Judge sets $1bn bail for the property baron's son suspected of pursuing a career in murder

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The Independent US

Judge Susan Criss said it twice, softening her Texas tones, so the reporter on the other end of the phone was clear. Yes, a new bail figure had been set in the case of a certain Robert Durst, who will shortly face trial in her court for the dismemberment and murder of a neighbour. She had set it at $1bn (£0.7bn).

There are reasons for this fantastic bail. First the crime with which Mr Durst is charged was most grisly. The chopped-up remains of the victim, Morris Black, were washed ashore in Galveston, Texas, last September. The pieces – torso, arms and legs – were in different dustbin liners. The head is still missing.

More importantly, however, is the memory of what happened when Mr Durst was first apprehended and charged last October. That time, the court set a bail of $300,000 and the accused promptly vanished. It was a reminder that Mr Durst comes from a background where that kind of money is small change. He is the heir to one of the richest and most famous real estate empires in New York.

Delve deeper into the strange story of Robert Durst – Bruce Willis, the actor, is reportedly negotiating for the rights to commit the saga to celluloid – and you see one other reason for making absolutely sure that this time he stays in Texas. Leads tracing back two decades have prompted authorities to suspect that Mr Durst may have had a much longer career in murder and the disposal of dead bodies.

He is separately being investigated in Westchester County, north of New York City, in the case of the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Kathie, 20 years ago in 1982. Nor has Mr Durst, who is 58, been ruled out as a possible suspect in the murder on Christmas Eve of 2000 of a Los Angeles screenwriter, the one-time journalist and a mobster daughter, Susan Berman, who was for years his closest friend.

If justice is indeed due for Mr Durst, it should catch up with him quickly now. After his flight from Galveston in October, he hopscotched across the country. His life as a fugitive was fairly shortlived, however. On the last day of November, he was spotted shoplifting by security guards in a Pennsylvania supermarket. He took a sandwich and a single elastoplast, which he stuck on a cut under his nose.

Mr Durst gave the arresting office his real name and he was quickly incarcerated. The process of extraditing him to Texas finally ended at the weekend. Late Sunday morning, a handcuffed Mr Durst was sat in the back of a Continental jet from Philadelphia to Houston. By tea time, he was sitting in a cell in the main detention facility in Galveston, the scene of the Black murder.

Neither the prosecution nor the defence are saying very much now, thanks to a gag order put in place by Judge Criss. Speaking briefly yesterday to The Independent, however, she confirmed that Mr Durst will make his first court appearance on Thursday to determine when he will stand trial for jumping bail. The murder trial, she said, will probably happen a few months later.

An insanity plea may appeal to his defence team, led by Dick DeGuerin, a high-priced Houston lawyer. The accused laid the groundwork for such a plea. Before his arrest in Pennsylvania, he had been spotted babbling to himself and wearing a brown wig and a false white moustache. At the apartment in Galveston, he lived across the hall from Mr Black in a flat allegedly rented by a woman, Dorothy Ciner. It seems now that Ms Ciner and Mr Durst were one and the same. Dressing in drag was one of his pleasures.

Mr Durst, who is five foot seven, might have been a New York titan by now. His father, Seymour Durst, built one of the largest real estate companies in the city – The Durst Organisation – that today is worth at least $1bn and has a portfolio of properties that includes a large chunk of the Times Square area. It was in 1994, that Seymour Durst passed over his eldest son, Robert, and decided to anoint a younger brother, Douglas, as his successor. Robert Durst walked away from the business and his family.

Not that Robert's life had been successful until that moment. He was famous for smoking marijuana. And there was the disappearance of Kathie, his wife, and all the nasty rumours that swirled around that case. Nobody could really explain why he had waited four days to report her disappearance to the police. Everyone, however, could tell tales of abuse he meted out on his young wife.

Kathie, indeed, had been hinting to anyone who would listen that she was in danger and if anything happened to her they should suspect the worse. The reporter Ned Zeman, writing in next month's Vanity Fair, said it became "Kathie's mantra". She said to all her friends, he writes: "She even said it to a neighbour in South Salem, Bill Mayer. 'If anything happens to me,' she said, 'suspect foul play'".

The investigation into Kathie Durst's disappearance went cold, however. Indeed, it was only in 1999, that someone started paying attention once again. That was a Westchester County detective named Joseph Becerra. He took an interest in the case after a local man accused of exposing himself to women by the roadside claimed to know where Kathie Durst was buried. The case was officially reopened by the Westchester District Attorney, Jeanine Pirro, when she heard of the Berman murder late in 2000.

Ms Pirro confirmed this weekend that her investigators have been in touch with Mr Durst's lawyers' regarding the disappearance of Kathie Durst since his arrest in Pennsylvania in November. But no one has yet interviewed him directly about it. "Since he had been arrested and had retained counsel, his lawyers are who we have been talking to," she commented. The investigation continues, meanwhile.

The authorities in Los Angeles are being much more tight-lipped, however. But they do say that will not rule out Mr Durst as a suspect in the murder of Susan Berman, which remains unsolved. Over the years, Ms Berman had stuck by Mr Durst, whom she had known since college days, angrily asserting his innocence in the case of his disappeared wife. The daughter of the famous Las Vegas mafia don, 'Bugsy' Segal, she was trying towards the end of her life to make ends meet writing crime thrillers. Shortly before her demise, she had begged her old friend for money. He had sent her a cheque for $25,000.

Now staring through the bars of a Galveston jail cell, Mr Durst – a man who was born with a name that in New York circles was synonymous with wealth – must know he faces a long embrace with the courts. First will come the trial for skipping bail. Later, he will face the charges arising from the brutal murder of Morris Black. Nobody has yet even been able to surmise a motive for the slaughter, beyond the fact that Mr Black, who was 71, was universally considered abrasive and cantacerous. He often took to barking back at dogs in the street in the run-down section of Galveston where the two men lived.

It may be much later – when the jury in Galveston has determined his guilt or innocence of Robert Durst in the murder of Mr Black – that we might at last lift the shrouds from the other two mysteries, the cases of Kathie Durst, vanished presumed dead, and Susan Berman, murdered. (If Bruce Willis doesn't try to do it for us first.)