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Do `The Grifters' Deserve Their Fates?

Aired June 15, 2001 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ROGER COSSACK, HOST: In an alleged cross-country crime spree that ended in New York, the mother and son team, Sante and Kenneth Kimes were wanted for murder, theft and con games. Convicted in New York of murdering a socialite, Sante Kimes now heads back across the country to be tried for the murder of a businessman in California.

Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: They call them the grifters.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. The 1963 novel, "The Grifters" introduced a new moniker for describing a unique class of roaming criminals. Nearly four decades later, the term is being used to describe two modern-day con artists.

Sante Kimes and her son Kenneth were convicted of more than 50 charges, including murder and kidnapping in the death of New York millionaire, Irene Silverman.

Prosecutors say that 26-year-old Kenneth plotted with his mother to steal Silverman's multimillion-dollar townhouse. Police have never found Silverman's body, and there was no sign of a struggle in Silverman's mansion. Yet both Kenneth and his 65-year-old mother received lengthy sentences. Now in Los Angeles, the so-called grifters are accused in the death of a California businessman.

And joining us from San Diego to discuss this case is Kent Walker, the son of Sante and the brother of Kenneth. Kent is also the author of a book called "Son of a Grifter." From New York, Michael Hardy, the attorney for Sante Kimes. And also in New York, Mel Sachs, former trial attorney for Kenneth Kimes. Sachs also represented Sante Kimes. And from Sacramento, former California state prosecutor William Portanova.

First I want to go to Kent Walker.

Kent, you wrote a book from the most unusual perspective, being the half-brother, or the step-brother of Kenneth Kimes and, of course, the son of Sante Kimes.

You write in your book as follows: "Living with mom meant thinking ahead. You had to do a sort of calamity forecasting because whenever you suspected she leading you into some sort of legal, social or financial disaster, you were probably right."

What was it like growing up in that family?

KENT WALKER, SANTE KIMES OLDEST SON: Well, you know, it took a book to try to describe that. You know, we had a lot of good times; 90 percent of the time it was absolutely wonderful, but that 10 percent of the time just overpowered the good stuff, where my mother was always conniving, always looking for the game to accomplish her goals, which usually ended up being bad. and the problem was she wasn't very good at it. Most of the time she went out there to do the bad stuff, she failed.

COSSACK: Now what was it -- how did she get this across to you? I mean, what did she want you to do?

WALKER: Well, you know, the...

COSSACK: And how old were you when this all began to happen and you began to realize it?

WALKER: Well, before I was 10 years old it was all I knew. You know, I'd helped her -- it's kind of embarrassing now, but I mean, I was her accomplice. I helped distract storekeepers when she shoplifted. I was with her when she stole cars.

I got caught stealing surfboards when I was 12 year old. And I really thought I was going to jail, and that scared the tar out of me. So then I started becoming the person to try to stop mom from doing stuff, and that was probably our biggest conflict for 20 years. You know, she didn't like me as a son because I didn't want to do what she wanted to do. Being a good guy was a bad guy in her eyes.

COSSACK: Now, you described how she began to destroy your father and begin to search for a replacement husband, a millionaire husband. What was that all about?

WALKER: Well, after she left my real father, Ed Walker, there was no bones about it. She was searching for a rich man to marry. And Kenneth Kimes was who she found. The two -- they were madly in love with each other, but they were the worst possible match because Ken brought into the relationship a type of paranoia. And with my mother's character, the two of them together were very, very dangerous.

COSSACK: But Kenneth Kimes was a successful real estate developer...

WALKER: Very successful.

COSSACK: ... certainly not one that needed a life of crime. And yet he hooked up with your mother and they began a life of crime. Can you explain, or help us understand how that happened?

Why did that man going from having what he wanted legitimately to crime? WALKER: Well, you'd have to be subject to it to understand my mother's forceful charisma. She has got this ability to manipulate people. And it's something to be in awe of, in some ways. She was always in complete control.

She represented a lot of things to Ken, sexually I'm sure. Ken was madly in love with her. All men who ever was (sic) in her life was. I can't think of one man that she was ever involved with who she does -- still doesn't haunt.

Ken, also, was a fairly paranoid man, but he was also kind of cheap for a millionaire. He didn't like paying for stuff, so mom stole cars, she stole her own fur coats, so she was the ultimate cheap date.

COSSACK: She taught you, as you write in your book, how to steal, how to forge, how to do arson, how to spy on people. What did she tell to do?

