“Do it, Kenny! Kill her! Do it, Kenny!”
I look up to see a slight foam in the corner of my mother’s mouth as she shouts these words at me. Funny the small details we focus on at the strangest times. Electric shocks from the Taser Mom fires into Irene bring me back to the task at hand. My hands are around Irene’s neck, and I can feel the electricity pulsing through this tiny woman as I strangle the life out of her. I am terrified, but I keep my hands around her throat. I don’t want to do this. I want to run. I want to jump on a plane and get as far away from New York City as I can, but I stay committed. Focus, Kenny. Remember. Family is everything. Always.
There is a thick tension forcing all the space out of the room as I feel her life slowly leaving. Then it is over, and there is silence. Irene lays dead in my hands. She is so fragile. While my hands commit murder, my mind wonders if my father is with us now — if he will meet Irene on the other side and hang his head with shame.
Mom tells me to put Irene’s body in the bathtub, and I do as I am told. We are in a desperate race against time, and I find comfort in familiar feelings of chaos and panic. I’ve been trained since childhood to shut it all out, push it away and react only to each moment as it comes. We have a plan, and it needs to be executed.
We put on gloves and bring bags. Irene owns the mansion we are standing in. After the death of her husband, she converted it to apartments, then made the costly mistake of renting me a unit across from her own. Her key ring has like a hundred keys on it. It takes forever to find the right one for her front door. When we are finally inside, my mother begins rifling through everything in Irene’s apartment. She looks for identity information, her Social Security card and passport: all the things needed for my mother to become the owner of the building. First, we took her life. Now Mom will take her identity and assume ownership of Irene’s multimillion-dollar Manhattan mansion.
Once we find everything, we return to my apartment across the hall. The body remains where we left it. It does not escape my mind that she has already become an it. My mother directs me to put the body in a duffle bag. Her tone reminds me of how she spoke to me as a child: “Kenny, get to bed. Kenny, brush your teeth. Kenny, put the body in the fucking duffle bag.” I do as I am told. The obedient son. Always.
Only after I maneuver around the numerous surveillance cameras to put the duffle bag with the body into the trunk of our stolen car do I exhale, and then only for a moment. I go back inside and find Mom running around the crime scene scrubbing it clean with rubbing alcohol. When she is satisfied that it is spotless, we finally leave. Once outside, in the fresh air, we wander the city. With Irene’s body secure in the trunk of the car, we head over to Trump Tower in Midtown to get something to eat at Trump Café.
We sit at a table drinking coffee and eating pastries. How fucked up is this? A woman was murdered by the same hands now wrapped around a cup of coffee. I stare out the window and watch an unaware city rush past as if nothing has changed. Can they not sense that something horrible happened a few blocks away? Do they not feel it in the air? When the girl gave me change for the coffee, her hand touched my own. Would she have recoiled if she knew what these hands were capable of?
Finally, my mother breaks the silence by reaching across the table and pushing the hair from my face. She tells me she is proud of me for killing Mrs. Silverman.
“You did good, Kenny,” she says.
* * *
My name is Kenneth Kimes Jr. Throughout the years, I have been known by a variety of names. The press called me a grifter, the Richie Rich Murderer, the Green-Eyed Devil, and half of the crime duo Mommy and Clyde. But before I was those things, I was simply Kenny. I lived a life of privilege and great wealth, but things aren’t always as they appear to the outside world. As a small boy, I would play hide-and-seek with myself, and when I couldn’t find me, I would lay down and take a nap. Money can’t stave off loneliness.
The Bible says, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” I think God must have never met my mother, or he wouldn’t say such a terrible thing.
Although I loved both my parents fiercely, as all children do, even at a young age I also understood that my mother could be frightening. There was a deep melancholy living in our home. It clung to our maids, moving with them from room to room as they dusted, swept and cooked. Being with them made me sad, and I didn’t know why. I was too young to understand that these young women took care of us against their will.
