During my time as a correspondent for People Magazine my NY bureau chief Maria Eftimiades would call with an assignment. It wasn't really "do you want to do this story," but more like a command from above (she once talked me into surveilling Jerry Seinfeld's apartment on a Christmas Day because he was getting married. Saying no was not an option, but it did come with the promise of a nice bonus).
I received one of those many calls from Maria in October 2000. This one was about Robert Durst, the heir to a NY real estate fortune who was under investigation, again, for the disappearance of his first wife Kathie. The five-page story (long by People standards) ran on Dec. 5, 2000. A month later, I received a call from a screaming, crying source saying that Susan Berman, a friend of Durst's, had been murdered in Los Angeles. Thus began my 17-year journey with the Durst story. It was Maria who suggested I do a book (my first), and she even connected me with her agent. A Deadly Secret was first published in hardcover in 2002, and then in paperback in 2003, and republished again in 2015 following the airing of HBO's The Jinx.
Thanks to the access I had to Kathie's family and friends and the NYPD files, A Deadly Secret became the bible of the Durst case, read by the various law enforcement agencies that have investigated Durst, Hollywood types (The Jinx's Andrew Jarecki, who I first sat down with in 2005), and by Durst himself, who had two copies in his Houston condo when he was arrested in 2015.
The film version of A Deadly Secret will air on Lifetime on Saturday, Nov. 4. Bettina Gilois wrote the screenplay and it stars Katharine McPhee and Daniel Gillies. It centers on the Kathie/Robert Durst relationship and follows two police investigations and...won't say any more.
BROKEN ARROW - We said goodbye to Sharon Marshall in June. Her name here in Oklahoma had been "Tonya," and that was what was on her tombstone. But I always referred to her as Sharon. It was the name she had used during her high school years at Forest Park, Georgia in the 1980s when she was at her best. Of course, even that name was a fraud, stolen from somewhere like the other names she had been given by the man who had taken her as a child.
I first visited Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in 2003, and it was then when I saw the tombstone that said "Tonya." I had already spent nearly a year doing my research and interviews for what would become A Beautiful Child, and seeing the gravesite here in Broken Arrow with only a first name, and a stolen one at that, left me with a very unsettled feeling. By that time, having visited Florida and Georgia first, I knew Tonya as Sharon Marshall, and throughout the years that's what I always called her.
On June 3, we said goodbye to Sharon, and unveiled a new tombstone with her real name, Suzanne Sevakis. How that came about, the discovery of her real name, and the new friends and family found since the publication of A Beautiful Child, will be told as part of the new book, now scheduled for 2018. Will keep you posted.
Dateline Finds Witness in Eureka
I worked with NBC's Dateline program, which did a good job advancing the Durst story that aired on June 19. One thing I was particularly happy about was the interview with Randy Gomes. He was the eyewitness who years ago gave police in Eureka that startling composite of the man last seen with Karen Mitchell that looked remarkably like Robert Durst. Gomes had fled to Idaho after giving police that composite but recently returned to the Eureka area. I passed along Gomes name to NBC, who tracked him down and, on camera, he ID'd Durst. Great stuff.
DeGuerin Denies Durst Concerns About Karen Mitchell
The other eye opening segment on Dateline was Durst attorney Dick DeGuerin's denial of the story I relayed during the program about how Durst had expressed deep concern that he would be charged in the Karen Mitchell case.
Just before Durst's 2003 trial, I had reported that police were looking at Durst in the Mitchell case along with the disappearance of Kristen Modaferri from San Francisco. At that time I had been hired by CBS to consult on a Durst program. I took them to Eureka, but they weren't interested (years later after The Jinx aired, Inside Edition, ABC's 20/20 and of course Dateline all ran with the story, with special kudos to Dateline for tracking down Gomes).
