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Dark secret could be critical clue in wealthy doctor’s brutal murder

Posted at 2:37 PM, Feb 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-11 14:38:23-05

Dr. Steven Schwartz was a beloved Florida physician who ended up dead in his Tarpon Springs mansion. Was it a random killing, a botched robbery, or something more sinister?

Peter Van Sant and "48 Hours" investigate the brutal murder of Schwartz, and his secret, dark past, in “The Strange Life of Dr. Schwartz” to be broadcast Saturday at 10 p.m. on CBS 6.

Schwartz and his second wife, Rebecca, seemingly lived the good life. He was a wealthy, well-respected kidney specialist and together they had a successful real estate venture. But everything changed when on the evening of May 14, 2014, Mrs. Schwartz dialed 9-1-1 to report her home had been robbed. When police arrived and began checking out the crime scene they found Schwartz dead. He’d been shot, stabbed and beaten.

The investigation into what happened would uncover a family with strained relationships, competing allegations on what may have happened, and a whole secret life that Schwartz had hidden from his offspring.

Dr. Steven Schwartz and his wife, Rebecca

Dr. Steven Schwartz and his wife, Rebecca

“Dad was a role model to me,” says son Carter Schwartz, who is studying to be a doctor and was interviewed by police. “I said to them, ‘Please, do not overlook anyone in this family just because they’re related,” Schwartz recalls of his talk with investigators.

A year after the murder, police arrested Leo Anton Stragaj, a builder, who worked on the family’s nearly 40 properties. Police had found Stragaj’s DNA on Schwartz’ body. Stragaj admitted seeing Schwartz’ body that day, but did not call police. He fled the scene, he says, because he was an immigrant and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his record.

“I didn’t do it. I did not kill the man. I didn’t commit the murder. I was set up,” Stragaj tells Van Sant in an extensive jailhouse interview. Instead, he tells 48 HOURS, Schwartz’ wife had something to do with the murder.

“Rebecca Schwartz,” Stragaj tells Van Sant. “Because she asked me to find someone to kill Dr. Schwartz.”

Rebecca Schwartz declined to be interviewed by 48 HOURS. However, her attorneys say their client is innocent and allege Stragaj is using Schwartz to deflect from his own guilt.

So what really happened to Dr. Steven Schwartz? And did something that occurred 50 years in the past have something to do with the murder? After his death, reports surfaced in the local Tampa media about Schwartz killing a dentist in 1961, in a botched robbery attempt, in Hobbs, New Mexico. Schwartz, 21 years-old at the time, spent nine years in prison before his sentence was commuted. Did that murder play a role in the doctor’s own demise?

“The only one that can really answer that question is Dr. Schwartz himself,” says Wil Florin, an attorney representing Carter Schwartz and his siblings in a civil suit to get access to their father’s fortune.

“The Strange Life of Dr. Schwartz” is the second part of a Saturday night double feature. At 9 p.m., Erin Moriarty and "48 Hours" deliver the first in-depth look at an unprecedented interview infamous millionaire and alleged killer Robert Durst gave to the prosecutor looking to put him in prison in “Murder in Beverly Hills.”

Durst, who has been in jail since he was arrested in March of 2015 in New Orleans on a gun charge, is facing a trial for the murder of his friend, Susan Berman, in California 17 years ago.

However, the biggest obstacle he may face in trial is an interview he gave to Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John Lewin shortly after being arrested in New Orleans.

“I think you want me to go through the details of Susan,” Durst says in the interview.

“I do,” counters Lewin.

“Maybe there were two people who killed Susan,” Durst says, “one person could go into the house and shoot Susan. And the other person could be the driver.”

What makes the Durst interview notable is that he agreed to do it shortly after an interview he did for the HBO miniseries “The Jinx” put him back into headlines again, and, arguably led to renewed interest in the case.

“It’s a fascinating interview,” Los Angeles Times writer Jack Leonard says of Lewin’s sit-down with Durst. “Like a game of cat and mouse going on.”

“There’s no fingerprints. There’s no blood evidence. There’s no ballistic evidence,” Durst’s attorney Dick DeGuerin tells Moriarty. “There’s nothing that connects him to the actual murder of Susan Berman.”

The prosecution, however, thinks otherwise, and is preparing to take Durst to trial, where secret witnesses will emerge.

“The prosecution is saying he’s a menace to society – he might be able to kill some of these witnesses,” says Leonard. “That he’s so dangerous – that their identity needs to be kept secret from the defense right up until when they’re about to testify.”

Berman was the daughter of a well-known Las Vegas mobster, which initially led police to think it was a mob hit. At the time of Berman’s death, Durst was hiding out in Galveston, Texas, to avoid then Westchester County, N.Y. District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, who wanted to talk with Durst about the 1982 disappearance of his wife. In Texas, Durst took on the identity of a mute woman.

Durst and Berman were friends and she publicly supported him from allegations that he knew more about his wife’s disappearance than he had told police. Durst wasn’t considered a suspect in Berman’s death until nine months later when he was involved with the death of Morris Black in Galveston. Durst maintained he accidentally killed Black in self-defense. He then cut up Black’s body.

In the interview with Lewin, Durst dances around key elements of the Berman case and other parts of his life. At one point, he even appears to be pushing for a deal with the prosecutor.

“I’m pretty confident of this,” Lewin tells him, “you’re not going to see the outside again as a free man.”

“So if I was to accept that,” Durst responds, “I’m not going to be out of prison – now the question is where do I want to spend my time – assuming we can come up with something.”

Will prosecutors be able to get a jury to believe Durst is guilty in the Berman case, or is he innocent, as DeGuerin says?