The story of Robert Durst is a cautionary tale of missed opportunities by police, incompetence and lassitude. One unsolved crime beget another and another. That is the great tragedy.

The search for truth is muddied as the lawyers, with their clever manipulations, render gray the color of reasonable doubt.  Given the copious and confounding mistakes committed by cops, the Durst case is looking pretty gray right now.

In the end, it was filmmakers who managed to do what law enforcement failed to do, as two murder cases languished for years in the dusty boxes of police archives in New York City and Los Angeles.

Had the disappearance of Kathleen Durst and the murder of Susan Berman been properly investigated in their early stages, Durst might not have been walking the streets of Galveston, Texas dressed as a mute woman while secretly chopping up the body of his neighbor, Morris Black.

The search for truth is muddied as the lawyers, with their clever manipulations, render gray the color of reasonable doubt.  Given the copious and confounding mistakes committed by cops, the Durst case is looking pretty gray right now.

Indeed, had police searched diligently for evidence of a crime, cover-up, deception and incriminating evidence when Kathie first disappeared, Berman might be alive today.

Sadly, it never happened.   And now, the myriad of mistakes may allow Durst to walk yet again.   

The Kathleen Durst Case

Kathie Durst is last seen by friends at a dinner party on January 31, 1982.  Five days later, her husband walks into the 20th precinct in Manhattan and reports his wife is missing.  Durst claims he drove her to the Katonah station in Westchester where she boarded a train to New York City.

But from the outset, the story Durst tells keeps changing.  He lies about speaking with Kathie on the telephone that night and lies about visiting a neighbor after dropping her off at the station.  Under normal circumstances, a lying spouse of a missing person should transform him instantly into a prime murder suspect, precipitating a full scale and intensive police investigation.        

Yet, in the HBO Documentary “The Jinx”, the detective on the case dismisses the lies as mere “inconsistencies”, as if they don’t matter one whit.  You get the vexatious sense this guy couldn’t solve a jigsaw puzzle on Sesame Street.  And that is putting it mildly.

Instead, he seems persuaded that Kathie made it all the way to Manhattan because a doorman at the Durst apartment says he saw her enter the building.  But it turns out the doorman only sees the woman from behind and cannot identify her.  He later tells a private investigator that he never saw Kathie at all.  Had police been remotely discerning, they would have discovered this immediately.   

They would also have unearthed incriminating evidence at the Durst lakefront home in South Salem.  But they never bother to search it.  Kathie’s friends do and find the very clothing Durst claims his wife was wearing when she boarded the train.  Another lie revealed, no thanks to police.

But there’s more.  The same friends come upon a note in the garbage with the words “shovel, dump, dig.” It is the kind of list a killer would make to remind himself of the pesky details involved while burying a body.  Again, the maladroit detective seems unimpressed.

As the circumstantial evidence of murder mounts, the question of motive arises.  The answer is obvious to anyone paying attention.  Kathie endures chronic and severe beatings at the hands of her husband.  The evidence is contained in emergency room medical records, had police cared to look.

She decides she has had enough and begins preparing divorce papers, but fears for her life.  Seemingly prescient, Kathie implores her close friend to investigate if anything happens to her.  That is the same night she vanishes.

The body of Kathleen Durst is never found and her demise is relegated to the “cold case” files.  Were police inept?  Apathetic?  Derelict?  How about all of the above.  They appear to regard her disappearance as nothing more than an unsatisfied wife who wants to wander off for a while.  As if permanent vacations are the norm.

Which brings us to the long held theory that Susan Berman, a close friend of Robert Durst, may have helped him dispose of Kathie’s body or, at the very least, kept and concealed his confession.  Maybe both.  Protecting dark secrets can get you killed.

The Susan Berman Case

On December 24, 2000, Susan Berman is found dead inside her Los Angeles home, killed by a single bullet to the back of the head.  The timing is more than suspicious.  The New York case involving Kathie’s disappearance had been reopened and authorities were planning to question Berman about any knowledge she might have.  Was Berman executed by Durst to keep her quiet?  The answer seemed obvious then and now.

But L.A. police miss the critical clue.  It is hidden in plain sight inside Berman’s home: a letter from Durst to Berman in block handwriting with the word “Beverley” misspelled in the Beverly Hills address.  The penmanship and the misspelled word appear identical to an anonymous note sent to police by the killer alerting them to a “cadaver” at Berman’s home.  Yet investigators combing through the house seem oblivious.    

How do police not see Durst’s letter while searching the Berman crime scene?  It should have jumped out at them the moment they saw the envelope.  After all, they have in hand a note from the killer with the same glaring error.  Even the clueless Inspector Jacques Clouseau would trip over it.

But the bungling gets even worse, if that’s possible.

At first police think the anonymous note from the killer was written by Berman’s manager.  An LAPD document examiner says it looks like the manager’s handwriting.  But the forensics supervisor neglects to perform her own technical review.  Oops.  It takes more than 2 years for police to figure out they’re wrong.  It is Durst’s handwriting after all, based on samples they obtain.  A second opinion by the California Department of Justice confirms it.

So, they charge Durst with murder, right? Wrong. They drop the case and allow it to go dormant because Durst is on trial for murder in Texas for chopping up his neighbor.  They probably figure he’ll be convicted.  (Note to L.A. police and prosecutors: never assume a conviction; didn’t you guys learn that lesson with O.J.?)

When Durst is acquitted, do L.A. authorities do the logical thing and resurrect the case against Durst?   No.  Nothing.  For a decade.  I’m guessing they just forgot about the murder and the incriminating evidence they held against Durst.   

 It isn’t until filmmakers unearth the Durst letter which cops missed at the crime scene that police and prosecutors get interested again.  That is early 2013.  Why does it take them 2 years to charge Durst?  Filmmakers told them about the “bathroom confession” last year.  Why do they wait until the eve of the final episode of “The Jinx” to arrest Durst?  

Foreshadowing The Trial
The sloppy and inept police investigations into these two cases do not bode well for prosecutors in the upcoming L.A. trial of Robert Durst for the murder of Susan Berman.

It is challenging enough to prove a heinous crime that is 15 years old.  But to do it handicapped by the blunders of police only makes it more so. The evidence gathered will be denounced and impeached by the defendant’s slick, if not unprincipled, defense team.  (See my previous column here.)   The litany of mistakes will be exploited to make it appear as though the government’s case cannot be trusted.

“The Jinx” filmmakers uncovered some of the critical evidence that will be used at trial and handed it over to police.  But authorities dithered inexplicably for months before putting the cuffs on Durst the night before the final episode aired.  As a consequence, the defense team will accuse police and prosecutors of colluding with the documentarians to frame their innocent client.  It is an illusion, at best.  But sometimes, fakery is all a jury sees.

And that is the point.  Trials are not black and white.  They operate in a gray area of proof --fact versus fiction which is often shaded by the antics of trial lawyers who love to distort.  Thus, the search for truth is muddied as the lawyers, with their clever manipulations, render gray the color of reasonable doubt.  Given the copious and confounding mistakes committed by cops, the Durst case is looking pretty gray right now.

Which does not mean for one moment that Robert Durst is anything but dead-bang guilty.