The CBS producer that hired me pulled me aside back then and said she was told that Durst wasn't concerned about Modaferri, but was so concerned about Karen Mitchell he asked DeGuerin what they would do. DeGuerin's response was to deal with one case at a time. I believed the story because the producer had been close to Durst's defense team. I thought she was just a good reporter, so you don't have to imagine my reaction when I read a NY Post report in 2004 that said she was and had been romantically involved with Chip Lewis, Durst's other attorney. They eventually married. I was floored.
I don't know if Durst is involved in Mitchell's disappearance or not. But if DeGuerin has a problem with that Mitchell story, he should have a talk with his c0-counsel.
Jeanine Pirro to Pen a Book About Durst
You knew there would be other books rising from the Durst story. Former Galveston judge Susan Criss is working on one (which I'd read when published). I heard six weeks ago that Pirro was looking for a publisher, and as of last week she found one with a book due this fall.
She doesn't come off well in A Deadly Secret (probably one of the worst public officials I've ever come across). She later subpoenaed my publisher, sought to have NY State Police Detective Joe Becerra fired (he started the Durst case) in a snit over who was getting more credit, and was despised by every other police jurisdiction with her incessant craving for publicity (one cop, Galveston's Cody Cazalas is the lone exception, but that's a whole other story).
I'm assuming her publisher will assign several fact checkers on this project.
Meet Julie Baumgold, Daily News' 'Special Correspondent'
by Cynthia Cotts
published: September 30, 2003
On September 22, the day of opening arguments at the Robert Durst murder trial in Galveston, Texas, a squabble broke out between two members of the press corps. Author Matt Birkbeck was chatting with other reporters outside the courtroom when a petite blonde charged up to him and said, "If I were a man and as big as you, I'd tell you to step outside, put up your dukes, and I'd take you." Birkbeck, who is 6’3” and broad-shouldered, calmly replied, "Do you want me to get down on my knees?" After the blonde disappeared, Birkbeck recalls, a colleague informed him that she was Julie Baumgold, the same woman who had elbowed him in the courtroom earlier that day. Baumgold is a relic of a past era. After making her name as a feature writer for New York in the 1970s, she married Ed Kosner, who published her work in New York and Esquire for years when he edited those magazines. In his latest incarnation, Kosner, 66, is the lame-duck editor of the Daily News, where his wife is a "special correspondent." Her stories make much of the fact that she was a childhood friend of Durst, the New York real estate heir who is on trial for killing his Texas neighbor.Wait a second! Isn't it a conflict of interest when someone covering a murder trial is the editor's wife and a friend of the defendant? Birkbeck calls this "journalism in its lowest form," and he's not the only one who thinks so. In his 2002 book, A Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durst, Birkbeck recalls how Kosner enraged many News staffers by publishing Baumgold's 2001 front-page "exclusive," "My Friend Bobby Durst," a piece which Birkbeck calls "part love letter, part defense."
Baumgold did not reply to a request for comment. In an e-mail, Kosner defended his wife, saying she has "never proclaimed Durst's innocence." However, she did try to pick a fight with Birkbeck, he said, because Birkbeck's book "disparaged her integrity . . . something no one has ever done in her long career."
Kosner denied giving his wife special treatment, saying, "Any editor would love to have a top writer who has known a murder defendant since childhood contributing to coverage of a headlined trial." He said Baumgold's features and sidebars are intended to supplement the daily coverage (which is being written by veteran trial reporter Richard T. Pienciak). Baumgold is paid a standard freelance rate, according to Kosner, who called her stories "good writing, good reading, good journalism."
If Baumgold is not getting special treatment, why did she get a press pass from U.S. News & World Report? According to Kosner, at the beginning of the trial there was talk that only one reporter from each company would be allowed in the courtroom, and the rest sent to an overflow room. Because two News reporters wanted to be in the courtroom, U.S. News editor Brian Duffy gave Baumgold her credentials. Ultimately, everyone got in, Kosner explained, but Baumgold "would have contributed to U.S. News had the occasion arisen." (Both U.S. News and the News are owned by Mort Zuckerman.)
