Before Casey Anthony, before Scott Peterson, before OJ, there was The Menendez Brothers.
Lyle and Erik Menendez were two spoiled rich kids that were accused of murdering both of their parents one night in 1989 at their home in Beverly Hills. It was the first really high-profile murder case/soap opera of the cable TV era. Billed as "The Trial Of The Century," it is basically responsible for the success of CourtTV, which later became TruTV and began the mass media sensationalism of true crime, a trend that still electrifies people today, more than 20 years later.
On August 20th, 1989, Jose and Kitty Menendez were shot and killed in the mansion they owned in Beverly Hills. Jose was shot first, in the back of his head by a 12-gauge shotgun, as he watched television at around 10pm. Kitty, who was asleep on the couch nearby, woke up when she heard the shot and started to run for the front door. She was shot in the leg and fell and then shot several more times in the head and neck. It was said that she was shot so many times that she was completely unrecognizable. Both Jose and Kitty were then shot in the kneecaps after they had both already died. In total, Jose was shot five times and Kitty nine. It was a horrific attack.
At 11:47, 9-1-1 received a call from the Menendez home. On the line, Jose and Kitty's oldest of two boys, Lyle, who was 21 years old at the time, told the 9-1-1 operator that his parents had been killed. Police were dispatched and when they arrived on the gruesome scene, both Lyle and his younger brother, Erik, 19, were home.
When police arrived on the scene a few hours after Jose and Kitty were killed they found their two sons, Lyle and Erik, in the house and acting distraught over the killings. Both brothers were interviewed by the police in the living room where the murders had taken place. Both brothers told the same story, accounting for their whereabouts that evening. They had gone to a local cinema to catch the new James Bond flick, "License To Kill," but decided instead to see "Batman." After the movie, Lyle and Erik went to nearby Santa Monica for a food festival before returning home, according to their story, around 11:30. Lyle called 9-1-1 at 11:47 and said: "Somebody killed my parents!"
When the brothers were finally arrested 7 months after the murders, on March 8th, 1990, the media immediately went into a frenzy. People were shocked that these two boys that seemingly had it all and had been provided the best life money could buy from the parents, could commit such a gruesome crime. Lyle and Erik were both remanded without bail and they were separated from each other in the LA County jail. It would still be almost 2 years before the boys were indicted and another few months after that before their joint trial began. That trial would be a complete media circus.
Lyle and Erik were actually tried twice. The first trial was the one that was broadcast on CourtTV. It was is the one that everyone remembers because everyone watched. That trial ended in a hung jury, split completely down the middle by gender. The men all voted to convict the boys, the women, to acquit. The second trial was far less publicized, as the judge in the second trial did not allow cameras in the courtroom and generally kept a tighter lid on things. Besides, everyone knew all the details at that point. It was at this trial that both brothers were convicted of 1st-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The first Menendez Case was the second trial to be broadcast on the relatively new CourtTV. The first was the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, also high profile, but not nearly as salacious or as shocking as the murder of two rich parents by their spoiled sons. The Menendez case truly captivated the nation like no other case had before.
The brothers were each charged with 2 counts of 1st degree and their trial began in early 1993. Just about every moment of the trial was shown live on TV and as the details emerged, America was shocked, appalled and completely entranced. There were many crazy details that were so hard to believe, America just couldn't get enough. They were young, good-looking and rich.
According to their defense attorney, their father was a total control freak that they accused of abusing them, mentally and physically. Their mother was either a total Stepford wife or equally controlling and abuse, depending on who you believed. The murder took place in glamorous Beverly Hills, home to the very rich and the very famous. And the crime was so brutal, so savage, it was almost impossible to comprehend.
It was during the trial when America first heard about the salacious and gruesome details. The brothers' attorney, Leslie Abramson put forth wild theories and went to incredible lengths to show the boys were the victims of a perfectionist father who beat them, abused them and berated them mercilessly.
The details about the boys' therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel came out during the trial too. It was because of Dr. Oziel that the boys had been arrested in the first place, but the details of his sex life and his questionable actions as a doctor all became part of the crazy narrative.
The details of the boys' past criminal activities and their checkered academic history came into play.
It was a portrait of the seemingly perfect American family coming apart at the seams, boiling under the pressure of perfection until one night it all exploded in a fit of rage and violence.
Jose Menendez was a walking example of everything people believe in the American dream, at least on the surface. He was born in Cuba and fled in the 1950s as the Communist Revolution took hold. He moved to New York and eventually went to school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL where he met Kitty Anderson, a young woman from a suburb of Chicago. The two were married in 1963 and moved to New York where Jose enrolled at Queens college and worked as a dishwasher at the famous 21 Club in Manhattan.
Eventually, after working successfully at a number of corporate jobs, including Hertz Rent-A-Car for a time, he moved his family from their home in Princeton, NJ out to Southern California, in 1987, and began working for RCA Records where he was named COO, and in a short time helped turn around the floundering company by signing such huge acts as The Eurythmics and Duran Duran, as well as diving deeper into Latin music with Menudo and others. By the time of his murder in 1989, he had been tremendously successful and had made quite a bit of money. For Jose, success, and even more, the appearance of success was hugely important to him. Jose was evidently incredibly vain when it came to both his business success and with his family. The appearance of a perfect family was as important as anything else in his life. Kitty, it seems, was exactly the same way.
