Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durstby Matt Birkbeck
In 1982, Kathie Durst's disappearance made front-page headlines. The beautiful twenty-nine year-old medical student was married to Robert Durst, son of one of New York's most powerful real estate magnates. When she vanished after arriving home from a party, Kathie's friends pointed the finger at her reclusive husband. They told police that Kathie lived in terror of Robert and was seeking a divorce. They also knew that Kathie had uncovered confidential financial documents that cast a shadow over her husband. What they didn't know was a deeply disturbing Durst secret. . .and an even deadlier secret held tight for twenty years by one of Kathie's friends.
In late 2001, a disheveled drifter was arrested for shoplifting at a Pennsylvania supermarket. He was Robert Durst, heir to a family empire valued at two billion dollars, in disguise and on the run, subsequently indicted for the grisly dismemberment of an elderly neighbor in Texas and wanted for questioning by authorities about the murder of a close friend, a writer from California. What transpired between Kathie's disappearance and the routine arrest was a nineteen-year, cross-country mystery of stolen IDs and multiple identities that raised some baffling questions about one of the country's most prominent men and his family.
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Read an Excerpt
From A DEADLY SECRET by Matt Birkbeck
Copyright 2002 by Matt Birkbeck
The phones in the detectives' squad room at the Twentieth Precinct were ringing out a never-ending cascade of noise, nearly all of the calls coming from a frenzied media, which had firmly latched onto the Kathie Durst story. It was on every newsstand, morning TV news show, and all-news radio station in the New York area.
Civilian employees answered the phones while Gibbons sat on the edge of a desk in the middle of the room, having called a meeting to review the case with Struk and a half-dozen other detectives, including John Kelly, Eddie Regan, and Sergeant Tom Brady.
Gibbons said the papers reported only part of the story, that eyewitnesses had spotted Kathie Durst in Manhattan, and that she had called in sick to school on Monday.
``As we know, if you read the papers today, Mrs. Durst is the daughter-in-law of Mr. Seymour Durst, a very influential New Yorker. Of course, that doesn't mean shit to us, but it does to our bosses. Mrs. Durst was last seen Monday morning in Manhattan hailing a cab. She's a medical student at the Albert Einstein School in the Bronx. Struk has all the details. Let's jump on this quickly, and please, don't talk to any reporters. Refer them to me. Okay, meeting's over.''
A couple of the other detectives, Kelly and Regan, pulled Struk aside, asking about Bobby Durst, wondering why he'd waited five days before reporting his wife missing.
``Put it this way, they weren't Ozzie and Harriet,'' said Struk.
The squad room cleared out quickly as six detectives headed outside, some to the Riverside Drive area to check local bars and restaurants, others to the apartment at East Eighty-sixth Street. Struk stayed behind to work the phones and await the task-force detectives, who were due in around the same time Struk received a call from Kathie's brother, Jim McCormack.
Struk remembered the conversation he'd had on Saturday with Jim, the big brother who was preoccupied with a new baby and didn't seem overly concerned that his sister might have been in trouble.
But now, with Kathie's picture on the front pages of the papers, he was worried.
His sister Mary had woken him up that morning. She was sobbing uncontrollably, spitting mostly unrecognizable words, except for the dozen or so times she mentioned Bobby's name.
Jim was less concerned with Mary and his other sisters, Carol and Virginia, than he was with his mother, whom he called after hanging up with Mary.
Ann was sitting at her small kitchen table sipping a cup of tea and staring out the window when the phone rang. She was calm, the news stories having less effect on her than they had on her children.
``You know I spoke to the detective over the weekend, Jim,'' she told her son.
``I know, Mom. I think, with the stories in the paper, it's hitting everyone pretty hard.''
``We need to have faith, Jim. Let's have faith that she went somewhere to clear her mind. Medical school is very difficult. Let's have faith she'll soon come back, with a big, happy smile.''
``Mom, it wasn't medical school that was bothering her. It was her husband. You know that. If she ran, it was because of him. And when she comes back, she's going to have to leave him. Understand?''
Ann didn't respond. Divorce wasn't an option in her mind. Married couples always stuck it out, even if only one of the spouses was Catholic.
Jim left it alone and promised his mother he'd call her later in the day, or earlier if there was any news.
Two hours later he was on the phone with Mike Struk and he had a story to tell, something he'd failed to tell Struk when they first spoke on Saturday.
``Detective, my sister gave me a folder to mail several months ago. Inside, there were documents, Bobby's tax returns and other financial statements,'' said Jim. ``She wanted me to send them to her lawyer. She said Bobby had falsified his income tax statements and she was going to use this to get her settlement.''
``Her divorce settlement. She hired an attorney and was planning to file for divorce.''
``You're telling me that your sister was filing for a divorce?''
``Yeah, she gave me a folder and told me to send it with Purolator Courier. It went to her first lawyer, but nothing came of it. Kathie said the lawyer was bought off by Bobby, so she hired another attorney.''
``Who was the first attorney?''
``I don't remember.''
``Who was the second attorney?''
``Her name is Dale Ragus.''
