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Westchester DA: Initial probe into Kathleen Durst's death suffered from 'tunnel-vision'

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Westchester DA: Initial probe into Kathleen Durst's death suffered from 'tunnel-vision'
Real estate heir Robert Durst died Jan. 10 while awaiting to stand try on charges of killing his wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst, who went missing in 1982 and whose body has never been found. Alex Gallardo/EPA-EFE

Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Ten days ago, convicted murderer and former real estate heir Robert Durst died at a California state prison where he was serving a life sentence for killing his best friend and awaiting trial on subsequent charges related to the disappearance of his wife 40 years ago.

With Durst's death, the family of Kathleen McCormack Durst were denied their day in court to learn what happened to her and her body, which was never found. But on Wednesday, Westchester County District Attorney Miriam Roach made good on her promise to reveal information on their case against the real estate scion and the issues that prevented charges from being imposed earlier.

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"It appears that the initial investigation suffered to some degree from 'tunnel-vision' -- having a theory of a case, which is maintained even when there are red flags that should cause those initial theories to be questioned," Rocah wrote in the 12-page investigative report. "While it is impossible to know why this happened, we cannot ignore the wealth, status and resources available to Durst."

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Kathleen Durst, a 29-year-old in her final year of medical school, disappeared the night of Jan. 31, 1982.

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Roach, in a press conference about the report, said that after Kathleen Durst's disappearance investigators were guided by Robert Durst's version of events despite evidence that contradicted it.

Robert Durst told investigators that he had driven his wife from their South Salem home to a train station from where she commuted to Manhattan and had arrived at their Riverside Drive apartment.

However, Investigators at the time found evidence contradicting his initial statements, including that the pair had been experiencing marital problems as well as allegations that he had abused her, including one instance when Kathleen Durst had climbed from her balcony to a neighbor's to seek safety.

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Roach said while the initial investigation focused on Manhattan it should have changed "more quickly" to other locations, specifically the Dursts' South Salem home, to obtain evidence.

It would be almost 20 years later when crucial information gathered in 1982 that directed investigators to Manhattan was determined to be neither credible nor reliable.

Roach said investigators put much weight behind the claim that Kathleen Durst had called her medical school a day after she was last seen informing the institution that she would be absent and "falsely suggested that she was still alive."

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"Many years later, evidence was developed that this call was, in fact, a ruse that [Robert] Durst had orchestrated using his friend Susan Berman," she said.

Robert Durst was convicted last September of murdering Berman to keep her quiet about his role in Kathleen Durst's disappearance.

Roach explained that conviction permitted admissible evidence that Robert Durst had Berman call the medical school purporting to be his wife to misdirect the investigation and that he admitted to his friend that he killed her.

"With these two new pieces of evidence, our office was able to charge Durst with Kathleen's murder," Roach said.

Robert Durst was indicted by a Westchester grand jury Nov. 1 on second-degree murder charges.

Roach wrote in the report that it is not a comprehensive account of all information they have accumulated during the investigation, but the case should "serve as a stark reminder to investigators and prosecutors that the best approach initially is always with an open mind and a broad brush, especially in homicide cases where physical evidence is so crucial."

"This is not about putting blame anywhere," she said.

Notably, the McCormack family were absent from the press conference's audience, and asked by reporters if any members were invited, Roach said they have been communicating with their layer "as directed."

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Robert Abrams, the lawyer for the McCormack family, has said he plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Robert Durst's estate, The New York Times reported.

"There have been numerous individuals, including members of the Durst family, that have knowingly and intentionally participated in a criminal conspiracy to help Robert Durst avoid prosecution," he said after Roach's new conference Wednesday while accusing the district attorney of sanctioning a so-called cover-up.

Concerning if their subsequent investigation into Kathleen Durst's disappearance produced evidence pointing to where the body may be, investigators said it did lead to a theory but would not comment further due to grand jury restrictions.

Roach added that she doesn't "foresee" further evidence in the case being released to the public after Wednesday.

"The case will be sealed once it is dismissed, which will happen once we have a death certificate for Mr. Durst," she said. "Unless new evidence comes to light -- we always leave open that option but I don't really anticipate that in this case."

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