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Who Killed the Gangster's Daughter?

In no time, he'd moved into her Benedict Canyon home -- the same one she would return to years later and die in. In those days, it was a lovely, cheerful place; Dee Baskin Schiffer kept it up then, according to Susan's friends. "And there was love in the house," says Kim. "They were crazy about each other." In June 1984, in a lavish wedding at the Hotel Bel-Air complete with ice swans (like the ones Davie the Jew insisted on having at the Flamingo), she married her Mister. Bobby Durst gave her away. Film producer Robert Evans toasted the couple. Susan footed the bill.

Soon after, she bought a beautiful home in Brentwood. The marriage lasted little more than six or seven months. "She called me crying and said, 'It's over,' " says Julie Smith. "I said, 'What, Susan?' She said, 'He's been doing drugs again and he's been abusing me.' " Susan knew when she married him that Mister had done heroin in the past, but she believed it was over. Susan was naïve to the point of being puritanical about drugs, say her friends. Despite the pain in her life, she never self-medicated. "I don't think she ever smoked a joint in her life," says Lankford. "The only alcohol she ever drank was a glass of wine at Passover." This too came from her father, who told her that drugs and alcohol "were for suckers" and not something Jews did.

They had already divorced when Mister overdosed, at age 27. At the time, she believed they were reconciling, and his death led her to a nervous breakdown. "Did he meet the doom meant for me?" she later wrote. Her psychic, Barbara Stabiner, met her shortly after, when a mutual friend called her in New York because Susan was on an L.A. rooftop, threatening to jump. Stabiner talked her off the roof by reading her tarot cards and seeing great things in store.

In 1987, she met the man who friends say was the last real boyfriend in her life. Paul Kaufman was a financial adviser with Hollywood aspirations and two young children. They all moved into Susan's Brentwood home (up the street from Nicole Brown Simpson's townhouse). And for a while, he made her happy. What made her happier were his children. Mella and Sareb, now 24 and 26, consider Susan Berman their mother. "She held my hand through everything difficult in life," says Sareb, who works in the recording business. "She was the only person who was always on my side and never judged me."

Her relationship with Paul ended in 1992 -- around the time Susan went broke. The bank took her house and she had to declare bankruptcy. Friends say the couple came undone by a project they tried to do together -- a Broadway musical based on the Dreyfus affair. To finance it, they used Susan's assets. The musical never got off the ground. The relationship failed. Susan had another breakdown.

But Mella and Sareb would continue to be her children. "Being a mother to these kids was one of the proudest and most satisfying things in her life," says Rich Markey. In 1992, a friend gave Susan, now penniless, use of a condo on Sunset Boulevard. While Sareb stayed with his father, Susan and Mella lived there for five years for free, and Susan started writing mysteries to pay her expenses and Mella's private-school tuition. She and Mella also co-wrote an unpublished book manuscript, titled Never a Mother, Never a Daughter. Susan always wanted children of her own; at one point, she talked with her friends about asking Bobby Durst to father a child with her.

The biggest thing to come out of that period was Susan's return to Las Vegas: A book and an A&E special called Lady Las Vegas brought her new acclaim and fresh cash (and showed, perhaps, a lack of caution, since she'd once told Julie Smith that, after Easy Street, she'd been warned, Don't ever mess with us again). Finally back on her feet, she called Dee Schiffer and asked if she could move back to the house on Benedict Canyon Road.

By then she had also acquired a manager, Nyle Brenner, whom she'd met walking her dogs on Sunset. It would prove to be a strange and intense relationship. Susan was the only writer Brenner represented; the rest were primarily struggling actors. It was lost on no one that Nyle was a ringer for Mister Margulies. Friends say Susan would call him constantly to help deal with her now-raging phobias. He ferried her around to do her shopping and to her doctors' appointments (Susan always had a litany of medical worries) and to the vet (the dogs did, too). When he'd get fed up, she'd tell him, "Fine, leave." At which point, according to her friends, Brenner would grovel and beg her to keep him. He later told one of Susan's girlfriends that "she was like an addiction." So was he.

Though Susan's friends believe Nyle lacks any particular interest in women, she was determined "to get him in bed, she was so in love with this guy." Her obsession led to several painful and humiliating experiences, but she couldn't let it go.

By the end of Susan's life, many of her friends believed the relationship had gotten even more volatile. Markey, who gave Susan an old couch a few weeks before she died (she could never afford furniture), recalls that when she asked Nyle to fetch it, "I could see on his face, the last thing in the world he wanted to do was to haul a couch down a staircase for Susan. But he did it." Others say that in her last few days, she was upset about an incident that had happened recently. Susan had surgery on her eyes for glaucoma, which to her "was like open-heart surgery," says a friend. Nyle was in charge of taking her for the procedure and "making sure that she didn't fall on the way home." Of course, she did fall.

On December 22nd, Susan's last night alive, she went to dinner and a movie with Rich Markey. Using their Writers Guild passes, they went to see Best in Show, the dog-show comedy, and Susan laughed uproariously through it. Over dinner, after Susan did her usual grilling of the waiter, they talked about her book deal, her TV deal, Sareb and Mella. Susan was particularly excited about a sequel she was planning to Easy Street, called Rich Girl Broke. Markey was on his way to Vegas for a family reunion and Susan was delighted that he would see where she grew up. On the way home, she had a fit in the parking garage because someone in the elevator pressed 5. It was a normal Susan evening.

The police believe that she was killed the next morning, Saturday the 23rd. When they arrived on Sunday, her mail hadn't been brought in yet, though Susan (and the dogs) never missed the mailman. Word first got out when Susan's cousin Deni Marcus called and a homicide detective answered the phone.