Lyle and Erik Menendez
A tragic event in my personal life changed me forever. In 1982, my only daughter, Dominique, was murdered by a former boyfriend, John Sweeney, who stalked her and strangled her. I had never attended a trial until that of the man who murdered my daughter....What I witnessed in the courtroom enraged me and redirected me. The lies that are tolerated shocked me, as did the show-business aspect that has taken over the justice system. My daughter's killer was "costumed" like a sacristan in a Catholic seminary. For a prop, he carried a Bible, which he read throughout the trial in a pious fashion. He was presented as a blue-collar boy who had fallen in love with a Beverly Hills society girl. How I hated his lawyer. I learned in that courtroom that the rights of the victim do not equate with the rights of the defendant. Anything can be said about the dead, and much was, but the killer's grave past offenses as a beater of women were kept from the jury....The trial was a travesty....The judge had a personal animosity toward the prosecutor. How I hated that judge. The jury fell for the Bible-reading act, and John Sweeney, who has subsequently changed his name, received a sentence of six years, which was automatically reduced to three. He was released from prison after two and a half....My rage needed a release from the persistent plan in my mind to hire someone to kill him, an obsession I had for months, which is not an uncommon reaction for the parent of a murdered child. But, unlike the killer, I would have ended up in prison for life. Instead, I wrote about the murder....The first magazine article I ever wrote is the story of that trial. It appeared in Vanity Fair in March 1984....I became fascinated by trials.
On a recent New York-to-Los Angeles trip on MGM Grand Air, that most luxurious of all coast-to-coast flights, I was chilled to the bone marrow during a brief encounter with a fellow passenger, a boy of perhaps fourteen, or fifteen, or maybe even sixteen....During the meal, we talked. A week before, two rich and privileged young men named Lyle and Erik Menendez had been arrested for the brutal slaying of their parents in the family's $5 million mansion on Elm Drive, a sedate tree-lined street that is considered one of the most prestigious addresses in Beverly Hills. The tale in all its gory grimness was the cover story that week in People magazine, many copies of which were being read on the plane.
....His home was in the same general area as the house where Kitty and Jose Menendez had been gunned down several months earlier in a fusillade of fourteen twelve-gauge shotgun blasts -- five to the head and body of the father, nine to the face and body of the mother -- that left them virtually unrecognizable as human beings, according to eyewitness reports. The slaying was so violent that it was assumed at first to have been of Mafia origins -- a hit, or Mob rubout, as it was called, even in the Wall Street Journal. The arrest of the two handsome, athletic Menendez sons after so many months of investigation had shocked an unshockable community.
...."A terrible thing," I said.
"Yeah," he replied, "but I heard the father was pretty rough on those kids."
....Patricide is not an altogether new crime in the second echelon of Southland society. Nor is matricide. On March 24, 1983, twenty-year-old Michael Miller, the son of President Reagan's personal lawyer, Roy Miller, raped and clubbed to death his mother, Marguerite. In a minimally publicized trial, from which the media was barred, Miller was found guilty of first-degree murder but was acquitted on the rape charge, presumably on the technicality that the rape had occurred after his mother was dead. The judge then ruled that young Miller, who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, was legally innocent of murder by reason of insanity....He was sent to Patton State Hospital, a mental institution in California.
On July 22, 1983, in a Sunset Boulevard mansion in Bel Air, twenty-year-old Ricky Kyle shot his father, millionaire Henry Harrison Kyle, the president of Four Star International, a television-and-movie-production firm, in the back after awakening him in the middle of the night to tell him there was a prowler in the house. Several witnesses testified that Ricky had confided in them about a longstanding desire to kill his father, who was alleged to have been physically and mentally abusive to his son. The prosecution argued that Ricky was consumed with hatred for his father and greed for his fortune, and that, fearing that he was about to be disinherited, he plotted the ruse of the prowler. With the extraordinary leniency of the Southern California courts for first-time murderers, young Kyle was sentenced to five years for the slaying....
One other case...should be mentioned: the Salvatierra murder, which received international attention. In 1986, Oscar Salvatierra, the Los Angeles-based executive of a newspaper called Philippine News, was whot while he was asleep in bed, after having received a death threat that was at first believed to be tied to the newspaper's opposition to former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. Later, Arnel Salvatierra, his seventeen-year-old son, admitted sending the letter and killing his father. In court, Arnel Salvatierra's lawyer [Leslie Abramson] convinced the jury that Arnel was the victim of a lifetime of physical and psychological abuse by his father....Arnel Salvatierra, who had been charged with first-degree murder, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and placed on probation.