``When did your sister serve Bobby with papers?''
``She didn't,'' said Jim. ``She was planning to, but never did. She should have. That guy has some problems.''
``What kind of problems?''
``Aside from the violence? He's loaded, right? Has more money than God, yet he has this thing for shoplifting. He just takes stuff. Remember that last transit strike? Kathie told me Bobby would go down to the lobby of their building and take the tenants' bicycles. He'd just take them downtown to work and leave them there. I think it's all that pot he smokes.''
``At least several joints a day. He's addicted to the stuff.''
THAT same morning, some thirty miles to the northeast of Manhattan in Fairfield County, Connecticut, Eleanor Schwank was desperately trying to get her two children through breakfast and off to school when she received a call from Gilberte Najamy, who was beside herself.
``Did you see the paper? Did you see the paper?'' screamed Gilberte.
``No,'' said Eleanor.
``Go get the Daily News! She's on the front page! Bobby is offering a one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward!''
``What? Who's in the paper?''
``It's Kathie, it's Kathie!''
Eleanor asked Gilberte to read the story.
``It says that Bobby went to the police on Friday and that she was last seen in Manhattan on Monday, February first. An elevator guy saw her after she called in sick to her school.''
``Where, what elevator guy saw her?''
``Riverside Drive, the penthouse. He took her up.''
``And Bobby went to the police? Where?''
``The Twentieth Precinct, Detective Michael Struk is investigating. They're saying it's a missing-persons case. It says Bobby's offering a one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward to find her!''
``No, no, no!'' said Eleanor, who then hung up the phone, ran out of her house with her two children, dropped them off at school, then stopped by a grocery store for copies of the News and Post. She raced home and called Gilberte.
Eleanor, like Gilberte, had met Kathie Durst while studying nursing at Western Connecticut State College in Danbury. Eleanor was ten years older than her friends and married, with two small children. Over the past week Eleanor, Gilberte, and two other friends, Kathy Traystman and Ellen Strauss, had spoken every day on the phone, hoping for some news of Kathie.
Now Eleanor held the papers out in front of her.
``How did they get these photos of Kathie?''
``I got them,'' said Gilberte, who told Eleanor she had traveled into Manhattan on Monday with pictures of Kathie and visited the <I>News<$> and the <I>Post,<$> hoping they might publish her photograph somewhere in the paper.
Gilberte said she had no idea Kathie's smiling face would be on page one.
Eleanor was equally surprised, not that the photos were on page one but that Gilberte had gone into New York the day before without telling her.
Gilberte had other secrets about her friend Kathie Durst; some she knew she could never reveal to Eleanor, others she was ready to disclose.
``Eleanor, I went to the house.''
``South Salem. I broke in Sunday night. I threw a rock through the side door, broke the window, and let myself in.''
``No, you didn't do that. Please don't tell me you did that.''
Gilberte described, in detail, how she had gone to the stone cottage with her sister, Fadwa, arriving around 7 p.m. She rang the bell, but no one answered. She returned to the car and sat there for forty-five minutes. She wanted to get into the house, and told her sister she was going to break in. Fadwa tried to talk Gilberte out of it, but Gilberte was like a woman possessed. She got out of the car and walked through the snow and around to the side door. It was dark, the only faint light coming from several homes on the other side of Lake Truesdale.
Gilberte pushed away some snow from the ground and picked up a rock. She looked around, then flung the rock through the door window. She reached in and turned the lock, opened the door, and let herself in.
``Are you crazy?'' said Eleanor.
``Eleanor, you have to hear this,'' said Gilberte, who continued her story. She had been inside the house many times before and knew the layout well. It was small, to some people claustrophobically so, maybe 1,200 square feet in total. The kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom on the main floor, another bedroom and mudroom downstairs, which offered access to the backyard and pier.
While Gilberte was in the mudroom she looked inside the washing machine and dryer. They were empty. She checked the hamper, hoping to find Kathie's sweatpants and sweatshirt, the clothes she'd worn to her party on Sunday.
The clothes weren't there.
Gilberte then walked upstairs and through the bedroom, living room, and kitchen. Everything seemed to be in order. Najamy was looking for something, any sign of a struggle, maybe even blood. But the house was crisp and clean. As Gilberte tiptoed around the kitchen, she noticed there was mail inside a plastic garbage can next to the sink. She reached over and picked it up. Her eyes opened wide. It was Kathie's mail. And it was unopened.
``Why would Bobby throw out her mail?''
``I don't know. But I found something, a small sheet of paper. It was an itinerary of some kind, in Bobby's scribbled handwriting. It listed days and times, from Monday to Wednesday. And I found a receipt for boots Bobby bought on February third.''
``Why would he write up an itinerary?'' said Eleanor.
Gilberte didn't have any answers. More important to her was the condition of the house.
``Eleanor, I think there's something very wrong. The house was clean. Too clean, pristine. It looked like someone even scrubbed the floors.''
Kathie wasn't much of a housekeeper, that much was certain, often leaving clothes lying around or dishes in the sink.
