Thirty years ago this week, a shocking crime unfolded in a Beverly Hills mansion.
Lyle and Erik Menendez had grown up as children of privilege living in Beverly Hills, with the world seemingly at their fingertips. But everything changed on August 20, 1989, with the gruesome shotgun slayings of their parents, José and Kitty.
For months, the case went unsolved — until police closed in on the brothers, who had been living lavishly on their parents’ fortune.
The murders — and the resulting media frenzy — pulled back the curtain on a dysfunctional family. The brothers claimed that their father was a harsh perfectionist who physically and sexually abused them. Their mother, they claimed, was a mentally unstable alcoholic. The brothers were tried three separate times for the crimes, and were ultimately convicted in 1996 of first-degree murder. They are currently imprisoned in the same California prison.
Below is the 1990 PEOPLE cover story about the shocking case.
The door opens, exposing the luxurious suite and Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell lying in bed. Their faces are of questioning horror as Hamilton closes the door gently…. Zoom camera to [typing] paper; it reads ‘Five deaths to perfection—Chapter One: Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Cromwell.’ “
The 61-page screenplay, briefly excerpted in the Los Angeles Times, is about an 18-year-old who murders his parents for their money. Amateurish and banal, it was unlikely ever to have been made into a movie. But the story line was not without interest, particularly to investigators looking into the brutal murder of a Cuban-born Hollywood millionaire and his wife. It was written, after all, by the couple’s younger son, Erik.
Yet the script’s existence, intriguing though it was, seemed for a time merely coincidence. Last Aug. 20, when the blood-spattered corpses of Jose Menendez and his wife, Mary Louise (“Kitty”), were found in the den of their $5 million Beverly Hills mansion, the evidence pointed to a mob hit. Jose, 45, chief executive of Live Entertainment, a prominent music-and-video distribution company, had been struck by eight shotgun blasts. In what had the look of a gangland-style coup de grace, the barrel of a gun had been thrust into his mouth, and the explosion had blown off the back of his head. Kitty, 44, had been shot five times. The bodies were found by the couple’s sons, Lyle, 22, and Erik, 19, who told police they had returned from a night on the town to find the front door of the family’s Italianate mansion open and their parents’ lifeless bodies within. “I’ve never seen anything like it, never will see anything like it,” Erik told a reporter two months after the murders. “They looked like wax. I’ve never seen my dad helpless, and it’s sad to think he would ever be.” Then Erik noted an irony. “He went to the U.S. at 16 without a father. Now, almost at the same age, we don’t have a father.”
Police at first began looking for clues in Jose Menendez’s complicated business affairs. But the two handsome sons were never totally beyond suspicion; they were the sole beneficiaries of their parents’ estimated $14 million estate, and there was the matter of that curious screenplay. Erik Menendez had written it with a friend just two years ago, and his proud mother had even helped type it. Though the two weapons police believe were used in the killings were never recovered, a shotgun shell casing was discovered by a friend in a pocket of one of Lyle’s jackets. One of Jose’s relatives found a reference to a will on Jose’s home computer but did not know how to gain access to the document. Before a computer expert could be summoned to locate the file containing the will, it was erased. Marta Cano, Jose’s sister, says Lyle did it by mistake.
Later, in a highly unusual move, investigators obtained cassette tapes of therapy sessions conducted with Erik and Lyle by a Beverly Hills psychologist, L. Jerome Oziel. The tapes are said to contain crucial evidence against the brothers. Although California law protects the confidentiality of most patient-therapist relationships, it makes an exception when there is a threat of violence. According to Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Elliott Alhadeff, the brothers had threatened Oziel.
Early this month the police moved. Lyle Menendez was arrested by police who stopped him and two friends shortly after they left the family’s Beverly Hills home. Three days later his brother was arrested at the Los Angeles airport, after flying home from Israel, where he had been playing in a tennis tournament, to surrender himself voluntarily. The two of them have been charged with killing their parents. Their motive, say the police, was greed. Because of the brutal nature of the murders, and evidence of careful planning beforehand, authorities may ask for the death penalty if the brothers are convicted.
Both family and friends were stunned by the arrests. The boys, they said, were bright and ambitious; the family close and loving. Worse, the charges seemed an incomprehensible insult to the memory of Jose and Kitty Menendez and the dream they had worked so hard to fulfill. Jose Menendez’s immigrant odyssey had begun in 1960, when at the age of 16 he was sent to the U.S. by his father, Jose, a onetime soccer star who stayed behind in Cuba until his last investment property was seized by Fidel Castro. Living with friends of the family in Pennsylvania, Jose won a swimming scholarship to Southern Illinois University at Carbon-dale—his mother, Maria, had been a champion swimmer in her youth—but gave it up because of the exhausting training schedule. Before graduating, he left Illinois for New York, taking with him Kitty Andersen, a strong-minded young woman who had first attracted his attention in debating class. When his father wrote to object, telling him he was too young to be married, Jose replied firmly, “If I was old enough to be on my own at 16, I’m old enough to be married at 19.”
