Update: Robert Durst was arrested in New Orleans on Saturday, March 14—the night before The Jinx's final episode—after a warrant was issued for him by Los Angeles County in connection with the 2000 murder of Susan Berman. The final two episodes of Andrew Jarecki's much-discussed HBO documentary presented evidence implicating Durst in the murder, as well as a recording of Durst (who believed he was alone) saying "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
Last July, a slim, 71-year-old man with thinning white hair walked into a Rice Village CVS, picked up his prescription, and then, without any apparent provocation, unzipped his pants and began urinating on a rack of candy. It was merely the latest chapter in the bizarre and often sordid life of Robert Durst, the eccentric scion of a wealthy New York real estate family who first came to the attention of Houstonians in 2001, when he was arrested in Galveston for the murder and dismemberment of his neighbor. Defended at trial by high-profile defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, Durst claimed that he had killed the man, Morris Black, in self-defense. To the astonishment of most observers, Durst was acquitted, and still lives part-time in Houston. (He served short prison sentences for probation and parole violations, as well as evidence tampering.)
Durst has been a tabloid staple ever since his wife, Kathleen McCormack, mysteriously disappeared in 1982. Police suspected that Durst murdered her, but he was never charged, and her body has never been found. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki has been following the story since he was a boy growing up in Westchester County, not far from Durst’s own childhood home. “This was a person whose life had started out in such a remarkably privileged way,” Jarecki told us by phone from New York. “And that was very similar to my upbringing—I grew up in a wealthy family in Westchester, with a family business that had been around for a long time. I had a lot of pressure to go into that business and take it over. So it was something I really connected with.”
After directing the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans in 2003, Jarecki turned to a cinematic roman à clef, All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling as a Durst-like character and Kirsten Dunst as his beautiful young wife who disappears under mysterious circumstances. A week before the film debuted in 2010, Jarecki received an unexpected call from Durst himself, saying he had heard good things about the movie and was looking forward to seeing it.
“We had agreed that he was going to call me a day or two after seeing the film,” Jarecki remembered. “He ended up calling me five minutes afterward. He said, ‘I just want you to know that I saw the movie, and it was very emotional—you really did your homework. I’m willing to talk to you.’” It was that phone call that led to Jarecki’s six-part HBO documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which premieres this month. It is based on 25 or so hours of interviews Jarecki ended up conducting with Durst, a remarkable accomplishment given his notorious reclusiveness. (Durst declined an interview for this story.)
You’re dealing with somebody that has a very fascinating and complicated history. I was open to evidence, I was open to his version of things.
While most media accounts have portrayed Durst as a cold-blooded killer, Jarecki tried to go into the project without preconceptions. “The New York Post likes to use headlines like ‘Cross-dressing Maniac!’” Jarecki said. “And I think you don’t learn much about somebody by putting those kinds of statements out there. You’re dealing with somebody that has a very fascinating and complicated history. I was open to evidence, I was open to his version of things. Which doesn’t mean that I believed everything, but I let him tell his story. And that’s one of the reasons he felt comfortable talking to me.”
It’s easy to understand why Durst avoids the media—he’s been enmeshed in scandal for more than 30 years. In 2000 the New York State Police reopened the criminal investigation into McCormack's disappearance, which seems to have set in motion a bizarre chain of events. First, Durst’s long-time friend Susan Berman, who may have had knowledge of his wife's 1982 disappearance, was found murdered, execution-style, in her California house. Then Durst himself disappeared.
We now know that he moved to Galveston and rented a room in a boarding house for $300 a month. There, he assumed a new identity—a mute woman—and might never have been discovered had police not found his neighbor’s body parts floating in Galveston Bay. But what, we’ve always wondered, led Durst to Galveston in the first place? Jarecki, who visited the island twice while shooting his documentary, has a theory.
“Galveston is a place that people go to disappear,” he said. “That’s not all you do in Galveston, but certainly if you’re on the fringe, or you feel like you’ve been in the public eye, Galveston is the kind of place you can go and not be noticed.” As to why Durst would remain in the Houston area after all his history here, well, even Jarecki isn’t clear about that.
“You’d think that given the drama of the trial in Galveston, and how close he came to going to prison for the rest of his life, Houston might be a place with some negative associations to him. But the truth is, he really likes it. I think he feels comfortable there.”