Handsome, wealthy, and athletic Erik and Lyle Menendez were the pictures of yuppie privilege. The sons of Jose and Mary Louise “Kitty” Menendez, the boys grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, before moving to Beverly Hills, California, as their father moved into a senior executive role with Carolco Pictures, known for the Rambo movies.
On August 20, 1989, Jose, Kitty, and the brothers returned from a day out. Erik and Lyle went out to see a movie — they would later claim that they saw Batman again after they couldn’t get into Licence to Kill because of the lines — while their parents settled in to relax at home.
Later, police received a panicked 911 call. “They shot and killed my parents!” Lyle screamed into the phone. “I don’t know … I didn’t hear anything … I just came home. Erik! Shut up! Get away from them!” Erik later attempted to tell police that he walked into the family room and found his parents shot to death.
Initially, the boys tried to blame the mob, but as police investigated the crime, that seemed less likely. There were 15 shotgun wounds between the two victims, including a shot to the back of Jose Menendez’s head that nearly decapitated him. On top of that, Kitty had sustained a gunshot wound to her left cheek that destroyed the former beauty queen’s nose and one eye.
Investigators came around to the belief that it wasn’t a mob hit. The horrific murder, they believed, was a crime of passion.
Over the course of the following weeks, the brothers would make some glaring mistakes that caused police to turn their suspicions on the boys. Almost as though they were anticipating their approximately $14 million inheritance, Lyle bought a Rolex, a $64,000 Porsche, and a restaurant in New Jersey near his former college, Princeton University. Erik, who had turned down university for a potential tennis career, hired a $50,000-a-year tennis coach and bought a Jeep Wrangler. Even for Beverly Hills, the boys’ spending garnered attention.
Craig Cignarelli, who had been Erik’s best friend, was the first to hear a confession from one of the brothers. Erik had apparently been having a hard time dealing with the emotional burden of the murders, and reportedly told Cignarelli that he and his brother had killed their parents.The case took another strange twist when Erik went to L. Jerome Oziel, a Beverly Hills psychologist. He confessed again to Oziel that he and his brother committed the murders. Lyle threatened to kill Oziel for Erik’s indiscretion, but it didn’t work. Oziel had his own indiscretions, one of which was his mistress, Judalon Smyth. Smyth had been listening from the waiting room, and recorded the confessions. For some reason, Smyth sat on that recording for several months before turning it over to police.
Lyle was arrested first, and Eric turned himself in three days later when he returned from a tennis tournament in Israel. The admissibility of the recording during trial had to be decided by the California Supreme Court. They finally decided that the high possibility of violence would release Oziel from doctor-client privilege requirements, and allowed portions of the tape to be used at trial. No recordings of the actual session Oziel had with the brothers would be allowed, just the confessions.
The Menendez brothers went to trial in 1993, and their case garnered nationwide attention as the trial that brought Court TV into the national consciousness as one of the earliest major trials the channel covered. The increasingly sensational details presented at trial as the brothers attempted to defend themselves brought even more attention to the case.
Unfortunately, the boys had been so convincing in their grief that police didn’t test them for gunshot residue, which kept investigators from that immediate evidence in the case. As the investigators built their case, the Menendez brothers’ lawyers built a defense on claims that Erik had been molested by Jose from a young age. Lyle also accused Kitty of molesting him until he was 13 years old.
Many experts and friends of the family admitted that Jose could be a harsh disciplinarian, but found the claims of abuse unbelievable. There were two juries in the 1993 trial, and when neither jury could reach a verdict, a mistrial was declared. In October 1995, the boys faced retrial before a single jury. That jury found them both guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced them to life without parole.
Erik and Lyle live about 500 miles apart in separate maximum-security prisons. Erik has maintained a correspondence with Barbara Walters and written candidly about his feelings of guilt, noting that he and Lyle will never escape their past. The brothers’ lawyer continues to push for a retrial, because he claims that they have not been allowed the same defense as battered females.
Both men have gotten married in prison, and Lyle is on his second marriage.
Main photo: Lyle and Erik Menendez at trial [NBC Today Show/YouTube (screenshot)]