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Accused millionaire Durst testifies: 'I wanted to not be Robert Durst'

By John Springer

On trial for murder, Durst is claiming self defense
On trial for murder, Durst is claiming self defense

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GALVESTON, Texas (Court TV) -- In a soft, raspy voice, multimillionaire Robert Durst told jurors in his murder case that he fled to this Gulf Coast community posing as a mute woman because he was afraid.

After years of addiction, family battles and an eating disorder, Durst was under investigation for the unsolved 1982 disappearance of his first wife, he testified. And he'd had enough.

"It seemed to me the big problem was Robert Durst," Durst said quietly, referring to himself in the third-person. "I wanted to not be Robert Durst."

The first witness for his defense Wednesday, Durst spoke in even tones, revealing no emotion as he described his early troubled life, his first wife, Kathleen, and his miserly, isolated existence in a Galveston boardinghouse. It was there he met Morris Black, the 71-year-old man he is accused of murdering and dismembering.

Although his testimony was brief Wednesday, Durst is expected to testify Thursday that he fatally shot Black accidentally during a life-and-death struggle in his apartment, and then chopped up the body because he did not think anyone would believe the death was an accident.

Prosecutors say the dismemberment, his flight and attempts to cover up all trace of his life in Galveston, as well as extensive physical evidence are proof of murder.

Wearing a white dress shirt without a tie and a blue blazer, the diminutive Durst appeared weary and older than his 60 years. Durst told jurors that despite having "more money than I could ever spend," his life has been a constant struggle with bulimia, marijuana and alcohol abuse, a dysfunctional relationship with an overbearing father, and isolation.

Betraying a chronic eye-twitch and a slight New York accent, Durst described the last time he saw his first wife in 1982. The pretty, 29-year-old was expected at medical school the following morning, he testified, so he drove her to a commuter train station near their weekend home in upstate New York.

"I put her on the train in Westchester to go into the city that evening. That was the last time I ever saw her," Durst said.

When he learned in November 2000 that Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro had reopened the investigation, Durst said he was sick to his stomach. He had once been in a Tijuana jail for six hours for marijuana possession while in college, he said, and was afraid Pirro wanted to him indict to shift the focus off her husband's tax-evasion charges.

"She was going to use a new investigation of Robert Durst to further her career," Durst said.

So he made a plan. He would discard his identity and sell his assets. He wrote letters to his current wife and accountant to transfer power of attorney, he testified, having no intention of returning to New York or using the name Robert Durst ever again.

Once in Galveston, Durst went to a Wal-Mart and bought a wig, blouse and cargo pants, and launched his life as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner. Contrary to media accounts, he said, he never donned a dress for his disguise.

Durst's existence during that time could best be described as pathetic. Once, he recalled, his wig caught fire in a bar and other patrons stared as he picked it up off the floor and put it back on his head.

"I hated that wig," he said at one point in the same scratchy, dispassionate tone he used through his testimony.

Then there was the time he forgot the getup and walked into a men's room and urinated standing up; he was not alone.

On another occasion, he accidentally revealed himself to a public library employee who asked him about a newspaper article he was reading on a computer.

"I started to talk to her. I was in my third or fourth sentence," Durst said. "She was just looking at me, her mouth open. She knew I was a man who could talk."

Durst left Galveston and returned to New York briefly after realizing that authorities in New York were not looking to arrest him. But in December 2000 his friend Susan Berman was murdered, which ignited a new media feeding frenzy that focused on him. Durst said he decided to return to Galveston where there was nothing in his own name.

"I wanted to get away from this Jeanine Pirro lady, who was making me feel scared again," Durst said.

"You wanted to run away?" asked Dick DeGuerin, Durst's lawyer.

"Yes," Durst said.

David Hebert, Pirro's chief spokesperson, told by phone that Pirro would not respond to comments Durst makes about her on the stand.

"The next thing he is going to say is the DA lent him one of the dresses he was wearing," Hebert said.

Though Durst hasn't been charged in either Berman's death or the disappearance of his first wife, his lawyers wanted jurors to hear about how he handled both tragedies in an effort to somehow explain his actions on and after Sept. 29, 2001. Durst fled Galveston after Black's death, they say, because he was scared and accustomed to running away, not because he was criminally responsible for the death.

Durst began describing the evolution of his friendship with Black as the court day ended Wednesday. The defense claims Durst became more and more fearful of Black as the months went on and tried to keep his neighbor out of his apartment.

Although Durst has yet to testify about the fatal altercation, his defense team tested a computer reenactment of the incident in the courtroom during the lunch break Wednesday. In it, a figure representing Durst enters Durst's apartment, sees Black, walks into the kitchen and kneels on the floor. Durst checks for something underneath the stove, stands up and re-enters the living room.

Black gets up, and there's a two-second struggle for the gun. It discharges as the two fall to the floor.

Wednesday morning, the defense team took jurors to the shores of the Galveston Bay, where Durst dumped pieces of Black's body. All but the head floated to the surface.

It may be Monday before prosecutors get a chance to cross-examine him.

If convicted of murder, Durst faces up to life in prison.

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