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March 2015

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood

Part Seven: Murder, He Wrote
also read • Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart Six

By J. R. de Szigethy


     Once again, New York City real estate multi-millionaire Robert Durst has been arrested for yet another murder of someone whom he knew very well; the Mafia journalist Susan Berman, who was killed inside her Hollywood home on Christmas Eve in the year 2000. This development comes 12 long years after Part One of this series revealed Durst as a suspect in this murder, and also detailed the still unsolved murder of Anthony Fox, actor Johnny Depp’s business partner in the Viper Room nightclub. Fox disappeared during the Christmas season of 2001 and since has been declared legally dead. His body has not yet been found.

     The arrest for the murder of Berman was the direct result of a bold and somewhat controversial HBO documentary series entitled: “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” One key piece of evidence revealed was the envelope to a letter sent from Durst to Berman in which Durst misspelled the city of Beverly Hills. This incorrect spelling was identical to a letter mailed to the Beverly Hills Police Department the day before Berman was murdered, informing them that there was a dead body inside her home. Once confronted with both envelopes, Durst admitted writing the one to Berman but denied sending the one to the cops. At that point, Durst left the filming to go the bathroom, unaware that his body mike was still on, which caught him mumbling to himself: “There it is, you’re caught.” “What the Hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” (1)

     Despite the results of Producer Andrew Jarecki’s work product, Jarecki and HBO find themselves attacked on two fronts; First, members of law enforcement are attempting to take more credit for Durst’s arrest than some believe they deserve. (2) Secondly, some in the Media have questioned the Ethics and practices of the HBO crew during the filming of the documentary up to the arrest of Durst, which occurred the day before the final installment of the series was broadcast. (3)

     Not complaining about Jarecki and associates will be the family and friends of Susan Berman, Morris Black, whom Durst dismembered in Galveston in 2001, and Kathleen Durst, the heir’s first wife who disappeared without a trace in January, 1982. Durst was arrested in October of 2001 after authorities found the body parts of Durst’s neighbor Black in the waters outside Galveston. Durst quickly posted the $300,000 Bail with the help of his new wife, a real estate broker from New York whom had quietly married Durst on December 11, 2000, less than 2 weeks before Durst allegedly murdered Berman. (4) Once out on Bail, Durst fled Texas, but was arrested a few weeks later in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a chicken sandwich, despite the fact that there was over $30,000 in the trunk of his car. (5)

     Once on trial back in Texas, Durst told the jury that he shot Black in self defense and uttered 2 sentences that will live in criminal case Infamy: “I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him.” Conveniently for Durst’s defense, authorities never found the head of Morris Black. If the gunshot wound was to his face, that would support Durst’ self-defense claim. If shot to the back of the head, however, as was the case with Susan Berman, that would suggest otherwise.

     During Closing Arguments one of Durst’s lawyers had the audacity to blame New York Prosecutor Jeanine Pirro for the events that led Durst to dismember Black. "If Ms. Pirro had kept her mouth shut," the lawyer told the jury, "none of this would have happened!" (6) Pirro, the District Attorney in New York’s Westchester County where Durst’s wife Kathleen disappeared, had, in the year 2000, re-opened the investigation into the presumed murder of Kathleen Durst. Robert Durst responded by taking two daring acts; one was disguising himself as a woman, calling herself “Dorothy,” and renting a hideout apartment in Galveston, whereupon he met his neighbor Black, whom “Dorothy" became friendly with while Durst was monitoring the progress of Pirro’s investigation. The other act, Prosecutors will likely later allege, is that the newly remarried Durst traveled to California to murder his friend Susan Berman, whom, he believed, would be forced by Subpoena to testify before Pirro’s Grand Jury. While Berman had steadfastly defended Durst over the years, Pirro wanted to know if Durst had in the interim made any incriminating statements regarding his wife’s disappearance. Given the evidence revealed in the HBO broadcast regarding Durst’s letters and his own remarks caught on tape, Pirro’s suspicions over a decade ago were indeed well -founded. Alas, Pirro’s investigation was hampered once Berman was murdered.