After earning a degree in accounting at Queens College in Flushing, N.Y., he took a job with the Manhattan firm of Coopers & Lybrand. At 23, he was hired away by one of his clients, a Chicago-based shipping company, as its comptroller. Although the firm flourished during Jose’s years there, he was forced out when the company was taken over. His next stop was Hertz, where he was put in charge of commercial leasing. After Hertz in turn was bought out by RCA, Menendez switched to the parent company’s record division and was soon involved in signing pop groups, including Duran Duran and the Eurythmies. Not long after he persuaded RCA to open a Miami office, he was responsible for signing Menudo and Jose Feliciano. Passed over for an executive vice presidency in 1986, Menendez jumped to International Video Entertainment, a California video distributor that eventually became Live Entertainment. “I never knew anyone who worked harder, worked toward more goals,” says former Hertz Chairman Bob Stone. “If I had stayed at Hertz, he would have become president of the company.”
Jose was as demanding with his sons as with himself. Settled comfortably in a Princeton, N.J., country estate overlooking a lake, Jose insisted on excellence. When the boys were 12 and 9, he told them to concentrate on either tennis or soccer. When they chose tennis, he signed them up with coaches for private lessons three times a week. On weekends he would drill them for hours. “We are prototypes of my father,” Erik said after Jose’s death. “He wanted us to be exactly like him.”
Erik and Lyle both attended the private Princeton Day School, and in 1987 Lyle entered Princeton University, where he earned a spot on the varsity tennis team. He was popular with his classmates but left school after one semester. Though Princeton officials will say only that he withdrew, the student newspaper reported that Lyle was suspended for copying another student’s psychology lab report. During the year he was out of school, Lyle asked his father for money for a trip to Europe with a girlfriend, but Jose turned him down and told him that if he was not in school he should find a job. In the end, Lyle went anyway, with the girlfriend paying his way.
Lyle returned to Princeton for the 1989 spring semester then dropped out of the university again after the murders, apparently with a dream of entrepreneurial success. Last fall he took an apartment nearby and showed up, students report, driving a gray Porsche Carrera. “That’s no big deal with the money some of the kids have around here,” notes Princeton junior Paul Krepelka, who knew him. But Lyle, who shared in a $400,000 insurance payout with Erik after his parents’ deaths, didn’t confine his spending to cars. Upscale clothier Stuart Lindner recalls Lyle visiting his shop, Tom Tailor, dressed in an expensive black cashmere jacket and wearing a Rolex watch Lindner priced at $15,000. Lyle bought about $600 worth of clothes, including five $90 silk shirts. “We’ve had bigger sales, but not in four minutes,” says Lindner. “And he paid cash, of course.”
In January, Lyle bought Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe, a popular student hangout featuring deep-fried Buffalo chicken wings, for a reported $550,000. Gus Tangalos, the restaurant’s manager, says Lyle was a hard worker who often spent long hours at the café. Tangalos remembers a day when Lyle showed up and, without removing his expensive jacket, started stirring the chicken-wing sauce. “I said, ‘Boss, why are you doing that?’ and he said, ‘We gotta take care of the people. We can’t have them waiting in line too long.’ That’s what I call an aggressive businessman.”
Shortly after the purchase, Lyle changed the name of the restaurant to Mr. Buffalo’s and was planning to redecorate in a Western motif then open other locations in New Jersey and California. But he wanted to do much more than serve chicken wings; he planned to make his fortune in, among other things, show business and real estate. Lyle began traveling frequently—he flew to California early this month in an unsuccessful attempt to be named promoter of a Soul II Soul rock concert—and hired 20-year-old David Bros, a Princeton sophomore, as an adviser. Although Lyle met Bros only six weeks ago, he became a $125-a-week consultant to Menendez Investment Enterprises, a corporate shell awaiting an infusion of cash that Bros understood would come from Lyle’s inheritance. Determined to find out more about his new employer, Bros began investigating him. He found nothing to suggest that Lyle was involved in the murders. “For someone to commit a crime like this, I saw no psychological leads,” says Bros. “I’m not standing by his word. I’m standing by my own research.” The arrest, says Bros, put the investment operation on hold.
