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Who Killed the Gangster's Daughter?

Writer Susan Berman, whose devoted circle of intimates included real-estate scion Bobby Durst, didn't discover her roots as a Mafia princess until a freewheeling stint at New York in the seventies. Her father died of natural causes, but she was murdered, gangland-style, in L.A. just before Christmas -- leaving questions worthy of one of her own mysteries.

On December 19th, five days before police found her body, Susan Berman was talking on the phone with actress Kim Lankford, one of her closest friends. Some of what she said is so disturbing, in retrospect, that Lankford is tormented by the fact that she didn't ask more questions. But conversations with Susan were almost always filled with breathless drama. If she was up, you knew it. If she was down, you knew it. Either way, you knew the details. That was Susan.

That night, Lankford was packing for a cruise; for the first time in years, the two wouldn't be spending part of the holidays together. Kim felt guilty about that. But Susan assured her they'd have plenty of time to celebrate when she returned, and besides, she might have big news by then.

"I have information that's going to blow the top off things," Susan told her.

"What do you mean?" Kim asked. "What information?"

"Well, I don't have it myself," said Susan. "But I know how to get it."

"Well, be careful, for God's sake," said Kim.

Susan promised they would talk more after the holidays. It wasn't unusual for her to be "about to get information"; she was a journalist. And she was working on three big projects -- two book ideas and a television pilot. Two had to do with Las Vegas, where Susan had spent her childhood as a mobster's daughter, a subject that haunted all of her work, as well as her life. So Kim assumed it was something about that. When she hung up, Kim thought to herself, Who cares who killed Bugsy Siegel?

At another point in the conversation, Susan said she'd just talked to a psychic. This, too, wasn't unusual. Psychics were among the few things Susan had faith in. She had regular phone consultations for over fifteen years with her psychic in New York, but it seemed she had seen a new one recently in L.A. "She told me I was going to die a violent death and that there'd be a gun involved," Susan said.

Oh, Susan, Kim remembers thinking.

Less than a week later, at 1 P.M. on Christmas Eve, the Los Angeles police were called to Susan's run-down home on Benedict Canyon Road by neighbors who'd grown alarmed that one of her three wire-haired fox terriers -- so precious to her, such a nuisance to others -- was running wild and barking hysterically. Susan would never have left Lulu unattended for so long. The cops found the front door unlocked and the back door ajar, and followed the bloody pawprints of the dogs to the back bedroom. Dressed in sweats and a T-shirt, Susan was lying on the cold, hardwood floor, with a single bullet in the back of her head. She'd been dead for at least a day.

When friends made their pilgrimage to 1527 Benedict Canyon Road, numb with the news, they'd all remember the same grisly detail: Still on the guest-room floor, framed by the pawprints, was a clump of Susan's lustrous, long black hair -- her friends used to tease her that she kept the same sleek style, always with bangs -- dried in a puddle of her own blood. "You couldn't help but see it, it was all that was left," says her friend Julie Smith, a successful mystery writer. "But no one talked about it, no one wanted to go near it. It was too awful to contemplate."

It's been over two months now, and the mystery of who killed Susan Berman has only gotten creepier and more complex -- the kind of story Susan herself would have been obsessed with. When news of the killing hit the papers in early January, it shocked the literary communities on both coasts. From her impressive career at New York in the late seventies and early eighties to her subsequent years in Hollywood, Susan made a vivid impression wherever she went. Few, particularly in creative circles, could resist the mob daughter turned journalist with a repertoire of fantastic, almost unbelievable life stories. She also had a catalogue of bizarre fears and phobias, impossible for anyone close to her to ignore: She couldn't cross bridges or drive on certain streets, she couldn't eat in a restaurant without interrogating the waiters or summoning the chef (panicked that she would die from one of her countless allergies), and she couldn't go above the third floor in a building unless accompanied by "a big strong man" and assured that the windows were "hermetically sealed" (her biggest phobia was that she would hurl herself out a window).

"She had her flaws," deadpans Rich Markey, a comedy producer in L.A. who was the last friend to see her alive. "But her friends adored her. Everyone adored her -- in spite of them, not because of them."

And given what she'd been through in her 55 years, they also understood them. Susan had survived the Las Vegas mob of the fifties, and one unbearable loss after another. She had almost come through the brutal downward spiral that led her from a life of enormous (mob) wealth and success as a writer to such financial and emotional despair that she resorted to selling her mother's treasured jewelry. Through it all, she was always Susan -- complicated, tormented, irresistibly entertaining.

"The way she dealt with her past was to make it theater," says New York Times reporter Dinitia Smith, a colleague from her New York days. As the years went by, that got harder and harder. "How can I go on?" she would ask her friends. Or, her best-known half-threat: "I'm going to get into the bathtub with my hair dryer now." Those who really knew her well didn't worry (too much) that she'd ever take her own life. "Oh, no," says Kim Lankford. "That was not an option. She would never want to miss how it would all play out."

When the news hit, her history as a gangster's daughter dominated the headlines. Could she have been killed for some mob secret she was about to reveal? A dubious theory, since most of the characters from Susan's father's Las Vegas days were long dead, and when she had written about them, it was with a mix of love and fascinated adoration. "If I were a gangster," says Markey, "I'd have encouraged her to write more."

The case took a more macabre twist when Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro announced that Berman had been on her shortlist of witnesses to interview in yet another eerie case, a coast away from Susan's struggles. Nineteen years ago, Kathie Durst, the estranged wife of real-estate heir Bobby Durst -- whose family's Durst Organization owns more than $650 million worth of Manhattan real estate -- had vanished in New York without a trace. For nearly two decades -- as the pretty medical student's friends spoke out about an abusive marriage and battles over money -- investigators had their sights on the now-reclusive Bobby, who happened to have been extremely close to Susan Berman, going back to their days at UCLA in the late sixties. Susan referred to Durst, who declined New York's request for an interview, as her brother; the dedications in her books invariably began with his name. "It was always 'Bobby this, Bobby that, wonderful Bobby', " a friend recalls. Yet when Susan tried to reach him last summer to borrow money, she was irked to find he'd changed his phone number. So she wrote to him in care of the Durst Organization. The letter reached its target: In the months before her death, she had cashed two $25,000 checks from Bobby. In fact, Susan borrowed a lot of money from a lot of people over the years and always tried to pay it back. In this case, however, she was touched, one friend says, that Bobby had told her the $50,000 was a gift.