In 1989, brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez became infamous when they were arrested for murdering their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez. Their trial, which drew national attention, had all the ingredients of a lurid Hollywood movie – wealth, incest, parricide, infidelity and murder.
Jose Menendez was 15 when his parents sent him to the US from Cuba after Castro took over. Influenced by his parents, who were both champion athletes in Cuba, Jose also developed into a good athlete and later attended Southern Illinois University on a swimming scholarship.
He met and married Mary "Kitty" Anderson when he was 19 and the couple moved to New York. Once there he earned an accounting degree from Queens College and achieved early success in the corporate world because of his drive, discipline, and focus.
In this time Jose and Kitty had two boys, Joseph Lyle, born January 10, 1968 and Erik Galen, born November 27, 1970.
Originally from Chicago, Kitty grew up middle class in a broken home. Her father, who was physically abusive to his wife and children, left the family to be with another woman. Her mother never got over the failed marriage, and suffered from depression for the rest of her life.
Throughout high school Kitty was sullen and withdrawn, but at Southern Illinois University she blossomed and in 1962 even won a beauty pageant. In her senior year she met Jose and they fell in love.
Kitty's decision to sacrifice her future goals and work as a schoolteacher – while Jose finished college – paid off in some ways after his career took off, but it came at a high price in terms of her emotional dependence on Jose.
She looked after the boys and waited on Jose when he was home, but her devotion was not reciprocated, and she was crushed when she learned that Jose had a mistress and that the infidelity had gone on for six years. Later he would admit to having numerous affairs behind Kitty's back.
Like her mother, Kitty grew bitter about Jose's infidelities. She became depressed and more emotionally dependent. After moving across country for her husband, she'd lost her network of friends in the northeast and felt increasingly isolated.
After having Lyle and Erik, Kitty had, like many mothers, gained weight. Ex-beauty-queen though she was, she now seemed to lack style in her clothing and general appearance. She lacked taste in decorating and let the housekeeping duties go. All of this worked against her in the upper middle class Los Angeles social environs she might otherwise have flourished in.
To the outside world the family presented a successful facade. But Kitty no longer trusted her husband and increasingly they were running into serious troubles with the boys.
The San Fernando Valley suburb of Calabasas is an upper-middle-class suburban enclave to which the Menendez family moved after leaving New Jersey, though Lyle didn't join the family until months later because he'd been accepted into Princeton University.
He got into serious trouble his first semester at Princeton when he was caught plagiarizing an assignment. He was slapped with a one-year suspension. His father intervened on his behalf with Princeton's president, but to no avail.
Jose and Kitty knew by this time that the boys were terribly spoiled. They got most everything they wanted – expensive cars, designer clothing, and money to spend as they pleased. In return they had to live with the strict rules imposed on them by Jose.
Since Lyle had been ejected from Princeton, Jose figured it was time for him to learn some hard life lessons, and so decided to put him to work at LIVE. Lyle resisted. He wanted to play tennis at UCLA. Jose overruled him and Lyle reluctantly began his stint as a LIVE employee.
The boy's work ethic there was predictably bad – uncaring, lazy, and disinterested, Lyle leaned on his father at every turn. Constantly late for work, he ignored his assignments and often simply left the office to go play tennis. Jose soon found out about his boy's shenanigans and fired him.
In the summer of 1988, two months before his prospective return to Princeton, Lyle, then 20 and Erik,17, started burglarizing the homes of their friends' parents. The amount of cash and valuables they stole came to around $100,000.
Eventually they were caught, and Jose knew that the likelihood of Lyle returning to Princeton was zero if he were convicted. With his lawyer he arranged for Erik to take the fall. In return, both brothers were sentenced to mandatory counseling (with Dr. Jerome Oziel, a psychologist) and Erik to community service. Jose paid $11,000 – a little more than ten cents on the dollar – to the boys' burglary victims.
After being shamed out of Calabasas by his boys, Jose moved his family into a $4 million mansion in Beverly Hills. The house had marble floors, six bedrooms, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a guesthouse.
Erik transferred to Beverly Hills High and Lyle returned to Princeton.
Erik seemed to idolize his older brother. Theirs was a bond that left no room for other friends, and as children they usually played together exclusively. They were average at best academically, and would probably not have risen to even that level without their mother's direct – and often unethical – intervention.
Teacher evaluations of Erik's school work from this period are rife with suspicion that the boy benefited unduly from Kitty's assistance. This would be confirmed later. In fact the only area where Erik truly excelled was in tennis. He was the number-one ranked player on his school's team.
With Lyle no longer involved in his day-to-day life, Erik found his own friends, one of whom turned out to be the captain of the tennis team – Craig Cignarelli.
One of the products of their friendship, interestingly, was a collaboration on a movie screenplay called "Friends" – about a teenaged boy who saw his father's will and went on to murder him to inherit his money.
By July 1989 Lyle was on academic and disciplinary probation at Princeton after he was caught destroying university property. He also tore up a golf course at his family's country club, costing them their membership and thousands in repair costs – that Jose paid.
Erik focused his energies on failed attempts to make a name for himself in tennis. Jose and Kitty felt that they could no longer control their boys. In a desperate attempt to get them to take responsibility for their lives and futures, Jose and Kitty decided to leverage their will. Jose threatened to disinherit his sons if they didn't change their ways.
