The Sons of Sante Kimes

Matthew Heller last wrote for the magazine about the city of Colton's battle against the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly.

Kent Walker says he has a recurring and vivid nightmare:

I go into the courtroom and I walk up to the witness stand. There are cameras all over the place. My brother Kenny is staring at me like he hates me. My mom has got her back turned to me. She's heaving. I can't tell whether she's laughing or crying. I start talking, but I don't even know what I'm talking about. Everyone is looking at me. They're saying, 'What are you doing, trying to defend your brother?' Then my mom turns around. She starts calling me a traitor. She gets a knife and she starts stabbing me in the gut.

The 40-year-old Walker had this fever dream because of his notorious pedigree. Mom is Sante Kimes, and Kenny is Kenneth K. Kimes, the mother-and-son team of scam-happy grifters who were convicted in May 2000 of killing Irene Silverman, their New York City landlady, as part of a scheme to steal her $10-million townhouse. Those convictions netted both of them terms of more than 120 years to life in prison.

Last year, a Los Angeles County grand jury indicted Sante and Kenny for the slaying of David Kazdin, a Granada Hills businessman found dead in a dumpster near Los Angeles International Airport in March 1998. According to grand jury testimony, Sante and Kenny conspired to kill Kazdin to stop him from implicating them in a real estate and insurance fraud scheme. If convicted of first-degree murder, they both faced the death penalty.

Walker faced the difficult prospect of testifying against Kenny because his younger brother allegedly confessed to him while in a New York state prison. He also was prepared to "defend" Kenny and ask for the jury's mercy for his brother if the case went to a penalty phase. But he was spared that confrontation when Kenny, in a surprise plea earlier this month, acknowledged his guilt in the Kazdin murder. He will be sentenced to life in prison without parole--and spared a possible death penalty--in return for testifying against their mother.

"My God!" Walker said when told of the plea agreement. "I'm kind of in shock."

But Walker's nightmare is far from over. If a jury convicts 69-year-old Sante, her case would go to a penalty phase. With his kid brother having recently cut a deal to keep himself off death row, Walker, Sante Kimes' older son, might represent the best hope for persuading a jury to spare their mother's life. Walker shakes his head as he considers that possibility.

"I have absolutely no defense for her."

How does criminal behavior evolve? Is it nature or nurture? Do some people "choose" a life of crime? These questions are at the heart of the strange case of the sons of Sante Kimes, one that a panel of psychiatrists--let alone 12 lay jurors--would have trouble untangling. Both were raised by the same mother, both can claim to be her "victims." But Walker has a clean record, and his brother is a convicted multiple murderer.

Does that mean there is something different about Kenny Kimes' nature, that he is inherently evil? Or did Walker exercise free will and "choose" good, while his brother chose the path of evil?

"It should be me in there," Walker says. "I'm the one who should be fighting a murder case. I was the sole man in Sante's life for a lot of years. Why wasn't it me?"

Walker and his mother have very little contact these days. She was "not pleased," he says, about "Son of a Grifter," his Edgar Award-winning memoir that was published in 2001 and portrays Sante Kimes as the mother of all sociopaths. He went to visit her last summer at the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles, where she is held in solitary confinement, but that day the jail was locked down for security reasons and visitors weren't allowed. He hasn't tried to see her again.

"I'm kind of leery about it," he explains. "Part of it is to [avoid] all contact with her until after the trial."

There was a time when Walker and his mother were inseparable. "Nothing felt as good as basking in the charged warmth of her love, nothing hurt as much as having it taken away," he writes in "Son of a Grifter." She knew how to have a good time, to shower her son with gifts. But Walker hasn't given his mother his home phone number for several years. The married father of three changed it so Grandma wouldn't call and upset his kids. "Suddenly there was silence," he recalls in his book. "She could no longer do her magic. Without her voice in my ear I realized . . . that it really was possible to be free."

Walker zealously guards his privacy. He gives out only a cell phone number and remains vague about where in the San Diego area he lives. After he meets a reporter at a hotel, he asks that the location not be disclosed. "I'm walking both sides of the fence," he explains. On the one hand, he's the "Son of a Grifter," the articulate expert on all things Kimes. Several psychology professors have even asked him to speak to their classes. At the same time, he insists, "I also want to keep my family separate from this. They don't need this."