On September 3, the News trumpeted Baumgold's name on the front page "skyline,” and News staffers joked that it was as if the paper had hired Dominick Dunne to cover the trial. Since then, the editor's wife has published two more pieces and attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. Courtroom sources find it odd that she flies back and forth frequently, doesn't take notes, shows a poor grasp of legal procedure,. and insists on dining at the best restaurants instead of the dives where most reporters have lunch. (Her September 3 piece mentions "the terrific restaurant Rudy and Paco's.")
Baumgold's connection to Durst may be more liability than asset. For example, there was Baumgold's first encounter with Eleanor Schwank, a friend of Durst's wife Kathie, who disappeared in 1982. Upon arriving in the courthouse, Schwank was surrounded by reporters, and the New York Post's Andrea Peyser began interviewing her. Baumgold butted in, asking Schwank, "Who are you?"
"I was a friend of Kathie's," Schwank said.
"I was a friend of Kathie's, too," Baumgold replied.
According to two witnesses, Schwank stared at her and said, "I know you are friends with Bob and the Dursts, and I feel your pain at losing your friend, but you have to understand that he killed Kathie and he must be brought to justice." Though Schwank gave interviews to other reporters, including Pienciak, there is no evidence that she gave an interview to Baumgold. Kosner says his wife "has not interviewed Durst but spoke to him by phone before the trial began."
Baumgold made another scene on the day the district attorney announced that he would be giving the court tapes of Durst's phone calls from jail. As soon as he said that, according to one witness, Baumgold gasped and everyone turned to look at her. She began asking which jail the calls had come from, the Pennsylvania jail where Durst was before or the Galveston jail where he is now. She asked local reporters to find out if calls to the Galveston jail are taped, and when the answer came back no, she let out a loud sigh.
Says Kosner, “Any jailhouse conversations Baumgold may have had with Durst are part of her reporting. Why shouldn’t she be concerned if they were going to be made public?”
While Baumgold was fretting, Peyser was busy obtaining leaked transcripts of the aforementioned tapes, which come from the Pennsylvania jail and are protected by a gag order. On Friday, the Post published excerpts from the tapes, and Peyser followed with another scoop on Sunday.
Baumgold's theatrics might be less objectionable if her connections were producing substantial insight or scoops. Instead, her copy is a thin hash of trivial observations, inconclusive memories, and claims that are contradicted by other sources. Case in point: Baumgold's explanation of how Durst's mother died. In the September 3 story, Baumgold stated that her own mother was the last person to speak to Durst's mother, "before she fell out the long window to her death." But Birkbeck's book reveals that Durst's mother stood for a long time on the roof of their house, while seven-year-old Durst watched with his father and grandfather, and a police officer tried to persuade her to go in. Eventually, Durst saw his mother plunge to her death on the pavement below.
Baumgold herself has written that Durst believes his mother committed suicide. But on September 22, two days after The New York Times' Charles Bagli called the death a suicide, Baumgold wrote, "Bernice walked out her window onto her roof and fell to her death. . . . [Bob] was awakened by the shouts after she had fallen." Asked about the latter assertion, Kosner said Durst was the source. He says Durst was also the source for Baumgold's claim that Durst's friend Susan Berman left Baumgold "pearls and gold earrings" in her will—but an informed source says that Berman left Baumgold nothing in her will.
Perhaps Baumgold is saving all the juicy stuff for a book. An assistant to agent Mort Janklow said that Janklow represents Baumgold and could fax a message to her, then retracted that statement at press time. Kosner says, "Baumgold is not writing a book about the trial."
On September 29, Baumgold was not in the courtroom, but Galveston’s Tremont House, where all the reporters stay, expects her to return soon. Then again, she may not. Kosner has said he will stay on at the News until he retires in March. But the couple’s power may fade after News editorial director Martin Dunn shows up on October 14.
It's been ten years since the publication of A Beautiful Child and the one enduring question that had yet to be answered is "who was Sharon Marshall?"
