Using 12-gauge shotguns, Lyle and Erik Menendez murdered their parents, José and Kitty Menendez, in cold blood on 20 August 1989. The first, highly publicised trial was arguably one of the most controversial of the decade and ended in a mistrial. In the second trial, both Lyle and Erik were found guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences each, without the possibility of parole.
Elder son, Lyle, was born Joseph Lyle on 10 January 1968 and his brother, Erik Galen, arrived nearly three years later, on 27 November 1971.
Their father, José, from Havana, Cuba, was a well-known football player, who, at age 16, moved with his family from Cuba to America in 1960 when Fidel Castro came to power. Mother, Kitty, three years older than José, was from Oak Lawn, Chicago. The couple met in 1962, whilst students at Southern Illinois University. The attraction was instant despite the difference.
When Kitty graduated, José dropped out of university and they eloped in 1963, moving to New York City. José transferred to Queens College and Kitty found work teaching at an elementary school. José graduated in 1969 as a Certified Public Accountant and began work for international accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand. The family moved first to Illinois and then to New Jersey, where Erik was born and Kitty became a full-time mother.
Lyle and Erik grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. The boys attended Princeton Day School and were academically average but enjoyed a strong bond, with Erik worshipping his older brother. Teachers at the school felt that both boys were immature for their age and had learning problems but their father would hear none of it. José was extremely controlling of his family, vicious and almost impossible to please. His strict rules covered all aspects of the family’s lives, including what they could eat, with whom they could associate and what they were allowed to read. They had to be accountable for their actions for every minute of every day.
José also decided that the boys should excel in a sport and by the time Erik was nine and Lyle twelve, they had both chosen tennis, at which they later became extremely talented. Their stressful home life took its toll on the young boys who began to grind their teeth, developed stomach pains and began stuttering. They also acquired rather alarming tempers. By age 14 Lyle was reportedly still playing with stuffed animals and wetting his bed.
Friends later described the brothers as quite different. Lyle was said to have been slightly remote, to have had trouble making the distinction between fiction and fact, but to have had a strong personality and remarkable wit. Erik was apparently sensitive, quiet and kept largely to himself.
The first sign of the brothers’ perverse and violent tendencies surfaced when Lyle was 15 and Erik 12. In 1982, their cousin, Diane van der Molen, came to stay with the Menendez family for the summer holidays. It transpired that one night, the brothers and Diane were wrestling playfully, when without provocation or warning, the boys began to remove her clothes. They wordlessly tied her up and took off her shirt but stopped as soon as she screamed. On another occasion, Diane and Lyle were watching television together, when he suddenly climbed on top of her and fondled her breasts. She quickly pushed him away and he did nothing further.
In 1985, José was offered the position of President of Live Entertainment at a video distribution and production company in California. He convinced the family that the huge move from the East Coast to the West would be in everyone’s best interests. Lyle, 17, was at the point of graduating from school and elected to remain in New Jersey to attend Princeton University. José, Kitty and the 14-year-old Erik moved to Calabasas in the San Fernando Valley, where Erik attended Calabasas High School. Lyle would make weekend visits to the family in California.
Lyle’s 1986 application to Princeton University was rejected. Accepted in 1987, he was accused of plagiarism during his first semester. Sent before the University’s disciplinary committee, Lyle was suspended for a year and told he could return in 1988.
José decided that Lyle needed some direction and also to learn what working in the business world was all about. He found work at his company, Live Entertainment, for Lyle who was treated like all the other employees. However, he showed no interest in his work, ignored orders and regularly arrived late or not at all, electing instead to play tennis when the weather was good. He was eventually fired.