Turning to crime
In the summer of 1988, Erik graduated from Beverly Hills High School and played a number of tennis tournaments before starting at UCLA. It was also the time that the brothers began robbing their friends’ parents. They would break into the homes to take money and jewellery. It was later estimated that they stole in excess of $100,000, enough to have been charged with Grand Theft Burglary, a felony offence.
Erik was stopped for a driving violation in Calabasas when the detective discovered stolen goods in the boot of his car, implicating both the brothers. Irate but with no desire to see his sons in prison, José hired a reputable criminal defence attorney, Gerald Chaleff, to represent Lyle and Erik.
Chaleff worked a deal with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office that if Erik, who was a juvenile and had no previous record, pleaded guilty to all the crimes, Lyle would be absolved. The judge agreed and Erik was sentenced to community service with the homeless and both brothers were assigned to compulsory psychological counselling. In addition, José paid the victims for those stolen items that the brothers had already sold on and could not retrieve.
Not only was he underachieving academically at Princeton University, Lyle’s ‘I’ll do whatever I like’ attitude had him put on disciplinary probation for damaging pool tables in his hall of residence. He also had his driver’s licence suspended and lost the family’s privileges at their country club in Princeton.
Exasperated with their sons’ behaviour, José and Kitty threatened to cut out the boys from their wills. Kitty, who was undergoing psychiatric counselling, told her therapist on 19 July 1989, a month before she was murdered, that her sons were “narcissistic, lacked conscience and exhibited signs that they were sociopaths”.
In an effort to share some time together as a family and perhaps lessen some of the tension that everyone had been feeling, José and Kitty chartered a boat to go shark fishing with the boys. On Saturday 19 August 1989, a day before the murders, the Menendez family travelled to Marina del Ray, the largest man-made small boat harbour in the world, four miles from Los Angeles International Airport.
The boat’s crew later reported that the Menendez family seemed miserable and non-communicative, with José fishing from the back of the boat, the brothers keeping to themselves at the front of the boat, and Kitty below deck due to seasickness.
The following is an account of the events surrounding the murder of José and Kitty Menenedez, as pieced together by police investigators and medical examiners. Years later, at trial, Lyle and Erik would paint a very different picture.
On the the evening of Sunday, 20 August 1989, José and Kitty were relaxing in the family room of their extensive Beverly Hills mansion, 722 Elm Drive, eating dessert whilst watching a video. Their sons, Lyle, 21, and Erik, 17, were out for the evening. A teenage girl who lived a few houses down the road from the Menendez family was standing outside her home, waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. She noticed a car stop in front of the Menendez house and two men get out. They went to the boot of the car and then towards the house.
Ball-bearing sized pellets
It was Lyle and Erik and they entered the house via the study’s French doors and walked down the hallway towards the family room at the back of the house. José was sitting dozing, with his feet up on the coffee table, whilst Kitty was lying stretched out next to him on the sofa, with her head in his lap. The brothers raised their 12-gauge Mossberg shotguns, loaded with ball-bearing sized pellets, and fired at their parents.
José was shot at twice; the first shattered the glass door behind him and hit him twice in the right arm and the left elbow, effectively keeping him sitting down. The second was a contact shot to the back of his head that blew open his skull and killed him. His body slumped forward with his hands on his stomach and his feet on the floor.
Kitty had managed to jump up and begin to flee before she too was shot, in her right arm and right calf. She fell onto the coffee table but stood up again, long enough for her blood to flow vertically down her leg, before being shot again. She was hit in her right arm, her left breast, which pierced her lung, and her left thigh, from such close range that the force of the shot broke her leg. Not yet dead, Kitty attempted to crawl away but failed.
Out of ammunition, the killers ran out to their car to reload, this time with birdshot. Returning to the bloody crime scene, Kitty was killed by a contact shot to her left cheek that shattered her skull. She had been shot four times in her head and ten times in her body, including a shot that had almost severed her right thumb. As a parting gesture, they shot both victims in the left knee before carefully gathering up the spent shell casings. The brothers then drove via Mulholland Drive, in order to get rid of their shotguns and casings into the canyon, then on to a petrol station to throw away their bloodied clothes, before buying tickets for a film at their local cinema to use as an alibi.
Beverly Hills Police Department received a 911 call at 11:47pm on 20 August 1989. It was from a sobbing Lyle Menenedez, reporting that someone had killed his parents. The two-and-a-half minute call was tape-recorded and Erik could be heard shouting in the background. About a minute after the call, Beverly Hills police officers Michael Buktus and John Czarnocki arrived at the Menendez mansion to investigate.
