MURDER IN TEXAS
THE night before, the thirty-two-mile-long island strip had been lit up by growling thunderstorms and the temperature plummeted, but on that last Sunday of September 2001 the 58,000 inhabitants of Galveston, Texas, were basking in a seasonable 78 degrees. The folks in the blue-collar port city are used to sudden squalls that blow in and fizzle just as quickly. They also know that anything the angry sea doesn't swallow, it spits back up.
David Avina and his two kids had spent the afternoon fishing off a breakwater where Channelview Drive intersects 81st Street, less than a block from their home in the row of beach houses that rim the bay and look out over the Texas City Ship Channel. He was stretched out lazily enjoying the last rays of the downing sun and fending off his daughter Elyse who was pelting him with questions only an eight-year-old could ask as he impaled some bait on a hook for her. His 13-year-old stepson James Rutherford had wandered off to troll the rocks with a net looking for small fish to use as lures.
He called over to the youngster. "I could use some help with these lines."
"Okay, I'm coming," James replied and started back along the shore. Suddenly, he stopped. Over by the pier, there was a shapeless, pinkish object bobbing in the waves. The teen stared at it for a few seconds, barely able to comprehend what it was. Slowly, his eyes widened as his brain processed the gruesome sight; the gory lump used to be a living creature which now was very, very dead. Recoiling in horror he cried out, "Hey, Dad, there's a body over there."
"Don't kid around," David told him without looking up. "Don't tease your sister."
"I'm not," the boy protested. "It really is a body."
David dropped his line and rushed to the boy's side. "Is it a pig?" asked James, gazing down at the bloated mass of bloodied flesh.
"No," said his stepfather, shaking his head. "No, it's not." David Avina worked as a surgical nurse and he knew exactly what the youngster had found. It was a human body, or at least, what was left of it. What remained was the clearly naked trunk of a man. His head had been severed, his legs and arms had been chopped off.
Gathering up his kids and the gear as fast as he could, Avina ran for help. A few minutes later the Galveston cops and the beach patrol arrived and roped off the area to keep the growing gaggle of curious onlookers from getting in the way of the forensic team. When the preliminary on-site measurements were completed, and the area swabbed for evidence, the torso of what appeared to be an elderly man was loaded into an ambulance and removed to the police morgue.
There the medical examiner determined that the body hadn't been in the water for long and the dismemberment had been executed, not by a frenzied lunatic who'd gone berserk with an ax, but by someone with chilling clinical expertise. The killer, he concluded, was a cold-blooded butcher who knew what he was doing.
For the next several hours, the Sunday quiet of the sleepy bay was transformed into a hive of police activity. Cops fanned out along the half-mile stretch between the recently renovated pier and the old stone pier near the humpbacked railroad bridge. Once, the only way onto the island was by boat or rail; Galveston didn't join the rest of the country until the span carrying the I-45 over the 2-mile-wide Intercoastal Waterway was built.
Some of the folks who lived across the street told the cops that they'd seen garbage bags floating in the bay thatmorning, but paid them no attention, thinking that some antisocial slob had tossed his trash in the surf. As darkness fell floodlights lit up the area where police divers got ready to wade into the shallow water, then trawl the floor of the bay. Floating just offshore about eighty feet from where the body had washed up were three black plastic bags. In them were hacked-off arms and legs, which were dispatched to the morgue to be united with the rest of the victim. Scouring the shoreline, the cops found four more silver and black bags. But the poor devil who lay as cold as a fish on the mortician's slab was still without his head.
It was Galveston Police Officer Gary Jones's job to sift through the bags and make an inventory of the contents. He found two arms and two legs, one of them with two Band-Aids on it, but no head. They also contained a cash register receipt dated September 28 for trash bags and a drop cloth from Chalmers Hardware, a cover for a Green Thumb $6.99 bow-saw, with the store identification number attached, bloodstained towels, a flip-flop sandal, a red zori shower shoe, a piece of tan fabric that looked like it had come from a tool apron, blue plastic cups and paper towels. Officer Jones also discovered a Metamucil packet with the identification number NDC37000-024-09 on the top and another number, (L) 1128XD06, on the back. In one of the bags was a copy of the weekend edition of USA Today with a delivery address sticker still on it. A pair of men's underpants and a blue bedsheet were recovered near where young James Rutherford had stumbled on the headless, limbless body.
