The Lady Vanishes

New York socialite and former chorus girl Irene Silverman thought of the tenants who shared her plush apartment block as friends - until one turned out to be the prince of con men Soon after his arrival, Silverman disappeared. ... Alix Kirsta unravels a Manhattan murder mystery.

Entertaining guests Good night: Irene Silverman (centre) with guests in her fifth-floor salon. She liked to surround herself with interesting, easygoing people.

When news of Irene Silverman's disappearance first hit the New York headlines last July, few of her friends took the report seriously. People such as Silverman don't just vanish from their homes the Sunday morning after hosting a Fourth of July celebration dinner. A wealthy, well-connected widow, surrounded by friends and trusted staff, Silverman seemed decades younger than her 82 years, was fit and in complete possession of her faculties, and lived an active life. What harm could possibly come to her?

For years, she had not left her multi-million-dollar home without being accompanied by a friend or employee. “This wasn't someone like you or me,” says her friend, US publishing executive Bob Jakoubek. “This was a lady from such a protected environment that, of all my friends, I would unhesitatingly say she would be the last person to come to harm. I just did not believe it.”

Speculation over her disappearance grew among the residents and traders of her exclusive Upper East Side neighbourhood. The 19th-century Silverman house at 20 East 65th Street, near Madison Avenue, is a landmark. With its imposing, carved-stone facade, heavy, wrought-iron door and impenetrable security, the house conveys the grandeur of a vanishing age. A home such as this would be the ultimate bastion against the city's dangers and unwelcome intrusions. Or that was how it seemed until Independence Day weekend 1998.

Prominent

Many New Yorkers either know, or know of, the woman whose sometimes outré lifestyle made her one of the more prominent personalities in this affluent area. Stories about this latter-day Auntie Maine had made the rounds for decades. And most of them were true - like the chilled half bottles of Dom Pérignon that she always carried in her bag, ready to share anywhere with friends; the Renoir (or was it a fake?) that hung in her bathroom; her elegant Paris flat, adjoining the Théatre Louis Jouvet, where through the drawing-room wall you could clearly hear the actors speaking their lines.

Then there was Irene's determination, at the age of 59 and despite her minimal early schooling, to become a student at Columbia University, where she excelled, and treated her classmates to afternoon teas or fine French cheeses and wine. Her joie de vivre led to extravagant gestures that sometimes verged on the outrageous, as one of her teachers, James Shenton, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University, soon discovered. At a reception given in his honour, when Shenton received the prestigious John Jay Award, he was given a standing ovation led by an ermine-swathed Irene Silverman and 10 handsome musclemen rented as her “escorts” for the evening.

It was what a still-bemused Shenton calls “this raunchy quality” that made Irene's hackles rise at being labelled a “wealthy socialite”, with its connotations of idle, bored Upper East Side matrons who lunch. “Lots of people think I'm very rich,” she used to tell friends, “and I am. But I have always worked - and look at where I began. I'm a tough broad, a child of the Depression. I had to be self-supporting from the age of 16.”

Her rise from struggling chorus girl to millionairess might have come straight from a Broadway show. Born Irene Zambelli in New Orleans, the daughter of an Italian fishmonger and a Greek seamstress, as a child she accompanied her father when he went drinking in the jazz bars and whorehouses in the French Quarter. In that louche environment, she soon became street-smart, developing an unerring nose for trouble. Years later, she confessed, “It was clear to me even then that I could always make a living as a stylish but tough madam.”

But her mother had other ideas. Young Irene was sent to ballet classes in New Orleans, and in 1933, after her father abandoned the family, Mrs Zambelli took Irene to New York, where she studied with the celebrated Russian choreographer Michel Fokine. Unable to afford his fees, Mrs Zambelli sewed costumes for the Fokines in return for Irene's classes. Soon after, Irene joined the only ballet company in the city at the time, which shared the bill with the “Rockette” showgirls at Radio City Music Hall, whose artistic director was Vincente Minelli. Irene's weekly pay was $36 for four performances daily, 365 days a year, which, combined with her mother's $28 salary as a seamstress, barely covered their food and the rent of their tenement apartment beneath a brothel in Hell's Kitchen.

