Here, from the first reporter to access Durst’s NYPD files, is the authoritative account of a decades-long criminal odyssey—the very book found in Durst’s own apartment when it was searched by police.
When medical student Kathie Durst vanished in 1982, she was married to Robert Durst, son of a New York real estate magnate. Kathie’s friends had reason to implicate her husband. They told police that Kathie lived in terror of Robert, and that she had uncovered incriminating financial evidence about him. But Durst’s secrets went even deeper. For decades, Kathie’s disappearance remained a mystery.
Then in 2001, Durst, an heir to an empire valued at two billion dollars, was arrested for shoplifting in Pennsylvania. When the police brought him in, they discovered that he was a suspect in the murder of Texas drifter Morris Black, whose dismembered remains were found floating in Galveston Bay, and that Durst was also wanted for questioning in the killing of his friend, Susan Burman, in Los Angeles.
Based on interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances of Durst, law enforcement, and others involved in the case, A Deadly Secret is a cross-country odyssey of stolen IDs and multiple identities that raises baffling questions about one of the country’s most prominent families—and one of its most elusive suspected killers.
Includes additional material not in the original Berkley edition and eight pages of photographs
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
For Donna, Matthew, and Christopher With love
This book is dedicated to
Donald W. Birkbeck
1957 to 1979
Thanks to Maria Eftimiades, the former New York bureau chief at People Magazine, Helen George, a journalist and associate professor at Northampton Community College, and Paul Moses, a former reporter and editor at Newsday, author, and associate professor of journalism at Brooklyn College, for their help and guidance with this book.
A cold wind blew easily through the thick oak trees that protected the palatial home on Hampton Road, pressing down the almost bare branches and forcing them back and forth in rhythmic fashion, blowing off the few remaining leaves, which were swept out into the open air.
Some of the leaves were hurled to the ground while others were caught in the draft and forced upward, landing on the roof of the picturesque two-story home and at the bare feet of a woman, who was standing alone in the cool, nighttime air, high above the concrete driveway, wearing only a nightgown and robe.
Below her, in the driveway, was Scarsdale police Sergeant Vincent Jural, who arrived at the house around 8:30 P.M., the wailing sounds of a fire engine not too far behind in the distance.
Jural spent several minutes trying to convince the woman to sit down, since the dark brown, ceramic roof was pitched sharply, making it almost impossible for someone to stand on it without losing her balance. But there she stood, her toes pointed downward, her weight supported by the balls of her feet, performing a kind of balancing act as she looked up toward the starry fall sky, oblivious to the elements.
Standing nervously behind Jural were three men. Just a half hour earlier they had been sitting in the living room, discussing the woman’s condition, a radio turned on in the background, a newscaster reporting that United Nations forces were battling the Chinese in Korea.
With cigar and cigarette smoke slowly rising toward the ceiling, their quiet discussion about depression and paranoia had been interrupted by a loud scream. It came from a little boy, only seven, who had ventured into his mother’s bedroom to see she if she was comfortable. Instead he found the bed empty, and he raced through the upper floors, frantically searching from room to room, then running down the stairs.
He found his mother.
“Mommy! Mommy!” he said, panting. “Mommy’s on the roof!”
“On the roof? Where?” said the boy’s father, jumping up from his seat.
“In the back. Over the garage. Hurry up,” he said. “We have to get her.”
The three men followed the boy, who ran toward the back of the home, out through the kitchen, and onto the driveway.
“Look, up there,” the boys said, pointing.
The men could see her, standing above a second floor bedroom window and far above the driveway, which was sloped downward, half a floor below the ground level.
“Bernice, Bernice, are you all right?” shouted one of the men. “You have to get down from there. Do you hear me? Walk over to the window and come back inside.”
The woman slowly turned her head and looked down towards the men, focusing on her husband, but she did not reply. She stood there, staring intensely, before taking her eyes off him and redirecting her blank gaze out beyond the trees.
“Somebody call the police,” said the husband.
The call went out at 8:18 P.M., and the husband, wearing a pained expression on his face, greeted Jural upon his arrival.
“She’s in the back, on the roof,” he said.
As the two men took hurried steps, Jural asked why she was up on the roof in thirty-five-degree November weather.
The explanation was brief: his wife had suffered what appeared to be an asthma attack earlier in the day. The doctor gave her some prescription medication, which helped her fall asleep.
The man said he was in the living room talking with his father-in-law and the doctor, thinking his wife was still asleep, when they heard his oldest son scream.
Jural was now in the back of the house looking up at the woman, knowing he had to get her off the roof.
“Ma’am. Can you just sit tight while I come up there to help you back into the house?”
“No, I’m not ready to come in,” she said.
“Are you okay?”
The woman didn’t answer.
The fire truck finally pulled up to the front of the house, and Jural yelled out for someone to tell the firemen to bring a long ladder.
The firemen unhooked an extension ladder and two of them, each carrying one end, headed down the driveway, the truck’s flashing red lights attracting several neighbors like moths to a porch light. They swarmed, gawking, from the side of the house between the swaying oak trees.
