Los Angeles

Key Witness Denies Making Up Account of Durst Confession

He described Durst as being "matter of fact and a little sad" when Durst said about slain friend Susan Berman in 2014, "It was her or me. I had no choice."

A key prosecution witness in the murder case against Robert Durst denied Friday that he concocted his account of the New York real estate scion confessing outside a New York City restaurant to the killing of a mutual friend at her Los Angeles home.

Nathan "Nick" Chavin — who described himself as a longtime friend of Durst — acknowledged that it took him about seven months of discussions with prosecutors before he told them about Durst's alleged confession to Susan Berman's December 2000 killing. He said he wasn't ready earlier to disclose what he had heard.

He described Durst as being "matter of fact and a little sad" when Durst said about Berman in 2014, "It was her or me. I had no choice."

Chavin said he eventually decided to tell prosecutors in October 2015 what Durst had said because he felt what happened to Berman outweighed his loyalty to Durst. He said he would otherwise be dishonoring her memory and his friendship with Berman, who was also a close friend of his.

Durst is charged with murdering Berman, 55, with prosecutors theorizing that Durst killed her because police in New York were about to question her in a renewed investigation into the disappearance of Durst's first wife, Kathleen, who vanished in 1982.

Chavin said he has been guarded by police since he came to Los Angeles on Jan. 30 — the day the defense was notified that he was one of the "secret" witnesses that would be called to testify against Durst in advance of a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial.

The prosecution played a tape-recording of an April 2016 call between Durst in jail and Chavin in which Durst refers to the two of them having had dinner, along with another call a few days afterward in which Durst noted that everything they say in their telephone conversations was being recorded.

Durst's lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, suggested in his questioning that it took months for Chavin to "come up with a story."

But Chavin responded, "I didn't ever come up with a story." He said he had been reluctant to tell prosecutors the entire account of his post-dinner conversation with Durst in 2014, testifying that he "hadn't come to grips with what [he] wanted to say."

Durst's lawyer showed the witness a copy of several transcripts of tape-recorded conversations between Chavin and Deputy District Attorneys John Lewin and Habib Balian, in which Chavin said Durst "sort of shrugged" and "kind of mumbled something" when Chavin asked him about Berman.

"I can't really put it together what it was," Chavin is quoted as saying in a transcript from an April 2015 interview with prosecutors. When asked if he had been "lying by omission," Durst's longtime friend said, "No, because I said he mumbled something." "I wouldn't call it lying ... I wasn't ready to talk about it then," the musician-turned-real estate advertising executive said.

"Clearly it's your position and your testimony that Mr. Durst ... confessed to you by saying, 'It was her or me. I had no choice,'" DeGuerin said. "Yes," the witness responded.

DeGuerin also showed the witness a transcript from an April 2015 interview in which Lewin asked if Chavin would tell him if Durst had confessed to killing Berman. "Yes, I would tell you," the witness responded, according to the transcript.

Chavin described himself as "waffling" at the time and said he should have simply said that he didn't want to talk to them about it.

"I know I didn't want to speak about it then, the way I avoided answering" his questions, the witness said.

The defense attorney asked Chavin about a transcript from another interview later that month in which Chavin is quoted as saying, "He mumbled something ... We didn't talk about it and he said, 'Next time.'

"I didn't want to talk about it ... I'm clearly ... trying not to talk about it," he said of his April 23, 2015, conversation with prosecutors.

In testimony Thursday, Chavin said Durst had asked to meet him for dinner because he "wanted to talk to me about Kathie and Susan."

After Durst's alleged confession to Berman's killing, Chavin said he asked Durst about his long-missing wife, but he got no response as Durst walked away from their dinner meeting. Asked if he still felt a bond with Durst, Chavin said, "It sounds ridiculous, but yes."

"This was a best friend who admitted to killing my other best friend,'' Chavin testified.

Chavin also testified that after Kathleen Durst's disappearance, Berman told him that Durst had confessed to killing her. Chavin — whose identity had been kept secret from the public until he was called to the stand Wednesday — testified that he initially didn't believe Berman. He said Berman told him there was nothing they could do for Kathie Durst and that they needed to protect their friend, Robert Durst. Chavin testified that he found it very hard to believe what Berman had told him.

"I couldn't believe that he would have committed a crime like that," Chavin said.

The witness testified that he didn't want to believe Durst had killed his wife. He said he asked Berman how she knew, and said she responded "because he told me." The 72-year-old man testified that he was later "flabbergasted" to learn about Berman's death during a phone conversation with a New York Times reporter who has long covered Durst.

He said he was in "extreme shock" and "disbelief" after learning later that Durst had dismembered his neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas, in 2001, because he believed Durst was not capable of such of hands-on violence. Durst was tried for but eventually acquitted of Black's killing.

Chavin is one of two witnesses that have been called to testify early in order for their testimony to be preserved. Their videotaped testimony will only be shown to a jury if they are not available to testify then. Prosecutors have suggested that witnesses might be killed.

Defense attorneys objected to the early questioning of witnesses, countering that their client is in custody and does not pose any threat to anyone who might testify in his murder case. The murder charge against Durst includes the special circumstance allegations of murder of a witness and murder while lying in wait, along with gun use allegations. Prosecutors, however, are not seeking the death penalty.

Durst was arrested March 14, 2015, in a New Orleans hotel room, hours before the airing of the final episode of the HBO documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," which examined Kathleen Durst's disappearance and the killings of Berman and Black.

He has been long estranged from his real-estate-rich family, known for ownership of a series of New York City skyscrapers — including an investment in the World Trade Center. Durst split with the family when his younger brother was placed in charge of the family business, leading to a drawn-out legal battle. According to various media reports, Durst ultimately reached a settlement under which the family paid him $60 million to $65 million.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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