by Cathy Scott
The life of a journalist and author who spent her adult years writing about her mob roots ended dramatically, like a character in one of her books. Susan Berman, 55, was murdered in her Beverly Hills, California, home. She was shot execution-style by an unknown assailant just as New York state police were scheduling an interview about a decades-old unsolved missing-person's case.
Berman’s body was found on December 24, 2000, inside her rundown rented house in the woodsy Benedict Canyon neighborhood, where she lived with her three dogs. The front door had been left wide open – there were no signs of a forced entry or struggle, no signs of a sexual assault, and no items had been stolen from the house.
Susan had lived what she once described as a perfect childhood, despite being the daughter of a Jewish mobster. In the 1930s and '40s, her father, Davie Berman, was part of the same crime syndicate as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and mob kingpin Meyer Lansky. Working with Lansky, considered one of the shrewdest gangsters to ever walk the streets of 20th-century New York, gave Davie the opportunity to learn from the mob's top echelon. After all, Lansky was known as Lucky Luciano’s right-hand man and the mob’s financial mastermind.
As a trio, Berman, Siegel and Lansky pioneered the development of Las Vegas from a sleepy desert cow town to a thriving gambling Mecca. Nevertheless, the gangsters soon found themselves in an uneasy alliance with the Italian Mafia, who moved in on the Jewish mob’s territory. Davie, who co-owned the famous Flamingo Hotel and Casino with Siegel and Lansky, ran the place after Siegel was murdered in 1947 (in the Beverly Hills home of his mistress, Virginia Hill). Only in 1951, after the highly publicized and televised Kefauver Committee hearings of the US Senate’s investigation into organized crime, did the public become aware of the extent of Jewish involvement in the underworld.
Susan was unaware of her father’s underworld dealings until she became an adult, but her Las Vegas childhood was not exactly normal. Her father had slot machines installed in Flamingo Hotel rooms so his daughter could pass the time gambling and ordering room service. Susan enjoyed the life of a spoiled, indulged child. She wanted for nothing. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Liberace performed at her birthday parties. Davie drove fancy new Cadillacs. To his Susie, he was the world. What Susan did not know then was that when mob families were feuding, her family was in danger. During times of mob unrest, Davie piloted Susan away to Los Angeles, flying out of McCarran Field to the Los Angeles airport, and then to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for two or three days. He told Susan they were short vacations. Bodyguard Lou Raskin, a mountain of a man, lived with the Bermans so he could watch over Davie’s precious daughter. Susie remembered the trips as wonderful outings. She fell in love with Los Angeles.
The high-society lifestyle of the “Mafia Princess”, as the media called her, came to an abrupt end in 1957, when she was twelve. That year her father died during intestinal surgery. Only a few months later her mother Gladys committed suicide by taking a barbiturate overdose. Her Nevada childhood would haunt Susan for the rest of her life. In the ensuing years, what Berman wanted most was for her father to be remembered for his contributions to the development of Las Vegas. She wrote about Davie in two memoirs, 1981’s critically acclaimed Easy Street and 1996’s Lady Las Vegas. There was speculation after Susan's death that perhaps digging into Davie’s mob past was what got Susan killed. When police, responding to reports of dogs running loose, found Susan’s lifeless body on the floor of her rented house, they also noticed a 1920s Chicago Police “WANTED” poster for her father. Combined with the cause of death – a single gunshot wound to the back of the head – it was not surprising that detectives wondered if Susan had been whacked by the Mafia. That notion was soon debunked when they realized the mobsters of her father’s era would be between 90 and 100 years old. Moreover, nothing Susan was working on was anything she would be killed over.
One person of interest to the police was Berman’s University of California classmate Bobby Durst. She regularly referred to him as her brother and her best friend. They had much in common. Durst was a multimillionaire and the eldest son of a rich New York real-estate tycoon family. Like Berman, Durst’s mother committed suicide when he was a child, falling from the roof of the family mansion while her son watched.
Durst’s wife, Kathleen McCormack, went missing in 1982; he was questioned about the disappearance but never charged with any crime. In 1999, Kathleen’s parents went to court and had their daughter declared dead, even though no body was ever found. It cleared the way for them to settle her estate. But it also cleared the path for Durst to remarry, which he did.