WALKER: Well, when I was real young she got me breaking into houses and steal stuff, like letterheads and stuff for her, stuff like that, you know, and be a distraction. A lot of times she tried to get me to be her muscle in things, which I didn't want to do, you know.

Like I said, after I was about 12, 15 years old she couldn't get me to do that stuff anymore. But she always -- I'm a good-size guy, about six-three, about 220, so I can be kind of intimidating, I guess. So she'd use that, without me knowing, to people "hey, I'm going to get my son after you if you don't do what I say" type stuff.

COSSACK: Now, there came a time when you said you'd had enough, and you just decided to leave. What happened?

WALKER: Well, several times -- you know, I ran away from her so many times in my life, but she always pulled me back in.

The final straw was 1997. A lot of things led up to it. My daughter was going with them to the Bahamas and they got stopped at -- by airport security in Las Vegas. They found a taser gun in their luggage. And mom and Kenny took off, left my 12-year-old daughter holding the bag, so to speak. And she was detained for two hours.

Then after that I just realized that I lost. You know, I was trying to pull my brother out of her thrall, but my life was fairly mainstream. With mom there was excitement, there was money, there was jet-setting. And I just finally came to the realization that she beat me. I lost, and Kenny was not going to change.

COSSACK: Now, you also write that there's suspicion that your mother tried to kill your wife.

WALKER: We didn't write that she tried to kill her, but she did hate her because my mother never could accept the fact that someone in my life was more important to me than she was. She wanted complete control; it was an obsessive type of love. And that's one thing we tried to illustrate in "Son of a Grifter" is -- for Kenny and I it -- you feel safe in that type of love. She was a powerful person, and you felt almost infallible. And you know, Kenny didn't have a chance.

COSSACK: Do you ever discuss this with Kenny at all and talk to him about what that his feelings about his -- your mother and his mother are and why he didn't try and remove himself like you did?

WALKER: Well, we cover that in the book also. There was (sic) a couple times in his life where he wanted out. And unfortunately had a big brother who kept him in. You know, I was under the ideas that, you know, kids are supposed to listen to their parents. I still have that value. And when he tried to run off a couple times, I'm the one who kept him in. And it's, without a doubt, the single biggest regret I have in my life right now.

COSSACK: And you also, though, did try and go to the police on three different occasions and explain to them and warn them about your mother and your brother. What happened?

WALKER: Well, when I was a junior in high school, I had had enough. It was one of the times I ran away. And I was convinced by people who were very close to me that I needed to turn them in. And it went against everything that I was ever taught, but I walked into the Honolulu Police Department and I gave them everything. I gave them the arsons, the fur coats, the maids, everything. But nothing happened.

I know they believed me. I signed a document that was two inches thick, but no one ever believed me. You know, now they believe me because, you know, it's in the press now -- oh, he must be telling the truth. But you know, after going to the cops so many times and trying to tell people about this stuff, I just finally learned to keep my mouth shut. And I got tired of being the troubled young man.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

How can someone be convicted of murder, though, when no body is ever find -- found? Let's find out when we come back.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

In 1999, Delaware lawyer Thomas Capano was convicted for killing his mistress, the governor's secretary. Capano was convicted of the murder even though no body was ever found.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Last year mother and son team Sante and Kenneth Kimes were found guilty of the murder of New York socialite Irene Silverman. Although the millionaire's body was never found, the con artists were sentenced to 120 years in prison.

Let's talk to their lawyers.

Michael Hardy, you started off, and you represented Sante Kimes and then eventually, I think, did you also represent his -- the son, too?

MICHAEL HARDY, ATTORNEY FOR SANTE KIMES: Mel Sachs represented the son.

COSSACK: All right, so your representation was solely to Sante Kimes?

HARDY: That's correct, yes.

COSSACK: Tell us -- explain to our viewers a little bit about the trial. It's unusual when someone can be convicted when there is no -- what we lawyers call the corpus delicti, what the real people call the body.

HARDY: Right.

COSSACK: And there was no body in this case. What happened?

HARDY: Well, not only was there no body, there was no forensic evidence whatsoever to connect the Kimeses to Irene Silverman, in terms of any murder happening: no forensics in the vehicles, in the house, nowhere.

And I think what happened here is that the police had also gotten hold of her private diaries, and in the diaries -- they weaved the story that these diaries were connected to their plan to defraud Ms. Silverman. And based on speaking to jurors afterwards, many of them held those diaries as the evidence that they were involved in her disappearance.

