Susan Berman had a life so colorful and tragic, she made her living off it. Her father was a Las Vegas mobster who ran Bugsy Siegel’s casino empire after Siegel was gunned down in Beverly Hills in 1947. Davie Berman lived high on the hog, doted on his daughter, then died – not from a bullet but a massive heart attack – when Susan was 12.
Her mother Gladys was a former tap dancer so afraid of ending up like Bugsy she spent time in and out of mental institutions and eventually died of a drug overdose that some people, including her daughter, found suspicious.
Susan Berman was garrulous, full of life, funny, a tremendous raconteur, always surrounded by friends and neurotic to the point where she would refuse to go above the third floor in any building for fear of falling out the window. Living in New York for half her adult life, this was a problem.
She worked as a writer and magazine journalist, often writing about herself or the glamorous, bullet-ridden world of her father and his associates. After the success of her 1981 memoir, Easy Street , she moved to Los Angeles, where she hoped to break into film-making as a screenwriter.
Instead, she had a short-lived marriage to a much younger man who overdosed on heroin, went broke and became the main attraction in her own noir murder mystery – a mystery that has endured for years but may now at last be unraveling, on screen every Sunday night in the HBO documentary series The Jinx .
Bob Durst: from friend to suspect
Two days before Christmas 2000, Berman was killed, execution-style, with a single bullet to the back of the head at a small, rundown house she rented in the Hollywood Hills. Even in a town that has made a mini industry of its true-life murder mysteries, this was an eye-popper.
Berman had told one friend she was working on something big, something involving the Las Vegas mob, something that would blow people’s socks off. The Los Angeles police assumed her death was an organized crime hit, because that was what it looked like and it didn’t seem impossible she had pissed off some mobster with a short fuse and jumpy nerves.
Too many things refused to fit that scenario, however. There were no signs of forced entry at the house, suggesting that Berman – who never opened the door to anybody she didn’t know – was attacked by an acquaintance or a friend. A few days after the murder, the Beverly Hills police received a note in the mail alerting them to a “cadaver” at 1527 Benedict Canyon. The note was written in block letters, and the word “Beverly” was misspelled on the envelope.
The new thinking was that the murderer had a residual fondness for Berman and didn’t want her undiscovered corpse decomposing for days or weeks on end. What other purpose could the note serve?
Two suspects immediately popped out of the woodwork. The first was her business manager, Nyle Brenner, with whom she had an intense but dysfunctional relationship that had been slowly simmering toward boiling point. Brenner was the first friend of Susan’s to visit the house after the police took away the body and alerted many others to the bad news – in ways some of them found suspicious.
The other was one of Susan’s oldest and best friends, Bob Durst, the heir to a vast New York property fortune whom she had met at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1960s. Durst had had his own tragedies – his mother committed suicide when he was seven, and his wife Kathie vanished without a trace from their house in Westchester County, New York, in 1982.
Neither seemed the obvious murdering type, much less someone with the icy temperament to gun a woman down in cold blood.
At least, that observation almost certainly held for Brenner, who was never a formal suspect. But Durst, as has become increasingly apparent in the intervening 15 years, is a very different story.
Just one month before Berman’s murder, Westchester County authorities announced they were reopening their investigation into Kathie Durst and made clear they suspected Bob of killing her. They were interested in interviewing Susan Berman, because several witnesses told them she was unusually well informed about Kathie’s disappearance.
Berman had taken it upon herself to act as Bob Durst’s media representative at the time, encouraging the belief that Kathie took a train to New York City on the night she disappeared and then called the medical school she attended the next morning to say she wasn’t coming in. There is no credible evidence to suggest either of these things actually happened.
The LAPD did not initially go along with the idea that Durst was a suspect, because he and Susan Berman were thick as thieves. As a New York magazine profile put it at the time: “Susan lived by a mob-like code of loyalty. She would never, no matter how desperate, rat out a friend, even if she did know something incriminating.”
All thoughts that Durst was incapable of cold-blooded killing went out the window the following year, when he was arrested in Texas for the murder and dismemberment of a 71-year-old man. Durst had, by then, gone to ground, disguised himself as a woman and rented a cheap room in the oil town of Galveston, near Houston.
He was eventually – and quite extraordinarily – acquitted of murder, arguing successfully that the victim, his neighbour, was violent and unstable and that the killing was in self-defense.
He admitted, however, that he cut up the corpse, put the pieces in garbage bags and dumped them in Galveston Bay.
The police subsequently tried to match the “cadaver” note to Durst’s handwriting but could not make a conclusive determination. They also tried and failed to trace the 9mm bullet used to kill Berman back to Durst. They established that he was in California at the time of the murder but could not place him in Los Angeles.
And there things have remained, unsolved – until now.
A damning letter uncovered
In February, a grimly fascinating documentary series began airing on HBO in the United States, presenting compelling arguments pointing to Durst as Berman’s killer. It has also unearthed a startling piece of evidence – apparently unknown to law enforcement until now – that has already stirred police and prosecutors at both ends of the country to renewed activity.
In The Jinx , the filmmakers suggest Berman not only helped Durst in the media after Kathie’s disappearance, but may have used her old mob contacts to dispose of her body in the pine barrens of New Jersey, a notorious dumping ground for mafia murder victims. Someone called the Durst family corporation collect from the pine barrens days after the disappearance, and several witnesses interviewed by the film-makers said Bob was the only plausible person to have done such a thing. (Durst himself insisted on camera that several people called the office collect.)
Years later, shortly before her murder, Durst gave Berman $50,000 to help her out of her endless financial difficulties. One friend of Berman’s, Stephen Silverman, said he could easily imagine her using her knowledge of Kathie’s disappearance as leverage to get more money out of him. Not blackmail exactly, he said; more in the way of a suggestion.
Then, in last Sunday’s penultimate installment, Berman’s adopted son Sareb Kaufman found a long-forgotten letter from Durst to Berman with the address written in block capitals, just like the cadaver note, and the Beverly in Beverly Hills misspelled in exactly the same way, with an extra “e”.
The New York Times has since reported that investigators have reopened the case , although they have confirmed that to no other media outlet, including this one. Berman’s old friends are keeping their lips firmly sealed, at least until Sunday’s finale of the documentary series, as are law enforcement veterans who have worked the case over the years.
Durst himself, to this point, has denied any involvement in Berman’s death, denied he drove to Los Angeles from northern California, where he had a house at the time, and denied that he wrote the cadaver note. But he did make one potentially revealing remark in an earlier episode of the series.
“You’re taking this big risk,” he said of the cadaver note. “You’re writing a note to the police that only the killer could have written.”
If the writing on his earlier letters to Susan Berman proves to be a match, he may finally have a legal case to answer.
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