HOUSTON – A document examiner's erroneous handwriting analysis 14 years ago delayed authorities in linking millionaire Robert Durst to a friend's death until after he was accused of killing someone else, according to a search warrant.
Durst, a member of a wealthy New York real estate family, was arrested in New Orleans over the weekend and charged with murder in California for the December 2000 shooting death of Susan Berman. Durst's arrest came shortly before the finale of an HBO series about his links to three killings — that of his first wife, who disappeared in New York in 1982; Berman, the daughter a mobster and a close friend who acted as his spokeswoman after his wife disappeared; and a 71-year-old neighbor in Texas whose chopped up body was found floating in Galveston Bay in 2001. Durst has only ever been tried for the Texas killing, and he was acquitted of murder.
Authorities on Tuesday searched Durst's Houston home, and the warrant released Wednesday details the timeline of the Berman case.
It shows that police focused in on Durst's handwriting early on after a note received by police tipped them to Berman's death. The envelope and note, written in block letters, misspelled "Beverley Hills Police" and included the word "cadaver" along with Berman's Beverly Hills address.
In 2001, Los Angeles Police Department document examiner William Leaver concluded it was "highly probable" that the envelope and note were written by Nyle Brenner, Berman's manager and friend. The assessment was "rubber stamped" by Leaver's supervisor, who told detectives this past September that she had not performed her own technical review.
Investigators had not initially analyzed examples of Durst's handwriting, and it wasn't until eight months later that a comparison was made to Durst's limited sample writings. Leaver said "similarities" were enough to request more exemplar writings, which police eventually obtained.
In June 2003, Leaver concluded the handwriting was likely Durst's. By then, Durst had been charged in Texas with murder for the death and dismemberment of Morris Black.
The conflicting assessments meant valuable time lost.
Eventually, the envelope, letter and writing samples were sent to the California Department of Justice and an investigator determined Durst as "probably the author of the cadaver letter and note."
The Los Angeles case went dormant and wasn't revived until 2012, when law enforcement learned of the HBO documentary. The filmmakers say they shared tape with police months ago of interviews with Durst, including his reactions to handwriting analysis and what appears to be a confession to Berman's killing.
In October and November, the LAPD had two independent examiners analyze the documents and both concluded Durst was the author.
The LAPD has declined comment until Durst is in its custody. He's being held in Louisiana on gun charges.
Durst's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said the conflicting determinations on the handwriting "shows you what junk science really is." He also questioned what evidence police expected to find in Durst's Houston home.
Durst himself may have pointed to the home, in a recording made while talking to himself after a tense interview with the makers of the six-part HBO documentary "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," which concluded Sunday. Just before saying he "killed them all," he says, "I don't know what's in the house!"
The search warrant affidavit showed authorities were concerned Durst, who has an estimated net worth of $100 million, might be preparing to flee the country. He had withdrawn large sums of money from multiple bank accounts, including daily amounts of $9,000 for 35 days starting in October.
Durst was under FBI surveillance, and agents arrested him in a New Orleans hotel under the name "Everette Ward," finding nearly $43,000 in cash, a gun and a rubber mask that could cover his head and neck in his room, the affidavit says.
A law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press Wednesday that it was a kind of "old man mask" and investigators were looking at whether he had been using it to travel around. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation.
Durst could face the death penalty if convicted of killing Berman.