It’s not often that a criminal defendant is denied bail in New Orleans, and it’s exceedingly rare in the case of nonviolent offenses. But Robert Durst is no ordinary defendant, and the dramatic saga that culminated in his arrest here is not your typical drug or gun case.
Local prosecutors, citing Durst’s nine-figure wealth and his habit of fleeing from law enforcement, persuaded an Orleans Parish magistrate judge Monday that no amount of money could guarantee his appearance in court on state charges stemming from the loaded revolver and 5 ounces of marijuana authorities said they found in his hotel room earlier this month.
Durst, a New York real estate heir whose suspected role in three killings was featured in a recent HBO documentary miniseries, faces a potentially lengthy prison sentence in Louisiana in light of his prior convictions.
Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell ruled Monday that Durst, 71, may pose “an imminent danger” to the community if he is released, even though Durst is not fighting extradition to Los Angeles and has agreed to stand trial for murder there in the execution-style killing of writer Susan Berman, his onetime confidante, in 2000.
Cantrell’s ruling further delayed the California case and deepened the uncertainty over how long Durst will remain in custody in Louisiana, where he faces far less serious counts of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of a firearm with a controlled dangerous substance.
Unlike the Los Angeles case, in which Durst has been charged with murder and faces a potential death sentence, prosecutors in New Orleans have not even decided yet whether they intend to pursue the firearms charges.
Cantrell’s decision seemed a foregone conclusion, so much so that Durst’s defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said he could not “in good conscience” advocate for Durst to be granted bail. Instead, DeGuerin sought to build a case that Durst’s arrest had been improper because the authorities scoured his room at the JW Marriott Hotel on Canal Street before obtaining a search warrant.
“We believe that’s where the rubber meets the road here,” DeGuerin said in court. “He was not arrested lawfully, and the evidence that the state has was not gained lawfully.”
Prosecutors characterized the initial search of Durst’s room as an “inventory” that prompted Los Angeles police to obtain a search warrant hours later. Cantrell said he would address the legality of the search at a preliminary hearing April 2.
“I didn’t have any hope at all that the judge was going to set a bail bond,” DeGuerin told reporters.
Monday’s hearing offered several new details of Durst’s flight to New Orleans and the measures he allegedly took to avoid law enforcement. It also revealed that authorities had been monitoring his movements through his cellphone and that Durst supposedly stopped using the phone for several days, about the time the Los Angeles warrant was issued for his arrest in Berman’s death.
Investigators knew, for instance, that Durst had left his home in Houston and headed east. But they lost track of him for a time shortly before he crossed into Louisiana and went incognito, checking into the JW Marriott as “Everette Ward,” one of his many assumed identities.
“They developed information, based on his cellphone, that he was moving away from Houston on Interstate 10,” Jim O’Hern, an Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office investigator, testified. “Somewhere between Houston and Beaumont, that information stopped, and they had no indications at all that he was moving.”
Durst might still be at large if hadn’t betrayed his whereabouts on March 14 by calling his voicemail, at least twice, from a phone at the New Orleans hotel. Those calls prompted the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office to send two agents to the JW Marriott, where they spotted Durst.
The agents escorted him to his room “to determine if he was, indeed, Robert Durst,” O’Hern said. Although Durst had a fake Texas identification card, he also had his real passport and birth certificate in his possession.
The agents, after confirming Durst was wanted for murder in Los Angeles, began an “inventory” of his possessions. They found he had more than $40,000 in cash, a new cellphone that hadn’t been activated and a flesh-colored mask with salt-and-pepper hair that would cover his entire face and neck.
“It’s not a mask you would buy in a Halloween shop. It’s not to go trick-or-treating,” Assistant District Attorney Mark Burton said. “It’s to fool people into not recognizing who you are.”
“He wanted to be someone other than Robert Durst,” Burton said, adding that Durst also had arranged to receive a box, addressed to “Everette Ward,” that contained $115,000 in cash. There were other suggestions in the room that Durst might flee, Burton said, including a map the authorities found that had been folded to show “the state of Florida along with Cuba.”
Burton portrayed the fugitive life as Durst’s standard modus operandi, drawing from Durst’s prior convictions and, more recently, an interview he gave to the producers of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” the HBO miniseries that examined Durst’s possible role in not just Berman’s killing but also the 1982 disappearance of his wife in New York and a 2001 killing in Texas.
O’Hern watched the documentary in preparation for the hearing and paraphrased a clip from the third episode in which Durst discussed how foolish it is to grant bail to someone accused of murder.
Durst jumped bail in 2001 after being charged in the murder and dismemberment of a neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas. Durst had “decided that $250,000 is chump change,” Burton said, referring to the amount of bail set in the Texas case. Police eventually caught up with Durst in Pennsylvania after he was arrested for shoplifting a sandwich. He was found with $37,000 in cash and two handguns.
“That’s what he will do again,” Burton said, “if bail is set in this matter.”
A jury acquitted Durst of murder in Black’s death, persuaded by his claim of self-defense. Burton appeared to try to sow doubt on that verdict Monday, discussing in detail how Durst had “cut the head off of the victim, the arms off of the victim, the legs off of the victim” and packaged the body parts in bags before throwing them into Galveston Bay.
Black’s head was never found, Burton noted, a circumstance he derided as “convenient.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.