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In 1989, brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez used a 12-gauge shotgun to murder their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez. The trial received national attention because it had all the elements of a Hollywood movie - wealth, incest, parricide, infidelity, and murder.
Jose Enrique Menendez was 15 years old 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.
At the age of 19, he met and married Mary "Kitty" Anderson and the couple moved to New York. There he earned an accounting degree from Queens College in Flushing, New York. Once out of college his career soared. He proved to be a highly focused, competitive, success-driven employee. His climb up the ladder eventually led to a lucrative position in the entertainment industry with RCA as an executive vice president and chief operating officer.
During this time Jose and Kitty had two boys, Joseph Lyle, born January 10, 1968, and Erik Galen, born November 27, 1970. The family moved to a prestigious home in Princeton, New Jersey, where they enjoyed comfortable country-club living.
In 1986, Jose left RCA and transferred to Los Angeles where he accepted the position of President of Live Entertainment, a division of Carolco Pictures. Jose earned a reputation as being a heartless, tough numbers cruncher, which turned an unprofitable division into a moneymaker within a year. Although his success brought him a certain level of respect, there were also many people who worked for him that completely despised him.
For Kitty, the West Coast move was disappointing. She loved her life in New Jersey and struggled to fit into her new world in Los Angeles.
Originally from Chicago, Kitty grew up in a broken middle-class home. Her father was physically abusive to his wife and children. They divorced after he left to be with another woman. Her mother never seemed to get over the failed marriage. She suffered from depression and deep resentments.
Throughout high school, Kitty was sullen and withdrawn. It was not until she attended Southern Illinois University that she seemed to grow and develop self-esteem. In 1962, she won a beauty pageant, which also seemed to bolster her confidence.
In her senior year of college, she met Jose and fell in love. She was three years older than he was, and a different race, which at that time was frowned upon.
When Jose and Kitty decided to marry, both their families were against it. Kitty's parents felt the racial issue would lead to unhappiness and Jose's parents thought that he was only 19 and too young to marry. They also did not like that Kitty's parents were divorced. So the two eloped and soon afterward headed to New York.
Kitty turned away from her future goals and went to work as a schoolteacher while Jose finished college. It seemed to pay off in some ways after his career took off, but in other ways, Kitty lost herself and became completely dependent on her husband.
She spent much of her time tending to the boys and waiting on Jose when he was home. When she discovered that Jose had a mistress and that the relationship had lasted over six years, she was devastated. He later admitted to cheating on her with several women throughout their marriage.
Like her mother, Kitty never seemed to get over Jose's infidelities. She too became bitter, depressed and even more dependent. Now, having moved across the country, she had lost the network of friends that she had in the northeast and felt isolated.
After having children Kitty gained weight and she lacked style in her clothing and general appearance. Her taste in decorating was poor and she was a bad housekeeper. All of this made acceptance in the affluent Los Angeles circles a challenge.
On the outside, the family looked close-knit, like a perfect family, but there were internal struggles that took its toll on Kitty. She no longer trusted Jose and then there was the trouble with the boys.
The San Fernando Valley suburb called Calabasas is an upper-middle-class area and where the Menendez moved to after leaving New Jersey. Lyle had been accepted into Princeton University and did not move with the family until months later.
During Lyle's first semester at Princeton, he was caught plagiarizing an assignment and was suspended for one year. His father attempted to sway Princeton's president, but without success.
At this point, Jose and Kitty were both aware that the boys were incredibly spoiled. They got most everything that they wanted - great cars, designer clothing, money to blow and in exchange, and all they had to do was live under the strict controls of their father.
Since Lyle was thrown out of Princeton, Jose decided it was time for him to learn some life lessons and he put him to work at LIVE. Lyle was not interested. He wanted to go to UCLA and play tennis, not go to work. However, Jose would not allow it and Lyle became a LIVE employee.
Lyle's work ethic was similar to how he acted towards most things - lazy, disinterested, and leaned on daddy to get him through it. He was constantly late for work and ignored assignments or would just take off to go play tennis. When Jose found out, he fired him.
