real estate empire

He stood to inherit a real estate empire but turned to crime

PHOTO: Real estate heir Robert Durst during his murder trial in Los Angeles last year. Picture: AFP

Robert Alan Durst, murderer
Born New York, April 12, 1943. Died in California on January 10, aged 78

Joseph Durst arrived in the US from Austria in 1902 with just $3 but plenty of ambition. A tailor, he did well in the rag trade and then bought some real estate. Within 25 years, he had formed the Durst Organisation, which today is one of the biggest property developers in New York City, and most recently builder of the One World Trade Centre tower, the tallest in the US.

In 1974, his first-born, Seymour, took over the business with a policy of not buying or building anything to which he could not walk. He lived in Lower Manhattan so this proved a good strategy as ­prices there boomed. At one point his company owned more than 4ha of the island.

He was active in city politics and a forensic student of his hometown’s history, amassing a collection of street signs, maps, photographs, newspapers and 10,000 books that form the Old York Library at what was once his home.

On Seymour’s retirement, his first-born, Robert, was overlooked as the natural inheritor of the family business. His younger brother, Douglas, took charge.

As boys, their relationship had been so bad they were sent for counselling. At one point, Douglas hired a bodyguard to protect him from his brother. When Robert worked for a time in the family business, he kept a large plumber’s wrench in his desk and urinated in waste paper baskets.

While being tried for murder just last September, he remained deeply unpleasant and insisted lawyers at his trial refer to him as “sir”, which they did. He was also offered an opportunity to show some humanity and let the family of his former wife know where he had disposed of her body so he could die with a clear conscience, at least about that matter.

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He chose not to.

But that is not why he was on trial. He had been charged with killing his best friend from university days, prominent journalist Susan Berman. He flew from New York to California in December 2000 not just to meet up with his faithful confidante but to kill her execution-style, with a pistol shot to the back of her head, because he feared she would reveal details of what she suspected was the ­murder of the missing Kathleen McCormack, Durst’s first wife, who had not been seen since January 31, 1982.

When she went missing, Durst posted a reward of $100,000 for information on her whereabouts. Soon after, he reduced this to $15,000. Seems he wasn’t that keen on knowing. In any case, he already knew.