My mother brought the women from Mexico with promises of a better life, telling their families they would be treated as daughters. Once they arrived, Mom held the women without pay, unable to contact their families. They were isolated in a foreign country with no way out, and no one to help them. I heard them crying behind closed doors, and saw the loneliness in their sad, brown eyes as they made me lunch or tucked me in at night, but I couldn’t fix it. I absorbed the secrets hiding in our house but could not identify them — and then, one late afternoon in 1985, the secrets of my family finally blew up when the FBI arrested my mother and father on charges of slavery.
* * *
I am 10.
We sit in the living room watching a sketch comedy show on television. I am in Dad’s lap on the floor, while Mom is behind us on the sofa. Light pours in through the window blinds, slicing our tan shag carpet into strange geometric patterns. It looks like a bunch of little cages.
On the television, a man is making a fruit salad. He starts with an orange, and every time he peels the skin from the flesh, the orange screams. With each strip of peeling, it howls in pain. The screaming won’t stop. Next, the man moves to a banana and an apple. The pieces of fruit beg for their lives, wailing and crying. The camera shows his hand using a knife, then a peeler. It feels as if the torture will never end, and the empathy I feel is unbearable.
My parents laugh so hard they are crying, but the images scare me. I want to know if it is true that fruit can feel pain but feel too stupid to ask such a thing. My dad sees I am upset and tickles my stomach, trying to get me to laugh. He says, “Oh wow! That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!” Like all children, I look to my parents to understand the proper way to act in certain situations. They laugh, so I make myself laugh too. Family comes first. Always.
A loud bang breaks our laughter. Men in blue jackets with guns kick in our front door. They yell for us to get our hands up and lay on the floor. My parents do as they are told, but I don’t understand what is happening. I do my best to listen to the scary men by putting my small hands in the air and scooting my body to a corner of the sofa. They push their guns into the sides of my parents’ faces. One has his boot pressed into my mom’s back. I start to cry and realize that my parents have told the truth. You cannot trust the world outside. Bad people want to harm us.
I look toward the television — I’m not sure why — maybe to distract myself, but the fruit is still being sliced, still screaming. Now my mom joins the horrible noise.
“You son of a bitch!” she shouts. “You motherfuckers! You love doing this in front of my baby, don’t you! Makes you feel like big men!”
I want to cover my ears, but I’m afraid to put my hands down. I’m scared the men will shoot me. If I can just cover my ears, I can stop all the screaming. I want silence, but true silence never comes. Not in my mother’s world, and in time, I will learn, not in mine.
As the years pass, I realize that asking my mother to stop doing anything is pointless. Other people’s feelings have zero effect on her. The only way to experience even a little peace is to constantly agree. “Yes” becomes the magic word — the only thing that can buy temporary silence. Syed Bilal Ahmed needs to die. Yes, mother. David Kazdin needs to die. Yes, mother. Irene Silverman needs to die. Yes, mother.
* * *
After my parents’ arrest on charges of slavery, life changed forever. Years of a lengthy trial, where a few of the maids testified, resulted in Mom being sentenced to five years in prison, while Dad pled to a lesser charge. He admitted that he was aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it. He received probation. The trial was all over the papers. By the time it was over, I was 13 years old and aware that everyone knew our secrets. I was humiliated, but under that, when they carted Mom off to federal prison, I was relieved.
My mother worked in what I call peace deprivation — a constant influx of drama and insanity until you think you might be the crazy one. With Mom gone, Dad and I entered a period of rest. For the first time, I went to school and made friends. I glimpsed normal life and embraced it with everything I had. My father became my whole world. We were happy.
It wasn’t to last.
Dad promised repeatedly he would leave her, but when the time came for her early release, he welcomed her home and the insanity continued as if not even a day had passed. Prison served two purposes for Mom: It taught her to be a better criminal and cemented in her mind that she would do anything to never return. It was as if someone turned up the volume on our lives, making it unbearable.
As soon as I could, I escaped to college, pushing my parents away and trying to carve out a life of my own. In 1994, it all collapsed during a visit home. Wearing a suit on the plane, I hoped to impress my father with my newfound maturity, but it was only Mom at the airport. When I asked about Dad, she told me he had died two months ago.
