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Arts and Entertainment

The Story Of Susan Berman, The Vegas Mobster's Daughter Robert Durst Is Accused Of Murdering

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It's been nearly 15 years since Susan Berman was discovered fatally shot with a single bullet wound to the back of her head in her Beverly Hills home. The unsolved case of her murder recently got a second look in HBO's docuseries, The Jinx. Over the weekend, a bombshell dropped: Robert Durst—the subject of the docuseries and prime suspect for her murder—was arrested in New Orleans in the cold case.

In her 55 years, Berman was known as someone who was fierce and larger than life, according to a 2001 New York Magazine article. She was a prolific book writer, journalist, and the daughter of a prominent Las Vegas mobster. She would eventually tackle mob life in her work, but Berman apparently didn't know about her father's notorious career until she started researching it in her 30s. She would later find out that her loving, doting father ran Bugsy Siegel's casinos, robbed banks, killed and served seven years in Sing Sing. He died from a heart attack when she was 12, and she still adored him even after finding out about his lurid past. Berman even hung his FBI wanted poster in her home.

Her mother, who had been in and out of mental institutions for depression, died of a drug overdose when Berman was 13. Berman suspected it wasn't a suicide: she believed that her mother's death was a mob hit over the money her father left behind to her.

Berman was beloved by her friends who she kept in close contact with, and they say she had a penchant for being dramatic and neurotic. She was known for having a number of phobias, some of which included a fear of dying or crossing certain bridges or streets. She believed psychic readings, and she said she got a chilling reading in the days before her death: she told a friend that a psychic said she would die a violent death involving a gun.

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One of her closest friends was Durst. She met him at UCLA in the '60s, and they were so tight that Berman referred to him as her brother. Durst had given her away at her wedding to a man she married named Mister Margulies. Their marriage, though, quickly fizzled, and Margulies died later from a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

The Jinx director, Andrew Jarecki, talked to the L.A. Times earlier this year about Berman and Durst's relationship. "It's really clear that he loved her, platonically. I've always seen that relationship as demi-romantic in that it was never an overtly romantic relationship. But I have to assume that she was in love with him. First of all, women love Bob. I don't know that all women love Bob, but certainly some women love Bob a lot, and he's had no trouble attracting women. I always felt that Susan had a thing for Bob and at some level figured maybe they would end up together when he was finished with all of this gallivanting around."

Berman would later start dating Paul Kaufman in 1987, and he and his two children, Mella and Sareb, ended up living with her in her Brentwood home. She loved the children dearly, and they considered her as their own mother. Berman, who once lived a flashy lifestyle from a trust fund her father left behind to her, was later penniless towards the end of her relationship with Kaufman when they broke up in 1992. Friends said they believed Berman invested her money into a play that never took off, one that she tried to put together with Kaufman.

On Christmas Eve in 2000, police found Berman lying on the hardwood floor of her apartment on Benedict Canyon Road, shot execution-style. She lived alone at the time. Neighbors were concerned and called police after they saw one of her three dogs running around and barking; it was unusual since she always kept a watchful eye over her beloved pets. When police came into the home, there were bloody pawprints of the dogs surrounding the floor around Berman's body. They determined she had been lying there for a day. Although a bullet casing was found, the gun was never recovered. There weren't any signs of forced entry, which led some to believe that Berman had opened her door to an acquaintance or friend that tragic day. Berman was too neurotic to just let anyone into her home.

There were some theories floating around that Berman's death had been the cause of a mob hit since she wrote about mobsters. But friends who knew her well said she would never rat out anyone because she also lived by a "moblike code of loyalty," according to New York Magazine.

Detectives questioned Nyle Brenner, the business manager she had a tumultuous relationship with, as well as Durst, a wealthy New York real estate scion and close friend of Berman's. However, they weren't able to find any evidence linking them to the murder.

