"Someone killed my parents!"
Those are the words a 21--year-old Lyle Menendez screamed into the phone at the 911 operator on the fateful night of August 20, 1989.
Let’s face it: we’ve all had that moment (or moments) where we hated our parents. Maybe it came at age five when Dad wouldn’t let you have that dish of ice cream before dinner. Maybe it came during your teen years when you were sure your Mom favored your younger brother and you had several incidents you could list to prove it. The point is, the feeling isn’t all that uncommon.
Acting on it is another story.
Lyle and Erik Menendez broke a basic taboo when they murdered their parents, and that’s why the story continues to fascinate nearly thirty years after the murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez. With a wealthy setting among Hollywood’s elite and a twisted history to both the murders and their subsequent investigation, the question remains: what could drive children to savagely kill their own parents? What kind of people could possibly do that?
Every corner you take researching the family, the murder, and what came afterward just leads to more secrets and disturbing details. Here are some of the facts you missed the first time around.
15 They Nearly Decapitated Their Father
Jose and Kitty Menendez were sitting on a couch in the den, watching the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me when Lyle and Erik entered the room on that evening of August 20, 1989. Both brothers were armed with 12-gauge shotguns. Apparently, it was Erik who went into action first, shooting Jose’s arm, and then Lyle killed his father instantly with a gunshot to the back of the head. It’s likely he never saw it coming. The shot was so violent that it nearly blew off his skull, literally. Possibly, the idea was to get the still physically strong father out of the way first. Jose was shot another three times at close range. When pictures of the scene were shown in court, people gasped at the incredibly violent scene.
14 The Brothers Paused To Reload
When Lyle and Erik walked into the room, Kitty’s head was resting on Jose’s lap as they watched TV. Once Lyle had shot Jose in the head, Kitty naturally sat up and tried to get away at first. She was shot about ten times in all, and unlike Jose, did not die right away. She was shot in the chest, arms, and legs. The room was sprayed with bullets and bits of flesh as the brothers poured shot after shot into her. Then, Lyle and Erik ran out of bullets, and they had to leave the room to go back to the car and reload. Kitty was still alive at that point, moaning and trying to crawl away but only until they came back into the room. As she looked up at him, Erik shot her in the face, taking out her nose and her left eye. Neither Jose nor Kitty were recognizable when the boys were done.
13 They Blew The Perfect Act
Right after finishing off the parents, the brothers tried to establish an alibi for themselves by rushing out to the movies. They had apparently tried to see Batman, but it was sold out, so they went to see another James Bond flick, License to Kill. Oh, the irony. They even met up with some friends after the movie for drinks to make it look on the level before going home to act out the discovery of the bodies and make that call to 911. When the police first arrived, both brothers went into Academy Award level acting mode. Lyle was crying hysterically, getting the sympathy of police and emergency services workers, while Erik was balled up in a fetal position on the front lawn, babbling incoherently. The performance was so convincing that the police never tested them for gunshot residue – which would've obviously been a crucial piece of evidence. In fact, it wasn’t for another two months that investigators got the idea to question the two formally. What happened in the meantime? A giant spending spree. Within days, Lyle had bought a Porsche for $64,000, and a $15,000 Rolex. He even bought a restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, where the family had lived when he was a child. Erik got a Jeep Wrangler. A competitive tennis player – at his father’s insistence – Erik also hired a $60,000-a-year tennis coach and financed a trip to Israel to compete in tournaments there. All in all the pair racked up close to half a million dollars in purchases in the months right after the murders. It set off red flags for investigators.
12 Staging A Mafia Hit
The crime scene was so bloody and horrific, the murders so violent, that police found it easy to believe Lyle when he tried to sell them a story about his father’s connections to Colombian drug cartels and the Sicilian Mafia. He pointed them strongly in the direction of a mob hit, and one detail seemed to bear the theory out – both Kitty and Jose had been shot in the kneecaps, allegedly a classic mob detail. "It was definitely a message killing. There's no question it's organized crime," an unnamed source told the Los Angeles Times in a story that was published at the time of the murders. Jose Menendez was CEO of Live Entertainment, Inc. at the time, a company Lyle suggested was involved with underworld figures. Still, the overkill of the murders eventually turned police more in the direction of a personal motive.