Opening Doors

Despite their poverty, however, Irene had no qualms about turning down an offer from another Russian supremo, Leonide Massine, to join his Ballets de Monte Carlo in Europe when, with characteristic meanness, he refused to pay her mother's fare to accompany the tour. In any case, being a ballet dancer in New York in the 30s was seen by Irene as sufficiently glamorous and classy to open other doors. She was wooed by numerous wealthy admirers, including the Arctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, until, in 1941, she married Sam Silverman, an urbane banker who later became one of America's most successful mortgage brokers.

Entertaining the rich and influential, and furnishing and running her new homes in Paris, Athens, Honolulu and Manhattan, was a role Irene carried off with regal style and confidence. Sam provided the security she craved. But when he died in 1980, leaving her his fortune, she sought greater informality, saw less of the couple's starchy financier friends and cultivated a more bohemian circle. Her dinner and lunch parties at the 65th Street house were just as likely to be held in the basement kitchen as in the formal dining room. There, you might have found one of the Rothschilds, or a director of the Rockefeller Foundation or Metropolitan Museum, mixing with fashion designers, Greek Orthodox priests, her butcher or carpenter, and a sprinkling of academics, writers, even a British aristocrat or two. Sam Silverman may have taken the girl out of showbusiness, but not showbusiness out of the girl. “These gatherings were a colourful improvised, theatre, over which Irene presided, revelling in the intrigue and drama of it all,” remembers George Frangos, dean at the State University of New York Health Centre.

The house was a palatial setting for such events, with its first-floor ballroom, a replica of Le Petit Trianon Music Room at Versailles, its rooms decorated with marble, oak panelling and gilt, and overflowing with works of art and theatrical memorabilia. On the roof, a lush garden was illuminated at night. Here, she created a few luxury apartments and ran what she described as ”something between a posh hotel and a grand boarding house”. With average monthly rents of $6,000, double that for the grandest suites, this was no ordinary tourist B&B: tenants included media tycoons and businessmen, showbusiness stars such as Chaka Khan, Daniel Day Lewis, actress Brooke Hayward and her husband, the band leader Peter Duchin, the Marquess and Marchioness of Northampton. Many lived there for years and became Irene's friends.

Parisian Salon

Silverman's house Silverman's house, with its ballroom, luxury apartments and lush roof garden was “a cross between a posh hotel and a grand boarding house.”

She insisted that her tenants had to be interesting and easy to get on with, her ambition being to recreate the atmosphere of an 18th-century Parisian salon. Visiting academic held seminars and lectures on art and history. She often wined and dined her regulars and gave them expensive gifts. They might find Silverman's antique silver service and a bottle of champagne left in their dining room when she knew they were holding a special party. One, who had embarked on a romance with a new girlfriend, came home one day to find his old bed replaced with a larger one. The venture flourished thanks to Silverman's irrepressible humour and way of enthralling guests with her stories. The one mistake you didn't make, says Duchin, was to underestimate her acute business sense. “She conducted the business with meticulous attention to detail. Tenancy renewals and rent increases were conducted through lawyers. She thought that, in her universe, which was this house, she should know everything that went on, and she did.”

On Sunday, June 14, last year, a handsome young man called Manny Guerrin, impeccably dressed, charming and well-spoken, with an engaging smile, rang the bell at 20 East 65th Street and asked to see Irene Silverman. There seemed no reason to turn him away. He said he was a businessman from Palm Beach and wanted to rent a large apartment. He said her name had first been given to him in Florida, by an insurance broker who used to know her, and more recently by Paul Vaccari. Vaccari and his family, owner of a Manhattan butcher's, were longstanding friends, so Guerrin must be respectable, thought Irene.

Unfortunately, he had no references or proof of identity to hand, something she insisted on and always followed up with scrupulous care. Although Guerrin assured her that he would produce references for her the next day, she hesitated. Then he made the magic move: from his wallet he produced $6,000, one month's rental for the ground-floor apartment. Irene liked cash transactions - it was like payday in the old days at Radio City - and she showed him into apartment 1B at the back of the house, and handed over the keys.

