REOPENED MYSTERY: A special report.; A Woman's Disappearance Is Still Baffling After 19 Years
By KEVIN FLYNN and CHARLES V. BAGLI
Published: Tuesday, March 6, 2001
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LinkedinDiggFacebookMixxMySpaceYahoo! BuzzPermalink.Kathleen Durst, the wife of a wealthy Manhattan real estate executive, had been missing for 16 years, and her disappearance had already moved from headline news to history, when an unlikely turn of events in 1998 revived interest in her case.
It began with the arrest of a Connecticut man in a series of lewd acts in northern Westchester County. Several women and a girl of 14 had been accosted by a man who exposed himself in a car as they jogged, walked or rode horseback along isolated back roads.
The suspect was remorseful, according to court records. Later, in a bid for leniency, he said he had information that might help solve one of New York's enduring mysteries.
He had heard, he said, something about what had happened to Mrs. Durst in winter 1982.
That tip, by an improbable source in an unrelated case, promised more than it delivered, but it set off an expansive new look at a disappearance that has frustrated detectives for 19 years.
For months, the police, forensic experts, prosecutors and friends and relatives have been working again to try to figure out what happened to Mrs. Durst, a 29-year-old medical student known as Kathie who vanished just a few months short of earning her degree.
She had been reported missing by her husband, Robert Durst, now 57, a scion of a family that, like the Trumps and Rudins, has long held royal stature in New York's real estate world.
Mr. Durst told the police that he last saw his wife on a Sunday night boarding a train in Westchester, bound for their penthouse apartment in Manhattan. They had spent the weekend at their cottage in South Salem, he said, but his wife had headed back to the city, where medical school appointments awaited.
Mrs. Durst never made those appointments, and the mystery of the medical student with a gleaming smile who either abandoned or was denied a life of wealth and accomplishment captivated New York. Headlines trumpeted developments. Friends tried to retrace her steps. The police found three witnesses who said they thought they had seen or heard from Mrs. Durst in the 24 hours after she boarded the train.
But leads dwindled. Detectives retired. And though a photograph of Mrs. Durst remained on file with the New York Police Department Missing Persons Squad, the case languished.
Until Timothy Martin appeared.
After his arrest in the series of lewd acts, he told investigators a tale he said he had heard from others. Mrs. Durst, he said, never made it to Manhattan, according to people with direct knowledge of the investigation. She had been murdered, he said, and buried in Westchester.
Much of Mr. Martin's story did not check out. But the state police investigator who interviewed him, Joseph C. Becerra, and the Westchester district attorney, Jeanine F. Pirro, nonetheless decided that his story warranted a review of the Durst case.
''And when we had a look back at the file,'' Ms. Pirro recalled, ''we said: 'My, my. Isn't this interesting.' ''
Beginning with the odd facts and nagging questions found in the old case notes, investigators have explored gaps and discrepancies in the accounts of witnesses, and they have focused new scrutiny on whether Mr. Durst played a role in his wife's disappearance, law enforcement officials said.
Investigators have traveled coast to coast, talking to doormen in Manhattan and housekeepers in South Salem, and tracking leads not fully explored in 1982.
The last sightings of Mrs. Durst in Manhattan, which once served as the bedrock for police theories of her disappearance, now seem anything but ironclad, the officials said, and one of those eyewitnesses now says he was mistaken.
Investigators have also encountered intrigue and peculiarities. Two friends who had been given confidential financial records by Mrs. Durst for safekeeping, shortly before she vanished, have said the paperwork was stolen in burglaries.
And a close friend of Mr. Durst's, who had served as his spokeswoman after the disappearance, was found dead in a homicide in Los Angeles on Dec. 24, 2000, just as the police made plans to interview her.
But after more than a year of study, investigators still appear to have more questions than answers, conflicting evidence endures, and the city police still list the disappearance as a missing persons case.
''The fact that we are actively involved in this case means we are looking for some resolution,'' Ms. Pirro said. ''What that resolution is we still don't know.'
Mr. Durst has declined to be interviewed by investigators on the advice of his lawyer, according to people involved in the case. Neither he nor his lawyer, Joel Cohen, would comment for this article. But he has repeatedly said he had no role in his wife's disappearance.