Detective Les Zoeller was appointed as head of the murder investigation and he hastened to the scene of the crime. It was obvious to Zoeller that whilst the family room was dishevelled, nothing had been stolen from the mansion. It also appeared that the victims knew their killer(s) as the house bore no signs of forced entry.
As part of routine procedure, Lyle and Erik were taken in for questioning, although at that point, they were not considered suspects and were therefore not given gunshot residue tests. The police detective supervisor, Sergeant Thomas Edmonds, conducted the questioning, which lasted a mere 20 minutes before being brought to an end due to Erik’s inconsolable crying. During the questioning, Lyle appeared calm and was methodical in his answers, whilst Erik was unable to sit still and was quite distraught.
The following is a blow-by-blow account of their actions on Sunday, 20 August 1989, given by the Menendez brothers to the police.
In the morning, after a late breakfast, they played tennis on the court in their garden, before going inside to watch part of a tennis match on television. They spent the afternoon shopping at the Beverly Centre, a local shopping mall, before returning home.
At around 5pm, they made plans with a friend, Perry Berman, to meet later at a local food festival, called ‘Taste of LA’, in Santa Monica. The brothers left home again at about 8pm, planning to see the new James Bond film, ‘Licence to Kill’ (1989) at Westwood Village cinema. Discovering long queues when they arrived, they went to Century City mall to see ‘Batman’ (1989) instead.
Following the movie, Lyle and Erik drove to Santa Monica but apparently got lost en route and missed their friend. They called Berman from a public telephone and made further plans to meet him at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Beverly Hills. They then drove home allegedly to collect Erik’s fake ID so that he could buy alcohol when they were at the restaurant. It was then that they discovered their parents had been killed and placed the 911 call.
In their attempts to draw suspicion away from themselves, the brothers told the police some strange things. They said that upon their arrival home, before discovering their parents’ bodies, they noticed smoke in the house and in particular in the family room. Neither Buktus nor Czarnocki, the officers who arrived at the scene minutes after Lyle had placed the 911 call, had noticed any smoke. Lyle told police his mother had been suicidal for the past few years and had been edgy and behaving oddly, whilst Erik suggested possible Mafia involvement in his parents’ deaths.
Dr Irwin Golden, Medical Examiner of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office conducted the autopsies on José and Kitty Menendez on 23 August 1989.
Lyle and Erik held a memorial service for their parents on 25 August 1989 at the Directors Guild of America, Los Angeles. They arrived an hour late and Erik looked uncomfortable whilst Lyle remained calm and controlled throughout. On 28 August 1989, the brothers held a traditional church funeral at the university chapel in Princeton. Faculty fellow, Brendan Scott, conducted the service and Lyle spoke for half an hour, saying how much his parents had meant to him but Erik was too upset to contribute.
With no domineering father dictating their every move, the brothers were finally able to make their own life choices. Lyle became determined to succeed in the business world and dropped out of university, whilst Erik vacillated between continuing at UCLA and pursuing a career in tennis. Whatever they decided, they had no immediate financial worries, as they had been granted José’s personal life insurance policy of £650,000. Only a few days after the murders, the brothers began splashing out on Rolex watches, designer clothes, stereo equipment and expensive cars.
Claiming to be in fear for their own lives and not wanting to live in the house where their parents had been murdered, the brothers stayed in five-star hotels, hired bodyguards and travelled in limousines. They then rented expensive adjoining apartments in Marina del Ray, Lyle bought a Porsche 911 Carrera and Erik a Jeep Wrangler. By October 1989, they had charged over £90,000 to José’s American Express card.
Lyle began trying to form his own company, called Menendez Investment Enterprises, and flew frequently between California and New Jersey, always travelling business class. The company failed before it even started and Lyle then bought a restaurant, which also lost money.
Erik tried to sponsor a rock concert with a partner at the Palladium, Los Angeles, but the man ran off with $40,000 of his money. He then decided to turn to tennis and hired Mark Heffernan as a private coach. They began travelling extensively, spending on luxury hotels and anything Heffernan suggested, to improve Erik’s game. By the end of 1989 the brothers had spent over £1 million.
It transpired that on 31 October 1989, Erik visited his psychotherapist, Jerome Oziel. It was during this meeting that he turned to Oziel and said, “We did it. We killed our parents.” Oziel made Erik call Lyle, who was furious and immediately rushed over to Oziel’s office. The brothers visited Oziel’s office again on 2 November 1989 to discuss the fact that Erik had confessed to Oziel and Lyle threatened to kill him if he told anyone. Although being threatened meant that Oziel was no longer bound by the patient-therapist confidentiality privilege, he chose not to go to the police. Instead he continued to counsel the brothers, making notes and keeping tape recordings of their sessions. These were later taken in by the Los Angeles County courthouse in Santa Monica, as evidence in the first trial.