11 Claims Of Abuse
The brothers were eventually arrested in March of 1990, and once the trial was underway, the most shocking testimony came from Lyle and Erik themselves. Both brothers alleged that the murders had been the violent culmination of a lifetime of sexual and emotional abuse from both parents. Erik's attorney, Leslie Abramson, claimed both brothers were physically abused and sexually molested by their father. The details were awful and Lyle said on the witness stand that his mother had also participated in the sexual abuse. Naturally, the prosecution – and many media and other observers – were skeptical of the claims and pointed out the brothers had the advantage of several months to cook up a story; sexual abuse was the only defense they could use. At the time the allegations were unproven, but in 2017, a cousin of Erik and Lyle named Diane Vander Molen claimed an interview that she had been aware that Lyle Menendez was being molested by his father. She says that Lyle was afraid of his father coming into his room at night and that Jose had been touching him. Vander Molen says she told Kitty about what was going on, but Kitty said she didn’t believe it. Lyle also claimed that the abuse included his father sticking tacks into his thighs.
10 Alleged Childhood Horrors
If even a portion of the allegations against Jose and Kitty Menendez are true, the boys grew up in a true house of horrors. Even after hearing the detailed accusations of gross sexual and physical abuse against both parents, jurors and courtroom observers were unprepared when Lyle took the stand and came out with the admission that, according to his story, after years of abuse at his father’s hands, he had become an abuser himself and molested his own brother Erik. At the trial, both brothers and many others in the courtroom were in tears. The relationship between the brothers had always been somewhat out of the ordinary, according to many who knew the family. The two were overly attached for brothers that were three years apart, with Erik idolizing his older sibling. They were dependent on each other and most importantly, multiplied each other's bad behaviors. Cousin Diane Vander Molen has said in newspaper interviews that during a family visit in 1982, when the boys were 15 and 12, a playful wrestling game turned into sexual assault that only stopped when she screamed.
9 Burglary Rap
The Menendez brothers truly lived in the lap of luxury. The family home had once been owned by both Elton John and Prince. The 9,000 square-foot mansion included an Olympic-sized swimming pool and tennis court, among other things. But the high life wasn’t enough for Lyle and Erik, who found themselves in trouble with the law long before they were arrested for their parents’ murders. Lyle and some buddies got the idea to rob the rich homes of Beverly Hills, and he quickly drew Erik into the scheme. According to reports, the pair robbed the homes of the rich and famous to the tune of over $100,000 in cash and jewelry before they were caught. They got out of it with a sleazy deal arranged by Jose. Erik was still a juvenile, so he took the blame and a slap on the wrist. Jose paid off the burglary victims to keep Lyle out of the big house. Even though he’d bailed them out and paid everyone off, though, Jose was reportedly furious at his sons. He was so angry, in fact, that he was threatening to change his will to cut a chunk from their inheritance.
8 They Say Jose Menendez Was A Controlling Jerk
Whether or not you buy the allegations of sexual abuse, those close to the family seemed to agree that Jose was a controlling, sometimes violent man who would berate his sons mercilessly in public. Jose married Kitty at only 19 years old, just three years after coming to the United States from Cuba. He worked his way up from dishwasher to entertainment industry executive, and reportedly wasn’t a pleasant man for the experience, even though he’d achieved financial success. On the way, he moved the family from New Jersey to California. Jose was said to control his family completely. He told his wife and children what to eat, who they could be friends with, and even what they could read. They had to tell him where they were every minute of every day. Teachers said the boys were immature and had difficulties learning, but they claimed Jose wouldn't listen to their concerns.
7 Erik Menendez Wrote A Screenplay About A Guy Who Kills His Parents For Insurance Money
It’s a mystery why certain murderers seem to have the uncontrollable urge to announce their actions to the world, even as they’re pretending to be innocent. Before the murders, Erik Menendez spent some time in a cabin with a friend writing a screenplay entitled "Friends" about a rich young dude who kills his parents to cash in on an insurance settlement. The screenplay became important during the trial when prosecutors used it as part of their counter-argument to the allegations the brothers had been raped and abused by their parents. In the prosecution’s version of events, the brothers were greedy scumbags who couldn’t wait to get their inheritance. They drew direct links between details the script, in particular, the opening scene, and the murders as they actually happened in real life. They also pointed out similarities to The Billionaire Boys Club, a 1987 TV mini-series about a Ponzi scheme run by a social club in SoCal. When the Ponzi scheme falls apart, the group takes to murder.
