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September 2021

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood

Part Eight: At Long Last, Robert Durst Convicted of Murder
also read • Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven

By J. R. de Szigethy


     39 years after Manhattan Real Estate scion Robert Durst's first wife Kathleen vanished without a trace, and 20 years after Durst, disguized as a woman, dismembered his neighbor Morris Black in Galveston, Texas, for which he was Prosecuted but Acquitted, Robert Durst has now been convicted for the murder of his friend, Mafia Journalist Susan Berman, who was found in her home on Christmas Eve 21 years ago with a bullet in the back of her head. The Jury did not buy Durst's testimony in which he claimed he found Berman already dead inside her Beverly Hills home, of which he had a key. But instead of calling the Cops, Durst penned an anonymous letter to the local Police, informing them there was a cadaver at that address. He then hopped back in his car and drove to San Francisco. 1)

     The daughter of Las Vegas gambling industry figure David Berman, Susan was one of the early pioneers of Journalists whom utilized their familial ties to members of the American Mafia, telling stories that could only be best told by an “insider,” while not being involved in criminal activity themselves. Berman was best known for her books “Easy Street” and “Lady Las Vegas.”

     A key piece of evidence in the trial was the statement Durst made to himself in 2015 during a restroom break of the filming of the HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” Not realizing his body mike was still on, Durst proclaimed: “What the Hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” As if that Confession was not enough, Prosecutors also established that the handwriting on the anonymous letter sent to the Beverly Hills Police Department was in fact that of Durst. For those whom knew and loved Kathleen Durst, whom for all these decades have proclaimed their conviction that Robert Durst murdered his wife and escaped Justice, the murder conviction of Durst brings to them validation. (2)

     Durst had previously been arrested in October of 2001 after authorities found the body parts of Durst’s neighbor 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. (3) 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. (4)

     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.” (2) 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 in that trial 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!" (5) 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 Mrs. 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.

     Durst had murdered Susan Berman a year before killing Black, 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. Alas, Pirro’s investigation was hampered once Berman was murdered. Pirro subsequently became a best-selling author herself, as well as the host of television talk shows.

     The murder of Susan Berman is one of two murders chronicled in this series since it's 2003 debut. The other is that of Anthony Fox, who disappeared during the Christmas season in 2001. The presumed murder of Fox involved a Sunset Strip nightclub that had 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. (6)

     By the 1990s The Central was in decline until owner Anthony Fox joined forces with a rising star in Hollywood, Johnny Depp. At that time in 1993 Depp's career was taking off and he would use his celebrity status to turn the newly-renamed 'The Viper Room' into the hippest and trendiest nightclub on the West Coast. From the beginning, as in its previous incarnations, The Viper Room was a place that attracted drug dealers and 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 entices 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 heroin and cocaine cocktail he ingested inside the nightclub. 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. (7)

     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, whom, with his pals Neal Cassady and poet Allen Ginsberg were founding members of the “Beat Generation” in the 1950s. This group 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. (8) 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 profits had been diverted from the accounts of 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." (9)

     While lawyers for both sides were battling it out over the lawsuit, two things happened; Johnny Depp moved to France where a lady friend resided 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. Fox's abandoned car was later found, but his body has not.

     In Depp's case, his move to France was prompted when he met a woman with whom he began a relationship. 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 would become. (10) 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 consortium of real estate developers.

     The East Coast equivalent to the Viper Room during the 1990s was Manhattan's The Limelight, housed in an abandoned Episcopalian Church. The owner, a Canadian named Peter Gatien, hired the “King of the Club Kids” Michael Alig as a Party Promoter there, which quickly became the most successful and notorious nightclub along the Atlantic Seaboard. In early 1996, Alig and a friend, both of whom were involved in the world of Occult practices, murdered and dismembered one of the nightclub's key drug dealers, an alien from Bogota, Columbia. This reporter and a colleague from the New York Post played a key role in solving this murder, which was the subject of 2 motion pictures.

     Michael Alig spent 17 years in prison, but upon his release, was not able to reclaim the position he once held in New York City nightlife. Alig died on Christmas Day, 2020 as a result of his heroin addiction.

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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 Eight: At Long Last, Robert Durst Convicted of Murder.
http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_529.html

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

Notes

1. “Robert Durst Convicted of Murdering his Friend Susan Berman,” by Matthew Ormseth and James Queally. The L. A. Times, September 17, 2021.
2. “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” by HBO. 2015 http://www.thejinxhbo.com/
3. “The Secret Wedding of Durst and Gal Pal,” by Robert Ingrassia. The New York Daily News, December 21, 2001.
4. “Durst Waives Extradition to Texas Trial in Murder,” by Charles V. Bagli. The New York Times, January 26, 2002.
5. “In Wild Close, Durst Case Goes to Jury,” by Richard T. Pienciak. The New York Daily News, November 6, 2003.
6. “The Viper Room Turns 21,” by Alison Martino. Los Angeles Magazine, August 11, 2014.
7. “Running with Monsters,” by Bob Forrest and Albo Michael. Crown Publishing, 2013.
8. “Depp,” by Christopher Heard. ECW Press, October, 2001.
9. “Viper Room at Risk of Closing," Page Six of the New York Post, May 3, 2003.
10. “See Johnny,” by Lucy Kaylin. GQ Magazine, August, 2003.


J. R. de Szigethy
New York

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