Apparently raised in Los Angeles and Carson City, Nev., Sante Kimes is of East Indian ancestry and once was striking, with an olive complexion, high cheekbones and a full figure. Walker has dark features like his mother's, but his are set off by a full black beard that makes him look vaguely like a pirate. He chain-smokes and speaks in staccato bursts during interviews. There's a nervous, kinetic energy about him, a sign, perhaps, of how difficult it must be to go through life knowing you can never truly be free of two of America's most high-profile felons.

"Son of a Grifter" is only one of three published books about the Kimeses. Mary Tyler Moore starred as Sante in the 2001 TV movie "Like Mother, Like Son," and the real-life Sante was interviewed on "60 Minutes" in 1999 and "Larry King Live" in 2000. A jailhouse interview that Kenny granted to a Court TV reporter in 2000 took an unusual turn when he held her hostage with a writing pen for four hours. In addition to the deaths of Kazdin and Silverman, Sante and Kenny are suspected in the disappearances of two other people whose bodies have never been found.

The child of her second marriage to a Sacramento contractor, Walker was close to his mother growing up, and even acted as an accomplice in some of her early shoplifting escapades. In 1970, when Walker was about 8, his mother met Kenneth Kimes Sr., a Newport Beach developer who was worth about $20 million. He was her "biggest score ever," as Walker puts it. There is some dispute about whether the couple ever legally married, but they moved in together and, in 1975, she gave birth to Kenny, their only child.

Sante kept her pregnancy and the birth from Walker, supposedly because she didn't want to "upset" him. When she told the 12-year-old that he had a baby brother, he exploded, raising his voice to her for the first time. It was a pivotal moment. "I'd told my mother that there was a fundamental difference between us: I was normal and she wasn't," he writes. But he warmed to Kenny and loved playing the role of big brother. A photograph in "Son of a Grifter" shows Walker standing behind 4-year-old Kenny, his hands placed protectively on the young boy's shoulders.

Also when he was 12, Walker and two friends swiped some surfboards from the open garage of a home in their Orange County neighborhood. His mother blew up at him--not for stealing but for getting caught. He got three months' probation and a close shave with jail that, he says, cured him of "any criminal desire, petty or otherwise."

Walker began to distance himself from his mother as her rap sheet grew. She was convicted of grand larceny in 1985 for stealing a fur coat. The following year, a Las Vegas jury found her guilty of enslaving several house maids who had worked for her by threatening to have them arrested. The theft conviction later was overturned, and she was freed on parole in 1989 after serving four years in prison in the maids case.

By that time, Walker was married and working as a vacuum cleaner salesman. As Sante returned to her old ways, he says, he tried to shield his younger brother from her influence, to "stop the force of her personality" from bringing Kenny completely under her control. But she was developing the teenage Kenny into her protege, one who shared, as Walker writes in his memoir, her "thirst for the big score, an easy fix of money, the source of all happiness."

After Kenneth Kimes died in 1994--with shockingly little left of his fortune, thanks to the couple's profligate ways--Walker says he realized he was "up against a team, Mom and Kenny, both of them greedy, desperate and delusional." Kenny hatched an Internet scam, dropped out of college and for a while moved into Walker's Las Vegas home with his mother. That arrangement ended in 1997, when Walker's wife, unable to cope with her mother-in-law, gave him an ultimatum to kick Kenny and Sante out. "I no longer care about you," he told them. "I don't know you. You're not my blood."

It didn't take the Kimeses long, prosecutors allege, to cook up another money-making scheme.

David Kazdin was an old friend of Sante; Walker suspects they were lovers. He had once done her a favor, allowing her to put his name on the title of a Las Vegas home she owned. Apparently, she wanted to shield the asset from a pending civil lawsuit related to her maids. According to transcripts of the 2002 grand jury hearing in the Kazdin case, Sante decided in December 1997 to take out a $280,000 loan on the home and forged Kazdin's name on the application.

After pocketing the cash, Sante signed over ownership of the home to another associate of hers and then insured it for $500,000. With the policy only nine days old, the house burned to the ground in a suspected arson fire.

