Feature Articles

December 2007

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood

Part Six: The Vigil Continues
also read • Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five

By J. R. de Szigethy

     It�s becoming something of an annual Holiday tradition at the continuing chronicling of the murders of Mafia writer Susan Berman, murdered on Christmas Eve, 2000, and Anthony Fox, the business partner of actor Johnny Depp who disappeared during Christmas, 2001 and is presumed murdered. Both stories have largely been ignored by the "mainstream Media," despite the fact that Fox�s business partner is one or the most famous motion picture stars of our time and that Berman�s closest friend was New York real estate heir Robert Durst, who received international notoriety during his sensational trial in Houston in which he admitted to dismembering the body of his neighbor to whom he had confided that he was living incognito as a woman. Sadly, in the interest of Justice, there is little new information regarding these cold cases to report this Holiday season.

     Susan Berman made her career writing about what she new from her own personal experience; the American Mafia. 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. 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."

     Susan Berman met a wide variety of colorful figures while being raised as a "Mafia Princess." Among them was her schoolmate Robert Durst, the scion of an enormous New York City real estate empire. In November, 2000, Durst, disguised himself as a woman and moved into a quaint apartment in Texas. Durst�s actions coincided with 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. While Durst was making a new life for himself in Texas as "Dorothy," Durst was also making substantial cash gifts to his friend Susan Berman, a potential witness before a Grand Jury called by Prosecutor Pirro, until she 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. Once living in hiding as a woman in Texas, Durst ran afoul with the law when he dismembered his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, dumping Black�s 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 lawyers 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, become 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 at the time of his arrest. 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. Durst has now served his time on weapons, parole violations, and other charges and has been in the news in New York City where he has, according to published reports, been unsuccessful in his attempt to purchase a new apartment on Manhattan�s tony Upper East Side.

     In the case of Anthony Fox, little new is to be reported this Holiday season. Fox disappeared just as a victory was within his grasp in regards to a lawsuit he filed against his business partner Johnny Depp. The lawsuit stemmed from profits from their mutual venture, the Viper Room, a Sunset Strip nightclub notorious for decades as a site of Mafia drug dealing. In the 1940s, the club, then called the Melody Room, was a gambling and drug den, controlled by Bugsy Siegel and his associates, including David Berman, the father of Susan Berman. 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 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 Mafia 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 young.

     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.


     While the December Holiday season is one of the most joyous for most Americans, for those who knew and loved Anthony Fox and Susan Berman, the Holiday marks another frustrating anniversary denoting the passage of yet another year during which those responsible for these two people�s deaths have continued to having gotten away with murder.

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 Five:
Cold Cases Remain Cold

Christmas in Murdertown:
The Mafia Conspiracy that Stunned America

J. R. de Szigethy
New York


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