As for Erik Menendez, a 1989 graduate of Beverly Hills High School, his goals were even more expansive than Lyle’s. In an interview last October, he spoke of fulfilling his father’s ambition to become the first Cuban-born U.S. senator and to make Cuba a U.S. territory. “He hated Fidel with a passion,” said Erik. “He wanted to spend the rest of his life getting Castro out of Cuba. He probably would’ve done it, and he probably would’ve been assassinated somewhere down the line.” According to Erik, he and Lyle planned to move to Florida, where they would establish a political base. “My brother wants to become President of the U.S.,” said Erik. “I want to be senator and be with the people of Cuba. I’m not going to live my life for my father, but I think his dreams are what I want to achieve. I feel he’s in me, pushing me.”
Before saving Cuba, though, Erik decided to try his luck as a professional tennis player. He had been planning to enroll at UCLA, but after the murders he hired a full-time tennis coach and set to work improving his game. Seena Hamilton, a family friend who founded Miami’s famous Easter Bowl tennis tournament, didn’t take Erik seriously as a player and has said she believes he turned to the game as “an emotional escape.” Yet recently Erik traveled to Israel for a series of matches. He took along a private coach, and his free spending was the talk of the tour. He lost in the first round in both of the tournaments he played.
Certainly, equaling Jose’s successes would have proved a challenge for the most driven of sons. “He was by far the brightest, toughest businessman I have ever worked with,” former Live executive Ralph King told the Wall Street Journal last August. “He was always ahead of his competition.” When Jose was brought to International Video Entertainment (IVE) by Rambo movies producer Carolco, which now owns 49 percent of the company, he immediately pared the staff from 550 to 167 and closed the company’s expensive Woodland Hills, Calif., office. IVE and its successor, Live, profited handsomely under Menendez’s leadership. After losing $20 million in 1986, the company posted earnings of $8 million the following year and $I6 million in 1988. (Ironically, its largest source of income last year was the millions it realized on a key-man insurance policy the company had taken out on its chairman.) All the while, Jose was making important connections in the entertainment world. With Sylvester Stallone, he sat on the board of Carolco. His friends in the music business included Rick Springfield, Barry Manilow and Kenny Rogers.
But Jose also had to negotiate with some less savory business associates along the way. In 1986, when Carolco began its acquisition process, IVE was owned by Noel C. Bloom, whom the California attorney general’s office has described as a major distributor of X-rated movies who once had ties to the mob. Though the deal was started before Menendez arrived at the company, it was left to Jose to cope with Bloom’s complaint that he was owed $500,000. Eventually a court referee found in Bloom’s favor, and Carolco settled.
Last year, in another deal that attracted the attention of police after the murders, Live bought BeckZack Corp., owner of some 80 Strawberries audio-video stores. BeckZack’s principal owner was Morris Levy, who was convicted in May 1988 of conspiring to extort payments from a record wholesaler. Live had investigated the chain and found it to be “whistle clean,” but the possibility of an underworld hit led authorities to probe further after Menendez’s death.
In fact, the grisly and calculated nature of the crime made it hard to imagine that Jose and Kitty had been the victims of an explosion of family rage, and Erik and Lyle didn’t cave in under questioning. They told police they had left home on the evening of Aug. 20 to see the new James Bond movie, Licence to Kill. When they found the lines too long, they went to Batman instead. Afterward, they said, they went to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to attend the annual “Taste of L.A.” festival featuring foods from the city’s top restaurants. From there, they told authorities, they tried without success to reach a friend they were planning to meet at the Cheesecake Factory, a Beverly Hills restaurant. Arriving home shortly before midnight, they said they found the driveway gate unlocked and the front door open. In the den, next to a coffee table holding half-eaten bowls of fresh berries and cream, lay the bodies of their parents.
In the days following the brothers’ arrest, members of the Menendez family gathered in the eight-bedroom Beverly Hills house, where the blood-stained Oriental rug in the library had long since been replaced. On hand were Jose’s mother, Maria, 72, and his sisters, Marta Cano, 49, a divorcée from West Palm Beach, and Terry Baralt, 51, of West Windsor, N.J., whose husband, Carlos, is executor of the estate. Carlos hopes to sell the Beverly Hills house or a second Menendez home in nearby Calabasas to raise money for estate taxes due in June. But the family’s greatest concern now is for the fate of Lyle and Erik, whom all of them believe to be innocent. “We thought murder was bad enough,” says Terry Baralt. “You grieve and life goes on. We felt 1990 had to be a better year. Now this. This is even worse than the murders.”
—Joseph Poindexter, Robert Rand in Beverly Hills, J.D. Podolsky in Princeton