Maybe it was because early in the boys' lives they were a "new money" family living in very "old money" Princeton, NJ, but the way others saw the Menendez family was of utmost importance to Jose and Kitty. The boys grew up very spoiled, but also very restricted. Reportedly, Jose told the boys who they could date and who they could be friends with. Kitty and Jose apparently even did the boys homework so it looked as if they were the best at what they did. From what's been said about them, it sounds like they pushed their sons to succeed at all costs, much as Jose was known to do in the business world. More importantly, Jose wanted to world to see how successful he was, in business and with his family, a perfect appearance was required.
Like everything else in life, Jose pushed his boys to be excellent athletes and they were. Lyle was on the tennis at Princeton University, where he got in on the strength of his tennis abilities. Erik was on his way to UCLA in the fall to also play tennis. There were reportedly at least 61 tennis trophies on display at their house. That public perception was everything and that the boys were top athletes in a couple of the top universities in the country was important to Jose. Lyle was a poor student though and he was coming close to failing out of Princeton and was eventually caught and accused of plagiarism and was suspended. This must have been devastating to Jose. Not because Lyle had cheated, but that he had been caught cheating. It looked bad. And it was not the first time Lyle had been in trouble.
The boys would later say in jailhouse interviews that their relationship with their father was terrible and yet, they always strived to make him proud, they were desperate for a father's love that they never felt that received, no matter how hard they tried to please him. There was never enough for Jose.
In the first few months after the murders, both Lyle and Erik spent a lot of money. Some have estimated it at over a million bucks in just a few months. They both lived in luxurious condos near the beach. They bought cars, like a Porsche Carrera and Rolex watches. They traveled extensively abroad, to London and the Caribbean. This wild spending brought even more suspicion on them by investigators. They seemed far too happy with the new-found wealth they had inherited.
Their therapist meetings would eventually be their downfall. In one of the meetings.
Dr. Jerome Oziel had been seeing the boys for some time, first meeting Erik after he was put on probation for the "Hot Prowls." He continued to see both Lyle and Erik after the murder of their parents, and during these sessions, the brothers admitted to him that they had killed their parents, apparently believing they were protected by doctor/patient confidentiality. They should have been, but another person changed that, her name was Judalon Smyth.
Smyth was having a tawdry affair with the good doctor, and in a fit of rage, after he broke things off, she contacted the Beverly Hills police and informed them that the brothers had confessed the crime to her lover. She told them he even had tapes of the session.
This was the big break the police needed, and they arrested Lyle immediately and Erik shortly after he returned from a tennis tournament in Israel.
It took more than 2 and half years for the court battle over the tapes to come to a conclusion, but in the end, the tapes were ruled admissible and the first trial began.
While the family was living in Calabasas, Erik, along with a friend of his, wrote a script for a movie in which the main character, a teenager, murders his wealthy parents for his inheritance. One of the lines spoken by the main character: "Sometimes he would tell me that I was not worthy to be his son. When he did that, it would make me strive harder ... just so I could hear the world 'I love you, son.' ...And I never heard those words."
Sounds like a direct reflection of Erik's real life with Jose.
California Dept Of Corrections
Academic problems were not the only signs of a troubled life by the brothers. They also became burglars, allegedly stealing over $100K from neighbors. When the family first moved to Southern California, they settled in Calabasas - in the same neighborhood as another infamous alleged murderer, Robert Blake - where Lyle and Erik quickly became popular at their new high school. But they also started getting into trouble. They learned from their father that success was all that mattered, and any means would justify the ends. As a result, they started going on what they called "Hot Prowls" where they would pick houses in the town at random and break in and rob the place for fun. Lyle was arrested for this after stealing from his girlfriend's house. Erik wanted to prove he could do it too. Supposedly, this led more burglaries. Eventually, they were arrested and charged with burglarizing two houses. Again, Jose was mad. Not that they were thieves, but that they got caught. He worked out a plan, Erik, a minor, would take the charge and receive probation, Jose cut a couple large checks to the victims and the legal problems went away. But the public perception did not and this is likely why shortly after the crimes Jose decided the family would move to Beverly Hills.
The brothers' attorney's plan worked the first time and Leslie Abramson got a hung jury.
But it wouldn't last, LA Prosecutor Gil Garcetti, who was involved in the OJ case as well, immediately re-filed the case and took Lyle and Erik to trial again. Though no new evidence was introduced, this time the Menendez Brothers lost and they were sent up the river for the rest of their lives.
OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, Casey Anthony, Scott Peterson, Phil Spector, the list goes on and on. They were all complete media circuses. Sometimes it's the fame of the defendant, sometimes it's the horror of the crime, sometimes it is something more intangible, but whatever the reason, people get entranced by these kinds of stories.
The Menendez Brothers murders were the first in this modern version of the "Trial Of The Century" and created the template for how the media covers them, breathlessly and exhaustively.
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