This story is relevant to the Menendez case in that the same Leslie Abramson is one-half the team defending the affluent Menendez brothers. Her client is Erik Menendez, the younger brother. Gerald Chaleff, with whom she frequently teams, is representing Lyle....It is rumored that Abramson and Chaleff are each being paid $700,000. Psychological abuse is a constant theme in articles written about the brothers, and will probably be the basis of the defense strategy when the case comes to trial. There are even whispers -- shocker of shockers -- of sexual abuse in the Menendez family.
Jose Enrique Menendez was an American success story. A Cuban emigre, he was sent to the United States by his parents in 1960 at age fifteen to escape from Castro's Cuba. He earned a degree in accounting at Queens College in Flushing, New York....Then began a career of astonishing ascendancy which took him through Hertz...to the record division of RCA, where he signed such high-earning acts as Menudo, the Eurythmics, and Duran Duran....Then he leapfrogged to I.V.E., International Video Entertainment, a video distributor which eventually became Live Entertainment, a division of the hugely successful Carolco Pictures, the company that produced the Rambo films of Sylvester Stallone as well as some of Arnold Schwarzenegger's action films. Jose Menendez's success at Live Entertainment was dazzling. In 1986 the company lost $20 million; a year later, under Menendez, Live earned $8 million and in 1988 doubled that....
On the evening of...August 20, 1989, the seemingly idyllic world that Jose Menendez had created was shattered....Later, after everything happened, a neighbor would report hearing sounds like firecrackers coming from the house at about ten o' clock, but he took no notice. It wasn't until a hysterical 911 call came in to the Beverly Hills police station around midnight that there was any indication that the sounds had not been made by firecrackers. The sons of the house, Lyle and Erik...parked their car in the courtyard, entered the house by the front door, and found their parents dead, sprawled on the floor and couch in the television room. In shock at the grisly sight, Lyle telephoned for help....
Another neighbor said on television that she had seen one of the Menendez boys curled up in a ball on the lawn in front of their house and screaming in grief. "I have heard of very few murders that were more savage," said Beverly Hills police chief Marvin iannone. Dan Stewart, a retired police detective hired by the family to investigate the murders, gave the most graphic description of the sight in the television room. "I've seen a lot of homicides, but nothing quite that brutal. Blood, flesh, skulls. It would be hard to describe, especially Jose, as resembling a human being...."
The prevalent theory in the days following the murders was that it had to be a Mob hit. Erik Menendez went so far as to point the finger at Noel Bloom, a distributor of pornographic films and a former associate of the Bonanno organized-crime family, as a possible suspect. Erik told police and early reporters on the story that Bloom and his father had despised each other after a business deal turned sour. (When questioned, Bloom denied any involvement whatsoever.)....
Seven months later, after the boys were arrested, I visited the house on Elm Drive....Trying to imagine what happened that night, I found it unlikely that the boys -- if indeed it was the boys, and there is a very vocal contingent who believe it was not -- would have come down the stairs with the guns, turned right, and entered the television room, facing their parents. Since Jose was hit point-blank in the back of the head, it seems far more likely that the killers entered the television room through the terrace doors behind the sofa on which Kitty and Jose were sitting, their backs to the doors, facing the television set...It is not far-fetched to imagine that splatterings of blood and guts found their way onto the clothes and shoes of the killers, which would have necessitated a change of clothing and possibly a shower. There is no way the killers could have gone up the stairs, however; the blood on their shoes would have left tracks on the pale green stair carpet....What probably happened is that the killers retreated out the same terrace doors they had entered, and went back to the guesthouse to shower and change into clothes they had left there....One of the most interesting aspects of the case is that the fourteen shell casings were picked up and removed. I have been told that such fastidiousness is out of character in a Mafia hit, where a speedy getaway is essential....The car the killers left in was probably parked in the guesthouse garage; from there they could make their exit unobserved down the alley behind the house....
....Erik Menendez allegedly drove south to San Diego and purchased two Mossberg twelve-gauge shotguns in a Big 5 sporting-goods store, using for identification the stolen driver's license of a young man named Donovan Goodreau....Goodreau has subsequently said on television that he can prove he was in New York at the time of the gun purchase in San Diego. Goodreau had once roomed with Jamie Pisarcik, who was, and still is, Lyle Menendez's girlfriend and stalwart supporter, visiting him daily in jail and attending his every court session. When Goodreau stopped rooming with Jamie, he moved into Lyle's room at Princeton, which was against the rules, since he was not a student at the university....
