Case Of The Missing Head

On the streets of Galveston, the mysterious drifter--seemingly a mute woman--was known as Dorothy Ciner. But under the ill-fitting wig, in reality, was Robert Durst, a fabulously rich New York real-estate heir, living on the lam. Renting a $300-a-month apartment on Avenue K, Durst became pals with a neighbor across the hall, Morris Black, a peppery old seaman. Then came a bitter falling-out. In the fall of 2001, the dissected remains of Black, 71, were discovered by a boy fishing in Galveston Bay. Charged with murder, Durst acknowledged chopping Black's body into pieces, a chore he said left him "swimming in blood." But he claimed the killing was accidental, telling jurors Black had brandished a gun in a quarrel at Durst's place; the two men struggled and the gun fired, killing Black. Durst carved up the body with a bow saw, he explained, because he was in a panic--and fogged by drinking a fifth of Southern Comfort and smoking pot. To prosecutors, it seemed a farfetched explanation. But in a stunning verdict reached last week, the Texas jury voted to acquit. Even Durst seemed astounded, his mouth falling open. Finally he smiled and whispered to his lawyers, "Thank you so much."

Durst remains in jail on a bail-jumping charge. But with two years already served, he could soon become a free man. Now members of Durst's own family, terrified that he might be coming after them next, say he's gotten away with murder--three times. His first wife, Kathleen, vanished in 1982. Durst slipped away to Galveston after prosecutors re-opened the case. His old friend and spokeswoman, Susan Berman, was gunned down in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve 2000--just as she was about to be queried about the Kathleen Durst case.

Authorities say they don't have enough evidence to bring charges against Durst in those cases, at least for now, but within his family, there is little doubt. "He'll kill again," Durst's younger brother Thomas told reporters. "Bob is a madman." They say there is reason to believe Durst has a vendetta against his family. Durst felt betrayed in 1994 when his father, Seymour, entrusted the leadership of the Durst Organization--a multibillion-dollar concern that has built many of Manhattan's skyscrapers--to another son, Douglas, passing Robert over. When police arrested Durst in Pennsylvania in 2001, where he fled from Galveston after the Black killing, they found a spiral notebook penned in his trademark green ink. There were ominous references to "DD+," the nickname for his brother Douglas. "What DD is doing to me, puts me in the same place, as what Kathy did to me," investigators said Durst wrote.

Before she vanished, Kathy Durst told friends she was going to divorce Robert. One of her friends, Gilberte Najamy, has been telling reporters for 20 years that Kathy feared her husband would harm her. "I'm waging psychological warfare on Bobby," Najamy told NEWSWEEK. Prosecutors expressed alarm that Durst's notebook included directions to Najamy's workplace. Also found in Durst's car were two handguns, a list of aliases and an assortment of photos: his dogs and his missing first wife, and a newspaper ad for discount hotels.

Despite the suspicions around Durst in the disappearance of his first wife, and the murder of his confidante, defense lawyer Dick DeGeurin says prosecutors "don't have a case." After the trial, jurors said Black's missing head--it was never recovered--complicated the case. They credited the defense lawyers with a plausible explanation. "The defense told us a story and stuck to it," juror Chris Lovell told reporters. All the same, the jurors say Durst gives them the creeps. One of them, Robbie Clavac, said that if she saw him walking down the street, "I would turn and walk the other way." To hear Durst's family, it might be a better idea to run.