BEVERLY HILLS, CA — Death came loud and ugly to the $5 million palatial estate of Jose and Kitty Menendez on August 20, 1989.
That night, while the couple watched television, their sons Lyle, 21, and Erik, 28, stormed the home with 12-gauge shotguns. The brothers fired at least a dozen rounds into their parents.
One blast struck 45-year-old Jose in the back of the head, effectively decapitating the self-made, Cuban-born business mogul. Another round blew 47-year-old Kitty’s left eye of her skull and the nose off her face after the barrel was placed against her cheek. Both had also been shot in the kneecaps.
Immediately afterward, the sibling assassins washed their mom and dad’s gore off their bodies and launched an attempted cover-up. Lyle called 911 and, feigning hysteria, wailed, “Someone killed my parents!”
The investigation and ensuing trials that revealed who that actual “someone” was have captivated the public now for decades.
With the Menendez Brothers regularly returning to the popular consciousness, here are five essential facts about the case to remind us all of how sick and scary this story got.
Watch the “Menendez Brothers: The Bad Sons” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Barbara Walters Presents American Scandals on ID GO now!
1. LYLE AND ERIK FOOLED THE COPS — AT FIRST
With Lyle nearly vomit-weeping to emergency services, and Erik said to be babbling in a fetal position on the front lawn, the brothers’ initial fake outpouring of grief reportedly so moved responding officers that nobody tested the actual killers for gunshot residue. In fact, police didn’t formally question the brothers until two months after the murders.
Their initial claim that the killings arose from organized crime also got traction. Lyle told the cops he thought his parents got “hit” by a Colombian drug cartel or the big, bad, old-fashioned Mafia.
Investigators started to buy it. They pointed out the kneecap shootings, a traditional mob tactic. It also made sense that Jose’s CEO role at the show business company Live Entertainment, Inc. might have put him in contact with dangerous underworld figures.
The mob ploy might have worked. But those ostentatious Menendez boys just couldn’t help themselves.
2. THE BROTHERS’ BIG-TIME SPENDING SPREE DREW BIG-TIME ATTENTION
While supposedly mourning the savage slaughter of their mother and father, Lyle and Erik seemingly tapped their inheritance way hard to engage in what is now deemed “retail therapy” — but they did so on a berserk scale that only could (and did) raise questions.
Remember, all of the following is in 1989 dollars.
In the days immediately following Jose’s and Kitty’s demise, Lyle scooped up a $64,000 Porsche, a $15,000 Rolex, and an entire restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had gone to school.
Erik, in turn, acquired a factory-fresh Jeep Wrangler, hired a $60,000-a-year tennis coach, and invested $40,000 in a rock concert that never came to fruition.
All told, they rapidly and recklessly spent what would today be the equivalent of more than a million dollars. Detectives took notice and, wondering if perhaps the brothers had just been waiting for the moment when they could live this large, turned the focus of their investigation toward Lyle and Erik.
3. THE BROTHERS’ THERAPIST SECRETLY RECORDED THEIR CONFESSIONS
Both Lyle and Erik, apparently feeling guilt over lethally mutilating their parents with hot lead, sought relief through talk therapy.
Each brother visited Beverly Hills psychologist L. Jerome Oziel. Erik confessed first. Once Lyle found that out, he told Oziel that if the therapist took that information to the authorities, the same fate would befall him that blasted Kitty and Jose to ribbons.
Properly frightened, Oziel asked each brother back for one-on-one sessions where he got them to talk about perpetrating the massacre. Unbeknownst to the Menendezes, Judalon Smyth, Oziel’s girlfriend, tape-recorded their confessions from another room.
For some reason, Smyth took five months to deliver the tapes to the police. Two months after that, officers arrested Lyle and Erik. The California Supreme Court ultimately ruled that, due to the threat of violence, the recordings were legally legit.
4. THE MENENDEZ TRIALS TOOK TWO YEARS AND HINGED ON THE BROTHERS’ CLAIMS OF ABUSE
The 1993 Menendez brothers trial, wherein each defendant had his own jury, became the first ever broadcast gavel-to-gavel by Court TV. The entire world seemed to tune in, if only to just take an occasional peek.
The brothers’ colorful and fiercely committed defense attorney Leslie Abramson became a household name in her own right. She alleged that Lyle and Erik acted out as a result of hideous, lifelong abuse from their parents that was emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual in nature.
Both Menendezes stated in court that Jose beat and molested them. Erik claimed that Kitty had sexually abused him as well.
Other family members testified under oath that Jose had, in fact, at least severely dominated and physically attacked his sons for years with Kitty’s full knowledge. The strategy was enough, in 1994, to result in two simultaneous jury deadlocks, necessitating a mistrial.
Two years later, a trial with just one jury — and no cameras in the courtroom — ended with both brothers being found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The just sentenced both Lyle and Erik to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
5. LYLE AND ERIK HAVE NOT SEEN ONE ANOTHER SINCE BEING CONVICTED
As is the usual policy in California, the convicted murderers are being held in separate facilities and are not permitted to visit each other. Lyle resides in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. Erik is doing life in Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga. They communicate by writing letters.
Both brothers married women while behind bars. Lyle has done it twice. After divorcing pen pal Anna Eriksson in 2003, Lyle wed another correspondent, magazine editor Rebecca Sneed, in 1996.
Erik has been married to Tammi Saccoman since 1999. She later told People magazine, “My family does not understand. When it started to get serious, some of them just threw up their hands.”
Neither brother, nor any other convicted murderer in California, is allowed conjugal visits.
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Main photo: TRIAL OF BROTHERS LYLE & ERIK MENENDEZ, PARRICIDES [Ted Soqui/Sygma via Getty Images]