Trouble in Apt. 1-B
Less than three weeks later, Silverman had vanished without a trace, and police later charged the tenant, Kenneth Kimes Jr., 25, and his mother, Sante, 65, with murdering her in what prosecutors say was an attempt to swindle her out of her $7 million mansion (PEOPLE, July 27, 1998). "They murdered her to get her out of the way. It's as simple as that," prosecutor Connie Fernandez told the New York State Supreme Court jury, sitting in Manhattan, which in February began hearing the extraordinary case. The mother and son face 83 charges, including second-degree murder, robbery and forgery. Lawyers defending the pair counter that since police never found a corpse, there is no proof Silverman is dead, let alone murdered. "No body," defense lawyer Michael Hardy told the court, "is no body."
What police did find on the Kimeses when they were arrested on July 5, 1998—the day Silverman disappeared—was a mountain of circumstantial evidence, say prosecutors, including Irene Silverman's keys, which she always carried on her person, as well as her old passports, her Social Security card and blank checks from her bank account. A black vinyl suitcase the pair had stashed in a hotel contained several forged documents, including a bogus deed for Silverman's townhouse. "The motive," says Fernandez, "was simple, ordinary greed."
Even before Silverman's disappearance, the FBI had been on the trail of the Kimeses, who were suspected in a series of crimes, among them the 1996 disappearance of a banker in the Bahamas, auto theft, arson, insurance fraud and the murder of David Kazdin, an associate who was found shot to death in a trash bin near Los Angeles International Airport on March 14, 1998.
Less than two weeks after Kazdin's murder, Sante and Kenneth Kimes had left Los Angeles in a green Lincoln Town Car they had allegedly stolen from a Utah car dealer, and they eventually surfaced in Florida. That May they hired Jose Antonio Alvarez, 26, a Cuban immigrant who spoke little English, to cook and clean for them in the Wellington, Fla., apartment they were renting. Alvarez found them an odd pair. Sante, he testified, was constantly on the telephone and compulsively jotting notes on pads. (In fact, prosecutors have used her meticulous notes as evidence of the crimes they allege.) He also observed an unusual closeness between mother and son. "At times," he told the jury, "they slept together."
Through acquaintances, the Kimeses learned of Silverman—a former dancer and the widow of a Manhattan real-estate and mortgage broker—who had remodeled her six-story Upper East Side mansion into posh apartments after her mother died in 1985. In May 1998, a woman who prosecutors believe was Sante Kimes phoned one of Silverman's employees, identifying herself as Eva Guerrero, secretary to a Mexican designer named Manny Guerrin, who wanted to rent an apartment.
Then, on June 14, Kenneth appeared at Silverman's townhouse, telling her he was Manny Guerrin and winning her trust by dropping the name of Silverman's longtime butcher Rudy Vaccari—who later testified he didn't know Kimes. Though Kimes didn't immediately show identification or fill out a rental application, Silverman took his cash with the understanding that Kimes would turn over an application soon. But after Kimes moved into apartment 1-B, Silverman grew suspicious of the new tenant, who would hide his face from the building's security cameras and was secretly keeping two other people in his apartment—Sante and Alvarez. He also interrogated maintenance man Melesse about the building. "He always asked questions about the employees," Melesse testified. "How many employees, their schedules."
According to Melesse, when Silverman pressed Kimes to fill out a formal application, he first told her he needed to run it by a lawyer, then backtracked and said he had already submitted it. "That's a lie," Melesse said Silverman replied. That same day, Melesse testified, Silverman, irate and anxious about the tenant, showed him a sketch she had made of Kimes, telling Melesse, "This is for evidence."
Silverman's suspicions were well-founded, according to prosecutors, who say the pair were busily scheming to obtain information about Silverman in order to transfer the deed for her mansion to a shell corporation they controlled. Evidence includes Sante Kimes's exhaustive notebooks, one of which includes a checklist containing such jottings as "Get her social security number," "Who are her friends?" and "Get her signature some way." The Kimeses also tapped Silverman's phones, prosecutors say, and on one tape, Sante pretended to be a representative of a Las Vegas casino offer-Silverman a free trip on the condition she provide her social security or driver's, license number. "Irene Silverman didn't drive," Fernandez told the jury, "and being the sharp lady that she was, she didn't give up her social security number."
Silverman became so incensed with the new tenant that when she dined on the night of July 4 with two of her closest friends, she told her companions she planned to evict Kimes. She never got the chance. The next morning, Silverman buzzed the only employee staying in the house that weekend, Aracelis Rivera, to do some laundry and take her boxer Georgie to the roof for some exercise. Rivera picked up the laundry and the dog. But when she checked later in the day, Silverman didn't answer the phone and her door was locked. That afternoon, Rivera talked to another employee, who alerted police.
As it happened, the Kimeses had contacted a former associate, Stanley Patterson, 55, and asked him to fly in from Las Vegas, telling him they wanted him to manage the building. But Patterson—who had previously agreed to cooperate to avoid prosecution on charges that he sold guns to the Kimeses—alerted police, who were looking for the Kimeses in connection with the Kazdin murder in Los Angeles. When Patterson arrived on July 5 and went to meet the Kimeses at a Manhattan hotel, police were waiting and arrested the pair—later finding, among their possessions, guns, bullets and a date-rape drug, flunitrazepam. Two days afterward, New York police and the FBI realized that the Kenneth Kimes they had in custody was the Manny Guerrin who was wanted in the disappearance of Irene Silverman.
In the months leading up to their February trial, the Kimeses have maintained their innocence. "We're not drifters or grifters," Sante Kimes told 60 Minutes last September. "We're just a mother and son." Though attorneys for the Kimeses point to a dearth of physical evidence—"No blood, no hair, no fiber, no DNA, no nails, nothing," said Hardy, one of their lawyers, dismissively—prosecutors expect to call some 125 witnesses to bolster their case, and the circumstantial evidence is formidable. Though Alvarez, the Kimeses' onetime employee, told a rapt courtroom that on the drive from Florida, Kenneth Kimes stopped to show him a grassy field somewhere in New Jersey that he said was "a perfect place to dump a body," prosecutor Fernandez told jurors that police had searched several locations in vain.
As for Mengistu Melesse, the maintenance man, he can't shake the memory of his last day with Silverman. About to leave town on vacation, he testified, he told her he didn't like Kimes and reported she was hoping to have him evicted. "She said she was going to consult with someone," Melesse said on the stand. "May God bless her soul, I didn't see her after that."
Sharon Cotliar in New York City