The lead fireman, Tom Langan, reached the back of the driveway, looked up, and could see that the woman was in trouble.
“Hey, Tommy,” said Jural. “We need to get that ladder up there and get her down. She’s not going to move herself.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Her husband and father were telling me that she had some kind of asthma attack and was on medication. They thought she was sleeping, but one of the kids noticed she wasn’t in her room and found her up on the roof. I don’t know what her condition is. She seems distant.”
Langan looked up and called out, telling the woman he was going to prop his extension ladder against the house, in front of the garage, and would pull the rope, raising the extension just high enough to reach over the gutters.
“What’s her name?”
“I think it’s Bernice,” said Jural.
“Ma’am, please don’t move. I’m coming up to get you,” said Langan, who locked the ladder in place and began his ascent.
“No, I’m all right,” she said. “I’m really all right.”
“Bernice, I want you to stay put. Don’t move. I’m going to climb up there and you can come down with me, okay?” said Langan
The woman peered over the gutter as Langan slowly made his way toward the roof, putting one foot on a step, then placing the other foot on the same step.
She looked down onto the driveway, where her husband and father were standing. Her eyes remained fixed on her husband. There were no words, no facial expressions, just a blank stare.
The husband looked back, but said nothing.
As Langan neared the roof, he could see that the woman had moved forward and was now teetering on the edge of the roof, her robe whipped by the cold wind.
“Ma’am, you can’t move,” said Langan nervously, extending his arm out. “You have to stay still. Let me come up there and we’ll come down together.”
Her father cried out from the driveway, “Bernice, don’t move, don’t move!”
Langan checked his feet to secure his footing, then looked up, only to see the woman falling over the edge, headfirst.
Langan could hear the screams coming from neighbors as he reached out with his left hand, hoping to grab onto a part of her robe, or maybe a limb. He touched the robe, but it slipped out of his hand. The woman fell to the cold, hard concrete pavement below with a sickening thud.
Langan raced down the ladder while Jural and the three men ran over to the woman, who lay still.
“Bernice, Bernice!” shouted her husband.
Behind him was his seven-year-old son, his oldest boy, teary eyes open wide, his mouth trembling.
“Mommy!” he cried. “Mommy!”
The low hills surrounding the eleven-acre horse farm in Bedford, New York, made for perfect jogging trails for New York State Police investigator Joe Becerra, who enjoyed running along the narrow paths that traversed the acreage surrounding the farm.
At least once a day, usually in the early morning, Becerra would leave his rented one-bedroom cottage with his two black Rottweiler’s, Bullet and Roxy, in tow, and run. Becerra always felt better when he was running, his feet hitting the ground in a rhythmic pace, his five-foot nine inch frame tight and trim.
It was late November 1999, and a misty haze enveloped the northern New York City suburbs, soaking the landscape. Becerra, who ran his usual four miles on the muddy trails, never once had to call out to his dogs to keep up, and worked up a good sweat in the unusually warm, late fall morning air. Becerra was drenched, beads of sweat and rain falling from his brow. At the end of the run, which took him in a full circle back to his cottage, he stood there bent over, breathing heavily, his palms down on his knees.
The dogs were right with him, their paws, lower legs, and underbellies muddied. They barked and reached up to Becerra on their hind legs.
Becerra pushed them off, and then wiped the mud from his sweatpants.
“C’mon, you guys. You’re filthy,” he said, still taking deep breaths.
The dogs continued to bark.
“Okay, I know,” he said.
Becerra had found Bullet on the side of I-684 when he was just five weeks old. He sat there in a cardboard box, part of a litter discarded by someone who thought, for some reason, a highway was a good place to get rid of five puppies.
Roxy’s story was even better. He had become part of Becerra’s family as a result of a murder investigation. Roxy’s former master had shot his wife, who was lying dead on the floor with Roxy barking away when Becerra arrived. Becerra followed the dog to the pound. He was an orphan, and Becerra asked the dog warden how long he’d have to wait until he could adopt him. Becerra left the pound that night with Roxy in tow.
Now the dogs were thirsty, and Becerra obliged, filling up a five-gallon pail with a garden hose, which had running water only because the last few days had been warmer than usual.
He left the two dogs outside and walked into the cottage. It was quaint - a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and small eat-in kitchen. The furniture was gifts from friends and family. A sofa from a brother, a small kitchen table from an old schoolmate. Becerra had found his new home six months earlier after living like a nomad, some nights out of his car.
Becerra liked living on this farm, even though the foul smell of manure often drifted over from the distant barns that housed the horses. It was quiet and private, which was fine for Becerra and his two dogs. He was a single guy now, and the solitude was welcome.
Becerra left his wet, dirty sneakers by the front door and walked into the kitchen, pulling off his blue New York State Police sweatshirt and grabbing a towel from a closet.
He threw the sweatshirt into a corner by the bathroom, rubbed his head and face with the towel, and walked over to the kitchen sink, turning on the faucet and filling a glass with cold water, which he finished off with one gulp, placing the glass down on the counter next to several unopened envelopes.