....Over the previous two years, the handsome, athletic, and gifted Menendez sons had been getting into trouble. Although a great friend of the boys dismissed their scrapes as merely "rich kids' sick jokes," two events occurred in Calabasas, where the family lived before the move to Beverly Hills, that were to have momentous consequences for all the members of the family. The brothers got involved in two very serious criminal offenses, a burglary of the home of Michael Warren Ginsberg in Calabasas and grand theft auto at the home of John Richard List in Hidden Hills. In total, more than $100,000 in money and jewels was taken from the two houses -- not an insignificant sum.
Jose dealt with his sons' transgressions the way he would deal with any prickly business problem, said a business associate, by "minimizing the damage and going forward, fixing something that was broken without actually dealing with the problem." He simply took over and solved it. The money and jewels were returned, and $11,000 in damages was paid. Since Erik was underage, it was decided that he would take the fall for both brothers, thereby safeguarding Jose's dream of having Lyle study at Princeton....Everything was solved to perfection. Erik got probation, no more....
A further setback for the family, also partly covered up, had occurred the previous winter, when Lyle was suspended from Princeton after one semester for cheating in Psychology 101....This was a grave blow to Jose, who loved to tell people that he had a son in Princeton....In a typical reaction, Jose became more angry at the school than he was at his son. He urged Lyle to stay on in Princeton rather than return to Beverly Hills, so that he would not have to admit to anyone that Lyle had been kicked out.
....[F]or all the seeming closeness of the family, the sons were proving to be disappointments, even failures, in the eyes of the perfection-demanding father. Jose had apparently come to the end of financing his recalcitrant son's rebellion, and there are indications that he planned to revise his will.
....Like his father, Lyle is said to have been a great ladies' man, which pleased Jose, but several of Lyle's girlfriends, mostly older than he, were not considered to be suitable by his parents, and clashes occurred. When Jose forbade Lyle to go to Europe with an older girlfriend, Lyle went anyway. A person extremely close to the family told me that another of Lyle's girlfriends...was "manipulating him," which I took to mean manipulating him into marriage. This girl became pregnant. Jose, in his usual manner of dealing with his son's problems, moved in and paid off the girl to abort the child. The manner of Jose's interference in so personal a matter...is said to have infuriated Lyle and caused a deep rift between father and son. Lyle moved out of the main house into the guesthouse at the back of the property. He was still living there at the time of the murders, although Erik continued to live in the main house....
From the beginning, the police were disinclined to buy the highly publicized Mafia-hit story, on the grounds that Mafia hits are rarely done in the home, that the victim is usually executed with a single shot to the back of the head, and that the wife is not usually killed also. The hit, if hit it was, looked more like a Colombian drug-lord hit; like the bloody massacre carried out by Al Pacino in the film Scarface, which, incidentally, was one of Lyle's favorite movies.
Months later, after the arrests, the Beverly Hills police claimed to have been suspicious of the Menendez brothers from the beginning, even from the first night...."When both parents are hit, our feeling is usually that the kids did it," said a Beverly Hills police officer. Another officer declared, two days after the event, "These kids fried their parents. They cooked them." But there was no proof, nothing to go on, merely gut reactions.
Inadvertently, the boys brought suspicion upon themselves....[A]s new heirs, they embarked on a spending spree that even the merriest widow, who had married for money, would have refrained from going on -- for propriety's sake, if nothing else -- in the first flush of her mourning period. They bought and bought and bought. Estimates of their spending have gone as high as $700,000. Lyle bought a $60,000 Porsche 911 Carrera to replace the Alfa Romeo his father had given him....Erik hired a $50,000-a-year tennis coach. Lyle decided to go into the restaurant business, and paid a reported $550,000 for a cafeteria-style eatery in Princeton....The police were also aware that Lyle Menendez had hired a computer expert who eradicated from the hard disk of the family computer a revised will that Jose had been working on. Most remarkable of all was that, unlike the families of most homicide victims, the sons of Jose and Kitty Menendez did not have the obsessive interest in the police search for the killers of their parents that usually supersedes all else in the wake of such a tragedy.
As the CEO of Live Entertainment, Jose Menendez earned a base pay of $500,000 a year, with a maximum bonus of $850,000 based on the company's yearly earnings. On top of that, there were life-insurance policies. An interesting sidebar to the story concerns two policies that were thought to have been taken out on Menendez by Live Entertainment. The bigger of the two was a $15 million keyman policy....Live Entertainment was also required to maintain a second policy on Menendez in the amount of $5 million, with the beneficiary to be named by him....Presumably, the beneficiary of the insurance policy would have been the same as the beneficiary of Jose's will. In the will, it was stated that if Kitty died first everything would go to Jose, and if Jose died first everything would go to Kitty. In the event that both died, everything would go to the boys.
