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Sante and Kenneth Kimes Trial: 2000

Sante and Kenneth Kimes Trial: 2000

Defendants: Sante and Kenneth Kimes
Crimes Charged: Murder, criminal possession of a weapon, conspiracy, forgery, robbery, burglary, grand larceny, eavesdropping
Chief Defense Lawyers: Sante Kimes: Michael Hardy; Kenneth Kimes: Mel Sachs
Chief Prosecutors: Owen Heimer, Connie Fernandez
Judge: Rena Uviller
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: February 15-May 18, 2000
Verdicts: Sante Kimes: guilty on 58 criminal counts; Kenneth Kimes: guilty on 60 criminal counts
Sentences: Sante Kimes: 120 years, 8 months; Kenneth Kimes: 125 years, 4 months

SIGNIFICANCE: No trace of the body of the murder victim, Irene Silverman, was ever found, and neither accused ever confessed. The decision represents perhaps the heaviest sentence handed down in the United States in a case built entirely on circumstantial evidence. Sante Kimes and her son, Kenneth, were accused of a long string of crimes in connection with the disappearance of Irene Silverman, and evidence mounted that they had been involved in a bizarre series of frauds, schemes, and earlier possible murders in other jurisdictions. Their strange case became the subject of at least three books and two television documentaries.

Sante Kimes was married to wealthy motel owner and land developer Kenneth Kimes, Sr. During her marriage, she became involved in several legal turmoils. In 1986, she was accused and then convicted of 14 counts of enslaving a number of maids, holding them against their will, physically abusing them, and not paying them. She was sentenced to 14 five-year terms to run concurrently in that case. In the same year she was convicted of stealing a fur coat from another customer in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. She was also suspected of arranging the arson of a home in Hawaii in order to collect the insurance.

On the death of her husband, she concealed the fact of his death from his family, apparently out of concern that they would contest her claim to the estate. However, Kenneth Kimes had sequestered much of his fortune in an offshore account in the Cayman Islands, and she was unable to access those funds. She was suspected in the disappearance of a banker in the Bahamas, in the death of a hired man in Los Angeles, and a warrant was issued for writing a bad check for $14,793.50 to purchase an automobile in Utah.

Irene Silverman

Sante Kimes, now aged 65, and her son Kenneth, Jr., 24, moved to New York City and took up residence in a small, but extremely elegant, apartment house owned by former ballerina Irene Silverman, 82. Kenneth rented the apartment under the assumed name of "Manny Guerin." Silverman's apartment house, valued at between $4 million and $10 million, became the object of the Kimeses's next scheme. Obtaining Silverman's passport, and a false Social Security card for her, the Kimes's had a deed to the property made out to them.

Their behavior at the apartment house aroused Silverman's suspicions. For example, "Guerin" refused to complete a credit application and always avoided the security cameras in the lobby and hallways. The Kimeses refused to allow access to maintenance personnel. Concerned with their unusual behavior, and apparently suspicious, Silverman began eviction proceedings.

On July 4, 1998, when New York City was relatively quiet and emptied for the holiday weekend, Silverman vanished.

Arrest of Sante and Kenneth Kimes

On July 5, 1998, the Kimeses were arrested on an entirely separate matter. An outstanding warrant for them had been issued in Utah on the charge of using a bad check to buy the Lincoln Towncar. When police searched the car, they found an odd assortment of evidence: two loaded pistols, a. 9 millimeter and a. 22 caliber; several wigs and fright masks; a set of plastic handcuffs; and abopt $30,000 in cash. A container of a pink liquid that later turned out to be a so-called "date rape" drug was also found, along with a box that had once contained a stun gun. Silverman's keys were in the pockets of Kenneth Kimes. The phony Social Security card and the forged deed to the property were also in the car.

Several hours after the arrest on the check charge, police connected the Kimeses with the report that Silverman was missing. On searching their apartment, a number of other incriminating pieces of evidence turned up. Several taped telephone calls, apparently from a wiretap, contained Silverman's conversations. Notes and lists appeared to suggest that the Kimeses had planned a crime.

Los Angeles authorities wanted to extradite the Kimeses in connection with the murder of David Kazdin in March 1998, and in the mysterious disappearance of a vagrant they had hired to work at their home there. Kazdin was found dead in a trash bin near the L.A. airport. However, the New York district attorney's office decided to proceed with a murder charge against Sante and Kenneth Kimes, even though they could not find Irene Silverman's body and police had no blood or other physical evidence of a murder.

The Trial

When the trial opened, February 15, 2000, Connie Fernandez, assistant district attorney, outlined the charges, describing an elaborate plot in which the Kimeses sought to steal the townhouse-apartment building. Evidence included testimony that Sante had called a title company and checked liens on the property. Testimony demonstrated that Sante, posing as Silverman, duped a notary into approving the fraudulent deed that transferred the ownership of the townhouse to a Kimes-owned corporation in Florida for a payment of $395,000, a fraction of its value.

Fernandez argued that they decided to kill Silverman when she sought to have them evicted. Their hope was to dispose of the body and to buy enough time to complete the transfer of the property. A fraud investigator testified that the Social Security card used by Sante Kimes to establish her identity as Silverman for the notary had originally been issued two years before to an infant. A former employee of the Kimeses learned that he was named as the head of the firm set up in Florida as a part of the conspiracy.

Although all of the evidence appeared to support the convoluted scheme outlined by the prosecution, there was no direct proof that the Kimeses had committed a murder. The Kimeses's attorneys denied all charges. The strongest element of the defense was that no murder could be proven. There was no blood, no DNA evidence. The motive for the killing was not clear, and none could be proven. If there had been a scheme to defraud Silverman of her townhouse, her unexplained disappearance did not appear to be a logical part of such a scheme. Neither Sante nor Kenneth testified at the trial. Frequently they held hands, but were admonished by the judge to desist.

When prosecutors introduced testimony that Kenneth Kimes had been involved in a fraud in the Bahamas, both defense attorneys and prosecutors sought to separate the trial of Kenneth and Sante Kimes.

However, Judge Rena Uviller denied the motions.

Conviction, Sentencing, and Aftermath

After three months of lurid testimony, during which the mother and son became known as "grifters" in the press, the jury handed down verdicts on May 18, 2000. Kenneth Kimes was found guilty on 60 separate charges; Sante Kimes was convicted on 58 charges. On June 27, Judge Uviller pronounced sentences: 125 years, 4 months for Kenneth; 120 years, 8 months for Sante.

The case had many other strange twists, and took on a vigorous afterlife in print, television, and Internet media. Sante's older son, Kent Walker, published an account, Son of a Grifter, a year later, suggesting that his mother had sought to engage him in several of her schemes. Kenneth gave numerous interviews in prison, but at one point, he took a reporter hostage by holding a pen to her neck. He demanded that extradition proceedings against his mother be dropped in Los Angeles, as a conviction in that case would carry a death penalty. Guards finally wrestled the pen away from him and freed the reporter. Another book on the case, Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes, was made into a film for television, starring Mary Tyler Moore. The film aired about one year after their conviction.

Rodney P. Carlisle

Suggestions for Further Reading

Havill, Adrian. The Mother, the Son, and the Socialite. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.

McQuillan, Alice. They Call Them Grifters: The True Story of Sante and Kenneth Kimes. New York: New American Library, 2000.

Walker, Kent, and Mark Schone. Son of a Grifter: The Twisted Tale of Sante and Kenneth Kimes, the Most Notorious Con Artists in America: A Memoir by the Other Son. New York: William Morrow, 2001.

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