LOS ANGELES (AP) – The California murder case against New York real estate heir Robert Durst took a trip back in time Tuesday to the mysterious disappearance of his first wife in 1982.
Prosecutors seeking to get testimony on the record from elderly witnesses and those who fear Durst could have them whacked began calling witnesses in Los Angeles Superior Court even before a judge rules whether the aging mogul goes to trial in the 2000 killing of Susan Berman, his best friend.
Dr. Albert Kuperman, 85, a retired associate dean at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, testified that Durst’s wife, Kathleen, was a bright, attractive, smartly dressed medical student.
On Feb. 1, 1982, Kuperman got a call from a woman who identified herself as Kathie Durst and said she was sick with diarrhea and a headache and wouldn’t make it to her first day of a pediatrics clerkship in her final year of medical school.
The call was long believed to be the last conversation anyone had with Kathie Durst. But Deputy District Attorney John Lewin suggested while interrogating Durst two years ago that someone else placed the call.
Durst told Lewin that filmmakers who interviewed him extensively for the six-part HBO series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” thought Berman posed as Kathie Durst on the call. Durst disputed that and said Berman never would have made the call.
Durst was arrested two years ago on the murder charge in New Orleans just before the final episode of “The Jinx” aired in which he is heard muttering to himself on a live microphone: “You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Durst, 73, has denied killing either woman, and his lawyers have said it’s absurd to suggest he could have witnesses knocked off. He has pleaded not guilty to one count of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Berman in her Los Angeles house just before Christmas 2000.
Berman and Durst had been close friends since they attended the University of California, Los Angeles. Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster and a writer, acted as Durst’s unofficial spokeswoman after his wife’s disappearance.
Prosecutors contend Durst killed her because he thought she was going to speak with police about Kathie Durst’s disappearance. Kathie Durst was never found, but Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian said Tuesday authorities believe it’s a “no-body homicide.”
When defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin objected to that term, Balian snapped, “Do you have her body?”
Durst, who is frail and hunched, walked into court Tuesday after making previous entrances in a wheelchair. He turned slowly and scanned the gallery packed with reporters.
One face he may have recognized was New York Times writer Charles Bagli, who has covered the case since Kathie Durst disappeared.
DeGuerin asked the judge to boot Bagli from the courtroom because he may be called to testify.
Bagli has previously interviewed a “secret witness,” who has not yet been named because of concerns for his safety and is expected to testify Wednesday. DeGuerin doesn’t want Bagli to hear that “sensational testimony” because it could influence his own testimony about conflicting accounts the witness has provided.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said the courtroom should be open to the press, and he asked for a full hearing on the matter.
Judge Mark Windham allowed Bagli to stay in the courtroom for Kuperman’s testimony and said he would take up the other matter later.
A New York Times spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment.
Windham is allowing the rare conditional testimony for older witnesses and a couple who fear for their safety. The testimony recorded on video would only be used if the witness couldn’t appear at trial.
Windham won’t decide until a preliminary hearing, tentatively scheduled for October, whether Durst even goes to trial.
Kuperman testified throughout the day as Balian tried to show Kathie Durst was a good student who was close to graduating and making career plans in medicine.
But DeGuerin provided records showing she had a spotty attendance, had dropped out of three clerkships in one year and her absences had drawn the attention of a fellow dean.
Kuperman, who has been interviewed by various detectives and prosecutors over three decades, said it was strange Kathie Durst called him and not the chief resident of the clerkship she was to start that day. But until recent years when he was re-interviewed, he had never questioned that it was her on the phone.
Asked by DeGuerin if Lewin had planted that seed of doubt, Kuperman replied: “I think that’s when it began to gel.”