Once-fugitive real estate heir's plea deal approved

AP News
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Posted: Apr 27, 2016 7:19 PM
Once-fugitive real estate heir's plea deal approved

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Robert Durst, the estranged member of a wealthy real estate family and subject of a documentary about the death of his first wife, was sentenced to 7 years and 1 month in prison on a weapons charge that cleared the deck for him to face murder charges in California.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt sentenced Durst, 72, on Wednesday in New Orleans, approving a sentence that Durst had accepted in February as part of a plea agreement. Engelhardt also fined Durst $5,000 and said that his sentence, once served, would be followed by three years of supervised release. Durst will serve more than 4 ½ times the maximum under federal guidelines.

Durst is charged in Los Angeles in the 2000 killing of a female friend, Susan Berman, to keep her from talking to New York prosecutors about the disappearance of his first wife in 1982.

His attorneys have said repeatedly that he is innocent, does not know who killed Berman, and wants to prove it.

"I have been waiting to get to California about a year so I can state my not guilty plea," Durst, looking pale in an orange jail jumpsuit, told Engelhardt. "I truly, truly want to express my statement that I am not guilty in the death of Susan Berman."

Ten years and a $250,000 fine would have been the maximum sentence that Durst could have faced for illegally carrying a .38-caliber revolver after being convicted of a felony. However, Engelhardt noted, a presentence report recommended 12 to 18 months under federal guidelines.

Engelhardt said the longer-than-standard sentence was reasonable because the plea deal included agreements with U.S. attorneys in Houston and Manhattan and the Orleans Parish district attorney not to prosecute Durst on a variety of offenses. Those could have carried sentences longer than 85 months, Engelhardt said.

He will get credit for time served since his arrest in mid-March last year, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon said.

"They always do that," he said.

Accepting the sentence "cleared the decks — at a cost," defense attorney Richard DeGuerin said. "It's a great cost, but he's not facing any other prosecutions except what's in California."

"This case is and always has been about the accusation that Bob killed his best friend, Susan Berman. He did not kill Susan Berman, he doesn't know who did, and he's eager to get to California and prove that," DeGuerin said.

McMahon and DeGuerin said Durst also will forfeit more than $44,000 found in his hotel room when he was arrested and $117,000 in a package sent to Everette Ward, the name under which Durst had registered, and intercepted by the FBI after his arrest.

Durst's attorneys and prosecutors in Los Angeles have agreed that he will be in Los Angeles by mid-August.

He's likely to leave Louisiana within a couple of weeks, McMahon said.

"He'll be out of here pretty quickly," McMahon said, noting that timing and the specific prison that Durst goes to is up to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Engelhardt recommended that Durst serve his time at FCI Terminal Island, California, about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The location is near the trial venue and has medical facilities Durst needs because of his "advanced age and serious health considerations, including mobility challenges," defense lawyers wrote in a request filed Monday.

An estranged member of the wealthy New York real estate family that runs 1 World Trade Center, Durst was tracked to New Orleans in March 2015 by FBI agents worried that he was about to flee to Cuba.

He was detained at a hotel on the eve of the finale of a six-part documentary about him, and was arrested early on the morning of the show. "The Jinx" described the disappearance of Kathleen Durst, the death and dismemberment of a neighbor in Galveston, Texas, and Berman's death.

At the end of the show, Durst is heard muttering, "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."