There was one problem, however. The bank, which Sante had instructed not to send any documents to Kazdin's address, goofed and mailed him the payment book for the loan. He contacted the bank and identified his signature on the application as phony, and he rebuffed Sante's requests for a meeting to smooth things over.

Sante and Kenny took a six-month lease on a home in Bel-Air. "I'm not sure Kazdin was the motivation for the move," Walker says. "They were probably looking for other cons." On March 13, 1998, Kenny and Sean Little, a drifter whom the Kimeses had recruited to work for them, allegedly paid Kazdin a visit. Little has testified that while he waited outside, he heard "a pop sound like a gun going off." When he went into the home, he saw Kazdin dying on the floor.

Following Kenny's instructions, Little said he helped him wrap the body in plastic bags and stuff it in the back of Kazdin's Jaguar. Little got behind the wheel and followed Kenny, who was driving his own vehicle, to the LAX-area dumpster where Kazdin's body eventually was found. On the way home, Little told the grand jury, Kenny bought $100 worth of flowers for his mother.

"He walks in the door, hands her the flowers and gives her a kiss," Little recalled.

Walker speculates that the flower-giving was some kind of "victory dance. [Kenny] wanted to please his mom, show her he was being a good boy."

A few weeks later, in April 1998, mother and son headed for the East Coast. They ended up renting a $6,000-a-month apartment in a Manhattan building owned by Silverman, an 82-year-old widow. She was last seen on July 5. By then, Kazdin's body had been found and a joint task force of Los Angeles police and the FBI were looking for the Kimeses. They were arrested in New York with several items belonging to Silverman in their possession.

Despite the absence of Silverman's body and any physical evidence linking the Kimeses to her disappearance, a jury in New York convicted Sante and Kenny of second-degree murder. They were soon extradited to Los Angeles to be tried in the Kazdin case.

At earlier hearings in the downtown criminal courthouse, 28-year-old Kenny stared straight ahead, his lawyer between him and his mother. "She wishes him 'Happy Birthday' and tells him she loves him," reported the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Hunter. Sante, sporting a jailhouse pallor and gray hair no longer covered by the jet-black wigs she used to favor, has been showing up for recent court appearances in a wheelchair. After repeated attempts to interview Sante Kimes in jail proved unsuccessful, The Times submitted written questions to her. No responses came.

For more than a year, she acted as her own lawyer, a move that is rare in any criminal case, let alone a capital murder one. "I think that you are in way over your head representing yourself," said Judge Kathleen A. Kennedy-Powell, who clashed repeatedly with Sante, at one hearing. "You really should have a lawyer." Sante claims her past experience has "caused me to lose faith in the legal profession to guide me through [a] criminal action where my very survival is at stake." But she recently retained a veteran criminal defense lawyer, Charles Maple of Altadena, to represent her.

Walker didn't testify in the Silverman trial after prosecutors declined his request for immunity. Walker says he didn't actually need immunity, but sought protection on the advice of his attorney. Because of his family association, "Everybody thought I was guilty of something."

But he was prepared to take the stand without immunity in the Kazdin case. "I guess things have calmed down a little bit," he explains. "I don't feel at risk so much."

The prosecution could have called Walker to testify about a conversation he had with Kenny at a penitentiary in New York. According to "Son of a Grifter," Walker told him that to save his life, "he'd have to confess to killing Dave Kazdin, and in the process he'd have to implicate Mom." Kenny replied that he was ready to cooperate with law enforcement. It was, writes Walker, "a murder confession"--and precisely what his younger brother ended up doing.

In cutting a deal with prosecutors to save his life, Hunter said Kenny admitted during three days of interviews last August that he went to Kazdin's home and, according to a plan hatched with his mother, shot the businessman. He also admitted pulling the trigger on Kazdin during his surprise Nov. 18 guilty plea.

But there could still be plenty of Kimes family drama when Sante comes to trial. She is charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances of financial gain and killing a witness to a crime. First, Kenny will have to take the stand against his mother as the key prosecution witness. The district attorney apparently offered him the plea deal because his testimony could be the key link between Sante and the Kazdin murder plot.

Then, if Sante is convicted, will Kenny speak out to spare her from death row? Will her older son?