Almost immediately, however, she began to have doubts. Guerrin was monosyllabic and distant, avoiding her glance as they passed in the hall. He refused to let her maids clean the apartment or water the plants on the patio. To Irene, who was accustomed to an easy conviviality with her tenants, this was anathema. Suspicious-looking visitors began to arrive. According to the staff, a blowsy-looking, middle-aged woman, whom Guerrin always seemed to shield from the security camera when letting her into the house, spent long periods there.

Irene was disconcerted by the shifty way he averted his face from the camera at the front door, sidling in and creeping past her office and the small bedroom that she sometimes used adjoining his apartment. Irene, who was an accomplished draughtswoman, even sketched his portrait, with arrows pointing to parts of his body and in her large, flamboyant handwriting and customary bright felt-tipped pen scribbled comments about his slight limp and crooked nose, perhaps broken in a fight.

Lurking Furtively

Guerrin continued to find excuses for not producing references, assuring Irene that he would drop them into her estate agent but failing to do so. After a week, Irene confronted him, saying she wanted him to leave. She instructed her accountant and business manager, Jeff Feig, to serve Guerrin with an eviction notice before his month's lease expired.

Her staff, too, were also becoming suspicious of the newcomer. They caught Guerrin lurking furtively near Irene's office while she was talking on the phone or to visitors, and found dirty footprints in the hall close to the wall outside her office. Her Ethiopian manservant, Menji Mengistu, who, like many of her long-term employees, was regarded as “family”, expressed his unease to Irene's close friends, Bob Jakoubek and James Shenton.

“Menji became suspicious when Guerrin started getting pally and tried to turn him against Irene,” recalls Shenton. “He got Menji to show him around the rest of the house, saying he was looking for a larger apartment. Clearly dazzled by the opulence, he asked why they were all silly enough to go on working there, and said that she was just a wealthy exploiter who didn't care about their future, and that they would never end up with money or security. He suggested they come and work for him instead.”

Jakoubek also received calls from Menji and Valerie, one of the maids, who had heard Irene and Guerrin arguing loudly about the missing references. “Valerie and Menji both warned her not to trust him,” says Jakoubek. “Down in the kitchen, Menji had drawn an Ethiopian cruciform symbol on top of the fridge, as if to ward off evil, saying ‘These people mean you no good - they are bad, you should be afraid of them. Pay him back his rent. Call the police.’ Irene's response was that she was an old lady who had survived many dangers and wasn't afraid of anybody.”

The more obvious it became that Guerrin was eavesdropping on her, the more openly Irene denounced him, says Shenton. “She'd say loudly to Menji that Guerrin's next stop would be jail, and gave him the finger when it was obvious that he was looking through the spy hole of his apartment door. She reckoned she was in control and would deal with this difficulty alone, as she had always done in life.”

Although Irene was famously reticent about sharing problems, friends were struck by her uncharacteristic anger and need to talk about her “bad tenant”, though she couldn't put a finger on what he was up to. In a phone call to Janice Herbert, a one-time Broadway dancer, she speculated that Guerrin was involved in drug dealing. And according to Irene's latest protégé, Elva Shkreli, a young Albanian model and fashion designer for whom she had organised a fashion show at the house on Valentine's Night, “Irene said that the man looked like he had just got out of jail. She was convinced that the place was being used as a centre for some large-scale criminal conspiracy, like fraud or forgery. But she wasn't sure what exactly, and wanted proof before calling the police.”

Foundation

The last time Shenton saw Irene was on Saturday, June 27, for lunch at her house. As usual, they talked for hours, and he stayed until evening. “She wanted to discuss the Coby Foundation, a charity she had recently set up in her mother's memory, to promote education and research into needlecraft and other arts associated with fashion,” recalls Shenton. “She was its president and asked me to be a director. There were no other trustees.”

Over 25 years, a close empathy had evolved between Irene and her former professor, an exuberant 74-year-old self-confessed hedonist whose erudition and flair for capturing an audience have made him a legend among Columbia alumni. She respected and trusted him enough to discuss her finances frankly.

