emergency cash that he had stuffed in a duffel bag and hidden under the floor joists at a nearby Lutheran church. Three days after Black's death, Durst headed to New Orleans, where he had another apartment.

"I decided to run away," Durst said.

A week later, Durst was arrested when he returned to Galveston to pick up a new pair of prescription glasses and, he said, to hire a lawyer. He posted $300,000 bond and fled. Six weeks later, he was arrested in Pennsylvania after shoplifting a chicken sandwich and a box of Band-Aids.

Durst was the first defense witness to take the stand in the trial, which began Sept. 22. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of self-defense and accident. If convicted, he could face between five and 99 years in prison. Testimony is set to resume Monday.

California police also want to talk to Durst about the death of his friend, Susan Berman, a Los Angeles writer killed in December 2000, shortly before she was to be questioned about Durst's missing wife.

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