Feature Articles

December 2006

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood

Part Five: Cold Cases Remain Cold
also read • Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four

By J. R. de Szigethy

     America celebrates another Holiday season with Justice still nowhere in sight for Mafia writer Susan Berman, who was murdered in Hollywood on Christmas Eve in 2000, and Anthony Fox, actor Johnny Depp�s business partner who disappeared during Christmas, 2001 and is presumed murdered.

     The one difference for the Holiday season of 2006 is that the man who was investigated by Los Angeles authorities regarding Berman�s murder, cross-dressing New York City real estate mogul Robert Durst, is now a free man. In late November, Durst completed his Parole conditions on Bail jumping charges and was released to his luxurious home in Houston, Texas. Durst immediately went on a shopping spree, much to the shock of those fellow shoppers who recognized the man whom many believe has literally gotten away with murder.

     Durst is apparently no longer dressing as a woman, a disguise he adopted when he moved to Texas in November of 2000. Durst had moved to Texas in an attempt to create a hideaway from the determined efforts of Jeanine Pirro, District Attorney for Westchester County in New York, who had re-opened the investigation into the 1982 disappearance and presumed murder of Durst�s first wife Kathleen. Also during that time in 2000, Durst was making substantial cash gifts to his friend Susan Berman, which only further appeared suspicious when Berman, a potential witness before a Grand Jury called by Prosecutor Pirro, was murdered on Christmas Eve of that year.

     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.

     Susan Berman was the daughter of David Berman, who with Mafia figure "Bugsy" Siegel co-owned the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas during the 1950s. Susan Berman was a book author, producer, investigative journalist, and screenwriter. Berman wrote several books including "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."

     Once living in hiding as a woman in a small apartment in Galveston, Texas, Durst ran afoul with the law when he dismembered his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, dumping the body parts in Galveston Bay. A fisherman, however, found some of Black�s body and an investigation by local authorities led to a murder charge against Durst.

     Durst, however, jumped Bail, becoming America�s first "Billionaire Fugitive." Durst was captured stealing a chicken sandwich at a convenience store in Pennsylvania in 2001 and was extradited to Texas to stand trial. At trial, Durst�s attorneys presented to the jury Durst�s claim that his neighbor had broken into his home and brandished a gun owned by Durst, resulting in the shooting death of Black in a case of self defense. The trial was a Media sensation followed all across America, with notable interest to those in law enforcement in New York and Los Angeles. Durst himself took the stand and told the jury that he had dropped his "Dorothy" persona and become friends with his neighbor. Durst told the jury: "I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him."

     During closing arguments, one of Durst�s lawyer claimed that Jeanine Pirro was the one responsible for the fact that Durst disguised himself as a woman, moved into an apartment under an assumed name, dismembered his neighbor, discarded the body parts in Galveston Bay, became a fugitive once he was charged with murder, and stole a chicken sandwich from a store, despite the fact that there was over $30,000 in the trunk of his car. Pirro, the lawyer argued, was trying to make a name for herself and was leaking information to New York tabloid newspapers about his client. "If Ms. Pirro had kept her mouth shut," the lawyer told the jury, "none of this would have happened!"

     Hampering the Prosecution�s case was the fact that Morris Black�s head was never recovered. Had there been a bullet hole in the front of Black�s head, that would suggest the gun was discharged in a struggle such as Durst had claimed, whereas a bullet hole in the back of the head would imply murder.

     In a Verdict that stunned and outraged many following the case, Durst was acquitted of the murder of Morris Black.

     Nothing came of the investigation in Los Angeles nor that in New York and Jeanine Pirro herself would run afoul of the law this year. Running for the position of Attorney General of the State of New York, Ms. Pirro became the subject of a Media circus when it was revealed that Pirro was caught on a Court-authorized wiretap discussing the possible planting of a wiretap on her family�s boat in the hopes of securing evidence that her husband was having an affair with a younger woman. Pirro�s husband Al Pirro is a convicted tax cheat who has been linked by the Media to a few low-level Mafia figures.

     Jeanine Pirro�s conversation regarding the possible electronic surveillance of her husband was discussed with Bernard Kerik, the former Commissioner for the New York City Police Department whose Nomination as Director of Homeland Security for the Bush Administration was derailed by a series of highly-publicized charges involving his professional and personal life. In the end, Kerik pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges regarding gifts he received from Contractors while Police Commissioner. Kerik, whom with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani became a national hero on 9/11, continues to fight terrorism through his work with foreign governments allied with the United States in the on-going war against terrorism.