Like all of her financial schemes, the Coby Foundation was something she had created, in large part, for her own benefit, to minimise tax payments while retaining control of her affairs. Despite Shenton's role as intermediary between Irene and Columbia University, over the years whenever she made bequests which already consisted of major artworks and her house in Honolulu he had been unable to determine how much of her estate she intended to leave to Columbia. Her relationship with the university dated back to the 60s, when Sam Silverman's close connections with its treasurer and president made him the university's sole broker during the acquisition of a large proportion of its present $7 billion real-estate portfolio.

“Irene expected to live to an advanced, active old age, like her mother,” says Shenton. “She had already changed her mind about leaving her house to Columbia in return for a guaranteed annual income until her death. That would have meant loss of control. She had little loyalty or trust in business dealings. Many of her actions were dictated by poverty. Any financial move had, first of all, to benefit her.”

Irene was unusually cautious that afternoon, says Shenton, insisting that they go up to the roof garden to talk and locking all the doors behind them. “She'd never ever done this, and was obviously nervous of being overheard. When I asked her what was bothering her, she said, ‘I can't tell you what's wrong. I don't want to put you in danger. You'll know more next week.’” Shenton was due to come to lunch again on Thursday, July 2, but she rang to cancel their date. “She seemed unready to talk, so we agreed to meet the following Wednesday.” It was the last time Shenton talked to Irene Silverman.

On the night of July 4, Elva Shkreli and Carol Hanssen, who was writing a biography of Irene, dined with her in the basement kitchen. Ramon Lassales, her caretaker and cook, had prepared Irene's favourite Cajun and Caribbean dishes before leaving for the night. Shkreli, who had developed a close bond with the older woman whom she regarded both as a mother-figure and mentor, was struck by an atmosphere of impending danger that night. “As we were eating,” she says, “Irene suddenly pointed to the closed-circuit monitor. The tenant had come in, turning his face away from the camera. Suddenly, I had a strong sense of evil, which lasted throughout the evening. The conversation kept coming around to this man, and I got the feeling that we were being overheard.” An urge to protect Irene made Shkreli offer to stay the night, but Irene insisted she return home. Both visitors left, reluctantly, at about 12.30am. “My last glance of her was sitting alone, very confidently, at the big kitchen table,” says Shkreli.

Next morning, about 11 am, Irene’s maid, Aricella, saw her employer in dressing-gown and slippers outside her ground-floor office. Silverman asked her to walk her dog in the roof garden and to attend to several other chores. The rest of the staff had the weekend off for the Independence Day holiday. About 4 pm, the house seeming eerily quiet and empty, and unable to find
Silverman anywhere, Aricella became alarmed and called Menji and Jeff Feig. An hour later, with still no sign of her, they called the police.

The New York Police Department swung into action: “She was ‘special category’,” says Inspector Joe Resnick of the 19th precinct, who was put in charge of the case. “That’s anyone under 10 or over 60, which immediately kicks off a big neighbourhood search, a check of all the hospitals, going through the house, setting up temporary headquarters.” Several hours later, Resnick’s team had no leads. Guerrin, too, appeared to have vanished — no-one was at home in apartment 1B. Resnick says, “After nightfall, we began interviewing people who saw her last, contacted police in other areas, including New Jersey. On Monday evening, we had exhausted all initial procedures. By now we knew we had a problem.”

Sharp Eyed

Just how much of a problem emerged within days, when a sharp-eyed New York detective, watching a television report about Silverman’s disappearance, realised that the missing tenant wanted for questioning was a suspect in an unrelated case he was working on. The detective called the 19th precinct and told Resnick their man was already behind bars, having been arrested with his mother on a cheque fraud charge on the night of Silverman’s disappearance. And the man’s name wasn’t Manny Guerrin; it was Kenny Kimes.

Resnick soon found out that the FBI, in tandem with police teams elsewhere in the US, was working on an entirely separate case that would dramatically alter the thrust of his own investigation. Early in 1998, police in California, Nevada, Florida, Hawaii and Utah, as welt as in the Bahamas, had been attempting to trace a middle-aged woman and a man allegedly connected with a tangled web of crimes, including several cases of suspected murder The most serious and recent investigation
followed the discovery in Los Angeles on March 14, 1998 of the body of 63-year-old businessman David Kazdin, who had been shot and dumped in a rubbish container near the airport. Kazdin had discovered that, without his knowledge, a $280,000 loan had heen taken out on his house. Several weeks before his death, the property had burned down in a suspected arson attack and a $100,000 insurance claim had been filed. About the time of Kazdin’s death, police in Florida began looking for a woman who had used a dud cheque to buy a $83,000 mobile home from a Louisiana dealer. In Utah, meanwhile, a dealer reported a bounced cheque for $15,000, given in payment for a car he had sold and delivered to a couple in Los Angeles. The couple suspected of being behind each of these crimes had disappeared.