There are thousands of readers around the world who've asked me that question, while many at organizations such as the Doe Network have tried to conduct their own searches. Readers sent names of missing children wto me, and I forwarded them to either the National Center for Missing Children in D.C. or Joe Fitzpatrick, the retired FBI agent who lead the investigation into the Michael Hughes kidnapping. While we had Sharon's DNA sample, nothing matched.
On Wednesday, Oct. 1, I received a call from Joe informing me that Sharon had finally been positively identified. The details were sketchy, but he gave me the name. I then spoke to her family today (Friday). The news was true. I can't share all the details, but here's what I can say....
Her name is Suzanne Marie Sevakis and she was from North Carolina.
For those who read the book, you'll recall Floyd fled Florida in 1973 after violating his parole. He ended up in North Carolina a year later using another alias and met a recently divorced woman with four children - three young daughters and infant son. Floyd and the woman later married, and in 1975 the woman was sentenced to 30 days in jail for a minor crime. When she was released Floyd was gone and so where her children. She found two daughters at a local social services agency, where Floyd had taken them. The mother went to the local police and FBI and tried to file kidnapping charges but they declined to investigate saying that since Floyd was their stepfather he apparently had a right to take the children.
Three months later, Floyd and Suzanne, then six years old, were in Oklahoma City. Her little brother was never found. The mother and her family, including her parents, brother and sister-in-law, never gave up the search. Alas, there wasn't much to go on.
Earlier this year the FBI interviewed Floyd in prison in Florida and somehow gleaned the info about the woman. They visited with her in June, showed her the photos of Floyd and Suzanne (her sitting on his lap). The woman immediately identified him as her husband and Sharon as her daughter. The agents took a DNA sample and four weeks later (in July) visited with the mother again to inform her the test was a positive match.
The young woman we knew as Sharon Marshall was indeed Suzanne.
The FBI then shared with her some details of Suzanne's sad fate, but recommended she read A Beautiful Child. The woman and her surviving children and family all read the book. Needless to say they are devastated. The agents also told the family not to discuss the case given they were also looking into the disappearance of Suzanne's son Michael.
Floyd apparently was also willing to give some information about Michael but sadly, he admitted to killing Michael and, I'm told, the FBI was resigned to believe him.
The agents called the family this week with the news that Michael was likely dead. They have an idea of the location of his remains and plan to search the area.
Since the authorities in North Carolina didn't take a missing person report, Suzanne was never listed in any missing persons database, which is why it has been impossible to this point to find her. Suzanne's story was heartbreaking and, judging by reader responses, has touched them deeply, which is why many who have read the book and followed this case have kept it alive these years with their sleuthing, web postings and discussions. And that's why law enforcement remained involved for so long, with the incredible work of the FBI that brought it to a close. Others who had always been involved in the search include Gerry Nance of the NCMEC (since retired), Ed Kumiega, Asst. U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma City, Bob Schock and Mark DeSearo of the St. Petersburg, Fla Police Dept and of course, Joe Fitzpatrick.
Joe retired from the FBI in the late 1990s but since our initial meeting fishing amidst the snakes in OKC in 2003, he and I have remained in steady contact. He funneled suggestions from readers to FBI officials, helped facilitate with Gerry Nance a number of DNA tests, and remained an integral part of the search for Sharon. There were some DNA tests where we had our hopes up, only to be eventually dashed. You'll recall Joe had resolved every one of his cases...except for one.
Now there are none.
In addition, our deep thanks and appreciation go to the FBI in Oklahoma City. There are other details I can't share yet but take my word they did amazing work.
Suzanne's family is still digesting all of this and will need some time. In addition, there may be a meeting with Suzanne's surviving daughter (whom you'll recall she gave birth to in New Orleans in 1989).
I'm in contact with the daughter, a beautiful college grad, who's expressed an interest in meeting her biological family. That may now happen sooner than later.
And finally, we can now put Suzanne's real name on her tombstone at the Park Grove Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Suzanne Marie Sevakis.