It was yesterday’s mail, which Becerra didn’t have time to look at, having arrived home after midnight thanks to a mound of paperwork following a late night arrest. By the time he’d gotten home, he could barely get his clothes off and collapsed into a deep sleep.
As he looked at the letters, he noticed one was from a law firm, and shook his head. It was from the attorney representing his estranged wife.
Becerra was in the midst of a divorce, five years of marriage ended with some harsh words. He got the two dogs. She got the raised ranch. Luckily, they didn’t have any children, though Becerra thought he got the wrong end of the deal, except for the dogs, which he’d had now for eight years, even before he met his soon to be ex-wife.
Becerra put the envelope down and headed for the shower. He’d read it later.
After washing up and feeding his dogs, and with the clock nearing 8 A.M. Becerra pulled his green, 1994 BMW 540 out of the driveway for the ten-minute drive to the Somers barracks, where he worked as an investigator with Troop K of the New York State Police.
Becerra loved his job, even though he’d earned the unwanted nickname of “Hollywood,” mostly for his good looks and sharp clothes. And it didn’t help that Becerra always seemed to find his way into the local newspapers or the Channel 12 cable-TV news. He wasn’t a media hound, though he probably didn’t mind the attention.
The name stuck because Becerra looked like he’d jumped out of the pages of GQ. His suits were neatly pressed and his jet-black hair was always perfectly coiffed and slicked back. He’d inherited his ruggedly handsome, dark features, including his dark brown eyes, from his Spanish mother and his Spanish-Italian father. He smiled easily, his teeth pearly white. Of medium height, he stood straight, with his shoulders back, giving the appearance of a taller person. While some troopers resented his smooth appearance he was, on the whole, well liked. He was the kind of guy who was still friendly with high school classmates from Archbishop Stepinac, even after twenty years.
As he drove into the parking lot in front of the barracks, his thoughts drifted to the envelope he’d left behind at home. He should have opened it, he thought. Now he’d have to go through the whole day wondering what was inside. Another demand? He’d already lost their four-bedroom home. And it couldn’t be more money.
He was thirty-five years old, making $65,000 a year, which doesn’t go far in Westchester County, living in an $800-a-month cottage. Money? He didn’t have any money, but his wife knew that, which was one of the reasons why things had ended like they did. Money and a career chasing bad guys, which hadn’t even been in Becerra’s original plans.
He was majoring in education at the State University of New York at Cortland with plans to become a teacher when a Beta Phi Epsilon frat brother, a six-foot seven-inch behemoth named Big Al, dared him to take the state police exam.
Big Al talked about nothing else but being a state trooper. It was his life’s dream.
“Shut the fuck up,” was all Becerra would say to him. Being a cop was the furthest thing from his mind.
But when it was announced in early 1984 that the state trooper test was scheduled at the Syracuse War Memorial Coliseum, Big Al knew he was going to take it, and he was going to convince his friend Becerra to come along.
“Cop? Are you kidding,” he told Big Al, who in turn suggested that Becerra was either too dumb or too stupid to pass the test.
Big Al’s taunts didn’t bother Becerra, at first. But he just wouldn’t stop talking about it. So to shut up his friend, hopefully forever, Becerra decided to take the test, and passed with flying colors.
Six months later Becerra was admitted to the state trooper academy and graduated in 1985. His youthful looks soon earned him an undercover assignment posing as a student at a high school in a suburb north of New York City.
For four months, he attended class and gathered information on drug dealing at the school, where the kids were mostly white and from wealthy families.
The experience helped Becerra develop a taste for investigative work, and after seven years in uniform, mostly handing out speeding tickets on the New York State Thruway, he was promoted to investigator with the Bureau of Criminal Investigations in 1992.
Becerra enjoyed working as an investigator. Actually he loved it. He could wear a suit and tie and was working everything from burglaries to homicide investigations.
One piece of information led to another piece, and another, until finally, there was a suspect and an arrest. It was like putting together a puzzle.
The biggest puzzle of his career to date had been his work with the multi-agency team that probed the explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island in July 1996.
Becerra was one of hundreds of investigators from throughout the New York area called in to help interview witnesses and collect thousands of the 747 airplane parts that had settled on the bottom of the ocean. Becerra spent three months on the case, processing and tagging evidence. Though he had only four years experience as a detective, he never really bought into the final explanation that the plane just exploded in midair. There were too many witnesses who saw a light streaking up to the sky moments before the plane crashed into the sea. Planes just don’t “blow up” in midair, reasoned Becerra. And the FBI guys, always so tight lipped, even with other investigative teams. What was up with that? He’d thought. The official explanation - a fuel tank explosion - never made any sense to him.
But he was always the good soldier, a guy who followed the instructions of his superiors, and kept his opinions to himself. After three months on Long Island working Flight 800, Becerra returned to Westchester County.
And here he was, three years later, in the midst of a divorce, only six years from retirement, if he chose, though Becerra had grown to love the job so much, he thought he’d stay there forever.