By May, the FBI had been called in to help track down the missing couple. Their investigations eventually led to a small-time criminal, Stan Patterson, who lived in a caravan park in Las Vegas. He had done odd jobs for the Kimeses over the years, including selling them firearms, for which he was now taken into custody. It didn’t take much to persuade him to co-operate with the FBI in return for leniency. When Patterson received a call on July 3 from the couple, asking him to come to New York to discuss a job, he agreed. Then he phoned the FBI, who briefed him on setting up the meeting. This was how 64-year-old Sante Kimes and her 24-year-old son, Kenny Kimes strolling with Patterson up to the Hilton Hotel on 6th Avenue about 8 pm on July 5, were arrested by the FBI’s fugitive squad for the Utah cheque fraud.

When the NYPD started piecing together the files and court records from seven other States, it became evident that they had nailed two of America’s most wanted and dangerous criminals, Many of Sante Kimes’s offences, going back decades, were on public record and included 16 charges of shoplifting; theft, forgery, fraud, larceny; using stolen or forged credit cards, false social security numbers, fake passports; arson; enslavement and assault. In 1980, she had been arrested at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington for stealing a £6,500 mink coat from the bar. In 1986, after a sensational trial in a Las Vegas Federal court, she received a five-year prison sentence for holding at least eight young illegal Mexican immigrant maids against their will while she terrorised and assaulted them at her homes in La Jolla, Las Vegas and Honolulu. Assistant US Attorney Karla Dobinski described her as “greedy, cunning and cruel”.

Incredibly, Kimes was no trailer trash or inner-city fugitive, but the apparently well-off widow of a self-made, if crooked, millionaire businessman, Kenneth Kimes, owner of a construction company and a chain of motels in California. By the early
‘90s, legal action was being taken against her by a number of companies in connection with false claims and debts. Court records in New Jersey, Nevada and California show at least six civil judgments against her, amounting to more than $1 million. However, with her capacity for slithering out of the path of creditors and police, moving from one town or State to another, and impersonating other people, she had avoided paying a cent. One of her former lawyers, who had unsuccessfully sued her for $12,000 in legal fees, has produced evidence of 21 aliases she used between 1979 and 1981 alone.

Kimes’s schemes became more ruthless and deadly. After her husband’s death in 1994, she recruited their 21-year-old son, Kenny, who already had an assault charge against his name, as her partner. In 1996, Sante Kimes was wanted for questioning about the disappearance of Elmer Holmgren, a former insurance company employee believed to have helped her carry out an arson attack on her house in Hawaii. At the same time, both the Kimeses were being sought by Bahamas police as suspects in the disappearance of Syed Bilal Ahmed, a Bahraini banker and vice-president of the First Cayman Bank — after telling relatives he was going to discuss business over dinner with the Kimeses, Bilal Ahmed was never seen again. By the time police learned of the meeting, the Kineses had left the Bahamas for LA, where they had business to conclude with their partner, David Kardin.

By late Monday, July 6, The NYPD had set up a roadblock and cordoned off the pavement in front of Silverman’s house. Nearby Central Park and adjacent streets were swarming with police, while press and TV crews converged on the area. Resnick’s men admitted they had so far drawn a blank and, by now fearing the worst, issued a identikit picture of Manny Guerrin. Loudspeaker vans blared announcements requesting eyewitness information. It wasn’t until later that night, when Resnick’s men and the FBI and NYPD task force holding the Kimeses made contact, that the pieces began slotting together with terrifying simplicity.