Reading Officer Jones's report, Cody Cazalas, the burly, mustachioed detective assigned to the case, decided that although the killer was undoubtedly vicious, he was either incredibly sloppy or downright stupid to leave such a trail of evidence. He was also unlucky. If thunderstorms hadn't cleared the air on Saturday night, allowing the sudden cold front to move in, this poor sucker would likely have sunk to the bottom of the bay and never been heardof again. His butcher would have gotten off scot-free. As it was, the sudden change in temperature had made the corpse rise to the surface and the churning tides brought it back.
Officer Jones had obtained a set of fingerprints from the limbs that had been found in the trash bags and ran them through the police computer. He got a perfect match. The victim of this stomach-churning homicide was 71-year-old Morris Black, a white male born on the 21st of October, 1929.
Cazalas knew they were looking for an out-of-towner, someone who didn't know about the tides. That left plenty of suspects: people pass through Galveston like water through a sieve. There are the sailors who man oil tankers the size of New York city blocks, berthed two and three deep, their diesels humming, waiting to lade with the one million barrels of oil that are pumped to the docks 24/7 through gurgling pipelines from refineries forty miles away in Houston. And there's the low-rent trade that follows them--two-bit motels, greasy-spoon diners and whores, especially whores, of every shape, size, color and preference. Whoever dubbed the bustling seaport "Queen City of the Gulf" had a wicked sense of humor.
It's also an easy town to leave. Every year, hundreds of these massive vessels ferry their cargoes of black gold to destinations in Europe, South America and Asia. Yet more ships carry grain, cars and the city's newest bulk export, the 150,000 vacationers who crowd onto luxury cruise liners headed for resort paradises in Mexico or the Caribbean.
The day after the body was found, Cazalas went to Chalmers Hardware. The clerk looked at the receipt and confirmed that both it and the ID sticker on the bow-saw had come from the store. On October 2, Jones and Cazalas headed over to 2213 Avenue K, the delivery address on the newspaper that had been in the bag with the saw, the same address that had popped up on the computer for Morris Black.
It turned out to be what realtors call a fourplex: an unremarkable beige-and-brown-painted wood-frame house with gingerbread trim and storm shutters that had been restored and converted into four small apartments. Both the house and the area of downtown where it was located had seen better days. But old cottonwood trees and swaying palms lined the street, and St. Joseph's Catholic Church on the corner gave the neighborhood a kind of faded gentility of its own.
Cazalas, who'd been a Galveston police officer for thirteen years and was currently assigned to the Criminal Investigation Division, walked around to the back of the house, where the garbage cans were stashed in the narrow alley, and lifted the lids. Bingo! Officer Jones tipped up the first bin and started sorting through the contents. Inside was an empty trash bag box that matched the bags found at the crime scene, wrapping from a drop cloth, paper towels which were the same brand as the ones in the recovered trash bags, blue plastic cups, discarded food and food containers, packaging from a four-inch knife with a Chalmers Hardware sticker, an empty Metamucil packet with serial numbers that corresponded to the one in a bag pulled out of the bay and a bloody sock.
The contents of the second trash can were even more interesting to Cazalas and Jones. When it was upturned, among the spilled-out contents they retrieved a .22-caliber pistol and the casing of a spent shell (a check disclosed the gun was bought in Houston), a Band-Aid, underpants the same make and size as the ones recovered next to the corpse, a crumpled-up eviction notice that had been sent to the tenant of apartment #1, Morris Black, and a receipt for an eye exam from a Galveston optometrist, Dr. Ray Matocha, and made out to a Robert Durst, who'd given his address as 2213 Avenue K #2.