Becerra walked into the barracks, where the uniformed troopers occupied the left side of the single-floor, brick building, while the Bureau of Criminal Investigations occupied the right side. The investigators shared a large, square office, each with his own desk.
Becerra sat in the front of the office, with a window view of the entrance and parking lot.
He offered a “good morning” to Henry Luttman, a thirty-five-year veteran who was engrossed in his newspaper and replied with only a nod as Becerra walked to his desk.
“Henry, I didn’t get out of here until midnight.”
Luttman nodded again, sipping his morning coffee.
Becerra wasn’t going to get anywhere with his superior, at least not until he finished off the sports section. He took of his jacket, dark blue tweed, and settled into his chair, turning on his computer terminal.
He was reaching over to check his voice mail for messages when his phone rang.
“BCI, Becerra,” he answered.
“Hello, is this Joe?”
“Yes, it is. Who is this?”
“Um, Joe. It’s Tim Martin.”
Jesus, Becerra thought to himself.
Tim Martin was a lowlife he’d arrested for indecent exposure, ending a two-year investigation in which Martin, as it turned out, had been exposing himself to women of all ages in towns surrounding his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. This guy was so screwed up, he even masturbated in front of a group of elderly women after crossing into New York.
Connecticut police finally picked Martin up on a warrant for failing to appear at a hearing in Westport after he was arrested there for flashing several high school girls.
Becerra got his hands on him, and after his arrest Martin had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.
“What’s the matter, Timmy? You in trouble again?”
“No, I’m not in trouble. Actually I’m calling because I respect the fact that you chased after me for two years, and I want to give you something.”
“And what’s that?” said Becerra, holding the phone between his left shoulder and ear and organizing several files on this desk.
“I have some information on an old case, something that might interest you.”
“Go ahead, Tim, I’m listening.”
“Have you ever heard of Kathie Durst?”
The name didn’t register with Becerra.
“No,” said Becerra. “Who is she?”
“She was married to Bobby Durst, a rich guy whose family is worth millions. They had a home in South Salem. He killed her in 1982. Only he was never arrested.”
“You know this guy killed his wife?”
“How do you know?”
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
“Tim? How do you know?”
“I can’t tell you over the phone.”
In his fourteen years on the job Becerra had never heard of a Kathie Durst. He didn’t trust Martin, a guy he thought should have been dropped in a jail cell and forgotten. On the other hand, Becerra knew from experience that tips often came from questionable characters. Maybe he could call Martin’s legal-aid attorney in White Plains and set up a meeting.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll call John Ryan, we’ll get together at his office, and you can tell me the story in person. That sound okay?”
“That’s fine with me,” said Martin. “I respect you, Joe.”
“Yeah, right,” said Becerra. “Are you back out on the street? You’re not –“
“No, I’m staying out of trouble,” said Martin, cutting him off.
Not likely, thought Becerra as he hung up the phone. Martin had spent most of his adult life being chased by the police, having been busted for a variety of burglaries and other petty crimes over the years before graduating to exposing himself.
Becerra thought for a moment, and then looked over to Luttman, who was still reading his paper.
Becerra liked Luttman, an easygoing veteran who had been with the state police since the 1960s. Luttman was a relic, and he was approachable. If Becerra ever had a question about a case, Luttman had no problem trying to answer it. He wasn’t a hard ass like so many of his superiors had been.
Becerra walked over to Luttman’s desk.
“Henry, did you ever hear of a woman named Kathie Durst?”
Luttman quickly took his eyes off the paper.
“Kathie Durst? Yeah. That’s an old one. Early 1980s. Maybe 1982. Married to a rich guy and disappeared. Probably dead. Why are you asking?”
“I just got a call from someone who said he had information, that she was killed by her husband.”
“Who’s the source?”
“Timmy Martin?” said Luttman, letting out a laugh. “Didn’t you put him away?”
“He got probation.”
Luttman folded his newspaper, took a last sip of coffee, and stood up.
“Give me a couple of minutes,” he said, walking away.
Becerra went back to his desk, called John Ryan, told him about the conversation with Tim Martin, and scheduled a meeting with Martin at Ryan’s White Plains office.
Five minutes later Luttman returned with a folder in his hand.
“Here you go, the Durst file,” he said, dropping the file on Becerra’s desk.
The file was thin and the first report was dated February 5, 1982. Two troopers had been sent to the Durst home on Hoyt Street in South Salem, which was about three miles from Route 35, a busy thoroughfare.
The troopers were called to the house after receiving a missing person’s report the night before from a woman named Gilberte Najamy. She claimed her friend Kathie Durst hadn’t been seen since January 31. Becerra noted that Kathie was spelled with an ie instead of a y. Her full name was Kathleen, and she had been twenty-nine years old at the time of her disappearance. Her husband was Robert Durst, thirty-eight, who worked for the Durst Organization, a firm with vast real estate holdings in Manhattan.
There were several interviews in the file, nothing revealing, mainly accusations from Gilberte Najamy that there were problems with the Durst marriage.
Becerra looked over to Luttman, who was back at his desk.
“Is this it, Henry?” said Becerra, holding the file up in the air.