     Durst’s next arrest would be in August, 2013 when he faced a Trespassing charge for twice walking up to the home of one of his nephews in Midtown, Manhattan. On one occasion, he glared menacingly into the security camera monitoring his behavior. Prior to his arrest in 2001 in Pennsylvania while on the lam, Durst had also pulled his rented car into the driveway of his brother in Westchester County. (7) When that car was searched upon Durst’s shoplifting arrest, inside the trunk were 2 guns and the directions to the house where Kathie Durst’s friend Gilberte Najamy lived. Kathie Durst had visited Najamy’s home on the night before she vanished, complaining as she frequently had that her husband abused her and that she feared for her life. Once Kathie vanished, Najamy led a widely-publicized campaign blaming Durst for the disappearance and presumed murder of her friend. The murder of Susan Berman made Najamy the most important Prosecution Witness still alive for any potential Prosecution of Durst regarding his wife’s presumed murder. (8) Durst’s final arrest before the HBO series was in Houston in July, 2014 for urinating on the cash register and a candy display in a CVS drug store. (9)

     Currently, Durst is being held in New Orleans on weapons and drug charges. As a convicted felon, for jumping Bail and fleeing Texas, Durst is forbidden to possess a firearm. Durst was also caught with a quantity of marijuana. Durst can be first tried in Louisiana for those charges, which could send him to prison for the rest of his natural life, or the authorities could send him first to California, where one option in the case of the murder of Susan Berman is the Death Penalty.

     Susan Berman made her career writing about what she new from her own personal experience; the American Mafia. Susan was the daughter of David Berman, who with Mafia figure "Bugsy" Siegel co-owned the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas during the 1950s. Berman was a book author, producer, investigative journalist, and screenwriter. Berman wrote the Mob books "Easy Street" and "Lady Las Vegas" and was a dual writer/producer at the San Francisco radio station KPIX. Berman also wrote as a journalist for New York Magazine and the Francis Ford Coppola Magazine. At the time of her murder Berman was working on a screenplay for Showtime's hit sitcom "Sin City." (10)

     Susan Berman was killed with a single gunshot wound to the back of her head. There was no sign of forced entry into her home, which suggested she was shot by someone she knew, and the fact that the gunshot was to the back of her head suggested she trusted the murderer enough to turn her back on that person. In the months before her murder Susan Berman solicited from - and received - substantial gifts of cash from Robert Durst. To some, the money might appear to be that of a loan from a friend. To those in law enforcement investigating Berman's murder, as well as the donor, such payments could be construed to be the result of blackmail. (11)

     The murder of Susan Berman is one of two murders chronicled in this series for over a decade. The other is that of Anthony Fox, who disappeared during the Christmas season in 2001. The presumed murder of Fox involves a Sunset Strip nightclub that has been the setting for drug dealing going back to the 1940s. During that time, the club was called the Melody Room, a venue controlled by Mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen and their associates, including David Berman. In the 1970s the club was called Filthy McNasty’s. In the 1980s the club was called The Central and attracted celebrities such as John Belushi and The Who’s John Entwhistle. (12)

     By the 1990s The Central was in decline until owner Anthony Fox was approached by a rising star in Hollywood, Johnny Depp. At that time in 1993 Depp's career was taking off and he would use his celebrity to turn 'The Viper Room' into the hippest and trendiest nightclub on the Sunset Strip. From the beginning, as in its previous incarnations, The Viper Room was a place that attracted drug abusers. The logo for the Viper Room on merchandise sold there depicted a female snake seated atop a pair of dice, in a posture that seemingly allures her prey to be injected with her venom. On Halloween Eve, 1993 Johnny Depp's friend River Phoenix took such a 'roll of the dice' and died after convulsing from the drugs he ingested inside the Viper Room. River Phoenix was 23 years young.

     One of those doing drugs that night in the Viper Room was Bob Forrest, a musician in the rock band Thelonious Monster. After nearly dying himself from drugs, Forrest finally kicked his drug habit and wrote about it in the acclaimed book “Running with Monsters.” In that book, Forrest details his life as a junkie and the final hours of the life of River Phoenix. Forrest also details the world of the drug culture in the acclaimed documentary “Bob and the Monster,” and how he transformed himself into a renown drug counselor helping others beat their addiction to drugs.

     The Viper Room came into being through the formation of a business venture between Anthony Fox and Johnny Depp which was named Safe in Heaven Dead Productions, Incorporated. The name comes from a book of interviews with author Jack Kerouac, who, with his pals Neal Cassady and poet Allen Ginsberg were founding members of the “Beat Generation” in the 1950s which advocated the abuse of drugs, which would lead to the early deaths of Kerouac and Cassady. Depp maintained a friendship with Ginsberg until his death in 1997, as well as the man who picked up the mantel of the “Beats,” Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson. (13) Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, authored 2 books adapted for movies starring Depp, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “The Rum Diary.”