The murders happened on a Sunday night. On the afternoon of the following Tuesday, Lyle and Erik, accompanied by two uncles, Kitty's brother Brian Andersen and Jose's brother-in-law Carlos Baralt, who was the executor of Jose's will, met with officials of Live Entertainment at the company's headquarters to go over Jose's financial situation. At the meeting, it became the difficult duty of Jose's successor to inform the heirs that the $5 million policy...had not gone into effect, because Jose had failed to take the required physical examination, believing that the one he had taken for the $15 million policy applied to both policies. It did not. A person present at that meeting told me of the resounding silence that followed the reception of that information....
....[A]n attractive thirty-seven-year-old woman named Judalon Rose Smyth, pronounced Smith, was living out her own drama in a complicated love affair. Judalon Smyth's lover was a Beverly Hills psychologist named Jerome Oziel....Dr. Oziel was the same Dr. Oziel whom Kitty Menendez's psychologist, Lee Summerfield, had recommended to her a year earlier as the doctor for her troubled son....Judalon Smyth...was as unknown to Lyle and Erik as they were to her, and yet, seven months from the time of the double murder, she would be responsible for their arrest on the charge of killing their parents.
On March 8, Lyle Menendez was flagged down by more than a dozen heavily armed Beverly Hills policemen as he was leaving the house on Elm Drive....Three days earlier, Judalon Smyth had contacted the police...and told them of the existence of audiotapes in the Bedford Drive office of Dr. Oziel on which the Menendez brothers had allegedly confessed to the murders of their parents. She also told police that the brothers had threatened to kill Oziel if he reported them. Lastly, she told them that the two twelve-gauge shotguns had been purchased at a sporting-goods store in San Diego. All of this information was unknown to the Beverly Hills police, after seven months of investigation. They obtained a subpoena to search all of Oziel's locations. The tapes were found in a safe-deposit box in a bank on Ventura Boulevard.
....Erik was playing in a tennis tournament in Israel....[He] flew to Miami, where several members of the Menendez side of the family reside. An aunt advised him to return to Los Angeles and turn himself in. Erik notified police of his travel plans and gave himself up at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was taken into custody....
According Judalon Smyth, and the California Court of Appeals decision, she had stood outside the door of Dr. Oziel's office and, unbeknownst to the Menendez brothers, listened to their confession and threats. Dr. Oziel has denied this.
At the end of October, Smyth told me, Oziel got a call from Erik, who said he needed to talk to them. Erik came at four in the afternoon of Halloween, October 31, to the office at 435 North Bedford Drive....Once there, Erik did not want to talk in the office, so he and Oziel went for a walk. On the walk, according to Smyth, Erik confessed that he and his brother had killed their parents....According to Smyth, Oziel wanted Erik to tell Lyle that he had confessed to him. Erik did not want to do that. He said that he and Lyle were soon going to the Caribbean to get rid of the guns and that he would tell him then. The plan, according to Erik, was to break down the guns, put them into suitcases, and drop the bags in the Caribbean. On the night of the murders, the boys had hidden the two shotguns in the trunk of one of their parents' car in the garage. The police had searched only the cars in the courtyard in front of the house, not the cars in the garage. Subsequently, the boys had buried the guns on Mulholland Drive. Dr. Oziel convinced Erik that the boys would certainly be caught if they were carrying guns in their luggage. He also persuaded him to call Lyle and ask him to come to the office immediately.
It took ten minutes for Lyle to get to the office from the house on Elm Drive. Smyth says he did not know before he got there that Erik had confessed. When he walked into the waiting room, he picked up a magazine and chatted briefly with Smyth, assuming that she was another patient....Oziel came out and asked Lyle to come in.
According to the California Court of Appeals decision, Smyth says she listened through the door to the doctor's meeting with the boys and heard Lyle become furious with Erik for having confessed. She told me he made threats to Oziel that they were going to kill him. "I never thought I believed in evil, but when I heard those boys speak, I did," she said.
The particulars of the murders she is not allowed to discuss...but occasionally, in our conversation, things would creep in. "They did go to the theater to buy the tickets," she said one time. Or, "The mother kept moving, which is why she was hit more." Or, "If they just killed the father, the mother would have inherited the money. So they had to kill her too." Or, "Lyle said he thought he committed the perfect murder, that his father would have had to congratulate him -- for once, he couldn't put him down."
....She said that Oziel convinced the boys "...that if they were arrested he would be their only ally. He was the only one who knew they were abused children, who knew how horrible their home life was, who knew that Jose was a monster father, who knew that Kitty was an abused wife. He convinced them that if they had any hope of ever getting off, they needed him."
