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N.Y. Real Estate Heir's Trial Starts in Texas Slaying

Robert Durst is charged with shooting and dismembering an elderly neighbor. His attorneys say the killing was self-defense.

September 23, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

GALVESTON, Texas — The cross-dressing heir to one of New York's largest real estate fortunes went on trial here Monday on charges that he shot and dismembered an elderly neighbor, then heaved the man's bagged body parts into nearby Galveston Bay.

Robert Durst, 60 -- who posed as a down-and-out mute woman while living in this Gulf Coast town -- looked small and pale as prosecutors and his defense lawyers delivered opening statements. Each side offered different accounts of the September 2001 death of 71-year-old Morris Black.

"Morris Black died as a result of a life-and-death violent struggle over a gun that Morris Black had threatened Bob Durst with," defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin told the jury of eight women and four men. "As they struggled, the gun went off and shot Morris Black in the face."

After the fatal struggle in his apartment, Durst was thrown into an altered mental state caused by a previously undiagnosed psychological disorder, said defense lawyer Mike Ramsey. "His friend is dead, lying on the floor in a $300 apartment rented by a billionaire in Galveston, Texas, who is dressed as a woman. How much stranger does it get than that, and who will believe him?" asked Ramsey.

Durst is the son of the late real estate mogul Seymour Durst, whose company owns numerous Manhattan skyscrapers and helped redevelop Times Square. Durst has pleaded not guilty by reason of self-defense and accident. If convicted, he could face between five and 99 years in prison.

Police in California and New York also want to talk to Durst, who is a "person of interest" in two unsolved cases: the disappearance of Durst's first wife, Kathleen, 21 years ago; and 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.

Dist. Atty. Kurt Sistrunk described Durst as a cool, methodical killer who "carved up Morris Black's body like a side of beef....There was not in any sense panic. He was in a clear frame of mind, and with a sense of purpose walked away from a murder he knew he committed."

Sistrunk told jurors that Durst moved to Galveston in November 2000, paying $300 a month for a threadbare apartment, where he wore a wig and lived as Dorothy Ciner. Across the hall lived Black, a cantankerous, volatile drifter known for his incessant complaints about his noisy neighbors.

On Sept. 28, 2001, Durst killed Black and "very calmly and without hesitation at all voluntarily took action" on a plan to get rid of the body, Sistrunk said. With Black dead on his kitchen floor, Durst went to a store, bought garbage bags and a tarp, Sistrunk said. Over the next two days, "he worked tirelessly and with great effort to sever Mr. Black piece by piece."

After dropping Black's body parts into the sea, Sistrunk said, Durst had the presence of mind to get a money order to cover Black's rent. Durst signed Black's name to the money order and mailed it to the landlord to keep suspicions at bay for as long as possible, Sistrunk said.

But when Black's torso and six garbage bags stuffed with his body parts floated into Galveston Bay two years ago, "Black came back to speak one more time. He rose from his watery grave and pointed the finger" at Durst, Sistrunk said.

Police were led to Durst by a receipt with Durst's name on it found in one of the garbage bags. Shell casings and the .22-caliber pistol used to kill Black were found in a city trash can near Durst's apartment building. Traces of blood were found in his apartment and hallway.

Galveston police found and arrested Durst about a week after Black's body surfaced, but he posted $300,000 bond and fled. Six weeks later, he was arrested in Pennsylvania after allegedly shoplifting a chicken sandwich and a box of Band-Aids.

Durst has been in a Galveston jail awaiting trial since late 2001. "It was nothing but a cold-blooded murder and a man on the run afterward," Sistrunk said.

Defense lawyer DeGuerin said Durst and Black were on good terms. Black became "obsessed" with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, DeGuerin told jurors. Durst eventually gave Black a key to his apartment so that Black could watch television news on the attacks. But on two occasions, Black found one of Durst's pistols and shot it inside the apartment, DeGuerin said.

Durst demanded his key back. When Durst came home one day, Morris was again watching television in Durst's apartment. He had apparently let himself in with a copied key. Remembering the previous two gun incidents, Durst looked for his pistol, DeGuerin said.

"He said, 'Morris, where's the gun?' " Black brought up a hand, which held the gun, DeGuerin said. "They fell down and onto the kitchen floor. As Bob's elbow hit the floor, and Morris hit the floor with a thud, the gun went off," DeGuerin said.

Durst's previously undiagnosed mental condition propelled him into a traumatized state similar to an out-of-body experience, said defense lawyer Ramsey. While in this surreal state, Durst determined that "he can't move Morris, he's not big enough to. He cut him up, and threw him in the bay.... You're going to think it's strange and bizarre, but it's not murder," Ramsey said.

Judge Susan Criss has said the trial will likely last into October. A gag order prevents any of the trial participants from publicly discussing the case.

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