With two months to kill before returning to Princeton, Lyle, 20 and Erik now 17, began burglarizing their friend's parent's homes. The amount of money and jewelry that they stole amounted to around $100,000.
After they were caught, Jose saw that Lyle's chances to return to Princeton would be over if he was convicted, so with the help of a lawyer, he manipulated it so that Erik would take the fall. In exchange, the brothers would have to go for counseling and Erik was required to do community service. Jose also forked out $11,000 to the victims.
Kitty's psychologist, Les Summerfield, recommended psychologist Dr. Jerome Oziel as a good choice for Erik to see for counseling.
As far as the Calabasas community went, not very many people wanted anything more to do with the Menendez family. In response, the family headed to Beverly Hills.
722 North Elm Drive
After being humiliated out of Calabasas by his sons, Jose purchased a spectacular $4 million mansion in Beverly Hills. The house had marble floors, six bedrooms, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a guesthouse. Previous occupants included Prince, Elton John, and a Saudi prince.
Erik changed schools and began attending Beverly Hills High and Lyle returned to Princeton. The switch was probably difficult for Erik, who had managed to develop some friendships at Calabasas high school.
Being the younger brother, Erik seemed to idolize Lyle. They had a deep bond that excluded others and as children, they often played exclusively together. Academically, the boys were average and even that level was hard for them to maintain without the direct help from their mother.
Teacher evaluations often included the suggestion that the boys' homework was above the capability that they showed in class. In other words, someone was doing their homework for them. And they were right. Throughout Erik's entire time in school, Kitty would do his homework. About the only thing Erik was good at was tennis, and at that, he excelled. He was the number one ranked player on the school's team.
In high school, with Lyle no longer involved in his day-to-day life, Erik had his own friends. One good friend was the captain of the tennis team, Craig Cignarelli. Craig and Erik spent a lot of time together.
They wrote a screenplay called "Friends" about a teen that saw his father's will and went and killed him so he would inherit the money. No one at the time knew the implications of the plot.
By July 1989, things for the Menendez family continued to spiral downward. Lyle was on academic and disciplinary probation from Princeton after destroying property. He also tore up the golf course at the country club that the family belonged to, costing their membership to be suspended and thousands in repair cost that Jose paid.
Erik spent his energy with failed attempts to make a name for himself in tennis.
Jose and Kitty felt that they no longer could control the boys. In an attempt to get them to grow up and face some responsibility for their lives and their futures Jose and Kitty decided to use their will like a dangling carrot. Jose threatened to remove his sons from the will if they did not change the way they were living.
Something Was Amiss
Based on outside appearances, the remainder of the summer seemed to go better for the family. They were doing things together again as a family. But Kitty, for unknown reasons, did not feel safe around the boys. She spoke to her therapist about feeling fearful of her sons. She thought they were narcissistic sociopaths. At night she kept her doors locked and two rifles nearby.
On August 20, 1989, at around midnight, the Beverly Hills police received a 9-1-1 call from Lyle Menendez. Erik and Lyle had just returned home after going to the movies and found their parents dead in the family room of their home. Both parents had been shot with 12-gauge shotguns. According to autopsy reports, Jose suffered "explosive decapitation with evisceration of the brain" and both his and Kitty's faces were blown apart.
The rumored theory about who murdered the Menendez was that it as a Mob hit, based partially on information from Erik and Lyle. However, if it was a mob hit, it was a definite case of overkill and the police were not buying it. Also, there were no shotgun casings at the murder site. Mobsters do not bother to clean up shell casings.
What created more concern among the detectives was the tremendous amount of money the Menendez brothers were spending which began immediately after their parents were murdered. The list was long, too. Expensive cars, Rolex watches, restaurants, personal tennis coaches - the boys were on a spending roll. Prosecutors estimated that the brothers spent around a million dollars in six months.
On March 5, 1990, seven months into the investigation, Judalon Smyth contacted the Beverly Hills police and informed them that Dr. Jerome Oziel had audio tapes of Lyle and Erik Menendez confessing to the murder of their parents. She also provided them information on where the shotguns were purchased and that the Menendez brothers had threatened to kill Oziel if he went to the police.
