The Lady Vanishes
For Silverman, things would soon get much worse. Ten days after her conversation with Herbert, on July 5, the elfin former ballerina disappeared. Bloodstains were found outside her multimillion-dollar home. Police now fear she may have been the most recent victim of her problem tenant, 23-year-old Kenneth Kimes Jr., and his mother, Sante, 64—a suspected one-family crime tsunami that has been linked to a cross-country trail of cons, insurance scams, arson, missing persons and murder.
"I hope and I pray she's found alive," said Chief of Manhattan Detectives Kevin Farrell of Silverman, an Auntie Mame type described by her many friends as being bubbly as the Veuve Clicquot champagne she loved. "But optimism is not in the equation." Even before police revealed they had found Silverman's passports and bankbooks in Sante Kimes's possession, those who tangled with the pair in the past would have feared for her. "Sante Kimes is probably one of the greatest cons who ever lived," says retired FBI agent Tom Nicodemus, recalling how the self-styled Dragon Lady talked her way out of custody 13 years ago and nearly avoided recapture by disguising herself as a bag lady. "She could present this totally innocent front and then turn right around and stab you in the back."
She certainly had plenty of practice. During an odyssey that officially began with her 1961 arrest for petty theft in Sacramento, the flamboyant Oklahoma native changed her name and date of birth more often than her wigs. Sandy Jacobson, Santa Louisa Powers, Sane Taj Singhrs—her former lawyer Charles Catterlin listed 22 aliases in his unsuccessful 1981 suit to collect $12,000 from her in legal fees. The onetime pinup model could also switch personalities in a flash, from seductive charmer to foulmouthed harpy. Perhaps Kimes was so convincing because, on some level, she actually persuaded herself. Once even her own counsel said, "This lady had a difficult time discerning what was real and what wasn't real."
By the mid-'70s, Sante had shed first husband Edward Floyd Walker, a builder and father of her older son, Kent, and married a self-made millionaire, motel operator and construction-company owner, Kenneth Kimes. But though the couple were wealthy enough to maintain several lavish residences, Sante was convicted in 1985 of stealing a $6,500 mink coat from the bar of Washington, D.C.'s Mayflower Hotel. Skipping town before sentencing, she soon surfaced in La Jolla, Calif.—where she and her husband were arrested for enslaving servants at their homes in three states. Sante "literally kept them barefoot doing her bidding," says Sandra Raho, her neighbor for 10 years in Las Vegas. "She was like a queen over there."
Although Kenneth Sr. pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in the case, for which his convicted wife would serve three years, "you could tell the man was totally under her spell," says Nicodemus. "I never had any ill feelings towards him." Indeed, people often felt sorry for the senior Kimes, a frail-looking man with a drinking problem, who was some two decades older than his second wife—as well as for their son Kenneth Jr. Described as bright but troubled, young Kenneth spent his formative years being home-schooled and dominated by the mother he alternately loathed and loved. "Ken Jr. used to be the guard dog for the maids," says Nicodemus of the boy, then only 10. "They were all afraid of him."
After his father's death in 1994, Kenneth Jr. appears to have graduated from rottweiler to his mother's partner in crime. In 1996 the dapper six-footer and Sante filed mother-and-son malpractice suits against a San Diego plastic surgeon. That same year, the Kimeses were unsuccessfully sought for questioning by Bahamian police investigating the September disappearance of banker Syed Bilal Ahmed, 53, with whom they were supposed to have dined the night he vanished. There was no subsequent trace of the father of two—until New York police reportedly found an application for a hefty line of credit in his name in the Kimeses' Lincoln.
Unfortunately there's no mystery about the fate of Granada Hills, Calif., businessman David Kazdin, 63, who knew and feared the Kimeses. Shot with a .22-cal. bullet, his body was found in a trash bin near Los Angeles airport on March 14. That's three months after investigators believe the Kimeses obtained a $280,000 loan in Kazdin's name on the Las Vegas home where Kenneth Jr. spent much of his childhood—and six weeks after the place was torched. (Police say the Kimeses, through a front man, promptly filed an insurance claim for more than $250,000.) Says LAPD Det. Dennis English of the scheme, which involved making multiple title changes on the house: "It would probably take a day for me to explain the scam."
Ironically it was one of the pair's simplest cons—the purchase of a 1997 green Lincoln Town Car from a Cedar City, Utah, dealer in February with a rubber check for $14,972—that led to their capture. Tipped to their whereabouts by a Las Vegas informant, authorities seized the Kimeses and the vehicle only hours after Silverman was reported missing—but before they had connected the two to her disappearance. Inside, the car was a virtual mobile fraud factory, including rent receipts with Silverman's signature, blank power-of-attorney forms and papers bearing the names of Ahmed, another missing person police have not yet named and the murdered Kazdin. There was also a loaded 9-mm Glock pistol—and some blood that police have reportedly said is not Silverman's.
The ominous cache suggested, for Silverman, an end far removed from the gilded lifestyle she had once struggled so fiercely to achieve. Born poor in New Orleans to an Italian-American and an immigrant Greek seamstress, Irene Zambelli eventually fled to New York at 16 with her mother. A year later, after bartering costumes sewed by the older woman for lessons with fabled dancer Michel Fokine, "Zambi" landed a job with Radio City's Corps de Ballet.
At the Music Hall the 88-lb. 5-footer found showbiz glamour but also an exhausting grind of four performances a day, seven days a week. Who could blame her when, a decade later she retired to become full-time wife to investor Samuel Silverman, who agreed to make a home for her mother? "As Irene put it," says her friend James Shenton, a Columbia University history professor, "it was a marriage of convenience."
Silverman soon assumed her cherished role as chatelaine of the turn-of-the-century townhouse off Fifth Avenue, which the couple bought in 1957. After her husband died from leukemia in 1980, she remodeled the lower floors of the mansion into suites with marble fireplaces and museum-quality art and rented them to upscale—and usually carefully screened—tenants. (Kenneth Kimes apparently dropped the name of a common acquaintance to effect his entrée.) "She really kept things up and cracking," says bandleader Peter Duchin, a resident from 1982 to 1986 who remembers Silverman patrolling the halls in her bathrobe, trailed by her boxer dogs as she supervised her staff of 10. "We used to have very nice times."
For all her eccentricities, Silverman was nobody's fool. Wary of being mugged, she "never went out without a companion," says pal Janice Herbert, 66, also a former ballerina. "It was ridiculous when you think of what happened to her."
Exactly what did happen is something police are still trying to piece together, as they search for any sign of Silverman—or of the Kimeses' possible accomplice, seen with Kenneth on the mansion's security camera and described as a Hispanic male in his mid-20s. They are getting no help from mother and son, who are talking only to their lawyers and being held without bail pending an Aug. 6 court date. By then authorities hope to learn if the Kimeses' fingerprints match the partial print recovered from the Kazdin crime scene. Sante Kimes's lawyer José Muñiz suggests they won't. "People have records. That doesn't make them murderers," he said. "My client categorically denies any involvement in her disappearance."
Meanwhile those who knew and cared about Silverman hope for the best but fear the worst. "I can't imagine how they got her out of the house—she would have just raised hell," says longtime friend Ronald Grele. "Irene was not a person to go gently into that still night."
Eve Heyn in New York City, Champ Clark and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles, Melissa Schorr in Las Vegas, Fannie Weinstein and Don Sider in Miami and Bob Stewart and Joseph Harmes in Texas