Last week was the premiere episode of HBO’s much-anticipated six-part documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst about the mystery surrounding millionaire heir Robert Durst’s connection to multiple crimes over a 30-year period. (I don’t want to give too much away for those who do not know Durst’s story.) The premiere episode begins as many true crime documentaries do, with the discovery of a body. One small clue — a newspaper found with the body that included a street address — is the first thread that officers pull on that begins to unravel of one of the most amazing and bizarre crime narratives of the last 50 years.
Police arrest Durst and let him know that he would be held on $250,000 bond. When asked if he had that kind of money, Durst replied casually, “Well, not on me.” The remark struck detectives, who were not aware of Robert’s connection to New York’s powerful and wealthy Durst family, as quite peculiar.
“This Durst guy made a phone call to somebody named Debrah in New York, told her he was in Galveston, Texas, under arrest for murder, and he needed $250,000,” a detective recalls. “And she said, ‘No problem. It will be there in the morning.'” The detective adds, “I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on here?'”
At this point we get to meet Robert Durst’s current wife (at the time) as she participates in an interview with police that looks to have been recorded well after his initial arrest. Debrah is a bit of a whirlwind as she sassily answers questions with snark, as well as quite a bit of obvious irritation.
So who is Robert Durst’s second wife Debrah Lee Charatan? (If you’ve seen the premiere or know anything about Robert Durst then you know his first wife, Kathleen Durst — maiden name McCormack — famously disappeared in 1982.) Debra Lee Charatan was/is a successful real estate broker in New York City who married Robert Durst on December 11, 2000 — not long after police reopened their investigation into Kathleen’s disappearance, and less than two weeks before Susan Berman, a long-time friend of Robert’s who was thought to know something about McCormack’s disappearance, was found killed execution-style in her Benedict Canyon, California home.
The marriage was a secret one, and it was unknown to friends and family until Robert Durst’s Galveston arrest and resulting trial.
According to a 2003 profile piece in The New York Times, Debrah and Robert had little in common. But they did “both had childhoods colored by tragedy, and both are estranged from their families,” reveals The Times. “Mr. Durst’s mother committed suicide in 1950, jumping from the roof of their home in Scarsdale, in Westchester County.”
Debra’s parents were both survivors of the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II, and many speculate she got her hard-nosed survivalist mentality, that served her so well in the real estate business, to them. Despite the apparent similarities in personalities, Debra (at the time of the article) was reportedly not speaking to her mother, brother or sister.
Debrah and Robert were married on the 25th floor of a Times Square Office building located at 1500 Broadway. The 15-minute ceremony was performed by a rabbi named Robert I. Summers who later revealed that Debrah had chosen him using a phone book. From The New Times in December, 2001:
Mr. Durst and Ms. Charatan moved into 923 Fifth Avenue, according to friends of the couple. The luxurious apartment was a dream come true for Ms. Charatan, her friends said, but Mr. Durst disliked what he considered the stuffy Upper East Side neighborhood and moved out after nine months. They never lived together again, although Mr. Durst visited her in Manhattan and in Bridgehampton, where she vacationed.
But it may have been a bit more than just location, location, location that caused the demise of Robert and Debrah’s short-lived co-habitation. Judging from Robert’s phone conversations while in prison, it appears as though the marriage to Debrah may have been because he knew he might be in some serious legal trouble soon. In a conversation with his sister, Wendy Kreeger, Robert defends giving power of attorney to Debrah by admitting, “It was a marriage of convenience.” He adds, “I had to have Debrah to write my checks, I was setting myself up to be a fugitive.”
Debrah’s conversations also seem to suggest the secret quickie marriage may have been somewhat less than romantic when she gets angry with Robert over the phone because he never got her a wedding ring. “I had to wear Bradley’s ring from 25 years ago,” she says, in reference to her first husband.
A little bit about Debrah’s personal background and early real estate endeavors:
Ms. Charatan first made a name for herself in the 1980’s as the head of a commercial brokerage, Bach Realty, which drew wide notice as an all-woman firm. She had told Harper’s Bazaar that she wanted to be a ”female Harry Helmsley before I’m 30.” Glamour magazine named her one of its 10 Outstanding Young Working Women for 1984.
In 1985, she abruptly left her first husband, Bradley Berger, and ultimately lost custody of her son, who is now a college sophomore. According to friends and family members, she has not seen or talked with her son since he was 5.
“She’s an excellent broker,” said former Bach Realty broker Marcia Yawitz, “but she’s also one of the most ruthless people I have ever come across.”
Adelaide Polsinelli, another former employee who was an executive for Debrah for more than a decade, told The Times, “For Debbie, it’s all about the money.” She added, “When she met Bob, she hit pay dirt.” Adelaide said of the murder trial at the time, “I am sincerely sad for her. I don’t think this was in her plan.”
Adelaide’s comments seem reinforced by audio excerpts of Debrah’s phone conversations with Robert while he was in jail played during The Jinx premiere. At one point Debra is upset about Robert’s choice of legal representation, Michael Kennedy, because Kennedy was chosen by Robert’s younger brother, Douglas Durst, who was put in charge of the Durst empire instead of Robert. Debra thought that Kennedy was looking out for the interests of Douglas and the Durst Organization, and not Robert’s.
Debra points out that the attorney in questions has advised Robert to plead incompetence. “What he doesn’t want is me to get any of the trust money later on,” she tells Robert on the phone. “Since I’m not your wife, because you were incompetent at the time, OK, means that they are the only ones who can make your decisions. So they would take all of your money, and they would become the guardians of it. It’s too risky.”
So what has happened to Debrah Lee Charatan since Robert Durst’s murder trial? Her former business Bach Realty has since dissolved, but Debrah apparently mended the fences with her son, Bennat Charatan Berge, as the two founded the BCB Property Management company in 2008. From the BCB website:
BCB Property Management is a full service real estate company focused on managing and redeveloping multi-family buildings in New York City. Our company has a strong commitment to investments in emerging marketplaces and prides itself on a proactive and ethical approach to management. BCB is a value manager, ensuring the right decisions are made to achieve the goals of its investors and residents. The in-house team is comprised of experts in management, finance, and development.
A full-service firm, BCB Property Management works from conception to completion, handling development, investment, construction, and management. Founded in 2008 by the mother and son team of Debrah Lee Charatan and Bennat Charatan Berger, BCB has preserved and improved more than 36 multi-family and mixed use buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Debrah Lee Charatan, who seems to do a fantastic job of avoiding cameras, most recently made headlines in MYC when she placed her Fifth Avenue co-op for sale in 2013 for $4.5 million. That article referred to Debrah as Robert’s wife, and there is no evidence online that the two ever divorced (although they are proven experts at secretive official relationship status changes), so it is assumed the two are still legally married.
Tune in for new episodes of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst airing Sunday nights at 8/7c on HBO.