Ms. Pirro does not call him a suspect. ''I am not ruling him in or ruling him out,'' she said. But people involved in the case said her office was intrigued by his official accounts and by evidence of turmoil in the Durst marriage.
The Hippie Life in Vermont
Robert and Kathie Durst met when she lived in a Durst-owned building in Manhattan. She was a bright and ambitious dental hygienist from Long Island, who went on to nursing and medical school. He was the athletic, droll, faintly reclusive oldest son of Seymour Durst, the patriarch of the Durst real estate empire. They married in 1972, moved to Vermont and opened a health food store called All Good Things.
''They started out as two people who really cared for each other, living a hippie life in Vermont,'' said Eleanor Schwank, a friend of Mrs. Durst's.
Seymour Durst, however, did not like the idea of his son as a shopkeeper, relatives say, and persuaded him to return to New York to help expand a portfolio that included some of the city's best-known skyscrapers.
By 1980, though, the marriage was dissolving, and Mrs. Durst hired a lawyer in 1981 and considered divorce. Court records in a subsequent proceeding over control of her estate show that she told friends and family that Robert Durst had beat her, and three weeks before she disappeared, she said he had punched her, forcing her to seek treatment.
Mr. Durst denied hitting his wife, asserting that she invented the assaults to increase a possible settlement. Longtime friends of the couple also said in interviews that they never saw Mrs. Durst with injuries.
But friends said it was clear that Mrs. Durst distrusted her husband. Two friends told investigators that she had given them confidential information about Durst holdings for safekeeping during her estrangement. Those files were later stolen from their homes in burglaries that occurred within a year of the disappearance.
One friend, Kathy Traystman, said the file was taken from her dresser drawer at the same time that a stereo and jewelry were stolen.
The other, Gilberta Najamy, said her file was stolen when two boxes of items relating to the disappearance were taken from her home in Newtown, Conn.
A Sudden Disappearance
On the evening of Sunday, Jan. 31, 1982, Mrs. Durst attended a party at Ms. Najamy's home. Ms. Najamy says she remembers that Mr. and Mrs. Durst argued on the phone that day, and then Mrs. Durst said something chilling before heading home in her Mercedes-Benz: ''Promise me, Gilberta, if something happens you will check it out. I am afraid of what Bobby will do.''
Mr. Durst told the police in 1982 that when his wife arrived that night at their stone cottage overlooking Lake Truesdale, they shared a meal. Then he drove her to the 9:15 p.m. train at the Katonah station. After returning, he said, he had a drink with neighbors, and later called his Riverside Drive apartment, and said he spoke to his wife while she was watching the late news on television.
Law enforcement officials say that investigators, then and now, developed serious questions about Mr. Durst's account. In 1982, when the police interviewed Mr. Durst, a state trooper noted that any calls to Manhattan would be reflected in phone records for the South Salem house. But Mr. Durst said he had actually called from a pay phone while walking his dog. Investigators were skeptical because, they said, the nearest pay phone was several miles away, and the night was rainy and cold.
Mrs. Durst's family said at the time that Mr. Durst gave them a different account. He told them, the family said, that he had placed the call to Manhattan from a restaurant in South Salem.
In a second discrepancy noted by investigators in 1982, the neighbors in South Salem did not remember having had a drink with Mr. Durst. They remembered, though, seeing a blue light they had never seen before emanating from an earthen crawl space under his house the next night.
But in 1982 there were indications that Mrs. Durst had made it to Manhattan. Eddie Lopez, her building's elevator operator, told the police that he saw Mrs. Durst that night when he escorted a man to her apartment. She opened the door in her nightgown to let the man in, he said. The building superintendent also told the police he thought he had seen Mrs. Durst walking along West 76th Street the next morning.
''At the time, one or two of them were believable that they had seen her,'' said Michael Struk, the detective, now retired, who led the 1982 investigation.
Also, Albert Kuperman, a dean at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which Mrs. Durst attended, told the police in 1982 that he had spoken to her on the phone that Monday when she called in sick.
Consequently, detectives said they were confident Mrs. Durst had disappeared from Manhattan, not Westchester. So they never searched the South Salem house, a decision that some of Mrs. Durst's friends and relatives now view as a glaring oversight. ''There were always a lot of unanswered questions, but we had to move on because I did not have the luxury of working one case,'' said Mr. Struk, who has helped in the current investigation.