In the days that followed, Smyth told several people what she had heard....As self-protection, she told [two friends, Bruce and Grant] that the Menendez boys had killed their parents. She also told her mother and father and her best friend, Donna.
Meanwhile, the personal relationship between Smyth and Oziel deteriorated....Smyth charges that on or about February 16, 1990, defendant Oziel "placedh is hands around her throat attempting to choke her, and pulled her hair with great force. Subsequently, on the same day, Defendant Oziel forced Smyth to engage in an act of forcible and unconsented sexual intercourse." According to the California Court of Appeals decision, approximately three weeks after the alleged attack, Smyth contacted the police in Beverly Hills to inform them about the confession she said the Menendez brothers had made to Oziel.
During the arraignment in the Beverly Hills courthouse, I was struck by the glamour of the young Menendez brothers, whom I was seeing face-to-face for the first time. They entered the courtroom, heads held high, like leading actors in a television series. They walked like colts. Their clothes, if not by Armani himself, were by a designer heavily influenced by Armani....Their demeanor seemed remarkably lighthearted for people in the kind of trouble they were in, as they smiled dimpled smiles and laughed at the steady stream of [defense attorney Leslie] Abramson's jocular banter....
Leslie Abramson....is funny. She is fearless. And she is tough....She is considered one of the most merciless cross-examiners in the legal business, with a remarkable ability to degrade and confuse prosecution witnesses. "She loves to intimidate people," I was told. "She thrives on it. She knows when she has you. She can twist and turn a witnesse's memory like no one else can." John Gregory Dunne, in his 1987 novel The Red White and Blue, based the character Leah Kaye, a left-leaning criminal-defense attorney, on Leslie Abramson.
Five months had passed since the arrest. Five months of hearings and deliberations to see whether the audiotapes of Dr. Jerome Oziel were admissible....Police seizure of therapy tapes is rare, because ordinary conversations between patients and therapists are secret. But there are occasional exceptions to the secrecy rule, one being that the therapist believes the patient is a serious threat to himself or others....
Leslie Abramson...went to Judge James Albract's chambers to hear his ruling on the admissibility of the tapes before it was read to the court....The fierce demeanor of...Abramson when she returned...left no doubt that the judge's ruling had not gone in favor of the defense....
"I have ruled that none of the communications are privileged," said the judge. There was an audible sound of dismay from the Menendez family members. The tapes would be admissible....There was no doubt that this was a serious setback to the defense....
A mere eight days later, in a stunning reversal of Judge Albract's ruling, the 2nd District Court of Appeals blocked the release of the tapes....Another complication occurred when Erik Menendez, from jail, refused to provide the prosecution with a handwriting sample to compare with the handwriting found on forms for the purchase of two shotguns in San Diego, despite a warning by the court that his refusal to do so could be used as evidence against him.
Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner stated on television that one motive for the murders was greed. Certainly it is possible for a child to kill his parents for money, to wish to continue the easy life on easy street without the encumbrance of parental restrictions. But is it really possible for a child to kill, for merely financial gain, in the manner Kitty and Jose Menendez were killed?....In this case, we have two children who allegedly participated in the killing of each parent, not in the heat of rage but in a carefully orchestrated scenario after a long gestation period. There is more than money involved here. There is a deep, deep hatred, a hatred that goes beyond hate.
The closest friend of the Menendez brothers, with whom I talked at length on the condition of anonymity, kept saying to me over and over, "It's only the tip of the iceberg." No amount of persuasion on my part could make him explain what the iceberg was. Months earlier, however, a person close to the situation mouthed but did not speak the word "incest" to me....Could it be possible that these boys were puppets of their father's dark side? "They had sexual hatred for their parents," one of the friends told me. This same person went on to say, "The tapes will show that Jose molested Lyle at a very young age."
Is this true? Only the boys know. If it is, it could be the defense argument that will return them to their tennis court, swimming pool, and chess set, as inheritors of a $14 million estate that they could not have inherited if they had been found guilty.
The trial went on for months. Erik and Lyle Menendez, the young killers, became romantic figures in the televised proceedings. In cases of high crime, I've never made any attempt to present a balanced picture. This was no exception. I was appalled by the lies I heard defense attorneys tell in the courtroom. I became despised by Leslie Abramson, the lead defense attorney. I couldn't have cared less. The trial ended in a hung jury, which was considered a victory for the defense. Their luck did not hold for the second trial. They are both doing life without the possibility of parole in separate prisons in California.
NOTE: On February 27, 1998, the California Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of Lyle and Erik Menendez. On May 28, 1998, the California Supreme Court upheld the convictions and life-without-parole sentences.