``What about the housekeeper? What's her name? Janet. Janet Finke.''
``I don't know. But I've never seen the house like this,'' said Gilberte. ``There's more, Eleanor. I spoke with Bobby this morning. He said the reward was really ten thousand dollars. Somehow the papers screwed it up. He also said he was devastated.''
``Cheap bastard. That's all she's worth to him?'' said Eleanor. ``And he's not the least bit `devastated.' I don't believe it.''
``He thinks she had some kind of breakdown.''
``No, Gilberte. He killed her. I know he did.''
MICHAEL Burns sat inside the small, mirrored room, tapping his forefinger on the thick wooden table under the watchful eye of Mike Struk.
Burns had been summoned to the Twentieth Precinct by Struk, who called Burns at his Mount Vernon home the day before. Burns knew the request to talk about Kathie Durst was more like a command, so he obliged.
Before the meeting Struk had run a background check that showed Burns had no criminal record. As he sat there tapping his finger on the table, Burns looked around the room while Struk pretended to be reading through a file. He wanted Burns to be nervous. The first few questions were perfunctory, such as age and occupation. Burns said he was thirty-two years old and unemployed.
``So, tell me how you met Mrs. Durst.''
``At a party, at the Dursts' penthouse, last summer.''
``Who invited you to the party?''
``I don't remember.''
``You became friendly with Mrs. Durst?''
``Yeah. She seemed lonely. We went out for dinner a couple of times.''
``Did you ever spend the night with her?''
``You mean did I fuck her? No. I spent a couple of nights there, but that was because I was too drunk to go home. We were just friends.''
``Did you ever supply Mrs. Durst with cocaine?''
Burns crunched his lips together, turned his head, and rolled his eyes.
``Detective, don't waste my time. You called me down here, so just ask me your questions. Did we ever have sex? No. Do I deal drugs? No. Did Kathie do drugs? Yes. She used a lot of cocaine, maybe two, three grams a week. Where she got it, I don't know. Did she have a fucked-up marriage? Yes. Bobby Durst is an asshole. He was beating the shit out of her. She kept talking about leaving him, but she never did. She had the other apartment on Eighty-sixth Street. She'd use that sometimes. But she stayed with him, even after she found out about his affair.''
``And what affair was that?'' said Struk.
``Prudence Farrow. She's the sister of that actress, Mia Farrow. You know, the Beatles song `Dear Prudence'? Bobby was plugging her.''
``Mrs. Durst told you that?''
``Yeah, she said Prudence would call her at home demanding that she let Bobby go. It fucked her up.''
``Is this recent?''
``Maybe a few months ago. I think Bobby was pretty hot and heavy with Farrow. At least that's what Kathie said. She had enough. She wanted out. But she wanted some money out of it and Bobby said no. She had nothing, not even a dime. She wanted a settlement, but he wouldn't even give her money to live on. She's married to a millionaire and begging her friends for a few bucks. It was pathetic.''
``I understand you told one of Mrs. Durst's friends to just leave her alone, that--what were your words?--that `she's had enough.'''
``I told that to Gilberte Najamy. She kept pushing Kathie to get a divorce. She was a wreck. She thought Bobby would kill her. I wish I knew where Kathie was right now. I'd tell her to stay there.''
Struk nodded, closed his file, and thanked Burns for coming in. Burns left the precinct with the understanding that he might be called again for more questioning.
Upstairs, in the squad room, Gibbons was ending his phone conversation with attorney Dale Ragus. Struk had called her earlier in the day at her office, wanting to talk about the documents Jim McCormack had sent her.
Gibbons handled the interview with Ragus himself, one of the many reasons he was so well liked by his men. Interviews and other legwork were usually left to the rank and file. But Gibbons was different. He didn't mind getting his hands dirty. Instead of telling Ragus to call back later, he grabbed a notebook and pencil and began asking questions.
Ragus said she was with the firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy, a major New York law firm, and had been Kathie's attorney since June 1981. Kathie was in the midst of a protracted negotiation on a divorce settlement, a negotiation that was heavily one-sided.
``She wanted what she thought to be a reasonable settlement given they were married for eight years,'' said Ragus.
``Around four hundred and fifty thousand dollars.''
That was a drop in the bucket for a guy like Bobby Durst, thought Gibbons. Why would he hold out?
Ragus couldn't answer that question. She said that in recent months Kathie had feared for her life, and relayed to Ragus harrowing stories of beatings and mental abuse.
``She thought he would kill her,'' said Ragus.
``Can you tell me about the documents her brother sent you?''
``Lieutenant, I wish I could, but that's attorney/client privilege. I can tell you this, Lieutenant. Kathie was scared. She was very scared of her husband. And for good reason. Do you know about the dogs?''
``Kathie said her husband has a dog, Igor. It's a husky, or something like that. Igor is the fifth or sixth dog he's had. The others died. Kathie said they all died from mysterious deaths. One choked, another accidentally drowned, and so on.''
``Did she say he killed them?''
``She didn't know. But the way she told the story, if I was a dog, I wouldn't want Bobby Durst as my master.''
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