6 Not Princeton Material
Like a lot of successful men who worked their way up from the bottom, Jose Menendez wanted his sons to take a different path and insisted that they go to Ivy League universities. At least, he tried. Erik drifted in and out of a job at his father’s company, then into the languid lifestyle of a competitive tennis player – with Dad footing most of the bills. Jose had higher hopes for Lyle, but the boy was a lackluster student with a mediocre to dismal academic record. His chances of getting into Princeton were slim, to begin with, until, that is, his father made a donation of $50,000 to the University. Lyle was accepted into Princeton. For a time. He was quickly placed on academic probation because of lousy grades and -- surprise! -- disciplinary issues. Then, he blew it when he got caught plagiarizing a paper. His father tried to intervene again, but this time it didn’t work, and Lyle was suspended.
5 Erik Menendez Fesses Up
Erik was the weak link in the murderous duo. Even though the police were very slow to begin investigating the brothers, Erik’s guilt apparently ate at his conscience. He confessed the murders to his therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel. Dr. Oziel was apparently so freaked out by Erik’s admission that he got his girlfriend of the time to pretend she was a patient in the waiting room when Erik came in. He felt that he’d be safer if Erik knew there was someone else present as a witness. She also recorded some of the conversations for him. Dr. Oziel sat on that information for five months, however. According to California State law, communications between a psychotherapist and their patients are privileged and can't be demanded in court, with the exception of "situations where the psychotherapist reasonably believes that the patient's mental condition makes him/her dangerous to him/herself, to someone else, or to someone else's property." When Dr. Oziel and his girlfriend broke up, she went to the police with the information. Bizarre side note: Dr. Oziel subsequently lost his license to practice over allegations of sexual misconduct with patients.
4 Lyle Threatens To Kill The Psychologist
Lyle, obviously being the cooler head of the two, was not happy that his brother was spilling the beans to anyone, even his therapist, so Lyle arranged for his own visit with the good doctor and made sure to threaten Dr. Oziel and his girlfriend with death if he ratted them out to the cops. That, as it turns out, was one of the conversations that Oziel’s girlfriend ended up capturing on tape. Once the police had the tapes, it led to the arrests of the two brothers within two months in March 1990. Lyle was arrested by Beverly Hills police. Erik was in Israel; he turned himself in to police when he returned to the US a few days later. Whether or not the tapes were admissible became a key issue and subject to many hearings. Eventually, the California Supreme Court ruled that Lyle’s threats of violence – documented in the recordings – negated doctor-client privilege and that the tapes could be used as evidence against him.
3 Money For Justice
The Menendez trials could be a case study on how the justice system works when you have money – and how it works when you don’t. During the first set of trials, the brothers still had access to their family’s fortune. The case was split into two trials. These first two trials were showpieces, each played out in their entirety live on Court TV (which later became TruTV). There were experts who commented on the proceedings as they happened, and it helped turn the fledgling station into a media sensation. The sexual abuse allegations cast enough of a shadow over the evidence that the jury in Erik’s trial deliberated for 16 days before admitting they’d never reach a unanimous verdict. It took Lyle’s jury 28 days to reach the same conclusion, with mistrials declared in both cases. But, by the second round, the Menendez coffers were running considerably lower. There was one trial for both brothers, there was no TV coverage, the sexual abuse allegations were not allowed due to the fact they were unsubstantiated, and the juries convicted both of double murder.
2 Prison Penpal Love
The fact both brothers were attractive was cited by many as being one of the reasons that authorities were slow to see Lyle and Erik as suspects in the horrific murders. We can’t know for sure, of course, but from all reports, the two were considered cool with the ladies during their high school days. Lyle, in particular, was known to be popular with the opposite sex. The murders cut all that short, obviously, but love seems to have found the pair even in prison. Erik has been married to a woman named Tammi Saccoman, whom he met as a pen pal in 1999. She told People magazine in an interview, "My family does not understand. When it started to get serious, some of them just threw up their hands." Lyle has been married twice, first in 1996, and more recently, in 2003, to magazine editor Rebecca Sneed. California State Law doesn't allow inmates serving life sentences to have conjugal visits, so the marriages have only involved holding hands and hugging during visits.
1 Split Apart
After a childhood and teen years in a dysfunctional, toxic, and eventually murderous relationship, the two brothers have not seen each other since 1996 and will likely never set eyes on each other again. As per California State regulations, the co-murderers will forever be housed in separate facilities. Lyle Menendez is serving two consecutive life prison terms at the Mule Creek State Prison near Sacramento. Erik is likewise serving two consecutive life sentences at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County. Reports claim the two brothers now only communicate by mail, playing chess games by mailing each other the next moves. It’s a long game, but when you have all the time in the world, why rush?