By William Plummer
May 07, 2001 12:00 PM

One morning in the early ’70s, Kent Walker, then around 8 years old, was sitting in a car outside his Newport Beach, Calif., house when his mother turned to him with a look of panic. “Kent,” he remembers her saying, “I need you to pick up something Mom forgot.” After fetching a folder from his mother’s bedroom, the boy was skipping down the front steps when an explosion knocked him flat. As the house burst into flames, he jumped into the car and his mother peeled off without a word.

Walker, now 38, never learned what the folder contained, though he suspects it was related to the insurance scam that likely prompted his mother’s act of arson. Con artist Sante Kimes wanted Kent and, later, his half brother Kenny to follow in her footsteps, even if it meant risking their necks. The results of her tutelage made headlines in May 2000 when Sante, now 67, and Kenny, 26, were found guilty of murdering Manhattan philanthropist Irene Silverman, 82. The Kimeses, who had schemed to bilk Silverman out of her $7.7 million townhouse, were both given multiple life sentences.

By then, Sante’s other son had found a new life. Walker runs a vacuum-cleaner business in San Diego, where he lives with his wife, Lynn, 35, and their children Kristina, 16, Carson, 8, and Brandy, 6. But in his new memoir, Son of a Grifter: The Twisted Tale of Sante and Kenny Kimes, the Most Notorious Con Artists in America, he reveals how narrowly he escaped his brother’s fate. Even now, he remains ambivalent about the woman New York State Supreme Court Judge Rena K. Uviller termed a “sociopath” of “unremitting malevolence.” Says Walker: “There was absolutely no one who was easier to love than Sante Kimes. And no one was easier to hate. She was a walking contradiction.”

Walker—whose father, retired Carson City, Nev., contractor Ed Walker, 65, was married to Sante from 1957 to 1967—was drawn deep into his mother’s contradictions as a boy. In his book, he tells of becoming her accomplice in crimes ranging from shoplifting to car theft. On one occasion, Walker writes, his mother fled a Palm Springs, Calif., dress shop followed by the store manager, who had seen her swipe something. Hearing sirens approaching, Sante “balled her fist and hit me as hard as she could in the mouth.” When the police arrived, she accused the manager of hitting Kent. As the cops handcuffed the woman, Sante drove the boy to a doctor for stitches.

Yet Walker says his mother loved him fiercely. She threw him elaborate birthday parties with ponies and clowns; once, after a bully beat Kent up, she whipped the kid’s father with a garden hose. It wasn’t until he was reported to the police at age 12 for stealing a surfboard that Walker decided Sante’s criminal ways were not for him. The experience, he says, “scared the tar out of me.”

Kenny, born 12 years after Kent, wasn’t so lucky. His father, Ken Kimes, a multimillionaire developer, loved Sante madly, says Walker, and grew addicted to the thrill of playing her con games. The Kimeses moved from Palm Springs to Newport Beach to Hawaii to Vegas to the Bahamas, always a step ahead of the law. Then, in 1986, Sante was jailed for enslaving the Mexican girls she used as unpaid maids. Kenny was 14 in 1989 when his mother was released, and she promptly made him a full partner in her schemes.

After Ken Sr. died in 1994, mother and son went into overdrive. Where once their houses mysteriously burned down, now associates turned up dead or missing. “Kenny didn’t have a chance,” says Walker. “In the end, he bought into Mom’s delusion. She just broke his spirit.”

Walker, however, broke with his mother for good in 1997. For years, the controlling Sante had resented her older son’s wife. “It’s like I was fighting some evil ex-girlfriend over Kent,” says Lynn. The rivalry boiled over one night outside a Vegas restaurant, when Sante made a nasty remark and Walker found his hands around her throat. That did it.

It was almost a year later that he saw his mother’s picture in a newspaper story about the disappearance of Irene Silverman. “No one was more surprised than me,” he says, though he admits to having always known “in the back of my mind that she is capable of anything.” Indeed, Walker was afraid Sante and Kenny might go free and come after him. “I’m the only witness that’s been around for 38 years,” he explains.

In the near future, Sante and Kenny will be tried in California for another murder, that of L.A. businessman David Kazdin. Walker hopes Kenny won’t wind up with a death sentence. Of his mother, he says, execution “might put her out of her misery.” As for himself, he had hoped that writing his memoir would help him cope with his memories. It hasn’t, though. Growing up with the Kimeses was “like walking through a wall of glue,” says Walker. “You can’t get it off you.”

William Plummer

Leslie Berestein in San Diego