Arrested

When arrested, Kenny Kimes, aka Manny Guerrin, and his mother were carrying Silverman’s keys, several of her passports, her chequebook, social security card, other identity papers and even her old payroll stubs from Radio City Music Hall. Two days later, in their car parked in a garage on East 65th Street, police found several automatic pistols and boxes of ammunition, 10 wigs in different styles and colours, documents containing names of about 10 alleged business associates, including Holmgren, Kazdin and Bilal Ahmed, blank social security cards, power-of-attomey forms, real estate transfer forms and pieces of paper on which someone had been practising Silverman’s signature. There was also a set of handcuffs, an empty box for a stun gun, two syringes, a phial of the sedative flunitrazepam, a knife, pepper spray and $30,000 in cash.

Eight microcassette tapes found in the car contained recordings of Silverman’s phone conversations, including one with a woman claiming to be the manager of a Las Vegas casino, trying to persuade her to reveal her social security number on the pretext that she had won a holiday. Days later in a large gym bag which Sante Kimes had checked in as luggage at the Plaza Hotel on the evening of July 5, police found a notarised deed bearing Silverman’s forged signature and transferring ownership of her house to Atlantis Group Ltd, a corporation apparently set up by the Kimeses.

There were papers and notebooks containing details of her bank accounts and business affairs, and information as to which servant would be on duty the day she disappeared. There was also a list of questions for lawyers about the transfer of Manhattan property, a calculation of the tax payable for such a transfer and a schedule of the aliases Sante Kimes had used in making these inquiries, together with directions for Patterson, the FBI informer, to fire employees, evict tenants and change the locks when he took over the management of 20 East 65th Street.

Missing Body

So the picture was complete. Or nearly — the only thing missing was Silverman’s body or any clues as to what may have happened to her. Convinced her murder was the inevitable final stage in the plot to acquire her home, NYPD Commissioner Howard Safim, describing the Kineses as “very competent, very violent, very cold criminals: the queen and prince of con artists”, launched one of the largest murder investigations in the city’s recent history.

The search for the body continues to this day. But despite mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s $11,000 reward offer and an exhaustive trawl through parks, rubbish dumps and rivers throughout New York and New Jersey, Resnick’s team is no closer to finding one. Traces of blood, hair, saliva and other samples taken from the Kimes’s car and the house did not match Silverman’s. Investigators called to a waste recycling centre in the Bronx established that neither the human leg nor the arm found there were Silverman’s. A suspicious package retrieved from New Jersey’s vast Meadowlands swampland near Jersey City, where police still believe her body lies, contained only animal remains.

Accused Pair The accused pair Kenny Kimes and his mother, Sante. He was Silverman's suspicious and difficult tenant, “Manny Guerrin”.

The consensus among Resnick’s team is that Silverman was attacked between 11.30 am and 12.30 pm in the hall outside her office, suffocated, wrapped in a plastic sheet, bundled into a car in the deserted street and dumped, probably in the swamp. “One of our informants, who accompanied the Kineses from Florida to New York in mid-June, mentioned a comment they made when passing the area about this being a good place to dispose of a body,” says Resnick. like everyone else involved in the case, he has no hope of finding her alive. “The forged document selling her house is very hard evidence. If you’re looking for a motive for murder, that’s your answer right there. How could you take the house without getting rid of the owner?”

In December 1998, The Kineses, who had been held in custody since their arrest, were indicted on 84 charges, including the murder of Irene Silverman. What is being trumpeted as “the trial of the millennium” is due to begin this month and will probably continue until April. Although it won’t be televised, the preceding freak show, including media interviews with the Kineses —who have pleaded not guilty to all charges — has set the scene for what is likely to be the most sensational and widely covered trial since that of O.J. Simpson. Whatever the outcome, it is a story that is set to run indefinitely, as authorities in other States -attempt to tighten their own net around the couple.

As a passionate opponent of the death penalty Manhattan’s district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, has chosen to charge the Kimeses with second-degree murder and secure a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. However Los Angeles prosecutors have demanded the couple’s extradition, whatever the verdict in the New York case, to stand trial for the first-degree murder of Kazdin, for which both were formally charged in September — a charge that carries the death penalty.

