A film and television producer with a string of hits, Obst, 67, recounted her experience in a pretrial hearing on Wednesday and Thursday in Superior Court in Los Angeles, where Durst, 74, a scion of a prominent New York real estate family, is charged with the murder of a close friend, Susan Berman, in December 2000.
Prosecutors contend that Durst shot Berman in the back of the head in her Los Angeles home to prevent her from telling authorities what she knew about the disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathleen.
Durst has insisted that he is innocent of Berman’s death and that he has no knowledge of what happened to his first wife.
At the time Kathleen Durst vanished in 1982, Berman served as a shield between Durst and tabloid reporters eager to discover what had happened.
Obst testified that Berman had revealed to her that she had tried to get the police off “Bob’s back” by making a phone call to Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, posing as Durst’s wife, who was a student there at the time.
The phone call, prosecutors contend, was designed to make the authorities believe that Kathleen Durst was still alive after she left the couple’s home, 50 miles north of Manhattan.
Over the years, Obst said she had forgotten the conversation. But The Jinx, a documentary in which she appeared, brought it all back. Still, she did not immediately go to the police.
“I was afraid of the defendant,” Obst told the court. “He kills witnesses.”
Ultimately, Obst did contact John Lewin, the deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who is leading the prosecution of Durst, out of a desire to “do the right thing,” she said, and “to do the right thing by Susan.”
Obst was one of a string of witnesses called over three days by the prosecution in what are known as conditional hearings, in which testimony is taken from witnesses age 65 or older who could die or be killed before a trial, which, in this case, is likely to take place sometime next year. Obst was the second “mystery witness” to appear in the hearings — her name was not publicly revealed until she took the stand.
On Thursday, DeGuerin repeatedly asked whether she was “conflating” her memories of what Berman told her with magazine or newspaper articles she read about the case, in particular the much-discussed call to Albert Einstein medical centre.
Obst acknowledged that she had confused some dates, but she was emphatic that she had a vivid recollection of Berman’s account of making the call and, at Durst’s behest, pretending to be Kathleen Durst.
Obst testified that Berman’s admission about Durst had come up in a discussion of Berman’s view of loyalty as an expression of love and that Berman often said her mother had died protecting the secrets of her gangster husband.
Obst said she had told Berman at the time that she was taking on the role of her mother in protecting Durst’s secrets, which, Obst recalled, Berman embraced as a “psychological revelation.”
The women’s five-year effort to produce a screenplay failed, and the conversation was soon forgotten, Obst said.
While she was viewing an episode of “The Jinx” in February 2015 that explored whether Kathleen Durst or someone else had placed the phone call to the medical college, Obst said, her heart started racing. “I realized people did not know she called Albert Einstein,” she said, referring to Berman. “I realized I knew this fact.”
Obst’s testimony complemented that of another witness, Miriam Barnes, who also testified about the phone call to the medical college.
One day, Barnes testified, Berman called her, asking her to come over to her apartment right away.
“She said: ‘I have to tell you something. Don’t ask me any questions,’” Barnes recalled.
She said Berman was pacing back and forth in the vestibule of her apartment, where two chairs faced each other. They sat in them and Berman leaned forward to speak.
“She said to me, ‘I did something today,’” Barnes testified. “She said she did it for Bobby. It took her a while to get it out: ‘If anything happens to me, Bobby did it.’”
Barnes said it was during this conversation that she learned that Durst’s wife was missing.
Barnes said she had kept the conversation a secret for nearly 35 years, before friends persuaded her to talk to a New York Times reporter.
After she was quoted in an article about Berman in December, the prosecutor asked her to come to Los Angeles to testify.
“I was scared,” Barnes testified. “I didn’t run in those circles.”