     Jeanine Pirro made her career targeting perps who have committed violence against women. Pirro�s determination to bring about charges regarding the presumed murder of Kathleen Durst has been hampered by the fact that Mrs. Durst�s body has never been found. Such charges are difficult to prove when the body of the victim has not been recovered.

     One recent example of this involved Federal Prosecutors in Brooklyn who were dealt a blow just weeks ago when a jury was deadlocked on murder charges filed against "Allie Boy" Persico, the son of imprisoned Colombo Family Godfather Carmine "The Snake" Persico. Allie Boy was charged with the murder of "Wild Bill" Cutolo, a corrupt Union leader who played a key role in the Mob war that erupted in the late 1980s and early 1990s that pitted a faction led by Persico and FBI Informant/Mafia hitman Greg Scarpa against those aligned with associates of Vic Orena. The war left at least 12 people dead, the last being Cutolo, who disappeared in 1999 and is presumed murdered.

     Persico�s lawyers argued that there was no proof Cutolo was dead, and that instead he had skipped the country - and his wife and family - with a girlfriend. Without a body to prove such a murder, Federal Prosecutors were unable to convince the jury that the murder had in fact taken place and that Persico was responsible. Prosecutors also were saddled by the testimony of "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo, who testified against his former friend John "Junior" Gotti in three consecutive trials regarding the kidnapping of radio talk show host Curtis Sliwa. Each trial resulted in a hung jury. DiLeonardo�s credibility was further called into question in the Persico trial in which he claimed that Gambino Family Godfather John Gotti was responsible for instigating the Colombo Family War. Considerable evidence has become public in recent years that implicates Greg Scarpa as the instigator of the Colombo Family Mob war.

     Authorities in Los Angeles investigating the disappearance of nightclub owner Anthony Fox are also hampered by the fact that Fox�s body has not been found. Fox was a partner in a notorious nightclub that operated as a venue for drug dealers called The Viper Room. This club was located on Hollywood's Sunset Strip and had a history of being controlled by members of the American Mafia. In the 1940s, the club, then called the Melody Room, was a gambling and drug den, controlled by Bugsy Siegel and his associates. Decades later, this nightclub, renamed The Central, was in decline, until owner Anthony Fox was approached by a rising star in Hollywood, Johnny Depp.

     At that time in 1993 Johnny 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 where drug dealers flourished. To this day the Viper Room's website features merchandise for sale depicting its logo, a female snake seated atop a pair of dice, in a posture that seemingly allures her prey to be injected with her poison. On Halloween night, 1993 Johnny Depp's friend River Phoenix took such a 'roll of the dice' and died after injecting drugs into his veins inside the Viper Room. Depp was among the Viper Room employees and patrons that watched Phoenix die on the sidewalk outside the club. River Phoenix was 23 years old.

     By the end of the decade the relationship between Johnny Depp and Anthony Fox had soured, with Fox filing a lawsuit alleging that Johnny Depp had conspired to divert profits from The Viper Room. According to the Celebrity Justice section of the Warner Brothers website, the Judge in this case ruled that: "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."

     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.

     Attorneys for Depp very quietly settled their lawsuit, signing over Depp�s interests in the Viper Room to Anthony Fox�s daughter, who sold her share to a respected and upscale consortium of real estate developers.


     Christmas, 2006 will be another sad anniversary for the family and friends of Anthony Fox, Susan Berman, and Kathleen Durst. For those who knew and loved Berman, there is at least some consolation in that her body was recovered for burial.

     This Christmas marks the fifth year since Anthony Fox was last seen alive, and the 24th year since Kathleen Durst was last seen alive. Jeanine Pirro is no longer the District Attorney of Westchester County, but her successor, Janet DiFiore, is continuing the investigation, according to published reports. In the meantime, Robert Durst is free to live his life; not under the guise of a woman, but that of a man.

to be continued

Related Features by this author:

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part One

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part Two:
The Bizarre World of Club Culture

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part Three:
Another Tragic Anniversary

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part Four:
Another Tragic Anniversary

The Politics of Indictment

J. R. de Szigethy
New York


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