Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?—Bret Easton Ellis, 'American Psycho'
On Dec. 19, 2000, shuttle driver Ross Vitalie, the owner of Door-to-Door Airporter in Humboldt County, picked up his fare—a slight figure in his early 50s with an odd, gruff manner of speaking and peculiar facial tics—at what was then known as the Arcata Airport, a small-town airfield with a couple of runways originally built by the U.S. Navy during World War II.
The dark-haired and affable Vitalie then headed roughly 15 miles south down Highway 101 to Harper Motors, a Ford dealership located just north of Eureka, where his passenger picked up some keys for his car stored in long-term parking at the airport. Vitalie drove him back. The round trip took little more than 30 minutes.
Vitalie's passenger had been a regular customer over the past half-decade. "You could say he was a little bit strange," says Vitalie, a muscular six-footer who studied martial arts in college. "For his size, he could be very demanding."
Airport records would later indicate that Vitalie's passenger had often stored his car in long-term parking in the years prior. The records also indicated that he removed his car from the lot that afternoon. Vitalie dropped off his passenger—whom he called simply "Bob"—at the airport, and bid him adieu.
"He was a loner," Vitalie recalls. "The only thing I remember was him asking what was going on around town whenever he returned. He'd want to know if anything was going on with the police department."
Vitalie's fare that day was none other than Robert Durst, the quirky and allegedly deadly scion of a Manhattan real estate dynasty. He had relocated to the seaside California town of Trinidad in late 1994 or early 1995, shortly after his father, Seymour Durst, passed him over, installing Durst's younger brother Douglas as head of the family's billion-dollar high-rise empire.
The controversial, albeit intoxicating, documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which aired on HBO this past winter, made it seem as though Robert Durst never wanted to serve as head of the family business, but that's one of many false narratives established by Durst after the fact, as a way of putting off anyone on his trail.
Those close to him knew better. They say that Durst was livid about being bypassed for his younger sibling, angry and bitter, and that he had blown up in the plush Manhattan offices of the Durst Organization when he had been told the news.
CRUSHED LIKE A BUG
Durst had come to the Emerald Triangle in Northern California—a place where pot was plentiful and accessible, and where he could go essentially unrecognized—to get away from his father and brother, to break away from the long arm of his family's influence. Maybe he had darker visions as well.
A decade earlier, Durst had been the prime suspect following the disappearance of his young and beautiful wife, Kathie McCormack Durst, who went missing in the winter of 1982, when the Dursts' marriage had deteriorated into coke and drinking binges, a series of sexual affairs and violent outbursts. Durst had spun a tale about his wife's disappearance—and, many believe, got away with murder.
Those close to Durst—family, friends, you name them—have described him as an inveterate liar, "incapable of telling the truth," in the words of his brother Douglas. Although he would claim otherwise in The Jinx, he was also extremely skilled in his duplicity. More than once, law enforcement officials took the bait. They swallowed it hook, line and sinker in New York. And they may have swallowed it in California too.
According to records in the Humboldt County Recorder's Office, Durst purchased a three-story ocean-view home in Trinidad from Diane Bueche in June of 1995. "It was very rural," Durst would tell Jinx director Andrew Jarecki about Trinidad in an interview for the film. "Very pretty."
Located on the corner of Van Wycke and Galindo streets in the picturesque seaside village, Durst's residence—with wall-to-wall decking and full-length picture windows on each level—afforded sweeping views of the Trinidad waterfront, arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in Northern California.
Bueche lived directly next door to Durst on Van Wycke, in a sprawling two-story shingled home with equally breathtaking views. The outgoing, well-off Bueche was "a bon vivant" to her friends (many called her "Bo") who owned and managed several properties in Humboldt and Trinity counties. She quickly became Durst's friend, confidante and social guide to the North Coast. They went out to dinner, movies and cultural events.
"Bobby" Durst, as he was most frequently known, generally kept to himself among strangers, but he had surprising charm around women. They seemed to hover over him, guarding him, maybe even wanting to "mother" him, according to one friend. That he was receptive to such affection shouldn't have been surprising, since his own mother had committed suicide when he was seven—though not, as he would often claim, directly in front of him. Durst liked to stretch the truth on that story too.
His first wife, Kathie, was a beautiful, bright 19-year-old when he met her. By the time she disappeared, it is widely known that Durst had taken up with Prudence Farrow, the younger sister of actress Mia Farrow and the subject of the Beatles' song "Dear Prudence," written by John Lennon. Some suspected that Bueche and Durst were an item in Trinidad, but no one seems to have known for sure. One police report, drafted in 2003, asserts that Durst only had sex with prostitutes after the disappearance of Kathie in 1982.
More than likely, the Bueche-Durst relationship was platonic, though they kept in close contact with each other, even when one of them was out of town. Bueche would later say that they connected by phone, email, fax and letters. Durst, who still used his Manhattan letterhead for business communication, had stationery printed with his Trinidad address on it for local and personal correspondence.
In one letter Durst sent to Bueche (a copy of which was provided by Matt Birkbeck, author of A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst), he said that he had "so much fucking energy these days I feel like the top of my head is coming off." He cryptically mentioned rearranging the furniture in Bueche's bedroom and upgrading his burglar alarm. He asked rhetorically, "Do you know it is illegal to shoot your pistol in town even in self defense[?]"
In another handwritten note that Durst faxed to Bueche, he declared: "I'd love to joust with you, but you might crush me like a bug. However, if you enjoy crushing bugs, call me. . . . Maybe I'll get to bite you real good before I'm cornered."