What makes the Silverman case a real cliffhanger is that, unless things change very soon, it is that rarity: a murder without a corpse. Murder convictions have been won in the US even where no body has been found, although cases are few and far between, but legal experts believe this case will really tax the prosecutors’ skills. This is despite the mountain of other damning evidence, including Grand Jury testimony from two notaries called in to Silverman’s house to countersign the forged transfer of the property where Sante Kimes impersonated Silverman, and from a homeless man and a restaurant employee whom the Kimeses had approached about working as caretakers in the house.

According to the indictment, the plan to steal Silverman’s home began early in May, when “Eva Guerrero” made several calls to one of Silverman’s employees, ostensibly to rent an apartment for her “boss”, Manny Guerrin. Long before he moved in, they had obtained information about the house, its owner and its mortgage status, and had obtained a copy of the property deeds.

Circumstantial Evidence

But without any forensic evidence connecting the Kimeses to the alleged murder, the lead defence lawyer, Mel Sachs, is confident the pair will be acquitted. “It is a case based on speculation and misinformation,” he says. “There isn’t a body, there are no eyewitness accounts, no fingerprints, no hair, blood or fibres to link them to her. The evidence is entirely circumstantial.” There is an unmistakable element of Broadway razzle-dazzle to Sachs as he holds court in his chrome-and-mirror Art Deco office, complete with 1940s movie posters, inveighing against “this outrageous character assassination, this tragedy of a loving, caring mother and her doting son, already convicted before going into a court of law”. With his beaming geniality, snappy three-piece suit, bow tie and watch chain, and his talent for conjuring tricks (he once represented David Copperfield), Sachs has the raffish bonhomie of a theatrical producer. “There are other individuals who would have benefited from Mrs Silverman’s death,” he says darkly, “people who had an interest in the property who were beneficiaries in the will. There was dissension between her and some business associates. She’d made enemies. The prosecutors should be investigating them; we are.”

Silverman left her entire estate, thought to be worth up to $20 million, to the Coby Foundation, whose directors were James Shenton and psychologist Dr Lesley Shanken, neither of whom had any idea the foundation was the sole beneficiary and who say the idea that either should have engineered their friend’s murder is absurd. Indeed, Shenton speculates that he may have bad a lucky escape: “Can you imagine if they succeeded in getting the house, then tried to take over Coby and found I was the only obstacle? I’d have been the next in line.”

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the case is that no-one knows how the Kimeses, in their shadowy netherworld, chose Silverman as their victim. Their paths had never crossed, nor it seems, had they any concept of the complex fine-tuning of her business affairs. Although a private detective hired by one of Silverman's friends to trace her body is convinced there was a “third man” — perhaps a disaffected employee or acquaintance — who pointed the Kimeses in the direction of East 65th Street and may even have had a hand in the crime, she has failed to come up with any proof.

All that is certain is the grotesqueness of their plan was exceeded only by their stupidity in believing it could succeed. “How could they be such fools?” asks Shenton. “What did they think they would do once they got possession? They clearly thought they were dealing with an old dithering fool, instead of someone so financially switched on and well known in New York.” Until the trial is over, and maybe not even then, Shenton and others, can only guess at the details of Silverman’s final moments,
while enduring the Kimes’s protestations about being victims of a frame-up, oozing lies about their “friendship” with Silverman.

Eighteen months later there is still intense anger and bewilderment at how such a tragedy happened; above all, how it could have happened to Irene Silverman. Her ex-tenant, Peter Duchin, finds it baffling that Kenny Kimes ever got past the front door. Some ask why Silverman did not alert police earlier. Shkreli says that his guilt over not having stayed with Silverman on that last night has almost destroyed her.

All are classic responses to horrific crime — a basic need to explain incomprehensible acts of evil in order to come to terms with them: the implication being that the evil could have been identified or foreseen, and so avoided. Which, sadly, isn’t likely in this case: “Irene’s fatal flaw was her utter confidence at being in control and her sense of security in that house, where she felt safer than anywhere in the world,” says Shenton. “If only she’d told me what was bothering her, I’d have known what to do.” But would he? And was her confidence so misplaced? Probably not. As she told friends, she knew something crooked was going on. But how could she ever imagine that it involved stealing her house and taking her life?

This article in its entirety is copyright © 1999 Alix Kirsta.
First published in the Guardian, 20 November 1999.

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