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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Real-Estate Heir Charged With Murdering Drifter

Aired August 25, 2003 - 19:34   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: The strange case of a real estate millionaire accused of murder goes to jury selection in Galveston tomorrow. Robert Durst is going on trial for the shooting death of a drifter 20 years after he was also investigated for the disappearance of his first wife.
But as we're about to hear from CNN's Ed Lavandera, what happened in between the two events may be even stranger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Robert Durst is part of New York's wealthy elite set. His family owns millions of dollars worth of Manhattan skyscrapers.

But two years ago, Durst was living in this ground level apartment in Galveston, Texas. No one knew who he was. because he arrived dressed as a woman, and claiming his name was Dorothy Signer (ph).

Authorities say in late September of 2001 Durst murdered his 71- year-old apartment neighbor, Morris Black. Court documents say Durst, who was 58 at the time, sliced the victim's body into pieces, put them in trash bags and then dumped the bags in Galveston Bay. Defense attorneys admit Durst killed Morris Black but that the millionaire acted in self-defense after both men got into an argument.

Still, authorities seem confident there is plenty of evidence to convict Durst of murder.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was blood evidence in the apartment, neighbors had seen the resident from Apartment 2 unloading -- or loading garbage bags into his vehicle the previous day.

LAVANDERA: Durst lived in Apartment 2, but it's not exactly clear why he even moved to Galveston. Several published reports suggest he came to Texas after New York authorities started looking into Durst's possible involvement with his own wife's mysterious disappearance in 1982.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Dallas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, joining me now, Ellen Strauss, who was a friend of Robert Durst's first wife before she disappeared and Matt Birbeck, who's in Allentown, Pennsylvania tonight. He wrote "A Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathy Durst."

Appreciate both of you joining us.

Matt, let me start off with you. This trial -- I mean, there is blood evidence. How likely is a conviction?

MATT BIRKBECK, AUTHOR, "A DEADLY SECRET": Well, they're going to have to prove that it was murder. I mean, they have the blood evidence. And they have, you know, evidence involving, you know...

COOPER: Well, I mean, they have the torso. They have -- which led back to his address and he's claiming self-defense. I mean, is it going to be hard -- I mean, I imagine it's going to be hard to argue self-defense when he carved up the body.

BIRKBECK: It is. Well, what they are going to say is that he -- because he -- he basically freaked out for the most part and carved up the body and dumped it into the bay. And basically that's what they're going say.

COOPER: Ellen, I mean, I know it's such a bizarre story this whole thing, but this, I guess, doesn't come as much surprise to you. You knew Mr. Durst's first wife, Kathy, who disappeared in 1982.

ELLEN STRAUSS, FRIEND OF DURST'S FORMER WIFE: Yes, right at the beginning of the year.

COOPER: And before she disappeared, I mean, she said something very chilling to you. What did she say?

STRAUSS: She says if anything happens to me, Bobby did it. And she said it many times and she used to call me when I was at law school and she was in medical school because of her fears and because she knew that there was...

COOPER: She claimed that he was abusing her, that he was beating her?

STRAUSS: Yes. And she was also very concerned about the fact that at the time he had physically attacked a photographer friend of hers after an evening when they were all out.

And she wanted to divorce him. She -- they maintained separate apartments. But they always managed to get back together.

COOPER: What was her appeal to this guy?

STRAUSS: I have no idea. I only met him once briefly in passing. And I really did not form an opinion. I just remember him walking by, someone introduced me. It was at her graduation party.

COOPER: But Matt...

STRAUSS: I think she was in love with him at the beginning.

COOPER: She was in love with him. Matt, I mean, police investigated him, he was never charged with this disappearance of his first wife. He says he basically put her on her train, said good-bye to her and that was the last anything was ever seen of her. Is there a possibility that he could be brought up on charges back in Westchester once this thing in Texas is dealt with?

BIRKBECK: Well, the evidence is there and it's been there for 20 years. It is up to the district attorney in Westchester County, Jeanine Pirro. You know, as revealed in the book, you know, Miss Durst actually went home the night that she disappeared to confront her husband and her husband, before he actually reported her missing, had told several people that she was gone.

So as I said, the evidence is there. It's up to the district attorney.

COOPER: Who is -- Matt, who is Robert Durst? I mean, there are stories -- you know, he apparently allegedly rented this apartment. He was claimed to be a mute woman. He was cross dressing, I suppose. You know, they say he's a millionaire. He frequented homeless shelters. I mean, there is so many sort of mysterious, enigmatic things going on. Do you have a sense of who this guy is?

BIRKBECK: Well, he is an enigmatic and just bizarre -- he grew up with wealth. He grew up, though, more or less -- a quiet fellow, had a midlevel job within the Durst Organization. And then after his wife disappeared, basically dropped out of sight, continuing to work for the Durst Organization, but he was never really kind of a high roller or high profile guy. But what's interesting, though is that he's been assuming identities for at least 20 years. And he's been traveling the country.

COOPER: But do we know for what purpose? Or is it just -- this is sort of what he does?

BIRKBECK: Well, this is what he's been doing and this is one of the problems in that there are three investigations going on now. One in Galveston, the one in New York and the one in Los Angeles. They've all been focused on their own cases. No one has taken a global look at Robert Durst. That's happening now in northern California, where there are now two new cases.

COOPER: And Ellen, you want justice.

STRAUSS: Absolutely. And closure, too and so does the family.

COOPER: For your former friend, for Kathy.

STRAUSS: For my friend, for her family, for all of us.

COOPER: We appreciate you coming in. I know it was a long way. I appreciate you coming -- taking the time to speak about your friend Kathy and Matt, appreciate you coming in as well. It's a fascinating case. We'll be following it.

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