Cazalas went looking for the landlord, Rene Klaus Dillman. He said that Black had rented apartment #1 from him, but, no, he had no tenant on his property named Robert Durst.
"Who lived across the hall from Morris Black, then?" Cazalas asked.
It was a woman, Dillman told him, a nice middle-aged lady whose name was Dorothy Ciner. She hadn't rented the place herself, he added. About a month after Black arrived in October of 2000, Dillman had gotten a call from a man who asked if he could rent an apartment for his sister-in-law, Mrs. Dorothy Ciner, who suffered from a throat condition; several operations on her larynx had left her mute. That's why he was calling, the man explained, since she couldn't talk for herself. He told Dillman that Mrs. Ciner would be prepared to pay a year's rent in advance.
OK, Dillman had told the caller, it's yours.
When Mrs. Ciner moved in she communicated with him by writing notes. She'd been alone when she'd arrived at the $300-a-month apartment and written that she would be traveling a lot. Mrs. Ciner didn't have a phone, Dillman told Cazalas. Why would she? She couldn't speak.
They'd arranged that Dillman would check on her apartment when she was out of town and she'd given him a note saying that her brother-in-law, a botanist, would also look in occasionally and sometimes stay over--was that okay? she'd asked. Dillman said he hadn't seen Mrs. Ciner since the first of the year.
Dillman also told Cazalas that he had met the man, but he had never actually seen them together. One of them would go into the apartment and the other would leave shortly afterwards. He had spoken to him once, and yes, he could have said his name was Robert Durst. By the time Morris turned up dead, the brother-in-law had been staying in Mrs. Ciner's apartment on and off for six months, a situation, Dillman added, that was causing him headaches.
Morris, he explained, was a crabby old man with a foul temper. He never had any visitors and the other tenants had complained to him about the rows that frequently took place between him and Mrs. Ciner's brother-in-law across the hall.
"They yelled at each other a lot," he said. They arguedabout turning the TV up too loud, and sometimes the air had been blue with curse words flying back and forth across the hallway. Morris could swear like a sailor.
He was also miserly. He shut the lights off at night because he convinced himself he was being charged extra for them, never switched on the air-conditioning, slept in the kitchen and picked fights with everyone. Eventually Dillman had had enough. Fed up with the endless gripes from his other renters, he'd told Morris that his lease was not going to be renewed when it expired on October 6. He'd better start looking for somewhere else to live.
Officer Jones checked out the dead man's apartment. It had been completely cleared out. There was blood in the kitchen sink, the shower, the washbasin in the bathroom and on the carpeting; more in the hallway between apartments #1 and #2; and he noticed that the hallway floor had been recently mopped. He also found blood outside the house.
On October 3, Cazalas stood outside while Dillman performed a "safety check" on Mrs. Ciner. From his stance at the doorway Cazalas could see a drop cloth spread out on the floor and a box of trash bags the same type and size as the ones at Chalmers Hardware. He noted that the box still had its store tag. Dillman told him he'd found the front section of the weekend edition of USA Today.
That was enough for Cazalas. The next morning, he was back with a warrant. The search of what few belongings she had offered few clues about the strange itinerant woman who'd lived there for nearly a year, or of her alleged brother-in-law. The sparsely furnished efficiency contained only a futon bed, a table and a television. The stove was unused, no one had so much as boiled an egg on its burners. But the apartment itself offered up lots of information. Inside it Jones and his team found a bloody four-inch knife and bloodstained boots. There was also blood on the front door and on the brown carpeting. Jones also noticed a tear in the kitchen linoleum which had been recentlyscrubbed clean. When he lifted it, he could see that blood had seeped onto the wooden boards underneath.
Samples of the blood were collected and tested to see if they matched that taken from the corpse of Morris Black. Those preliminary tests came up positive. Cazalas then talked to the occupant of apartment #3, Maria De Hernandez. On Sunday night, she told him, she'd seen Durst loading black plastic trash bags into a silver station wagon. Armed with this description, Detective Cazalas checked back with headquarters to get the vehicle identification number (VIN) of any automobile registered to a Robert Durst. Then he contacted Deputy Mike Creech from the Galveston County Auto Crimes Task Force and gave him the VIN that the search had coughed up. Creech ran an AutoTrack check which showed the number belonging to a silver Honda CRV.
