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Court TV

Kimes killers part ways, as son prepares to testify against mom

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

(Court TV) -- Sante and Kenneth Kimes, a mother and son convicted of murdering a New York woman for her $7 million townhouse, were an inseparable criminal team -- until recently.

In 2000, Sante was sentenced to 120 years in prison for her role in the killing of 82-year-old Manhattan millionaire Irene Silverman; Kenneth received 125 years.

Authorities never found Silverman's body. But they ultimately uncovered a cross-country trail of arson, fraud, identity theft and the body of a California businessman -- stuffed in a garbage container near the airport -- that all seemed to point to the duo.

On Tuesday, Sante Kimes, 69, will stand trial in Los Angeles County for the 1998 malice murder of David Kazdin. The Granada Hills, California, businessman, who was unwittingly caught up in a fraudulent bank scheme allegedly hatched by Sante, was shot to death in his own home some time after he began to suspect he was being conned.

A jury indicted Sante and Kenneth Kimes in May 2002 for Kazdin's death. At the time, both pleaded not guilty to one count each of murder, along with the special circumstances of murder for financial gain and murder of a witness.

In an unexpected twist, Kenneth pleaded guilty in November to first-degree murder, escaping a possible death penalty.

Attorneys are bound by a gag order in the highly publicized trial. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Kenneth, 28, pulled the trigger, but Sante was the mastermind behind Kazdin's murder.

As part of Kenneth's plea agreement, he will testify against his own mother -- a prospect that is astonishing to those familiar with the intimate pair.

"Sante Kimes and her son were inseparable and wholeheartedly stood by one another during the New York case," said attorney Mel Sachs, co-counsel for the Kimeses in the Silverman trial.

Sachs described his former client as "extremely intelligent articulate and charming ? and her charisma is striking." But prosecutors have invariably painted a portrait of the widow as a controlling matriarch with a rap sheet that dates back to the '60s.

Although the defense will likely attack Kenneth's credibility -- saying he alone acted in Kazdin's death -- his surprising change of heart and crucial testimony delivers a potentially devastating blow to the son's case.

Up in flames

David Kazdin was an old friend of the Kimes family, according to Kent Walker, Sante's eldest son, who became estranged from his mother after the publication of his 2002 book, "Son of a Grifter." Walker wrote that, when he learned of Kazdin's death, he started "connecting the dots."

Sante Kimes was convicted in 1986 for enslaving illegal aliens, or as Walker wrote, "Mexicans she had worked to the bone as unpaid 'maids.'" At the time, Kazdin agreed to put his name on the title of a Las Vegas home Sante owned in order to shield the property from civil lawsuits.

According to news reports, Sante took out a $280,000 loan on the property in December 1997 after getting a third party to notarize and forge Kazdin's name on the application. Prosecutors say that, driven by greed, she then fraudulently transferred ownership of the property to a homeless man, who was doing household chores for the Kimeses, and made him apply for a $500,000 homeowner's insurance policy. On Jan. 31, days after the policy went into effect, the house went up in flames.

Meanwhile, Kazdin had received a payment booklet from the bank for the $280,000 loan. He called to complain that he had never signed a loan application, and an investigation ensued. Sante allegedly sent him letters asking him to cooperate, and his refusal to comply may have cost him his life.

Sean Little, a drifter who was hired by the Kimeses, testified with immunity before a Los Angeles grand jury that on March 13, 1998, he waited outside Kazdin's home while Kenneth went in and shot the family friend to death.

Little said that he found Kenneth standing over the dead man, holding a small automatic gun. He then helped to search the house for checkbooks and bank statements, wrap Kazdin's body in plastic bags, and stuff it in the trunk of Kazdin's Jaguar. After the two disposed of the body, Little testified, Kenneth made a pit stop to buy a $100 bouquet of flowers for his mother.

Kazdin's body was found the next day, in a garbage container near the Los Angeles airport. He had a single .22-caliber gunshot in the back of his head.

A Lincoln full of evidence

Months later, on June 14, Kenneth Kimes showed up at Irene Silverman's Upper East Side doorstep. He paid cash to rent a $6,000 a month apartment from Silverman, and referred to Sante as his live-in assistant.

By then, authorities were hot on the trail of the pair, who were wanted for questioning in Kazdin's death; had arrest warrants in Utah, where they wrote a bad $14,900 check for a green Lincoln Town car; and had been spotted in Louisiana and Florida.

On July 5, 1998, Sante and Kenneth were finally captured in New York. Silverman disappeared that same day.

In the back seat of the Kimes' Lincoln, authorities found Silverman's passport, a fully loaded Glock 9 mm pistol and a .22-caliber Beretta. They also recovered real estate transfer papers, an empty stun gun box, blank social security cards, handcuffs, $30,000 in cash and a notebook in which Sante had practiced writing Silverman's signature.

In a Court TV documentary one of Sante's attorneys was asked whether he ever suspected that the pair had been sexually intimate. "You got the feeling that that may have happened," said attorney Jose Muniz. Because Sante had been sexually abused, Muniz speculated that she'd had sexual intercourse with Kenneth while he was growing up.

Prosecutors will likely argue that Sante exploited her son's complicated attachment to her, inducing him to murder at her whim. In fact, in 2001, Kenneth made a desperate attempt to save Sante from extradition to California by taking a Court TV reporter hostage during a jailhouse interview. After more than four hours of holding a pen to reporter Maria Zone's neck, Kimes was eventually wrestled to the ground by prison officials.

"Although they were united in their defense, there were occasions when their strong and unwavering personalities clashed," Sachs recently told "The prospect of the death penalty in California apparently cased the schism between the mother and son."

Kenneth will be sentenced at the completion of his mother's trial and is expected to receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors announced in January that, based on Kenneth's new plea, they would no longer seek the death penalty for Sante.

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