“Yeah, that’s all we have. Call down to New York. It was their case. They did the bulk of the work, if I recall correctly.”
New York’s case? Becerra looked at the file again. The interviews said she had left her home in South Salem and was last spotted in Manhattan.
Becerra picked up the phone, called down to NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza in Manhattan, and asked if they could fish out whatever files the NYPD had on the Kathie Durst case.
He was told that since the file was seventeen years old, it was in archives and would take a few days to retrieve.
After Becerra hung up the phone, Luttman walked over and sat on the edge of his desk.
“I don’t know,” said Becerra, scribbling his pen on a piece of paper. “But I think I want to know more.”
Timmy Martin sat in a small waiting area in John Ryan’s legal aid office in White Plains, his deep blue eyes staring down at his feet. Martin wasn’t much to look at: his thinness was the kind you knew by sight was the result of an enduring drug habit. Of medium height, he had cracks and crevices around his eyes that made him look much older than he was. His cheeks were drawn in toward his mouth, his brown hair pointed in different directions, and a pale complexion gave him a sickly appearance.
It was early December, a week after Martin first called Becerra, who was still waiting for the NYPD file on Kathie Durst. The information in the state police file was intriguing, but didn’t reveal much. The two troopers who had visited the house back in 1982 saw Mr. Durst, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The interviews with some of Kathie Durst’s friends and neighbors, if taken at face value, revealed a woman who seemed to be having some difficulties in life, particularly with her marriage. She was scared of her husband, but Becerra couldn’t find anything definitive in the file that screamed out that she was murdered or that her husband had anything to do with her disappearance. Maybe she didn’t disappear. Perhaps she just decided to jettison one life and pick up another somewhere else.
Seventeen years was a long time ago, and no one but Martin had even mentioned this case. But Becerra was the curious type, and he wanted to hear what Martin had to say.
Ryan, an easygoing fellow with a middle-aged lawyer’s physique - round in the middle and in the face - explained that Martin was out on probation, but wanted the time cut down from six months to one.
Becerra wasn’t buying it, knowing that probation was the only thing keeping Martin from opening his pants in public again. Another bust, and Becerra knew that Martin would do some jail time.
“See what he has to say and we’ll talk some more,” said Ryan.
Becerra agreed, and Martin was led into the office. He shook Ryan’s hand first, and then looked toward Becerra, who was standing with arms folded across his chest.
“Hello, Joe,” said Martin, sheepishly looking at the floor.
“How ya doing, Timmy? Staying out of trouble, I hope.”
Martin nodded, but didn’t reply. Ryan told him to sit down. Becerra remained standing.
“So, Timmy, what do you have for me?”
Martin tried to make eye contact with Becerra, but he just couldn’t lift his gaze off the floor.
“Well, like I told you on the phone, I know who killed Kathie Durst,” he said.
“Keep talking. You got me here, so I’m listening,” said Becerra.
Martin told Becerra that his older brother, Alan, had once been married to a woman named Janet Finke, who owned a maid service and regularly cleaned the Durst cottage in South Salem. Martin explained that after Kathie Durst disappeared in January 1982, talk centered on her husband, Bobby.
“Janet told us that Bob killed her and buried her,” said Martin.
Becerra listened, but didn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Why would he kill his wife?”
“Because he was nuts. Janet used to say he had a really bad temper. She also said his wife was threatening him. Janet used to talk to Bobby. I think he liked her. She was very pretty. Janet hung around with Kathie, too, and said Kathie was going to be a doctor but she was failing school. She was doing too much blow and was hanging out with another woman, a lesbian, who kept trying to get her to divorce her husband.”
“Come again?” said Becerra. “The maid was friendly with the Dursts and said the wife was threatening her husband and was friendly with a lesbian who liked her? Are you kidding me?”
“No, no. That’s what Janet said. We all knew what happened,” said Martin.
“Do you know how he killed her?”
“Do you know where he buried her?”
Martin shook his head.
“But Janet told us that she was in the house a couple of days after Kathie disappeared and it didn’t look right. She was cleaning that house for years and knew it well. She said some of the furniture was out of place, like it had been moved,” said Martin.
Becerra, unmoved by the story, looked at Martin, who was again staring at the floor.
“So you’re telling me you think this guy killed his wife because of a story you heard from a woman who was once married to your brother? You don’t know this for a fact, and you don’t know where he buried her,” said Becerra.
Martin just shrugged his shoulders.
Becerra asked Martin if he knew where Janet Finke lived. He said somewhere in Connecticut, that she had divorced his brother and married some other guy.
“It that it, that all you got for me?”
“Well, I thought that was something,” said Martin. “I wanted to give it to you because –.”
“Because you respect me. Okay, right,” said Becerra, stopping Martin in midsentence. “Why don’t you take off while I talk to your attorney here. And Tim, I don’t want to hear that you’re in trouble again.”
Martin stood up and reached across the floor, extending his thin, bony hand to Becerra, who offered his hand in return.
After Martin left the room, Ryan turned to Becerra and asked him what he thought.