The hunt was on. An all-county alert to apprehend Robert Durst went out. Knowing that the cops had to be on his tail, it seems incredible that he did not flee the state, if not the country. Instead, he tended to his one piece of unfinished business. The receipt from the eye doctor that had been in the trash bag with Morris Black's hacked-off limbs was for eyeglasses. In their wildest dreams the cops couldn't have imagined that anyone would risk his life and liberty over something he could pick up anywhere. What they couldn't have known was that a cheapskate like Bobby Durst would never have skipped town without collecting lenses he'd already paid for.
In the event that he might still be in the neighborhood, cops began keeping an eye on both the apartment house and the doctor's office. Dr. Matocha had told them that the suspect had visited him on October 1, the day after the body of Black had been found, and had made a lunchtime appointment for October 5. Cazalas told the optometrist to beep him if Durst showed up. The day came and went, and he never appeared.
Deciding that he was long gone from the area, the cops pulled their surveillance of the optometrist's premises.Three days later Bobby turned up. As soon as he had left with new contact lenses, Dr. Matocha telephoned the police.
The next day, October 9, Officer Gary Jones spotted the silver Honda CRV cruising along the beachfront near 13th Street and Broadway, just a mile and a half from Avenue K, and flashed him to pull over. As the driver rolled down the window, Officer Jones came face to face with the suspected killer. He asked for ID. The driver produced a Holiday Inn Express hotel card with the name Jim Turss.
Officer Jones made a search of the car, and found a 9-millimeter gun that a subsequent check revealed had been bought in Tyler, Texas, in 1993, a bow-saw, marijuana and a receipt from a dry cleaner in New Orleans. He told Durst to get out, place his hands on his head and turn around to face the vehicle. He didn't look like a crazed butcher, Jones thought. The suspect was a slightly built man, he couldn't have weighed more than 130-140 pounds and was no more than 5' 8" tall, with receding gray spiky hair that could use a visit from a comb.
Bobby didn't put up a fight, he meekly obeyed Jones's demand to put his hands on the car and spread his legs. After patting him down to make sure he wasn't armed, Jones read him his Miranda rights, handcuffed him and brought him in. His colleagues back at the cop shop were milling about the lobby as Jones arrived with his perp; it's not every day you nab a guy who's sliced another human being into barbecue-size chunks. Something else caught their attention: he didn't seem at all bothered by his predicament.
Looking tired, but unnervingly defiant, dressed in shorts and a faded gray sweatshirt, he posed for his mugshot. Then he turned to Cazalas. "How do I get out of here?" he asked.
"The D.A. is going to ask for three hundred thousand dollars bail. You pay ten percent down, and you walk," the cop told him. "You got thirty thousand dollars?" he asked.
"Not on me," Bobby replied coolly. Cazalas stared athim. What on earth do we have here? he asked himself silently.
A few hours later, Bobby was charged with the murder of Morris Black. Despite the horrific nature of the crime, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk asked for bail to be set at $300,000, $250,000 for the murder charge and $50,000 on possession of marijuana.
On the face of it, it seemed a reasonable request, since the suspect could show no visible means of support and was obviously a transient. Judge Susan Criss also took into account that he had no criminal record. Not that she had any choice but to impose bail. In Texas, only people charged with capital murder--the killing of a cop or federal official--or committing murder while in pursuit for another crime (rape, robbery, etc.) can be held without bail.
Bobby asked to make a call. He phoned a New York number. "I'm in trouble, I need you to wire me some money and get a lawyer," he told the person at the other end of the phone. He spent the night in a holding cell dozing fitfully while his New York connection went to work. An overnight wire transfer of $30,000 would be enough to get him out of there, and he knew that would pose no problem for his contact. The next morning, he didn't even try to suppress an arrogant smirk as he posted the cash and walked out the door--a move that caught the Galveston police completely off guard.
