Wednesday, October 4, 2023

‘Nobody Vanishes Into Thin Air’: Local Documentarian Peers into Robert Durst’s Days in the Emerald Triangle and the Possible Connection to a Eureka Cold Case

Mugshot of Robert Durst from the Galveston Police Department accused of dismembering his neighbor Morris Black

Robert Durst, the eccentric and eldest son of Seymour Durst known for New York real estate riches, will be tried this July in a Los Angeles Courtroom for allegedly murdering his long-time friend Susan Berman. Prosecutors claim Durst killed Berman because he feared she would divulge that she actively helped him cover up the fact he murdered and disappeared his wife Kathleen in 1982. 

Karen Mitchell [Picture from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children]

As Durst’s trial looms on the horizon, Josh Diaz, a Eureka-based documentarian and interviewer, has made it his mission to understand Durst’s time in the Emerald Triangle and the potential connection between Durst and the 1997 disappearance of Eureka teen Karen Mitchell. Working to shed light on a case long gone cold, Diaz and this reporter will be interviewing friends and family of Mitchell, acquaintances of Durst, and digging deep to understand what happened to Karen and the foggy days of Durst.

Eureka Police Department Captain Patrick O’Neill told us “Karen Mitchell went missing on November 25, 1997, after possibly getting into a car in the area of the Bayshore Mall, after she left her aunt’s store located at the mall.” 

The Charley Project says 16-year-old Karen Mitchell was walking on Eureka’s Broadway Street when a witness reported seeing a young woman resembling Karen get into a blue vehicle with a 60 to 70-year-old Caucasian male. She has not been seen since.

Captain O’Neill explained that throughout the years, Eureka Police Department has collaborated with multiple agencies to solve Mitchell’s case including “the State of California Department of Justice, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

The investigation into Mitchell’s disappearance has included, “hundreds of interviews, database searches, locations searched, and submission of her DNA profile to a national database for comparison purposes,” Captain O’Neill said.

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Though Durst’s direct connection to Karen Mitchell’s disappearance has never been substantiated, Captain Patrick O’Neill said Eureka Police have investigated the situation over the years. According to O’Neill, “At this time [we] have not found any credible link between Mitchell’s disappearance and Mr. Durst. However, until Karen is located we will not rule out any possibility.”

A composite sketch by the Eureka Police Department of the man whose car Karen Mitchell was seen getting inside of before she disappeared

Some of the most concrete connections between Mitchell’s disappearance and Robert Durst are the resemblance between the composite sketch of the man last seen with Mitchell and rumors that he had visited a soup kitchen in Eureka Mitchell volunteered at and also visited the shoe store Mitchell’s aunt owned and she worked at.

Meggan Renee, a friend of Karen Mitchell’s who attended Eureka High with her, said that since Mitchell’s disappearance, “I have always believed foul play [was involved] and never a runaway situation.” Renee firmly believes Mitchell “knew who she got into a car with and thought it was a safe decision.” 

Kareen Van Swearengin, a Eureka resident at the time of Karen’s disappearance, told us she also experienced a man driving up to her in a blue car in Eureka trying to pick her up. She said it was the “scariest experience I ever had in Eureka.” She remembered the man driving the blue car as small, having a raspy voice, and “weird-looking teeth.” Van Sweringen said the reason she never reported the encounter is she was unfamiliar with the Karen Mitchell case until “the Journal put out an article a few years ago or I definitely would have.” When asked whether she thought the man in the vehicle was Robert Durst, Van Swearingen said, he had the “same voice and same stature as the Durst guy.”

Josh Diaz, the Eureka-based filmmaker, said he was 11-years-old when Karen Mitchell went missing, and her disappearance shook him. He said he could not believe someone like her had “disappeared off the face of the earth.” He vividly remembers missing person posters with photographs of her and sketches of the suspect hanging around town, and slowly Mitchell’s face and story were “burned into his head.”

When Diaz was 14 years old, he began attending Eureka High School where a teacher had hung Karen Mitchell’s missing poster on her door. “I would see it every day,” Diaz said. He remembers catching whispers of Mitchell’s fate. One friend told him she ran away. Ultimately, Karen Mitchell’s disappearance is wrapped in the gossamer of nostalgia with Diaz remembering the late Nineties as a “different time.” 

Diaz’s background in producing documentaries is rooted in his childhood when he would stay up until the early morning listening to late-night radio heavyweights like Art Bell and Don Imus. Following the radio through-line into his adulthood, Diaz began producing a podcast with his friends six years ago. There he explained, “Me and a couple of buddies would laugh and tell old stories and jokes.” This evolved into a solo podcast entitled No Big Deal that was comedy-based. Diaz said, “I started to get burnt out on comedy,” so he began to incorporate other interests, including true crime.

Josh Diaz in the recording studio

Diaz’s first significant foray into true crime was an in-depth analysis of the internationally known West Memphis Three, a case of three men who were convicted of the 1993 gruesome murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. After the trio’s 1994 conviction, many considered the evidence used to convict them as unreliable, including celebrities and musicians such as Henry Rollins, Tom Waits, and Ozzy Osbourne who publicly advocated for the trio’s innocence. Finally, in 2011, the trio negotiated an Alford Plea, allowing them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them and leave prison after serving 18 years.

Diaz began research of the case and found himself skeptical of the trio’s innocence. He described the West Memphis Three supporters accusing the murder victim’s parents of the crimes and “could not believe these supporters were tarnishing the reputation of the parents.” Diaz was thrust into the West Memphis Three’s web-sleuthing culture positioning himself as a proponent of the trio’s guilt. Diaz interviewed the father of one of the boys killed in 1993. He began corresponding with Gary Meece, a prominent author who writes about the West Memphis Three and also believes in their guilt. Advocates for the trio’s innocence often criticize Diaz for his belief in the West Memphis Three’s guilt sending him harsh emails daily.

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Diaz’s deep dive into the West Memphis Three led him to new horizons in his interviews and podcasting. He interviewed Craig Scott, a student of Littleton, Colorado’s Columbine High School who was in the library and positioned in between two victims of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. 

Diaz began to realize his mission and turned his sights to examining Karen Mitchell’s disappearance, the missing person case that shook him so profoundly in his adolescence.

As this is the first time he intends to dive deep into a local case, Diaz said, “My intent is genuine, and I want to bring attention to this case. I have no grandiose thoughts [that] I’m going to solve the case.” He hopes his coverage “can spark someone’s memory.” He said, “Somebody knows something. Nobody vanishes into thin air.”

Durst in the Galveston Police Department Station after being arrested [Picture from the Galveston Police Department]

Diaz’s research into Robert Durst and the connection to Mitchell’s disappearance thus far has led him to consider the possibility that Durst could have been involved saying, “I have some theories and suspicion, but the fact is I don’t know. I’m completely open.”

Diaz intends to gather information from the Eureka Police Department, interview friends and family of Karen Mitchell, and even friends of Robert Durst who knew him while he lived in Humboldt County. 

When asked what his initial suspicions are regarding a connection between Robert Durst and the disappearance of Karen Mitchell, Josh Diaz simply said, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.”

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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