“Not much. That’s a crazy story. But let me take some time to look into this and I’ll get back to you,” said Becerra. “Besides, I’d rather have him on probation. One more slipup, and he’ll be flashing in prison.”
On the drive back to the Somers barracks Becerra stopped for lunch - a Caesar salad with chicken and a diet Coke. Timmy Martin’s story didn’t give him much to think about, and he wasn’t about to ask his superiors for permission to commit himself to a seventeen-year-old cold case based on a tip from a guy who’d been busted for flashing.
As he neared the barracks his cell phone rang, and he recognized the number. It was his attorney, probably with some news about his divorce. He asked Becerra if he had received a letter from his estranged wife’s law firm. Becerra lied, telling him no but remembering the envelope he saw earlier in the day.
The conversation ended as Becerra pulled up to the barracks. The letter was nothing, just some perfunctory legal drivel he had to sign. He walked into the barracks, past Luttman, who was talking on the phone but pointing with his left hand to Becerra’s desk.
It was the Kathie Durst file, courtesy of the New York City Police Department.
“Came in this morning,” said Luttman, holding the phone to his chest. “How’d it go with Martin?”
Becerra shook his head and stared down at the file. It had to be about four inches thick.
Luttman hung up the phone and walked over to Becerra, whom he considered a protégé. Luttman had always liked Becerra. He thought he was a real gumshoe, a guy with a curious nose for the truth. Investigators came and went, but Luttman knew Becerra had talent.
Luttman also knew that the divorce had weighed down on Becerra.
“What ya gonna do with that?” said Luttman, looking at the file.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m going to have to read it. All of it.”
“Good luck, buddy boy. That’s a whopper of a file. You know where I am if you need me.”
Luttman walked back to his desk while Becerra opened the file, if only to have a glance at what was in store for him. There were dozens of interviews, police reports, requests for search warrants and medical records.
Nobody skimped here, thought Becerra, looking at the fastidious notes, most written by a Detective Michael Struk.
Becerra closed the file, put a rubber band around it, and tucked it under his right arm.
He walked out of the office, whispering to Luttman that he was taking the file home to read. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and Becerra had the weekend to absorb the report.
Besides, he had nothing else to do. It wasn’t like he had a family outing to go to.
Becerra stopped on the way home for some Italian take out, lasagna and a ginger ale. When he arrived home he was greeted warmly, as usual, by Bullet and Roxy, who wanted their dinner too.
Becerra changed into sweats, fed his dogs, and finished off his dinner.
Then he settled in on his couch and opened the Kathie Durst file.
The detectives’ squad room on the second floor of Twentieth Precinct in Manhattan was empty, save for one lone detective, Michael Struk, who was sitting at his desk, a cheap cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth, the smoke curling up slowly around his nose.
Struk was an hour into his 4 P.M.-to-1 A.M. shift and was staring at a picture of his five young children as a steaming cup of freshly brewed black coffee teased his taste buds. The coffee smelled good, but, as usual, it tasted like paint thinner.
It had been a month since Struk had seen his kids, and he was hurting. He missed everything about them, even the confusion that came from having such a large family. The screaming, the yelling, the toys all over the house, the mad dinners, the breakfasts. It wasn’t easy raising five kids.
Not being with them, not hearing their voices, was much harder.
Struk was working a “stay over,” otherwise known in detective circles as a flip. He’d work nine hours, early into the morning, and then come back at 8 A.M. for another tour. It was often grueling and was known throughout the ranks as a marriage killer. Struk’s had been no exception. The only thing left between him and his wife after eighteen years of marriage was the five children he was staring at and his signature on the divorce decree.
Struk put the photo in the top drawer in his desk and looked out the window onto West Eighty-second Street.
This was the Two-O, Columbus Avenue and Central Park to the west, Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway to the east. Actors, celebrities, captains of industry, they all lived here. With its trendy bars, restaurants, and ultra-fashionable clubs, this was fertile ground for any cop - married or unmarried - a playground within a playground, professionally and socially.
In front of the precinct, police cars lined up, front-ends parked facing the building, while several uniformed officers mingled.
Struk went back to his desk and finished off his ten-cent cigar, crushing it into an ashtray. He looked at his watch; it was only 5 P.M.
Struk wished his timepiece counted off years.
He had been on the job since 1965 and was but three years from retirement. He was as experienced as they came: Brooklyn-born and bred with the kind of street smarts that carried him through his seventeen years on the job and countless drug, porno, and murder busts. But seventeen years was a long time on the front lines and it was now 1982 and he was fatigued from engaging the enemy.
He hadn’t always been this tired. When he joined the force right out of the army, he was tall and handsome and looked like a poster boy for the NYPD.
He walked a beat in Brooklyn, accumulating collars and earning a promotion to plainclothes with the First Division, which patrolled the breadbasket of lower Manhattan, from Wall Street to Thirty-fourth Street, and boundaries that stretched from the East River to the Hudson River.
Struk didn’t waste any time fitting right in. He worked nights, taking part in raids on the West Side meat markets, which were owned by the mob and served as fronts for a number of profitable gay clubs.