     By the end of the 1990s the relationship between Johnny Depp and Anthony Fox had soured, with Fox filing a lawsuit alleging that Johnny Depp had diverted profits from the accounts shared with Fox to those controlled by Depp and others. According to a preliminary Court ruling: "Defendant Depp . . . breached his fiduciary duties to the corporation and to Fox as a minority shareholder. The facts establish persistent and pervasive fraud and mismanagement and abuse of authority." (14)

     While lawyers for both sides were battling it out over the lawsuit, two things happened; Johnny Depp moved to France and Anthony Fox disappeared. It would seem odd to some that Fox, the single parent of a daughter to whom he was deeply devoted, would just vanish on his own, particularly given that it appeared he would win his legal battle with Depp.

     In Depp's case, he had met a woman with whom he wanted to start a family. For many years Depp lived there quietly, hanging out with friends such as Roman Polanski and Marilyn Manson, while evolving into the enormously successful movie star he is today. (15) Meanwhile, attorneys for Depp very quietly settled the lawsuit, signing over Depp’s interests in the Viper Room to Anthony Fox’s daughter, who sold her share to a respected and up-scale consortium of real estate developers.

     Curiously, the Wikipedia page devoted to Johnny Depp does not have a single citation regarding his ownership of the Viper Room, nor the death of River Phoenix there, nor the lawsuit won by co-owner Anthony Fox, nor his subsequent murder.

EPILOGUE

     With all of Robert Durst’s millions at his disposal, it is not expected that he will go out quietly. His lawyers are already proclaiming his innocence, and if the case regarding Susan Berman’s murder goes to trial, this will certainly turn into yet another Media circus.

     The evidence in this case pretty much comes down to the fact that Durst, for all his education and wealth, could not spell the name of the city “Beverly Hills,” the place where Susan Berman lived, and died. If Berman is to find Justice in this case, then it is altogether fitting, indeed, Ironic, that her murder will be solved by how she lived; through the writing of words; in this case, a single word - mis-spelled.

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J. R. de Szigethy can be reached at: e-writer10065@nyc.rr.com

Related Features by this Author:

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood Part Six: The Vigil Continues
http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_405.html

A Christmas Murder in Hollywood, Part Five: Cold Cases Remain Cold
http://americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_370.html

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood Part Four: Another Tragic Anniversary
http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_329.html

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part Three: Another Tragic Anniversary
http://americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_285.html

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part Two: The Bizarre World of Club Culture
http://americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_256.html

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part One
http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_255.html

The Agony of Ecstasy: The Fall of Sammy Gravano and Peter Gatien
http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_237.html

Christmas in Murdertown:
The Mafia Conspiracy that Stunned America
http://americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_3.html

Related Features by this author:

Notes

1. “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” by HBO. 2015 http://www.thejinxhbo.com/
2. “Millionaire Robert Durst Faces Murder Charge After Broadcast,” by Janet McConnaughey and Brian Melley. The Associated Press, March 16, 2015.
3. “Irresistible TV, but Durst Film Tests Ethics, Too,” by Jonathan Mahler. The New York Times, March 16, 2015.
4. “The Secret Wedding of Durst and Gal Pal,” by Robert Ingrassia. The New York Daily News, December 21, 2001.
5. “Durst Waives Extradition to Texas Trial in Murder,” by Charles V. Bagli. The New York Times, January 26, 2002.
6. “In Wild Close, Durst Case Goes to Jury,” by Richard T. Pienciak. The New York Daily News, November 6, 2003.
7. “New Charge for Durst as FBI Sifts Past,” by Charles V. Bagli and Joseph Goldstein. The New York Times, August 17, 2013.
8. “His Next ‘Victim’ -He Had Directions to Dead Wife’s Pal,” by Andrea Peyser. The New York Post, September 24, 2003.
9. “Durst Accused of Urinating on Candy at CVS,” by Harvey Rice. The Houston Chronicle, July 22, 2014.
10. “Who Killed the Gangster’s Daughter,” by Lisa DePaulo. New York Magazine, March 12, 2001.
11. “Murder of a Mafia Daughter: The Life and Tragic Death of Susan Berman,” by Cathy Scott. Barricade Books, December, 2002.
12. “The Viper Room Turns 21,” by Alison Martino. Los Angeles Magazine, August 11, 2014.
13. “Depp,” by Christopher Heard. ECW Press, October, 2001.
14. “Viper Room at Risk of Closing," Page Six of the New York Post, May 3, 2003.
15. “See Johnny,” by Lucy Kaylin. GQ Magazine, August, 2003.


J. R. de Szigethy
New York

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