Questioned about Susan’s killing, Durst told investigators he’d spent the holidays in the Hamptons with his second wife at the time Berman was gunned down. But Durst’s wife, Debra Lee Charatan, did not corroborate her husband’s claim. Durst’s celebrity lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, offered up a different alibi: Durst, he said, was on a plane Christmas Eve day – headed from San Francisco, where Durst owned a home, to New York - when Berman’s body was discovered. About the same time police were arriving at Berman’s home, DeGuerin said, Durst was on a plane. The problem with that alibi was that police said Berman had been dead for two days when her body was discovered, which meant Durst was not off the hook. Instead of providing an alibi for his client, DeGuerin unwittingly placed Durst in California at the time of Berman’s murder, just up the coast from the crime scene. Durst, 57 at the time of Susan’s death, was not charged in connection with her murder.
Three years later he was, however, tried for killing Morris Black, an elderly neighbor of his in Galveston, Texas. Durst had moved to that state for fear of being indicted in New York by the Westchester County district attorney, who had reopened the investigation into Durst's first wife’s disappearance. He lived in disguise, masquerading as a mute woman and renting a $300-a-month apartment. Morris Black, 71, a bad-tempered former seaman, lived across the hall.
Black’s body was butchered and stuffed into garbage bags that were found floating in Galveston Bay. Durst was arrested and charged with murder. He posted a $300,000 bond and then jumped bail, leaving the state and thus becoming a fugitive. He was found six weeks later in Pennsylvania, when – despite having $500 in his pocket – he was caught shoplifting a chicken sandwich, a Band-Aid and a newspaper. At trial, Durst admitted the killing, but claimed self defense.
In a shock verdict, the jury acquitted him.
If Durst had admitted to killing Morris Black, then what about Susan Berman, her friends asked. Could he have killed Susan … and his first wife, Kathleen, too? Medical student Kathleen, 29, was last seen on Jan. 31, 1982. Durst told police he’d put her on a Manhattan-bound train at a Katonah, N.Y., station so she could return to classes in the city the next day. He remained at their cottage near South Salem, Westchester County. Five days later, he reported his wife missing.
At the time, Susan Berman acted as Durst’s unofficial spokeswoman, fielding telephone calls from the media so Bobby did not have to deal with them. The dean of Kathleen Durst’s college told investigators that a woman identifying herself as Kathleen called in sick to school around the time of her disappearance. Friends and family believe Susan in fact made that call; they believe Susan knew too much about Kathleen Durst’s disappearance – and that’s what got her killed. Susan, so her confidants said, could be pushy. Perhaps, they surmised, Susan had pushed too far. After all, she’d contacted Bobby and asked for a loan so she could buy a used SUV. Instead, Bobby Durst sent her two separate checks for $25,000, telling her in a note that they were gifts, not loans. Still, the investigation of Durst by Los Angeles police detectives went cold. Authorities named a second man, Nyle Brenner, Susan’s manager, as a person of interest in the case. That probe too went nowhere.
No eyewitnesses to Susan’s murder ever came forward. Susan’s killer simply escaped into the night. At the scene, investigators found the casing of a spent bullet used in a 9mm handgun. It was the best evidence they had. After Durst was arrested in the Black case and police found a 9mm handgun in the trunk of his car, LAPD investigators traveled to Texas and did ballistics tests on the gun to see if it matched the casing found at Berman’s house. The tests were inconclusive.
According to the lead detective, Paul Coulter, he would have done things differently had homicide investigators been called in to handle the case from the start. His office, however, was not given the case until a few days after a news release was issued – eleven long days after the murder. As a result, reporters across the globe began calling the LAPD for information. That was when higher-ups handed off the case to the Robbery-Homicide unit.
“It’s very difficult, because we weren’t there from the get-go,” Detective Coulter said in a telephone interview. Jerry Stephens, Coulter’s partner on the case, retired in mid-2003. Another detective, Jesse Linn, replaced Stephens and paired up with Coulter in the investigation. Later, however, no one seemed to be investigating the murder. There were no new clues or leads.
The Berman investigation, Case No. 000825485, is now a cold one at Parker Center on North Los Angeles Street, where the LAPD's Robbery–Homicide Division is housed. Berman’s murder was one of 548 committed within LAPD’s jurisdiction in 2000.
When she came of age, Susan was given a trust of $5.25 million – which, over the years, she squandered on overspending and bad investments. She purchased three homes and lost them all to foreclosure. Still, for years she kept up a facade and wanted to be treated as if she had money. She was a wealthy Mafia daughter and a respected writer – but she ended up struggling and penniless, living in squalor while she waited for a big movie deal, until she was shot to death in the back of the head, her murderer never apprehended.
Photos courtesy of CourtTV.