In California, the defense in a capital murder trial can present evidence of anything "which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime." That commonly involves putting on a parade of witnesses, from relatives and friends to mental health experts, to testify about the convicted murderer's childhood and background. It's a high-stakes variation on the eternal dilemma of "nature versus nurture," a forensic, but essentially speculative, dissection of character intended to show that the defendant is not, as prosecutors would have it, a "natural-born killer," or evil incarnate.

There are currently 14 women on California's death row and Sante Kimes--who will turn 70 in July--would be one of the oldest. The parade of witnesses testifying on her behalf in the penalty phase is likely to be a short one. If she is convicted, Sante's two sons are the only close relatives still alive who could argue against her execution. Even if he argues for her life, Kenny's pleas might not do much good. The judge in the Silverman case believed that Kenny Kimes was a victim of his mother, but that he had evolved into a "remorseless criminal." On the other hand, Walker, as the "good" son, might be the one to lead the jury into a nuanced view of the psychology of Sante's sons.

And that's where the nature-versus-nurture debate comes into sharp focus. How could the same mother have raised two such different children?

Walker resists comparisons to Kenny. "You can't compare me to [Kenny]," he objects. "People always try." But he also says: "There are circumstances here. They do not provide him with a defense to his crimes. But they are something to make people consider if execution is really justified in this situation."

Kenny, he stresses, had his compassionate side as a young boy. He recalls the two of them going out one day to shoot a rifle and Kenny bursting into tears when Walker accidentally shot a bird. On another occasion, Walker inadvertently took some Silly Putty from a store without paying for it and received a scolding from his indignant younger brother.

All that, however, was before Mom went to prison for enslaving her maids. While she was behind bars, Kenneth Kimes Sr. had sole custody of Kenny. "I hold him as much responsible for what happened to Kenny as my mother," Walker says.

According to Walker, Kimes thought he might be headed for a custody battle with Sante. So he spoiled the boy rotten, taught him that everyone was out to get him, and convinced him that "other people existed only as a means to an end." Seeing Walker as a rival for Kenny's affection, he even turned brother against brother. "You and I aren't blood," Kenny told Walker during this period. "You're not really my brother."

Once Sante got out of jail, she and Kimes fought constantly, using the boy as a pawn in their power struggle. With Kenny caught between them, Walker concludes, he became "a disaster waiting to happen."

Walker notes that Sante was somewhat more mellow when he was young. He was never under the influence of Kenneth Kimes Sr. And he had that brush with the law at age 12 for the surfboard heist. Maybe, he speculates, Kenny would have turned out differently if something similar had happened to him at that age. "Kenny never really had . . . his wake-up call."

Sante Kimes was scheduled to go on trial Jan. 13, although Judge Kennedy-Powell said that when Kenny took his deal she assumed there would be delays. With her younger son set to testify against her, Sante's new attorney has some interesting strategic calls to make. One possible defense would be to attack Kenny's credibility, to suggest he killed Kazdin without any input or direction from her, and that he is now pointing the finger at her only to save himself.

"It's a viable defense," Walker says, adding that he is relieved that his brother cut a deal. "This is a good thing. Thank God." He was getting ready for the day when his recurring nightmare and his reality would collide, when he would have had to plead for his kid brother's life and perform, for perhaps one last time, his role as protector. Now he no longer has to embrace the thought that Kenny could be strapped to a table and receive a lethal injection. He no longer has to worry about explaining Kenny's execution to his own children, the next generation of his tainted bloodline.

"It's been very hard on them, too," he explains. "They've done nothing to deserve this . . . . This is their Uncle Kenny, and they love him."

But what about their grandmother? Walker confesses that he feels "kind of bad" for Sante. He suspects that she's "devastated" by Kenny's guilty plea, by her younger son "betraying" her as her older one did by writing his tell-all book. "I'll tell you one thing," he says. "There's nothing the criminal justice system can do to my mother to punish her more than this will punish her."

Still, those feelings apparently aren't enough to sway Walker to plead for his mother's life. "I wish I could come up with a reason why she should not be executed," he says. "I don't know what I can say to help her. I wish there was." And if she's convicted and the trial goes to the penalty phase, he doesn't believe Kenny will be of much help either.

"For him to be willing to [plead guilty], something's really, really changed," he says. "The playing field has changed. So I don't know." He pauses, still unable to come up with a reason to spare her life. "I don't know what he could say for her either."

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