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How A Mother-Son Duo Killed A Wealthy NYC Socialite Whose Body Has Never Been Found
Sante and Kenny Kimes were arrested in New York on charges stemming from an arson and fraud case in Utah, so why were they in possession of items belonging to missing woman Irene Silverman?
The 1998 disappearance of an 82-year-old socialite sent investigators looking into a host of people within her inner circle. But good policework led them to a mother-and-son pair of grifters who almost got away with not one, but two grisly murders.
Former Radio City Music Hall Rockette Irene Silverman led a charmed life in her Upper East Side, Manhattan, townhouse. Having married her late husband, multimillionaire Samuel Silverman, in 1941, Irene frequently rubbed elbows with A-list actors and politicians. Upon the passing of her husband, she began leasing converted apartments out of her home to some high-profile individuals, including actor Daniel Day-Lewis and singer Chaka Khan.
“Irene liked to throw elaborate parties,” NYPD 19th Precinct Detective Thomas Hovagim told "," airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen. “She loved having interesting people come, affluent people come. She was a partier. I’d love to hang out with Irene Silverman; I wish I was invited to one of her parties.”
Part of Irene’s wealthy lifestyle included a staff of personal assistants and housekeepers. On July 5, 1998, one employee said she last saw Irene, who had no children, at around 11:45 a.m. when Irene requested that she walk the dog and run some errands – her last known sighting. Later that day, the employee – believing Irene was in her bedroom for an afternoon nap – answered a phone call, telling the caller Irene was asleep.
When Irene hadn’t come from her bedroom shortly before 5:00 p.m., the staffer went in, finding the bedroom in disarray — but no Irene. Her passport, jewelry, and $10,000 cash were missing.
Irene’s disappearance soon garnered widescale publicity, and a team of about 50 investigators, including NYPD 19th Precinct Inspector-in-Charge Joe Reznick, began questioning Irene’s hired help.
“They were people Irene had employed over the years,” said Reznick. “They were concerned for her, so they gave us a lot of details, hoping that that would help us figure out what happened.”
Early suspicions fell on one of Irene’s assistants, Menji Mengistu, who boarded a flight to Atlanta just after Irene vanished.
“A fella like Menji becomes interesting because we learned that he had knowledge of Irene Silverman’s financial records,” said Reznick. “He had access to some of them.”
As investigators looked to speak to Menji, their searches continued in New York City. However, detectives took notice of a sketch of a male inside one of Irene’s notebooks.
Those close to Irene said the composite was that of one of Irene’s tenants, Manny Guerrin, who lived in apartment 1B. Irene was allegedly wary of Guerrin, who’d moved into Irene’s townhouse with $6,000 upfront about three weeks before she disappeared. "There was just something about him that gave her an ill feeling," according to Reznick.
House staff told investigators that Irene had multiple cameras stationed around the residence and that Guerrin seemed to elude them, sometimes walking suspiciously against the walls when walking around the building. Others said Irene would see him standing on the other side of her door and looking through the peephole to watch her.
During Irene’s Fourth of July party – just one day before her disappearance – Irene told one of her assistants that she planned on serving Guerrin with an eviction notice.
On July 6, 1998, police finally caught up with Menji Mengistu, who returned to New York and cooperated with the investigation, putting him at the bottom of the detectives’ suspect list. That same day, officers also obtained a search warrant to enter Guerrin’s apartment and found Guerrin’s bed had been stripped. Black trash bags and discarded rolls of used duct tape were also found inside.
“Now we know what we need to do,” declared Hovagim. “Let’s find him.”
Investigators learned that a woman named “Eve” or “Eva” — purported to be one of Guerrin’s assistants — also lived with Guerrin in apartment 1B. With this information, police held a press conference, publishing a photo of Guerrin and issuing a $10,000 reward in hopes of finding Irene.
“After the press conference, the FBI called us and said, ‘Listen, you better get down here; we think we have something that you’re looking for,’” said Hovagim.
Federal agents had just arrested a man, Kenny Kimes, and his mother, Sante Kimes, who were wanted in Utah for an arson and insurance fraud case. Upon their capture, they found Kenny with an ID card and American Express card belonging to Irene Silverman and Sante in possession of $10,000 cash, the same amount missing from Irene’s bedroom.
But what connected the Kimeses to Irene? As it turned out, Kenny and Sante were actually the tenants in Irene’s apartment 1B, just living under false names.
Both denied doing anything to Irene, who was still a missing person. When asked about the items found on their person – including a set of Irene’s keys – both pretended not to know what investigators were talking about.
Police looked into Sante’s background, learning she married into wealth in the 1970s. She and her husband, a late hotel developer, had homes in Las Vegas and Hawaii, and in 1975, they had Kenny, who was raised living in the lap of luxury.