And he didn’t complain when he was asked to dress in drag and tag along with another cop. There they were, two undercover cops in a third-floor loft, holding pinkies, drinking beers, and watching guys fuck on the bar, or scanning the long line of men waiting to enter a closet, where a guy sat hidden inside, dressed as a penguin giving round-the-clock blow jobs.
The real targets weren’t the clientele, even though Struk wanted to lock them all up for masquerading as men. It was the ownership, which was any one of New York’s crime families. This was the early 1970s. Big business. Hundreds would walk through the door paying a three-dollar cover charge, and then get hit for one to two dollars for a can of beer, and more for a mixed drink.
Tens of thousands of dollars passed through clubs like this and others throughout the city every night. It was a cash business, and every time the NYPD shut them down, the mystery owners would eventually find a new place to start up again, get the word out, and be back in business.
Struk worked vice for three years, a long stretch for any cop, before he was transferred to the Thirteenth Division narcotics task force back in Brooklyn. It was a good move. He was going to work with some tough, fearless, maybe even crazed cops. But Struk had bought a house in Middletown in upstate New York and his young family saw little of him as it was. So he put in for a hardship transfer and landed farther north, in the Bronx, with another narcotics unit in the Eighth District.
The commute was easier, but it didn’t matter. He was hardly home, first spending time on the street making low-level drug buys, then graduating to the twenty to thirty kilo investigations complete with wiretaps.
Struk did his job well, and he was rewarded in 1975 with a promotion to detective working in the Fourth homicide zone, which encompassed three police precincts and covered the “gold coast” of Manhattan, from Fifty-ninth Street in the South up to Eighty-sixth Street on the west side, and Fifty-ninth Street up to Ninety-sixth Street on the East Side, from river to river, including Central Park.
Headquartered in the Two-0, this was the crème de la crème of detective assignments, and Struk was living a detective’s dream. He had the heart of the city during the day, and he’d go home to his wife and five children at night. At least he tried to go home.
By 1980, the NYPD eliminated its specialty units, including the Fourth Homicide Zone, but Struk managed to stay at the Twentieth Precinct, as only one of two experienced detectives working in what he described as a Barney Miller squad - soft detectives with no real, hard experience.
Struk volunteered to stay at the Two-0 even though some of the better detectives were sent to the Manhattan task force, which, under the new system, would assist local precincts when they needed additional manpower. Struk would now catch murder cases within the Twentieth Precinct, and on July 2, 1980, he caught the case of his career, what the press dubbed the “Murder at the Met.”
When Struk arrived on the scene at the Metropolitan Opera House that morning, the body of Helen Hagnus Mintiks, 31, lay naked and broken, having been tossed down an airshaft from the third floor of the famed building. She had been performing the night before with the Berlin Orchestra. Around 10 p.m. she left her station in the orchestra pit. She never returned, her $20,000 violin left on her seat.
Early the next morning, around 5 A.M., Mintiks was found dead, bound and gagged.
The Met was hallowed ground, and the murder of a world-class violinist from British Columbia was front-page news, even in the staid New York Times.
Struk knew this case was big when Manhattan Chief of Detectives Richard Nicastro arrived on the scene. Top brass like Nicastro wouldn’t have come if it had been just some mom-and-pop murder.
Surrounded by a media circus, with reporters poking and probing every which way, Struk had needed less than a month to find the killer, Greg Crimmins, a twenty-two-year-old Met stagehand who later confessed that he boarded the elevator with Mintiks during her break. He was smoking a joint and drinking a beer and made a clumsy sexual advance toward Mintiks, who responded with a slap to his face.
His beer muscles took over. He pulled out a hammer from his belt, grabbed her, and forced her to a lower level that housed some of the Met’s large, magnificent sets. There he tried to rape her on a stairwell. Mintiks was having her period, but Crimmins told her to take out her tampon. Mintiks did, but Crimmins couldn’t get erect. Too much beer and too much pot. So he pulled her up to her feet and took her to the roof, three floors above street level. Bound, gagged, and naked, she still tried to make a run for it, jumping over a large water pipe. Crimmins chased her down, leaving his palm print on the pipe.
He grabbed her around the waist, brought her to the edge of the roof, and threw her off, later confessing to Struk after learning that his palm print matched the one left on the pipe.
It was by far Struk’s biggest arrest, and for several weeks he was something of a celebrity, the detective who solved the Murder at the Met. He expected a promotion, at the very least a bump up from his third-grade status.
But the police brass did not react kindly when they learned not only that Struk cooperated with a writer who wrote a book on the Met murder case, but that portions of the book were to be serialized in a porno mag. Struk was forced to cancel a national book tour, his fifteen minutes of fame lasting but a few months.
And here he was, two years later, February 5, 1982, sitting at his desk with the rank of detective, third grade, smoking cigars he bought at a bodega, drinking bad, black coffee, and longing for his family, when a short man and his dog walked into the second floor squad room.
The man stood at the wood gate that served as an entrance to the area that contained detectives’ desks, which were lined up along the cinder-block wall of the rectangular squad room. The beige color only added to what was a depressingly dour environment.