Perhaps the most significant development in the current investigation is the erosion of confidence in those eyewitness identifications, law enforcement officials said. The elevator operator now says he does not think it was Mrs. Durst he saw. And the superintendent, law enforcement officials say, only saw Mrs. Durst from behind and largely based his identification on his recognition of her beige coat.
Dr. Kuperman, though, said in a recent interview that he still thought that the woman who called him was Mrs. Durst. ''It never occurred to me that it wasn't her,'' he said.
The Investigation Begins
Mr. Durst reported his wife missing at the 20th Precinct headquarters in Manhattan on Feb. 5, five days after he said he had seen her boarding the train. The case was assigned to Detective Struk, who had recently solved the murder of a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera.
Mr. Durst said he did not get in touch with the police earlier because occasionally the couple went days without contact. But investigators, both then and now, have tried to track how he spent that time.
Law enforcement officials said they were particularly interested in collect calls that were placed to Mr. Durst's office during this time from pay phones at the Jersey Shore, outside a self-service laundry and a motel. Mr. Durst was known to call his office collect, but investigators have not determined who placed those calls or whether Mr. Durst had gone to the shore.
In the days after his wife vanished, Mr. Durst posted a reward for help in finding her. Many friends recall him as anguished, and said they never considered that he might have had a role in her disappearance. ''Bobby didn't kill Kathie,'' said Nick Chavin, a close friend. ''He loved her.''
At times, friends recalled, Mr. Durst speculated that his wife, an occasional cocaine user, might have been killed by a drug dealer. At one point, his lawyer took cocaine to detectives, saying it had been found in the apartment. At other times, as in a 1982 newspaper interview, Mr. Durst said his wife, unhappy with her life, might have just run away. ''I think Kathie's alive,'' he said.
But the Family Differs
Mrs. Durst's family and friends had a darker view. In 1983, during a surrogate proceeding, her sister, Mary Hughes, said in an affidavit, ''that the questionable circumstances surrounding my sister's disappearance and her husband's behavior and reactions following this event strongly suggest that my sister may have been murdered, and that Robert Durst is either directly responsible for her death or privy to information concerning her disappearance.''
She contended that Mr. Durst had refused to take a police lie detector test and had quickly disposed of some of his wife's possessions.
Mr. Durst's lawyer branded the allegations fiction. In his own affidavit, Mr. Durst said: ''I am not privy to any information concerning Kathie's disappearance which I have not disclosed to Kathie's family, to the Police Department and to those who, at my own expense, I have engaged to investigate her disappearance.''
A decade later, Mr. Durst abruptly left the family business when it became clear that his younger brother, Douglas, would become the head of the company. He then largely dropped out of sight, although he keeps homes in New York and California.
Kathie Durst's family was overjoyed last year when investigators began taking another look at the case. ''This whole issue has been just below the surface for 20 years,'' said her brother, James McCormack.
Investigators with dogs have now repeatedly searched the South Salem house, and they removed a piece of an interior wall for testing. The searches were prompted by Mr. Martin's account, but investigators have declined to discuss the results in detail. Mr. Martin, who officials said was related by marriage to a former Durst housekeeper, ultimately pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. He could not be reached for comment. Mr. Becerra would not comment on the matter.
Investigators have also refused to discuss why they sought to question Susan Berman, the friend of Mr. Durst's who was found murdered in her Los Angeles home just as they made plans to interview her. The murder remains unsolved, but Los Angeles detectives have said they do not see a connection between the cases. New York investigators have gone there to seek leads in their case and have reviewed information obtained from Ms. Berman's computer.
After 19 years, Ms. Pirro said investigators are still determined to solve the mystery. ''This woman was a vibrant young medical student,'' she said. ''For her to disappear off the face of the earth just doesn't make any sense.''
Photos: Above, Kathleen McCormack Durst and her husband, Robert Durst, in 1975. Mrs. Durst had attended a party at the home of her friend Gilberta Najamy, right, on the night she disappeared. (Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times); Jeanine F. Pirro, the Westchester district attorney. (Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)(pg. B5); Investigations into the 1982 disappearance of Kathleen Durst, the wife of a wealthy Manhattan executive, were reopened in 1998. Robert Durst said he last saw his wife boarding a train in Westchester after they spent the weekend at their South Salem house. (Richard L. Harbus for The New York Times)(pg. B1)