Sante inherited millions when her husband passed away, but she still led a life of crime. Prior to her New York City arrest for the Utah charges, she had 12 arrests under her belt and a three-year prison stint for kidnapping a maid in Hawaii.
But that wasn’t all.
“We found out they were both wanted in a homicide in L.A. for a man named David Kazdin,” according to Det. Hovagim. “David Kazdin was actually a business associate with Sante and Kenneth Kimes. They were involved in some real estate fraud, and he wanted out.”
Unbeknownst to Kazdin, a loan greater than $200,000 was taken out against his property. Then, on March 14, 1998, he was found shot to death in a dumpster at the LAX airport, according to Reznick.
With the mother and son in federal custody, NYPD detectives knew they had to work fast before the suspects could be extradited to Los Angeles, which meant finding Irene Silverman’s body.
On July 10, 1998 – five days after Irene vanished – detectives looked at the evidence found on the Kimeses’ person upon their arrest, noting a parking stub addressed to a garage in Midtown, Manhattan. That was where detectives found their Lincoln town car, which would prove “instrumental” in the case, according to Reznick.
Inside, detectives found a 9mm handgun, a stun gun box, disposable gloves, $22,000 cash, syringes, a large duffel bag, and a mason jar filled with what would prove to be Rohypnol, often referred to as "roofies" or the “date rape drug.”
Still, there was no sign of Irene.
Her high-profile case received only more attention when Sante, while still incarcerated, began her own media campaign in an attempt to prove her innocence, coupled with hiring some of New York’s most prominent attorneys. Sante claimed she was framed by the NYPD.
“Sante was doing press conferences out of the prison like she was getting ready to do a stage performance as opposed to defending for her life,” according to lead defense attorney Michael Hardy.
Sante also hired private investigators, which would prove beneficial for detectives. While on a phone call with one of them while still behind bars – a call being recorded by authorities – Sante told the PI to retrieve a bag she’d left at the Plaza Hotel.
Detectives intercepted the pick-up, taking possession of the bag. Inside were a number of disturbing items, including a .22-caliber handgun, wigs, forged social security cards and birth certificates for Sante and Kenny, and 15 notebooks. One notebook contained a list of items found inside Irene’s apartment 1B, while another held the deed to Irene’s home.
It appeared someone had forged the deed.
“The paperwork said that Irene sold her very, very expensive 10 million dollar townhouse for only $300,000,” according to Det. Hovagim.
On Dec. 16, 1998, Sante and Kenny were indicted on 84 criminal counts, including second-degree murder. But with still no sign of Irene’s body, it would be an uphill battle for prosecutors who had to try the purely circumstantial case.
Trial began on Feb. 14, 2000 at the Manhattan Criminal Court, with prosecutors alleging that Sante killed, not because she needed money, but because she was thrill-seeking and compulsive. The defense, alternatively, said prosecutors couldn’t prove murder because there was no physical evidence tying the Kimeses to Irene’s presumed murder.
However, according to former prosecutor Jaime Santanta Jr. for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, “the jury was still in store for the most dramatic testimony yet to come.”
A tape cassette had been found with Sante and Kenny’s Lincoln town car, and it would prove damning: a recorded conversation between Sante and Irene Silverman.
On the tape, Sante pretended to be a representative for the Circus Circus hotel in Las Vegas, claiming Irene had just won a vacation. Irene would have to provide her social security number to claim her prize.
On May 18, 2000, Sante Kimes was found guilty of 58 criminal counts, including second-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy, forgery, and eavesdropping. Kenny Kimes was also found guilty of the same charges, plus two counts of possession of a forged instrument.
It was a victory for Irene’s longtime friend, Leslie Shanken.
“The jury unanimously voted the two of them were guilty without the evidence of Irene’s body,” said Shanken. “That was the first time in New York City history that it ever happened.”
Sante was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Kenny was sentenced to 125 years before he faced trial in California for the murder of David Kazdin. In that case, he struck a deal with prosecutors: the death penalty would be taken off the table in exchange for Kenny confessing to Kazdin’s murder, as well as the murder of Irene Silverman.
Kenny told the court his mother stun-gunned Irene before he strangled her and put her in the bathtub. He then wrapped Irene in a quilt, duct-taped her, placed her in the trunk of the car, and dumped her body somewhere in New Jersey.
In 2004, Kenny was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Sante denied having a role in Irene’s death. She died while in custody at the age of 79.
“For the first 10 years after she disappeared, I had this fantasy that she was gonna reappear, but I gave it up,” said Shanken. “It would have been wonderful if it had happened. She was a special lady.”
Irene’s body has never been located.