COSSACK: Mel, how did they get involved with Irene Silverman? How did they end up -- they were in her house, weren't they?

MEL SACHS, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR KENNETH KIMES: Yes, they were in her house. Irene Silverman has a mansion where there are 14 rooms, and she's been renting them over a number of years. So the way they actually came in was proper; they came in as tenants.

Unfortunately, Roger, in this case law enforcement fueled the media. The court of public opinion was against the Kimeses. This seeped into the court of law. Unfortunately, the trial that was held was not a fair and just one. And I'm confident that a court, whether it's New York's highest court or a federal court, will ultimately reverse these convictions.

COSSACK: All right. Well, let's talk a little bit about some of the evidence that they had, right or wrong, OK? We know that they had -- the police used the diaries of the Kimes'.

HARDY: Right.

COSSACK: What about, though, the fact that there was -- at least allegedly reported, that the Kimeses were using credit cards and materials that belonged to Irene Silverman after she had disappeared?

HARDY: Well, there was never -- this is Michael.

(CROSSTALK)

HARDY: There was never any evidence that they used any of Irene Silverman's credit cards. And in fact, the documents of Irene Silverman that were allegedly found on the Kimeses were documents that -- you know, we argued very strongly there was no vouchering of those documents. And it was very -- it really wasn't connected how the Silverman documents got into the Kimeses possession.

Yes, it was true that Kenny had an ID of Manny Guerin, but that was not connected to Irene Silverman. So we challenged the admission of the Silverman documents because they also, then, found similar documents that still remained in her closet at the house.

COSSACK: Mel, the notion that they did have these documents, that was evidence that clearly could have swayed a jury or have made a jury think, you know, well, listen, how did these people end up with this stuff?

SACHS: There are real serious questions. Roger, we were able to demonstrate, during the course of the trial, that when Sante Kimes was initially arrested, and Kenneth Kimes, that they were not, in fact, in possession of any of these documents. And it seemed that the actual police documents supported this.

Once they were in custody, then there were documents which were found in a car which was in possession of law enforcement. So there were real questions here as to the development of the evidence in this case. But there wasn't any good, hard, reliable evidence demonstrating they had anything to do with Irene Silverman's disappearance.

There wasn't any -- not only forensic evidence, there wasn't any eyewitness evidence, there weren't any admissions, confessions, there wasn't anything other than a great deal of innuendo and speculation and character assassination.

COSSACK: All right, Michael, let's talk a little bit about these diaries. The diaries indicated some -- you know, one can interpret the diaries as a blueprint. Isn't that what the prosecutor tried to say?

HARDY: Well, they certainly did. And, you know, unfortunately, I have to admit they did that quite effectively.

The diaries certainly mentioned some things connected to the house, and the fact they were there. They never mentioned Irene Silverman by name. There were some references to an old lady. But again, one of the things we pointed out to the jury -- on the day that the Kimeses were arrested -- and there are entries in that diary on the day of their arrests -- there are references, which the people alleged were references to Irene Silverman. But even those references refer to a person who was still alive and well, because they talk about the relationship that has to be established, quote, unquote, "with the old lady in the mansion."

So, again...

COSSACK: And talking about in a way that would lead people to believe that they were trying to defraud her, isn't that right?.

HARDY: Well, you know, if you want to be very candid, the evidence of an attempted fraud was much stronger than of a murder. But again, fraud does not equal murder. And that was one of the issues that we raised here. And that was, in fact, one of the legal issues that we raised in terms of combining the charges in the indictment because we had put forward very strong arguments that the murder charge should be separated out from some of the other charges so that the trial could be fair.

COSSACK: All right, we're going to have to take a break.

The grifters head to the West Coast and face trial for another alleged murder. What does the future hold for this duo with this sordid past? Well, we'll find out. Don't go away.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: On what charge was a Tennessee woman convicted after her child was killed in a car accident while seated in the front seat on her lap?

A: Criminally negligent homicide.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Businessman David Kazdin was found dead in a dumpster near Los Angeles International Airport in 1998. Now, a mother and son team being called "The Grifters" are suspects in Kazdin's death.

Kenneth Kimes is in California awaiting trial. His mother, currently serving time in New York, recently agreed to extradition.

Bill, talk to us a little bit about what they're going to face when they come to California, how this trial is going to happen.

