‘The Jinx’ left prosecutors in the dust: (USA Today)

By Gregory Wallance


March 18, 2015

HBO documentary did something law enforcement failed to do — break open Durst case.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this column misidentified the stepson who gave filmmakers a letter. It was Berman’s stepson.

On Sunday night, HBO aired the final episode in its documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, about real-estate dynasty scion Robert Durst, long suspected in several murders.

The previous day Durst, 71, had been arrested in New Orleans on a warrant for a murder charge in Los Angeles. The timing was hardly a coincidence because The Jinxhad unearthed key evidence against Durst.

How good was the investigative reporting by The Jinx? Let’s put it this way: If it turned out that The Jinx was a professional law enforcement operation, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest (in fact, it’s likely to be a Durst defense theme). The Jinxshould be incorporated into law enforcement training because, while prosecutors had been unsuccessfully chasing Durst, The Jinx producers adroitly used law enforcement techniques to break the case open.

Durst’s life reads like a cross between Creepshow and American Psycho, a mélange of a privileged New York upbringing, a chillingly weird personality, and a trail of bodies.

In 1982, in New York, Durst’s wife disappeared. In 2000, in Los Angeles, a longtime friend, Susan Berman, who may have had information about Durst’s wife’s disappearance, was herself found killed execution style. In 2001, in Texas, Durst was arrested after the triple-plastic wrapped body parts of a neighbor were found floating in Galveston Bay, where Durst was living disguised as a mute woman. He skipped bail but was found when he was accused of shoplifting a chicken-salad sandwich in Pennsylvania.

Durst admitted to killing the neighbor and dismembering the body with two saws and an ax but claimed self-defense. The jury acquitted him of murder, and he pleaded guilty to evidence tampering (read, carving up the neighbor) and spent three years in prison.

Enter documentary director Andrew Jarecki, who did what the prosecutors, for all their investigative powers and resources, had been unable to do for three decades. He assembled a courtroom-ready case against Durst.

One art of the investigator is establishing the kind of investigative integrity that persuades witnesses to come forward. One such witness was Berman’s stepson. On the day of Berman’s killing, Beverly Hills police had received an unsigned note stating that there was a “cadaver” in Berman’s home. A handwriting analysis performed in 2003 was inconclusive. Berman’s stepson, obviously trusting the filmmakers, gave them a letter that Durst had written to Berman in which the writing appeared similar, if not identical, to the “cadaver” note (including an identical misspelling in both documents, “Beverley”).

Good investigators do careful forensic work. The Jinx team found a handwriting expert and provided him with about 40 specimens of Durst’s handwriting. After examining the documents the expert, John Osborn, opined of the note and letter, “I would say they’re pretty bang-on. These characteristics are unique to one person and only one person,”i.e., Durst.

Finally, the Jarecki team not only persuaded Durst to be interviewed, but did what every criminal investigator has dreamed of doing since Perry Mason — obtain a confession by a dramatic confrontation of the suspect.

In a taped interview, Jarecki first asked a series of largely innocuous questions, a tactic that investigators use to put the suspect off his guard. Then, Jarecki showed Durst the note and letter, both with the misspelling, “Beverley.” Durst denied having written the anonymous note but was clearly shaken. The interview ended, and wisely, no one offered to remove or turn off the tiny microphone that Durst had been fitted with for the interview.

Durst then went to the bathroom, still wearing a live mike, and began talking to himself.“I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do?” He then answered, “Killed them all of course.”

While a mini-controversy among lawyers has developed over whether the bathroom confession will be admitted at Durst’s trial, my bet is that the jury will hear the confession because Durst, knowing the purpose of the interview, had no motive to falsely incriminate himself.

It helped that the filmmakers were dealing with an untalented Mr. Ripley. But give them credit for topnotch investigative work that is an embarrassment to homicide investigators and prosecutors in three states.