At the time, Smyth was trying to end an alleged relationship with Oziel, when he asked her to pretend to be a patient at the office so that she could eavesdrop on a meeting he was having with the Menendez brothers. Oziel was afraid of the boys and wanted Smyth there to call police in case something happened.
Because there was a threat on Oziel's life, the patient-therapist confidentiality rule did not apply. Armed with a search warrant the police located the tapes in a safety deposit box and the information Smyth provided was confirmed.
On March 8, Lyle Menendez was arrested near the family home, followed by the arrest of Erik who returned from a tennis match in Israel and turned himself into the police.
The brothers were remanded without bail. They each hired their own lawyers. Leslie Abramson was Erik's lawyer and Gerald Chaleff was Lyle's.
The Menendez brothers had full support from most all of their relatives and during their arraignment, the atmosphere lacked the appropriate seriousness for what was taking place. The brothers strutted in like movie stars, smiled, and waved to their family and friends and snickered when the judge began to speak. Apparently, they found the serious tone of her voice humorous.
"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?"
They both plead not guilty.
It would take three years before their cases went to trial. The admissibility of the tapes became the big hold up. The California Supreme Court finally decided that some, but not all of the tapes were admissible. Unfortunately for the prosecution, the tape of Erik describing the murders was not allowed.
The trial began on July 20, 1993, in the Van Nuys Superior Court. Judge Stanley M. Weisberg was presiding. He decided that the brothers would be tried together, but that they would have separate juries.
Pamela Bozanich, the chief prosecutor, wanted the Menendez brothers to be found guilty and to get the death penalty.
Leslie Abramson was representing Erik and Jill Lansing was Lyle's lawyer. As flamboyant a lawyer as Abramson was, Lansing and her team were equally quiet and sharply focused.
Court TV was also present in the room, filming the trial for its viewers.
Both defense lawyers admitted that their clients did kill their parents. They then went about methodically trying to destroy the reputations of Jose and Kitty Menendez.
They tried to prove that Menendez brothers had been sexually abused by their sadistic father throughout their lifetime and that their mother, when not participating in her own form of perverse abuse, turned her back on what Jose was doing to the boys. They said that the brothers murdered their parents out of fear that the parents were going to murder them.
The prosecution simplified the reasons behind the murder stating that it was done out of greed. The Menendez brothers feared that they were going to get cut out of their parent's will and lose out on millions of dollars. The murder was not a spur of the moment attack done out of fear, but rather one that was thought out and planned days and weeks before the fatal night.
Both juries were unable to decide which story to believe and they came back deadlocked.
The Los Angeles DAs office said they wanted a second trial immediately. They were not going to give up.
The Second Trial
The second trial was not as flamboyant as the first trial. There were no television cameras and the public had moved on to other cases.
This time David Conn was the chief prosecutor and Charles Gessler represented Lyle. Abramson continued to represent Erik.
Much of what the defense had to say had already been said and although the whole sexual abuse, incest direction was disturbing to hear, the shock of hearing it was over.
However, the prosecution dealt with the sexual abuse allegations and battered person's syndrome differently than how it was dealt with during the first trial. Bozanich did not address it at all, believing that the jury would not fall for it. Conn attacked it straight on and got Judge Weisberg to block the defense from saying that the brothers suffered from battered person's syndrome.
This time the jury found both the Menendez brothers guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
During the penalty phase of the Menendez trial, Dr. William Vicary, who was Erik's psychiatrist since his arrest, admitted that Leslie Abramson asked him to rewrite portions of his notes that were being reviewed because it could be harmful to Erik. He said she called the information "prejudicial and out of bounds."
One section that was removed pertained to Erik's saying that his father's homosexual lover told Erik and Lyle that their parents were planning to kill them. Erik told Vicary that the whole thing was a lie.
The fact that Abramson had asked the doctor to remove incriminating comments could have cost her her career, but it also could have caused a mistrial. The judge did not allow that to happen 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.
The brothers were later sent to separate prisons. Lyle was sent to North Kern State Prison and Erik was sent to the California State Prison.