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Who Killed the Gangster's Daughter?

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The person who would have been notified first was Sareb, who lived nearby and talked to her daily. But he was traveling in Amsterdam; it seemed as if everyone was away. When Susan didn't call him on Christmas Eve -- a night they always spent together -- and didn't return his calls, he feared something horrible had happened. "Even if she was laid up in the hospital," Sareb said, "she would have called me." In the last year, she and Mella had become estranged. It bothered Susan terribly, and she worried endlessly about Mella. At the same time, she had rewritten her will and cut her out. Not that there was much left, besides mementos and the rights to her work -- though they may well have grown in value since her death. She left the rights to at least one of her works to Nyle Brenner.

It wasn't until the following night that word began to spread to Susan's close circle. She was expected for Christmas dinner at a friend's mother's house. Susie Harmon, her chum since boarding school at Chadwick (where schoolmates included Jann Wenner and Liza Minnelli), lived in Arizona, but Susan joined her every Christmas night at her mother's in Los Angeles. This year, she was bringing Nyle Brenner with her.

When she didn't answer her phone all day, her friends panicked. Nyle drove to the house. By this point, the police had already removed the body; they had also locked the house up. Later, Nyle would tell friends that when no one answered the door, he crawled in through a back window.

Nyle apparently gave different accounts of what happened next to different people. He told some that he knew something was wrong when he saw "black dirt" all over the house (fingerprinting dust left by the police). He told others he looked through the house and "nothing was amiss" (did he miss the hair and blood?). "What struck me as odd," says one friend, "was that he told me that he walked out the front door, went to the neighbors, and said, 'Is anything wrong next door?' They said they were sorry to tell him that the woman next door had died. Nyle told me, 'Well, of course my heart broke. But I realized she was clumsy, she could have fallen down. And I got back in the car and drove to Susie's.' "

Most of Susan's friends got word of her death from Nyle, who left urgent messages on their machines. When they called him back, he told them what had happened, that Susan was dead and had been murdered "execution-style." When Sareb got the news, he flew back from Amsterdam. Nyle met him at the airport and spent the ride home telling him how difficult his mother was.

Things got stranger at the memorial service Sareb arranged for Susan in early February. He held it at the Writers Guild and banned members of the press who weren't friends of Susan's because he wanted Bobby Durst to be able to attend without being harassed by the media. (Durst didn't show.)

Sareb asked nine people to speak about Susan, and the stories they told were beautiful, funny, and touching. But this was a group filled with writers -- mystery writers, screenwriters, journalists -- and so, before and after the service, as cocktails were served, they couldn't help but ask the one question on all their minds: "Who did this?"

This was the night that several people had what they later described as unsettling conversations with Nyle Brenner. "At least I won't have someone calling me three times a day," he said to one attendee. "She sucked me dry," he told another. But there has also been much discussion among her friends about what Susan really knew about Bobby and Kathie Durst. One told New York that many years ago, Susan revealed that "she'd provided Bobby's alibi" -- while insisting it did not mean she thought he was guilty.

The cops have the hard drive to her precious computer, and sources say it is rich with clues. Her Rolodex -- reputed to contain over 1,000 numbers -- is also being pored over by investigators. New York has learned that the police have also obtained Nyle Brenner's files. No gun has been found. But a bullet casing found at the scene -- and reported to have been from a small-caliber gun -- gives investigators a shred of hope. It is widely theorized that whoever killed her was someone Susan knew -- or a professional hired by someone Susan knew -- whom she trusted enough to let into her home, or who knew enough about her to get into her home. Susan, with all her fears and neuroses, would never have let a stranger in.

The LAPD is keeping a tight lid on details about the case. And friends say privately they fear it may never be solved. Or worse: "that it will," as one puts it, "and it will be one of us." Bobby Durst is included in that category. And for that reason alone, many of her friends -- though fully aware of "the coincidence," as they refer to Jeanine Pirro's plan to interview Susan -- just don't buy the Durst theory. Susan lived by a mob-like code of loyalty. She would never, no matter how desperate, rat out a friend, even if she did know something incriminating. ("If she could compartmentalize Davie the Jew," one friend noted, "she could compartmentalize Bobby Durst.") The answer to the question "Who shot Susan Berman?" may well prove to be, "None of the above." As Liz Rosenberg puts it, "She could have pissed off a total stranger."

On January 2, Susan was laid to rest in a huge mausoleum at the Home of Peace cemetery in Los Angeles. She was dressed in a long black velvet dress with white trim that had belonged to Sareb and Mella's grandmother and was placed in a vault next to her parents and Uncle Chickie. "Fortunately, it is on the second level," says Kim Lankford. "And there's nobody on the other side to annoy her." Together, some of her friends sang "The Sunny Side of the Street," and had her favorite photos placed in her casket. "We put all her favorite people in there," says Kim. "Couldn't fit everybody in."


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