From my book A Beautiful Child, the Investigation Discovery Channel is airing a program on Franklyn Floyd's murder of Cheryl Commeso with tie in to mystery of Sharon Marshall.
I interviewed a couple of months ago and looking forward to seeing the result. Program airs Sept. 29 at 8 pm ET.
For U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, Silence is Golden
It took several months to get to the bottom of this, but it appears that national politics doomed my appearance at the Scranton Cultural Center to discuss The Quiet Don.
That's a big and surprising statement, but let's travel down the rabbit hole.
You'll recall back in May that the Lackawanna County Library System suddenly cancelled my June 23 appearance, and that was after they had already paid me (see post below). No reason was given, at least not one that made any sense. A number of disappointed readers emailed me over the following weeks, and one group asked if I'd be willing to come speak at a synagogue, Temple Hesed. I said yes, and an August date was selected. But after some reconsideration, Temple Hesed said no.
The folks trying to organize that event were left scratching their heads. So was I.
Given that some of the characters in The Quiet Don have close ties to the Diocese of Scranton, I wasn't surprised when two appearances at local churches last winter were cancelled. After all, that same Diocese was feted over the summer at a fundraiser at Mount Airy Casino. I'm told some 700 people paid big money to sit with Diocese officials and casino owner Louis DeNaples and be entertained by event host Father Joseph Sica (who referenced in his remarks his inclusion in The Quiet Don to loud laughter). I'm not sure why they were all yucking it up. I mean, is the arrest of a Catholic priest for lying about his mob ties really that funny? (Yes, the charges were later dropped, but I can't seem to forget some of the little details, like the police finding $1,000 in cash and a gun in Fr. Sica's apartment, or that he once filed for bankruptcy listing among his debts a $150,000 loan to Mr. DeNaples bank).
And is it just me, or does the idea of a Catholic diocese raising over $1 million at a casino fundraiser cross a moral line or two?
Getting back to the synagogue, it seems they didn't want to get involved in any of this, so they told the organizers thanks, but no thanks.
That was early August.
It was only over the last couple of weeks that the reasons behind the cancellations were made known to me. And they center on the race for Congress in the 10th District, and the reelection of Rep. Tom Marino.
Marino, you recall, was once the U.S. Attorney in Scranton and Harrisburg who was forced to resign in disgrace in 2007 when it was learned that he had provided a reference for Mr. DeNaples on his application for a gaming license. Sitting U.S. Attorney's aren't supposed to be providing references for gaming applications or for people with longstanding (alleged) mob ties, but that didn't stop Marino, who was rewarded by DeNaples for his efforts with a $250,000 a year job as an "in-house" counsel (yes, this is all in the book). He then ran for Congress in 2010 and, despite his tawdry tale, won handily.
I reference the Marino mess during my speaking engagements given the similarity to the relationship between Russell Bufalino and then-U.S. Rep. Dan Flood some 40 years ago. I discussed it at length during my presentations last spring at Penn State, Marywood University and in Wilkes Barre. The 10th District includes portions of Lackawanna and Luzerne counties.
I cover Wall Street now, not politics, and didn't realize Marino was up for reelection in November. So I learned only recently that his very sensitive supporters not only took exception to the book, but to my mention of Marino during my appearances. So calls were made, and the event was cancelled. It was somewhat surprising given that Marino's foibles were discussed during the 2010 election. Resurrecting them apparently wasn't in the game plan.
As I say during my presentations, having a U.S. Congressman in your pocket is a nice pet to have.
Russell Bufalino had Dan Flood.
It's not hard to figure out who's holding the leash on Marino.
I have a lengthy piece in the September issue of Playboy Magazine. It tells the true story of a U.S. Secret Service investigation centered on former Major League pitcher Denny McLain and his business ties to the Gambino crime family in New York. It hit the newsstands on Aug. 19.
The story of Jimmy Hoffa is a tangled tale with tentacles that stretch from Cuba to Northeast Pennsylvania, Detroit to Las Vegas.
Matt Birkbeck's Blogspot