WILLIAM PORTANOVA, FORMER CALIFORNIA STATE PROSECUTOR: Now that the extradition is out of the way and everybody has agreed these are the right people, let's get them to California and let's try them here, what's going to happen is there's going to be sort of a mini- trial, the preliminary hearing. And the DA is saying that they're not going to go make the decision on going for the death penalty until that preliminary hearing is over.

However, you can bet they're going to go for the death penalty on this case. It's simply too complicated, too many suspected murderers, a convicted murder already under their belts. It's very likely that, if they're guilty of L.A. murder, that it's the kind of case that the district attorney will prosecute as a capital offense. COSSACK: Now, this is a case -- you know, obviously a very unusual case, a mother and a son. Will they sever this case, or will try both of them together?

PORTANOVA: Well, it's going to depend an awful lot on be the behavior of each one of these defendants. I don't need to advise the other attorneys on this case that there's always a danger of one defendant testifying against the other.

In California there's also rule which requires that cases be separated if there's evidence which is good against one defendant, but not necessarily good or available against the other defendant. For example, if, say, the son had made statements which implicate himself, it would be good evidence against himself. We can't necessarily let the mother's jury hear about those because the son may or may not testify and, therefore, the statements wouldn't be subject to cross- examination.

Often what happens is they split the case into two trials. But a lot of judges now are doing a dual-jury situation where they actually bring in two separate juries, have them both sit in the courtroom, both listen to most of the evidence, but when it comes time to hear just the evidence against the one defendant, they send the other defendant's jury out and vice-versa. It sounds cumbersome, but doing they're -- they've been doing it very effectively out here.

COSSACK: Kent, I want to ask you a couple of questions that you're probably in a unique position to know.

First of all, do you believe that, at any time, one or the other of your mother and your step-brother or your half-brother would ever turn on each other and testify against each other?

WALKER: I can absolutely guarantee you that that will not happen.

COSSACK: All right, let me just ask the lawyers that.

Mel and Michael, you also know them well after defending them. Probably as well as -- next to Kent. Will they ever turn on each other?

SACHS: I have ever reason to believe that they will not. They've always been adamant about their innocence. They've always been for one another. And this is the way that I've seen them from the very beginning. And I've probably been with them longer anyone else. And I am sure that they will never, ever turn on one another.

HARDY: And I would have to agree with that. That's pretty clear. Although I would say, again, in California, it would not surprise me if they sought to have separate trials, and actually pursue that.

COSSACK: Kent, you had a conversation with your brother after the trial that we've been talking about, about Irene Silverman.

Your brother briefly took a reporter hostage while he was in prison...

WALKER: Yes.

COSSACK: ... and then had a conversation with you regarding his involvement in the Silverman case. What did he tell you?

WALKER: Well, I went to New York to visit him after that, trying to get him to turn on mom, trying to do something to better his situation. And he didn't come out and say "yes, I did it." But what he referenced was that during the trial in New York the authorities kept on telling him "tell us where the body is and we'll make Los Angeles go away." And I asked him, "are you ready to do that?" And he said "yes." To me that's a confession.

COSSACK: And did he ever do it?

WALKER: I'm sorry?

(CROSSTALK)

WALKER: As far as saying where the body was?

COSSACK: Right.

WALKER: There was reports in New York in the November following that that said he did. And -- but I talked to Kenny the January after that, he said he didn't. So there's a gray area there also.

I find it hard to believe, if he did tell the authorities, that there wasn't any kind of search for the body that I'm aware of.

COSSACK: Mel, what...

(CROSSTALK)

COSSACK: Mel -- yes?

SACHS: Yes, I've spoken to Kenneth Kimes about that. Not only did I speak with him, but I've also received letters from him. And he emphatically denies ever telling them that he gave any information or admitted, acknowledged any wrongdoing.

In fact, I'd like to commend CNN, because they were the most responsible agency reporting this. CNN had called me -- and they never ran the story because they did not have any verification from anyone in law enforcement that he, in fact, provided this information. And they said "do you have any information? We can report that and say that the source is from you" and I said "no." And CNN never reported -- they were the most responsible journalists, who really did not report something that is, frankly, unverified.

Unfortunately, the media picks up something. It gets extracted out of context, magnified out of proportion, misinterpreted and there are -- false information is then sent around the world.

COSSACK: All right, that's all the time we have today. Thank you to our guests. Thank you for watching.

Join us again Monday: another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.

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