Struk glanced up from his desk, and was less than pleased with what he saw.
He wanted to say, “Who let you the fuck in here with a dog? This is my office, my domain, and you dare bring a dog in here?”
Instead, Struk got up, pulling his tall, lanky frame into view, and slowly walked over to the man.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’d like to report my wife missing.”
Struk waved his hand for the man to follow him, and he did, with the dog following right behind him.
Struk sat down at his desk, the third of six, and the man followed suit, sitting in a chair on the side of the desk. He didn’t look like much. Probably some piss ant rich guy, thought Struk. His hair was short, and he stood about five-feet, eight-inches tall. Struk was much taller, six three. The man pulled out a magazine from under his arm. It was a New York magazine from May 1980 and on the cover was a photo of five men standing underneath a headline, THE MEN WHO OWN NEW YORK. Struk recognized Donald Trump and that other guy, Harry Helmsley, but no one else.
“What can I do for you?”
“My name is Robert Durst, and I believe my wife may be missing.”
Durst spoke slowly, and deliberately. He initially made eye contact with Struk, but then turned away, keeping his head facing down toward the desk.
“What’s her name?” said Struk.
“Her name is Kathie, or Kathleen.”
“Why do you think she’s missing?”
Durst explained that he and his wife had last spoken five days earlier, on Sunday night. They spent the weekend in South Salem, where they had a cottage. He said he drove his wife to the Katonah, New York train station around 9 P.M. where she boarded a train for a trip back into the city, to their apartment on Riverside Drive and W. Seventy-seventh Street. They had spoken later that night.
“Where’s South Salem?”
“It’s up in northern Westchester County, near the Connecticut border. We have a small home next to a lake. Lake Truesdale. We go there on weekends and during the summer.”
Struk followed Durst’s answers, writing notes on a yellow pad.
He paused to pull out a cigar from his shirt pocket, and then resumed the questioning.
Durst said he had spoken to his wife after she arrived in Manhattan, around 11:15 P.M.
“What did you talk about?”
“Nothing really. Just small talk. We had an argument before she left and she wanted to get back. So I drove her to the train station.”
“What time was that?”
“Uh, she got on the nine-seventeen train, up in Katonah.”
“And you spoke to her on the phone when she got back to your apartment?”
“You said you had an argument?”
“Nothing major. She had been gone during the day and we were supposed to go out for dinner.”
“And you haven’t heard from her since you spoke to her Sunday night?”
“No. But that’s not unusual,” said Durst. “She attends medical school, the Albert Einstein School in the Bronx, and she’s often studying. So we can go days without seeing each other.”
“So why do you think she’s missing?”
Durst said he spoke to some of his wife’s friends, who hadn’t seen her since Sunday. He didn’t seem overly concerned, thought Struk. He was cool, unemotional. He could have been sitting in a diner ordering a tuna sandwich.
“I guess I’m a little concerned. I made a report with the New York State police and I thought I should file one here.”
As Durst spoke, Struk sensed something about him, that aura, that New York look that shouted wealth. It wasn’t his clothes or any jewelry. He looked more like a vagabond, one of those guys who hangs out on the corner begging for quarters. It was just his attitude. This was the West Side of Manhattan, and Struk knew that attitude well. This wasn’t a street guy, that’s for sure, thought Struk.
“How’s your marriage?”
“It’s okay, I guess. No major problems.”
“What’s your occupation?”
“I’m in real estate. My family owns commercial and residential buildings in the city,” said Durst, who was now making direct eye contact with Struk. “My father is Seymour Durst.”
I knew it, a rich punk, thought Struk, who had no idea who Seymour Durst was.
Struk then looked down at the New York magazine.
THE MEN WHO OWN NEW YORK stared out at him. Struk wanted to ask him if one of these guys on the cover was his father, but he hesitated. He knew that if that should prove to be the case, then he’d probably take the magazine and stick it up this punk’s ass. Struk hated these money guys and the way they flaunted their wealth and their power, claiming they were prominent.
Here, on the West Side, everyone was prominent.
“Mr. Durst, how old is your wife? And can you give me a description?”
“She’s twenty-nine. Sandy hair, hazel eyes. About five-feet, five-inches tall, one hundred and twenty pounds,” said Durst.
Durst told Struk that he and his wife had been married for nine years and had two apartments, the penthouse on Riverside Drive and a smaller apartment at 12 East Eighty-sixth Street near Fifth Avenue. As far as Durst knew, there hadn’t been any ransom demands.
“And you say there aren’t any marital problems?”
“No, not really,” said Durst. “She just has a problem drinking. She was seeing a therapist for a while but stopped.”
He handed Struk a photo of Kathie. She was very pretty, he thought. Long, straight hair, a nice full smile.
Struk took down Durst’s home and business phone numbers and the number to the medical school. He also asked for phone numbers to speak with Kathie’s relatives.
“I don’t have those,” said Durst. “Her maiden name is McCormack. Her mother, Ann, lives in New Hyde Park, Long Island. Her brother Jim lives in Queens.”