“Someone killed my parents!” Lyle Menendez screamed across the phone line to a 911 operator in the late night of August 20th, 1989. The “someone” he blamed remained to be identified at the time, but the call – and the claim made during the course of it – catalyzed the infamy of Menendez, then 21, and his 18-year-old brother Erik. It took almost seven years, but after facts were uncovered and their admission of guilt was ultimately confirmed, they would be solidified as two of America’s most notorious parricidal murderers.
Born into lives of wealth and privilege as the sons and only children of Hollywood executive José Menendez, 45, and his wife, Kitty, 47, the brothers claimed they had returned home from the movies to find that their mom and dad assassinated in their Beverly Hills home. The brothers initially blamed the mob, but the gruesome overkill pointed more to a crime fueled by emotion than the handiwork of the Mafia. Investigators counted over a dozen gunshot wounds between the victims, including one to the back of Mr. Menendez’s head, which essentially decapitated him, and another against Mrs. Menendez’s left cheek, which literally blasted away the eye and nose of the former beauty queen.
In the 20 years since their conviction, the case and the family – whose alleged dysfunctionality was the antithesis of the enviable and storied 90210 life – has continued to fascinate the public, inspiring made-for-TV movies, books, podcasts and even an upcoming Law & Order miniseries. This weekend, Oxygen is adding their version with a two-part special in its Snapped series, revisiting first the gory crime and its backstory, then the three-part trial process that sensationalized it, resulting in their conviction in 1996. Here, everything you need to know about the Menendez brothers.
José Menendez was a self-made millionaire who pressed sometimes impossibly high expectations onto his sons
Born in Cuba, the senior Menendez emigrated to the U.S. when he was just 16, married Kitty at 19 and worked his way up as a dishwasher at the ritzy 21 Club in Manhattan while he finished his accounting degree at Queens College. He rose through leadership positions in companies like RCA, where he helped to sign the Eurythmics and Duran Duran, before becoming executive vice president at independent film company Carolco Pictures. He then moved his family from the East Coast to the West, into a $5 million mansion once inhabited by Elton John. It was an American fairytale that Lyle, in particular, championed and admired – even as his father was alternately proud and controlling of his boys, and reportedly pressured them to mirror his success in school and tennis, their sport of choice.
But the brothers had a rebellious streak, and had recently been caught burglarizing neighbor’s homes for fun. It enraged José Menendez, but still used his money and influence to shield them from any real consequences. He had, however, reportedly drawn up a new will, which parceled out significantly less of the couple’s $14 million estate to his sons. Weeks after his parents’ deaths, Lyle confided to a friend that he’d deleted the updated will from Mr. Menendez’s computer – a highly suspicious act, which would later be used against the brothers in court.
Erik wrote an eerily ominous screenplay about the son of a wealthy couple who kills his parents
Along with friend and tennis partner Craig Cignarelli, the younger Menendez stole away to a private cabin to churn out a 66-page screenplay called Friends, in which the protagonist kills five people, starting with his own parents. There was even a rumor that was another, even more vividly detailed manuscript – one that aligned even more closely with his ultimate crime – though its existance has never been confirmed.
Police broke protocol at the crime scene, compromising the investigation early on
Lyle and Erik Menendez performed grief so convincingly that first responders thought it unnecessary to test their hands and clothing for gunshot residue, instead allowing the young men to emote and console each other in what seemed like genuine shows of despair. Neighbors even recalled that Erik, the younger of the two brothers, was curled up in fetal position on the front lawn of the family home. Early reports described the crime scene inside of it as a “gangland-style killing.” (Both victims had been shot in the kneecaps for an added touch of credibility.) Though they’d been questioned the night of the murders, police didn’t sit down with Lyle and Erik Menendez for a formal interview until two months after the murders.
The brothers’ ostentatious spending was flashy enough to turn suspicions to them
Whether the murders were a retributive act for their mistreatment as children, a greedy plot to gain early access to their inheritance, or both, the Menendez brothers knew how to spend – and it even stood out in Beverly Hills. In the weeks after they disposed of their parents, they spent between $500,000 and $700,000 in a buying blitz that included, for Lyle, a $64,000 Porsche, a Rolex and a restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, close to the university where he’d once been a student.
For Erik, who decided not to attend UCLA as his father had hoped, his influx of wealth afforded him travel for his burgeoning tennis career, a $50,000-a-year coach, a Jeep Wrangler and, according to Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne, a $40,000 investment in a rock concert at L.A.’s Palladium with a partner who ultimately stiffed him. Together, Erik and Lyle moved into swanky his-and-his condos in Marina Del Rey. It was hard not to notice the pair’s comeuppance – police paid special attention, using the splurges to substantiate their existing skepticism about the brothers’ innocence.
Erik and Lyle confessed to their therapist, unraveling the pair’s fate
Erik, apparently wrestling with the emotional burden of his crime, confided first to Craig Cignarelli that he and his brother had killed his parents. Then, in late October 1989, he asked to meet with Beverly Hills psychologist L. Jerome Oziel, who he’d been seeing since the burglary incidents. There he again admitted his involvement in the murders. When Lyle found out his brother’s indiscretion, he threatened to kill Oziel if he reported them to authorities, a bullyish insurance policy that ultimately worked against him.
Oziel’s mistress, Judalon Smyth, listened in from the waiting room, recording joint confessions. Yet she sat on the tapes for nearly five months before she contacted police to tell them Menendez’s confession had been recorded on tape. Finally, nearly seven months after José and Kitty had been killed, Beverly Hills police arrested Lyle Menendez. Erik turned himself in upon his return from a tennis event in Israel three days later. Though it took numerous hearings to convince a court that portions of the tapes were admissible, the California Supreme Court eventually ruled that the possibility of violence released the practitioner from doctor-client privilege, and the evidence eventually helped send the young men to prison.
The defense team introduced one of the most highly publicized cases of battered child syndrome
Accusations about the victims’ incendiary parenting and abusive behavior were explosive. In addition to claims by the defense that the Menendez brothers were “punched and belt-whipped,” attorneys also asserted that José Menendez molested both sons starting when Lyle was seven and Erik was six. It was a story corroborated, at least in part, by family members under oath. The abuse continued – allegedly under Kitty’s knowledge – for 12 years. Lyle accused her, too, of incestuous molestation that extended well into his teen years.
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Yet none of the accusations were formally substantiated. According to deputy district attorney Pamela Bozanich, a prosecutor in the case, the Menendezes prepared for trial upwards of four hours a day for two years, more than enough time for their team of attorneys to craft a justifiable self-defense claim around the abuse. Whatever was going on inside the home on Elm Drive, Lyle and Erik’s defense attorneys claimed it compounded the mental and emotional degradation the brothers, and said it explained instances of acting out, including Lyle bedwetting until the age of 14.
It took two trials and three juries to convict the Menendez Brothers of murder
The pair took up residence in Los Angeles County Jail following their epic fall from grace while, for two years, attorneys volleyed arguments about the tapes’ admissibility as evidence. In July 1993, when the pathway to prosecution had finally been cleared, the circus broke wide open: the Menendez trial was televised, one of the most watched media events of its era. Both Erik and Lyle had a separate juries and, at the conclusion of the proceedings in January 1994, both juries were hung, necessitating a retrial. The second trial, which began in August 1995, differed from the first in three key ways: the judge wouldn’t allow cameras in the courtroom and the case was heard by just one jury. This one didn’t buy the “abuse excuse” and brought back a guilty verdict. They spared the Menendez brothers of the death penalty, instead assigning them to life without the possibility of parole – still more merciful than the sentence they doled out to their parents.