For the remainder of the summer things seemed, at least superficially, to improve for the Menendez family. They were doing things together again. But Kitty, for unknown reasons, didn't feel safe around the boys. She confided to her therapist that she was fearful of them. They looked and acted to her like narcissistic sociopaths. She kept her doors locked at night and always had two rifles nearby.
At midnight on August 20, 1989, the Beverly Hills police recorded a 911 call from Lyle Menendez. Erik and Lyle had just returned home from a movie to a horrific scene: both their parents were dead in the family room, shot with 12-gauge shotguns. Autopsy reports would later state that Jose had suffered an "explosive decapitation with evisceration of the brain" and that both his and Kitty's faces had been literally blown apart.
The first explanation of the Menendez deaths was that it was a mob hit, based in part on speculation from Erik and Lyle. But police realized that if it was, it was a grotesque case of overkill. Furthermore, there were no shotgun casings at the scene. Mobsters are typically not fastidious about such things – they don't bother cleaning up after themselves.
What bothered detectives the most was the huge amount of money the Menendez brothers were burning through now that their parents were dead. Expensive cars. Rolex watches. Fancy restaurants. Personal tennis coaches - the boys were on a spending spree. Later estimates put their expenditures at roughly a million dollars in six months.
Seven months into the investigation, Judalon Smyth contacted the Beverly Hills police and told them that Dr. Jerome Oziel had audio tapes of Lyle and Erik Menendez confessing to the murder of their parents. Smyth also had information on where the shotguns were bought, and that the Menendez brothers had threatened Oziel's life if he contacted police.
Smyth was in the process of breaking up with Oziel. He asked her to pretend to be a patient at his office so that she could eavesdrop on a session he was having with the Menendez brothers. Oziel was afraid of the brothers and wanted Smyth to call police if something happened.
The brothers' threat to Oziel's life nullified the patient-therapist confidentiality rule. Police, armed with a search warrant, found the tapes in a safety deposit box and Smyth's tale was confirmed.
Lyle Menendez was arrested soon afterwards near the family home. Erik was apprehended when he returned from a tennis match in Israel. He turned himself in to police.
The brothers were taken into custody without bail. Each hired their own counsel.
The Menendez brothers enjoyed the support of most of their relatives at their arraignment. They strode in like movie stars, smiled and waved to their family and friends, generally behaving as if the hearing was a joke.
"You have been charged with multiple murder for financial gain, while lying in wait, with a loaded firearm, for which, if convicted, you could receive the death penalty. How do you plead?" asked the judge.
Both boys pled not guilty.
It would take three years before their cases finally came to trial. Admissibility of the tapes was the sticking point. The California Supreme Court decided eventually that some, though not all, of the tapes were admissible. The bitterest disappointment for the prosecution came when the court disallowed admission of the tape in which Erik described the murders.
The trial commenced on July 20, 1993 in the Van Nuys Superior Court, Judge Stanley M. Weisberg presiding. He decided that Erik and Lyle would be tried together, but have separate juries.
Pamela Bozanich, the chief prosecutor, sought the death penalty for the brothers.
Leslie Abramson represented Erik and Jill Lansing was Lyle's attorney. The former was flamboyant; the latter quiet, but highly focused.
After admitting that their clients killed their parents, both lawyers began the work of systematically attempting to destroy the reputations of Jose and Kitty Menendez. Both sought to prove that the Menendez brothers had endured lifetimes of sexual abuse from a sadistic and tyrannical father while their mother alternately aided and abetted that abuse or turned her back on it. The brothers were thus forced to murder their parents out of fear that they would be murdered themselves. Kill or be killed.
The prosecution responded, simply and powerfully, that the boys murdered out of greed. The Menendez brothers feared being removed from their parents' will – a loss to them amounting to millions of dollars. The murder was no spur-of-the-moment attack made out of fear, but something planned meticulously days if not weeks ahead of time.
Both juries came back deadlocked.
The Los Angeles DA's office, undaunted, pushed for and got a second trial.
The second trial was not as dramatic and showy as the first. Gone were the television cameras and the rapt attention of the public, which had moved on in typically fickle fashion to other obsessions and amusements.
David Conn was the new chief prosecutor. Lyle Menendez was represented by Charles Gessler. Abramson continued to represent Erik.
The defense's case, chockablock with sexual abuse, incest, and the like, was as sordid as ever but it had lost its shock value.
The prosecution, wise to the defense tactics, dealt with the sexual abuse allegations and battered person's syndrome differently than its predecessors had. Conn attacked it head on and persuaded Judge Weisberg to prevent the defense from introducing it into evidence.
The new jury subsequently found Lyle and Erik guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
During the trial's penalty phase, Dr. William Vicary – Erik's post-arrest psychiatrist – revealed that Leslie Abramson had tried to get him to rewrite portions of his notes because they could be harmful to Erik.
One passage of Vicary's excluded notes hinged on Erik's saying that his father's homosexual lover had told Erik and Lyle that their parents were planning to kill them. Erik told Vicary it was all a lie.
Abramson's actions could have cost her her career. They could also have led to a mistrial. The judge allowed neither of those outcomes, and the sentencing phase continued.
On July 2, 1996, Judge Weisberg sentenced Lyle and Erik Menendez to life in prison without the possibility of parole.