With my father gone, a part of me died too. The side that valued human life, and cared about right and wrong, shrank to nothing. Life quickly devolved into me blindly following along with my mother’s cons, swindles and murders. She was in a free fall, scrambling from one half-cocked plan to another, in a desperate attempt to rebuild the life my father’s money had once provided. I lived in the gap between life and death. The space of nothingness became my comfort zone. When Syed Bilal Ahmed became suspicious of some shady accounts in the Bahamas, he had to go. When David Kazdin figured out an arson con, mom sent me to kill him. And then there was Irene, whose only crime was to exist as a person my mother could never be. She had to go too.
Thirteen short years after the FBI broke down our door, I was in New York at my own murder trial, listening to a judge describe my mother: “The most diabolical excuse for a human I have ever seen in my courtroom.” The jury foreman read 165 felony counts, each one followed by the judgment of guilty. The judge handed down a sentence of 125 years. I don’t remember much about that day. I just remember being angry: at the world, at my lawyers, at myself. The only person I wasn’t angry at was my mother. At that time, I still felt it was my duty to protect her. Family first. Always.
I still had another murder to answer for, and soon I was extradited to California to face the death penalty for killing David Kazdin. To escape the death penalty, I cut a deal and confessed. My mother would not cooperate, even to save my life. She insisted that we carry on with our lies of innocence, so I testified against her to save us both. After two days of confessions, I went back to my cell and wrote in my journal:
Tattle Tell, Tattle Tell, too bad you’re going straight to hell. I am no longer the son who will do anything for his mother, but I’m still a murderer. Only now I get to live. I am the Narc who escaped the Needle. The Piece of Shit Who Doesn’t Get to Walk the Green Mile.
Just spent the last 10 minutes vomiting. I ratted my mom out. If I didn’t, we would both go to death row. Now we get to live. I feel dead already … God have mercy on us. No one else will.
* * *
In 2014, I made a phone call to a woman named Traci Foust using a contraband cellphone. Traci was a writer (Nowhere Near Normal), whom I had been corresponding with via letters, about telling my story. My mother was dead, the dark cloud of chaos had finally cleared, and my obligation to remain silent was relieved. I no longer had to protect her.
Traci had initially been interested in talking to me, but when my letters became overly flirtations, she told me to “fuck off.” I called her to apologize.
“Hello?” she said.
“Would you be willing to talk to Kenny Kimes?”
“I would be, yes.”
“You’re talking to him.”
That was our beginning.
Traci and I spent the next two years sharing the deepest parts of ourselves through letters, phone calls and visits. As we worked on my story, it soon became our story and over time the heaviness in my heart and soul lifted. I began to smile more, laugh at the ridiculous and most of all look forward to the next day. Although I was in prison, I had never felt so free. I was falling in love, and this spectacular, creative and talented woman loved me back.
I didn’t think anyone would ever love me, and many people would say I don’t deserve it, but with Traci in my life, I finally had the peace I’d longed for since I was a boy. It wouldn’t last. On January 13, 2018, Traci died from complications of the flu and pneumonia. When we spoke on the phone, I begged her to go to the hospital; she sounded so sick. It was the last time I would talk to my love.
I know now what real love feels like and understand what I took from the families and friends of Irene, David and Syed. I hold this feeling to my chest as if it is my most prized possession. The closer I pull it to me, the deeper it cuts to my soul, but I will not let go. I can’t. I took from them the most precious gift. I stole the one thing we can never return.
Prison has not reformed me. The system did not help me seek out absolution. Love did. I learned my morality through writing about my immorality, and it is in sharing my life story, serving my time, that I hope to prevent someone else from going down the same path. I say this to anyone in a painful situation that seems impossible to get out of: You don’t have to be broken by your suffering; you can be awoken by it if you are willing to block out the noise and fight your way to peace. The big difference between us isn’t that you’re free and I’m not. I know I created my loneliness. I have no one to blame but myself, because I took innocent lives. Everything is a choice, and my choice was to willfully throw it all away. Don’t let it be yours.
* * *
Kenneth Kimes Jr. is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. He hopes to use his life story as a cautionary tale to help others.