In the mid-1980s, when José Menéndez became CEO of a Hollywood production company called LIVE Entertainment, he moved his family – wife Kitty and sons Lyle and Erik – from New York to California. Lyle was a college washout, suspended from Princeton University for plagiarizing an essay. High school student Erik was a nationally ranked tennis player.
Despite leading a life of privilege, both brothers soon were caught stealing nearly $100,000 in cash and jewelry from the homes of friends. José repaid the victims and demanded his sons improve their behavior. José forced Lyle to work at LIVE, but his son was a constant no-show, and his father fired him.
In October 1988, the family moved into a Spanish-style mansion in Beverly Hills whose previous occupants included Prince and Elton John. Erik’s tennis career floundered. Lyle reenrolled at Princeton but was put on probation after vandalizing school property. José threatened to cut his sons out of his will if things didn’t improve.
Things were about to get dramatically worse.
On the night of August 20, 1989, José and Kitty were on their living room couch watching TV when two people approached from behind and pumped 16 blasts from two 12-gauge Mossberg shotguns into their bodies. According to the autopsy report, José, 45, suffered an “explosive decapitation with evisceration of the brain.” Kitty, 47, was hit in the head, chest, hand, arm and leg. Both died on the couch.
Late that night, Lyle, 21, called 911 and told the dispatcher, “someone killed my parents!” Police found him and Erik, 18, weeping on the front lawn. The brothers said they’d spent the night watching Batman at a theater, then gone to a food festival. Due to the brutality of the crime, police initially theorized the murders were mob hits.
Over the next several months, the brothers spent more than half a million dollars on clothes, Rolex watches and cars. Erik hired a tennis coach and entered a tournament in Israel. Lyle took several trips overseas.
All the while, the police were watching. They’d received a tip that Lyle had deleted a file from his father’s computer, allegedly a draft of José’s will that lowered the boys’ inheritance. They also learned that therapist L. Jerome Oziel, who’d treated the brothers, told his lover Judalon Smyth that Erik had confessed to the crime. Smyth informed police and revealed the existence of audio recordings from the sessions. Police confiscated the tapes and arrested both brothers.
The brothers sat in jail – separately – for two years while the issue of doctor-patient confidentiality was debated in court. In California, private medical information is inadmissible as evidence. However, a judge ruled that because the brothers had threatened to kill Dr. Oziel if he turned them in, the agreement was nullified. The brothers were charged with first-degree murder in 1992.
Their simultaneous but separate trials – broadcast on Court TV – began in July 1993 with a surprising defense tactic. “We are not disputing where it happened, how it happened, who did it,” Lyle’s attorney told the jury. “What we will prove to you is that it was done out of fear.”
Lyle took the stand to claim José had repeatedly sexually abused him, and that he’d confronted his father just days before his murder. “I felt… he would kill us, that he would get rid of us in some way because he thought I was going to ruin him,” Lyle claimed. The unsealed therapy sessions played in court made no mention of the sexual assaults.
When both juries failed to reach a unanimous verdict, mistrials were declared, and the Menéndez brothers’ second trial began in 1995. This time they were tried together and prohibited from using the unsubstantiated sexual abuse claims. The prosecution’s most dramatic evidence was a screenplay written by Erik and a friend a year before the murders. The plot centered on a rich kid who murdered his parents.
Erik admitted to Dr. Oziel that the boys’ crime was inspired by a film, the 1987 TV movie Billionaire Boys Club, in which Beverly Hills youths attempt to get rich in a murder scheme. The movie’s victim is shot in the back of the head and after the murder the young male killers buy cars, clothes and Rolexes. Incredibly, the movie had been released through José’s film company, LIVE Entertainment.
The Menéndez brothers were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. They were sent to separate California prisons until 2018, when Lyle moved to the San Diego facility where Erik was housed. At their first meeting, they burst into tears and embraced. “It was,” said big brother Lyle, “a remarkable moment.”