I 'm nervous. I was in a New Orleans hotel March 15. That's the same night that police arrested Robert Durst in another New Orleans hotel. And for the past few decades it seems that people, cats and dogs in the proximity of Robert Durst have ended up missing or dead in some weird way.
I don't want to speculate about how many people this crazy multimillionaire might have killed before, during and after living in our midst. That's what everyone else is doing. Actually, I do want to speculate, but I hesitate to do so in print, for publication. As a journalist, I'm trained not to presume. But as part of the population of human beings, I can't see myself as the only person out there refraining.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, you must be one of those people who never reads the news or tunes in to the news on TV or radio. You don't get Facebook or Twitter. Because Durst is what people are talking and tweeting about. You can't help it. The story is just too weird and frightening. Here is the quick recap for those of you who missed it:
The son of a New York real estate magnate, Durst's first wife Kathie went missing in 1982. Then in 2000, his best friend Susan Berman was killed execution-style just before a scheduled interview with police about Kathie Durst. In 2003, Durst shot his neighbor, Morris Black, cut up his body, dumped it into the Gulf of Mexico, and went on the lam until police caught him shoplifting in Pennsylvania. In what might be the craziest part of this crazy story, a Texas jury acquitted him. They believed his story that he was fighting Black in self-defense when the gun went off. We are talking about Texas, one of the most difficult states in the country for defense attorneys.
That's what we know. Then there is the stuff everyone is speculating about.
According to some news sources, Durst's brother says that Durst had seven Malamutes, all named Igor, who all disappeared within a six-month period. Judge Susan Criss of Galveston, who presided over Durst's acquittal, told TV reporters that she thinks it was Durst who put a severed cat head on her doorstep.
Newspapers like the New York Daily News speculated that Durst might be connected to the disappearance of Eureka teen Karen Mitchell back in November 1997 and San Francisco teenager Kristen Modafferi. In blog comments, people are questioning the suicide of a neighbor of Durst's when he lived in Trinidad for a few years.
The arrest that prompted all this speculation was for Berman's murder. And the arrest itself was prompted by a six-part documentary on HBO in which Durst's brother turned over new evidence he discovered and the film crew taped Durst in a bathroom muttering what some have interpreted as a confession.
For a journalist trained to report only what I know as fact or what some credible person says, all this speculation is hard to take. On the one hand, it's a big pile of suspicious circumstances that link all these disappearances and deaths to Durst. On the other, the coverage reminds me Gary Condit, the one-time congressman from Modesto who had the great misfortune to be having an affair with an intern when she disappeared in 2001 and was later found dead in a nearby park. The national press all but convicted Condit of her murder. But nine years later, it was another man, Ingmar Guandique, who was convicted of the murder in court.
For people still grieving over the disappearance of Karen Mitchell, this story and its coverage must be painful. Depending on how you read the stories, Robert Durst totally murdered Mitchell or there is little connecting him to the crime.
If you believe Durst killed Mitchell, you wonder how many other people went missing people because of him.
How do responsible journalists report all this? Do you stand by and let the tabloids and bloggers draw your readers away with every new, unproven news nugget? Or do you report it all, raising the fear level in your community and reopening old wounds as people start remembering every missing person, dog and cat from the time Robert Durst lived in our area?
And how much evidence do you need to start convicting people in the press? Condit ended up getting money out of author Dominick Dunne in an undisclosed settlement after he sued for $11 million in libel. The Durst story seems libel-proof — he's clearly in the public spotlight so he doesn't have the protections of a private citizen, and to prove libel you need to show that a story harmed someone. There isn't much harm you could do to Durst's reputation now. Once someone has admitted to killing and dismembering a neighbor, all bets are off.
To not report seems irresponsible. I wasn't here when Karen Mitchell disappeared, but I know this community. Everyone knows most everyone, or it at least it seems that way. This isn't San Francisco or Los Angeles. We trust our neighbors. I've stopped on my way to school and offered rides to students I don't know, simply because I know we are going the same way. I'd never do that in the city. My daughter knows not to talk to strangers. But must I tell her not to avoid her neighbor? Many people cross the street when they see someone who looks dirty and penniless. But I bet they don't cross when they see someone who looks like they have money.
So what's the job of the responsible press in the Durst story? It's the job of reporters to make sure readers and listeners know the difference between what's fact and what's speculation.
We wouldn't be talking about any of this, were it not for filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who directed The Jinx, about Durst, for HBO. You wonder how much incentive police ever have for solving missing persons and difficult-to-solve murders without pesky journalists following the cases. In towns without newspapers, TV stations or Internet news sites, how many more missing persons cases gather dust in police file boxes?
The press reported that Durst had dinner at Emeril's in New Orleans the night he was arrested. That's the same night I was wandering the streets of the French Quarter looking for a place to eat. There are signs posted throughout the Quarter warning tourists to walk in big groups. I assumed that was because of pickpockets, purse snatchers and armed robbers. I wasn't keeping an eye out for the creepy rich guy around the corner.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She can't help wondering about the mysterious death of her sister's cat Max found in Arcata a block from his Olsen Court home in 2005.