That all changed as The Jinx just aired its final episode on Sunday. The show takes a close look at Durst's life and the murders he's been linked to (including Berman's), and the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen Durst, in 1982—a case that's never been solved. Durst has never been convicted. One of his most highly-publicized and shocking cases was the 2001 death of his neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, TX. Durst was acquitted in the murder trial, claiming that he killed Black out of self defense, and then butchered his body parts, stuffed them in garbage bags and left them in a bay—because he was scared.

Durst offered to be interviewed on camera by Jarecki after the filmmaker directed a 2010 feature called All Good Things, so he could tell his side of the story. All Good Things was a fictional retelling of real-life events of Durst's life and the disappearance of his wife. Durst's interviews led to the creation of The Jinx, and also was directly related to Jarecki finding new evidence linking Durst to Berman's murder. In the final episode, Durst seems to confess to the killings when he talks to himself in the bathroom, forgetting to take off the wireless microphone he had been using during the interviews with Jarecki. He's caught muttering, "There it is. You’re caught. What a disaster," and "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

In the fifth episode, Jarecki unearths some other new and potentially damning evidence. After Berman died, an anonymous person sent Beverly Hills police a letter about a "cadaver" at Berman's home, and it was dated Dec. 23—the date police believed Berman was killed. In the letter, "Beverly" is mispelled as "Beverley," and the text is written in all block letters. In The Jinx, Berman's stepson Sareb Kaufman, finds a letter that Durst wrote in 1999 with similar handwriting as the note police received. Even more unnerving is that "Beverly" is mispelled the same way as "Beverley" in this 1999 letter. Sareb Kaufman looks visibly shaken when he finds the letter; he and Durst had stayed close over the years after Berman's death. Durst even helped Sareb Kaufman pay through college.

Earlier in the series, Jarecki asked Durst about the suspicious cadaver note, Durst said: "You’re taking this big risk. You’re writing a note to the police that only the killer could have written."

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The Guardian posed a theory about the note: "The new thinking was that the murderer had a residual fondness for Berman and didn’t want her undiscovered corpse decomposing for days or weeks on end. What other purpose could the note serve?"

There are theories floating around why Durst would kill his friend. The Jinx hints that Berman, his confidante, may have helped Durst dispose of his wife's body in the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, using her mob connections. The forest was notorious for being a place where mobsters dumped bodies. Soon after Kathleen went missing, his family's company, the Durst Organization received collect calls from Pine Barrens. Durst was known at the time to regularly make collect calls to the company, though he says in The Jinx that lots of people called collect to the Durst Organization, and denies he made the call.

Durst says in the The Jinx that he and Berman had lost contact, but he had spoken to Berman in 2000 when police reopened his missing wife case. Berman called Durst to tell him that Los Angeles police wanted to speak to her about Kathleen Durst, Durst says. Berman had been in financial trouble for some time, and after asking Durst for help, Durst wrote her checks totaling $50,000. Soon after, Berman was found dead. It's never been clear if Durst was just helping his friend out or giving her hush money.

New York and Los Angeles police knew Durst was in California during the time Berman was murdered, but they couldn't pin down whether he was in Los Angeles.

As for Durst, he's now 71, and was arrested on a murder warrant on Saturday at a J.W. Marriott hotel in New Orleans he was staying at. He was registered as a hotel guest under a fake name and identity. FBI believe that Durst was trying to flee to Cuba from there, since the first direct flight to Cuba was taking off that day from New Orleans. In a court hearing today, Durst agreed to be extradited to Los Angeles, where he will be expected to face charges in Berman's death, according to the New York Times.

Although it is peculiar that The Jinx's finale seemed perfectly timed with Durst's arrest, LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese told the L.A. Times today that their decision to arrest him had nothing to do with the HBO series.

"We based our actions based on the investigation and the evidence,” Albanese said. “We didn’t base anything we did on the HBO series. The arrest was made as a result of the investigative efforts and at a time that we believe it was needed.”