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The Sons of Sante Kimes

The Notorious Grifter's Two Boys Followed Strikingly Different Paths, But Destiny Has Brought Them Together in an L.A. Legal Drama. This Time It's a Matter of Life and Death.

November 30, 2003|Matthew Heller | 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."

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