"We had no idea who he was," police spokesman Lieutenant Michael Putnal says. "Here was a man living in a $300-a-month apartment, who didn't have a telephone and who wouldn't have looked out of place standing on the corner outside the Salvation Army."
Bobby hired Galveston lawyer Mark Kelly to represent him at his upcoming arraignment, which had been set for October 16, and promptly skipped town. Kelly was appalled by his client's flight, and publicly, the police shrugged off the fact that they had no idea where he'd gone. A.D.A. Sistrunk became aware of how big a fish had slipped through his fingers when he got a call from NewYork Post reporter Larry Celona, who had been tipped off by a police source. Since Durst's get-out-of-jail money had come from New York, Sistrunk's office had asked the N.Y.P.D. to find the moneybags who had bailed him out.
"This Robert Durst you have in custody, could he possibly be our Robert Durst?" asked Celona and filled in the blanks for the dumbstruck A.D.A. Robert (Bobby) Durst was 58 and the eldest son of the late New York real estate baron Seymour Durst, whose company, the Durst Organization, was worth $1 billion. Nearly twenty years before, his beautiful young wife Kathie had vanished without a trace. Her body was never found, and no one was ever arrested in connection with her disappearance. The investigation had never been aggressively pursued and had been buried in the graveyard known as the Missing Persons File ever since, until recently, when the case had been reopened. Bobby had been the major suspect.
There was more, Sistrunk learned. There was the unsolved case of Susan Berman. She had been a writer, the only child of the gangster Davie "The Jew" Berman, and she'd been Bobby's best buddy since their college days. She'd been discovered slain, execution-style, in her Los Angeles home on Christmas Eve, 2000, just weeks after the Westchester, New York, District Attorney Jeanine Pirro had ordered the search for Kathie Durst revisited. Bobby had been questioned in that case too. So, was this the same Bobby Durst?
Sistrunk groaned. This had all the signs of turning into an enormous headache for him and his staff. Galveston was used to trouble--in 1900, the booming city with fortunes built on cotton, banks, mercantile houses, flour and grain mills, railroads and shipping, was pounded by the worst storm in U.S. history that left 6,000 souls dead and a further 8,000 people homeless. The bodies, which were buried at sea, had been swept back into the bay by the tides then too. Sistrunk had a sinking feeling that he was about to be hit by a tempest no less cataclysmic.
He also hadn't a clue as to what had brought Bobby to town. It wasn't the sort of place where the rich hang out, it was more of a jumping-off spot to get to somewhere better. At the height of the summer, around 60,000 visitors swamped the island, but, to tell the truth, the locals were just as glad to see them leave, and were fiercely proud of their B.O.I tag--Born On the Island--which they wear like a badge to differentiate themselves from their fellow Texans.
The next morning the fugitive millionaire was front-page news all over the country and the Galveston A.D.A. had egg on his face. On October 25 the red-faced Sistrunk went to Judge Susan Criss and Bobby's bail shot up to a billion dollars, making him Galveston County's first ever billion-dollar fugitive.
Back East, Bobby's upper-crust friends and family could scarcely believe their eyes as they unrolled their morning papers and were met by the picture of the scruffy-looking real-estate heir and read the horrific charges against him. How, they asked, as they poured their first cups of coffee in their luxurious Fifth Avenue apartments and their million-dollar suburban mansions, had it come to this? Bobby Durst was one of them, born into wealth, and his already huge family fortune had more than doubled in the last twenty years. He'd had a first-class education and had been blessed by a good brain, above average looks and a lively intelligence. Hadn't he married that pretty young wife, and whatever happened to her, anyway?
How could he possibly have killed an old man and then hacked off his head and his limbs? His mugshot was decorating the New York papers, and worse, he'd gone on the lam. Now his face was on the FBI's wanted list and displayed in post offices. How did he sink to this?
Copyright © 2002 by Marion Collins.