Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Pretrial testimony in a Los Angeles murder case on Thursday pointed a finger at the man responsible for the unsolved 2000 execution-style murder of writer Susan Berman.
Prosecutors have charged Berman's acquaintance, New York real estate heir Robert Durst, with first-degree murder in the case. Thursday, a longtime friend of the two claimed that the accused admitted during a dinner conversation three years ago that he indeed had killed Berman.
Advertising executive Nathan "Nick" Chavin said during testimony in Los Angeles Superior Court Thursday that Durst took credit for Berman's death because she knew the truth about the disappearance of Durst's first wife three decades ago -- and police were beginning to ask her about it.
Chavin, a secret witness in the case, told prosecutors in court Thursday that Durst had said, "It was her or me. I had no choice." His testimony is the most direct evidence to date linking Durst to Berman's death.
Berman, 55, was found dead in her Los Angeles area home on Christmas Eve 2000, shot in the back of the head with a 9 mm handgun. The case went cold for 15 years before Durst was apprehended by FBI agents in New Orleans on a California murder warrant.
Durst received an 85-month prison sentence last year after pleading to a federal weapons charge that stemmed from his 2015 arrest. He pleaded not guilty to killing Berman at his arraignment in November.
Berman wrote several works of note during her writing career, including two memoirs, and was a regular contributor for newspapers and magazines. One of her books, 1981's "Easy Street," discussed her life as the daughter of reputed Las Vegas mob figure Davie Berman.
Durst, 73, who has an estimated fortune of $100 million, has previously been linked to two other criminal investigations -- the disappearance of ex-wife Kathleen McCormack in New York in 1982, and the death of neighbor Morris Black in Texas in 2001. He was convicted of dismembering Black but acquitted on the murder charge, citing self-defense.
McCormack, who was having marital troubles with Durst at the time of her disappearance, has never been found. Police in Westchester County, N.Y., believe she is dead and have long suspected that Durst killed her. The couple, married in 1973, were officially divorced in 1990 with Durst citing "spousal abandonment."
During his testimony Thursday, Chavin said Berman had told him that Durst was responsible for his wife's disappearance. He also told prosecutors that he didn't believe Durst was capable of such violence for many years -- until Black turned up dead in east Texas, and Durst admitted to dismembering his body and tossing the pieces into Galveston Bay.
"It was like taking the gloves off ... all things are possible [now]," Chavin said. "I began to doubt my own feelings [about Durst's innocence]. Nobody else had reason to harm Susan Berman."
Chavin's identity was kept secret until Thursday due to safety concerns for witnesses in the case.
After growing tired of police asking about his missing wife, officials said, Durst moved to the Houston area in 2000, shortly before Berman's death, and even began dressing as a woman to avoid detection.
Authorities say when Durst learned late that year that police had reopened the McCormack investigation -- and had started asking Berman what she knew -- he decided that she had to be killed. Within a few weeks, she was dead.
Fourteen years later, Chavin said Durst asked him to dinner and admitted guilt.
"I was not shocked but my response was one of 'Now I know,'" Chavin said, also noting that he didn't immediately tell police about the confession because Berman had told him that they should protect Durst from prosecution.
"Kathie's dead, we can't do anything about it," Chavin recalled Berman telling him before her death. "We have to protect Bob."
Chavin, 72, also told prosecutors that he still feels compassion toward Durst.
"This is a best friend who admitted to killing my other best friend," he said. "This is not easy."
Two other witnesses testified during Thursday's hearing, including an acquaintance who kept a box full of Durst's personal documents relating to his wife's disappearance and Berman's death. Producers of a 2015 HBO docu-series, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, had reviewed the documents before they were seized by police.
Prosecutors are seeking to introduce the documents at trial, while Durst's defense wants them excluded. A judge will decide soon whether and when the case will go to trial. Prosecutors have agreed not to seek the death penalty.