Those stupid sweaters. Close your eyes and conjure the Menendez brothers, and they’re wearing matching sweaters the vivid, unnatural colors of jelly beans. The two handsome young men wore to court what one might wear to cocktail hour at the country club, as if they were chilly after a tennis match. Maybe they were trying to look younger, or more wholesome, or otherwise less capable of murdering their parents. Instead, their sartorial choices only chiseled out their own caricature: the spoiled rich boys who thought they could get away with anything.
The story of Eric and Lyle Menendez is one of the most notorious true-crime sagas in American history, and the thirst for more and more depictions of the saga cannot be sated. In 2017 alone, three major re-enactments have been staged on TV—a two-hour documentary on ABC, a Lifetime movie, and an eight-hour NBC mini-series starring Emmy winner Edie Falco as the brothers’ lawyer, Leslie Abramson.
Unlike other endlessly popular true-crime stories—JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson, Caylee Anthony, the Zodiac Killer, and the Black Dahlia—there is no mystery around the murder of Jose and Kitty Menendez. The brothers have admitted to killing their parents. It’s their theatricality that has made the Menendez men so infamous, their flare for courtroom drama and off-putting outfits, and the brazen nature of their behavior between the murder and their arrests. And then of course there’s the question: Was greed at the heart of this crime—are Lyle and Eric the most extreme spoiled brats in Beverly Hills? Or is there something so evil at the core of this family that the brothers’ actions might have been justified?
On August 18, 1989, Eric and Lyle Menendez purchased shotguns at a Big 5 Sporting Goods chain store in San Diego over a hundred miles away from their family’s mansion in Beverly Hills. On August 19, their parents chartered a yacht and took them shark fishing. On August 20, they burst into the den of their home and discharged 15 shots into their parents while the couple was watching television on the couch. Erik said that he fired first, but in the end Lyle fired best: He landed the bullet in the back of Jose’s head, and shot the fatal blow into Kitty’s face.
Then the brothers, who were 21 and 18 at the time, drove to a movie theater and bought tickets for Batman. They tossed the guns and changed into clean, unbloodied clothes, before driving back to their house and pretending to discover the scene all over again. Lyle’s hysterical whine of “Someone killed our parents!” in his 911 call would later be lampooned in a Jim Carrey movie.
The crime scene on August 21, 1989. Credit: Fabiola Franco/Tribune Broadcasting/Getty Images
We know these details exist because the brothers confessed them all, eventually. But they weren’t arrested until half a year after the murders—and the boys painted Los Angeles red in the interim. Over the course of those those six months, they reportedly spent $1 million on parties, travel, and shopping.
On August 24, 1989, the day before his parents’ funeral, Lyle dropped over $15,000 on three Rolex watches, as witnesses and he would later testify. Sitting next to his father’s secretary Marzi Eisenberg in the limo home from the services, he showed off his leather loafers and quipped, “Hey, Marzi, who said I couldn’t fill my father’s shoes?” Then he wondered aloud to another friend in the car how he could obtain tickets to the U.S. Open.
The brothers moved out of the family's Beverly Hills mansion and stayed in a series of expensive hotels before finally leasing condominiums on the water in Marina Del Rey. Their adjoining apartments had ample room for parties and movie nights with friends. Erik bought a Rolex too, and clothes, and lost thousands of dollars gambling. He decided to forgo attending UCLA and instead hired a tennis coach for $60,000 a year in the hopes of going pro. He practiced up to 10 hours a day and flew to the Middle East to compete.
Meanwhile, Lyle returned to Princeton, but not to attend classes. Instead he focused on business pursuits and shopping in the New Jersey and New York areas. He hired a team of bodyguards to accompany him on his shopping excursions, and later testified to their spoils, which included $40,000 worth of clothes and a $60,000 Porsche. He purchased a popular student restaurant, Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe, for $550,000 and renamed it Mr. Buffalo’s after its spicy wings. He hoped to turn it into a franchise. “It was one of my mother’s delights that I pursue a small restaurant chain and serve healthy food with friendly service,” Lyle told the student newspaper in an interview.
It was the first business under the umbrella of a company Lyle called Menendez Investment Enterprises. He hired two friends at Princeton to help oversee and advise on his investments, as they later testified, and foresaw a portfolio of restaurants, real estate, and (like their father) the entertainment industry. Lyle dipped a toe into the last by trying, unsuccessfully, to be named the promoter of a rock concert.
They dreamed of athletic success, musical success, financial success—and they were even interested in politics. “My brother wants to become President of the U.S. I want to be senator and be with the people of Cuba,” said Erik. Their slain father Jose had been born in Cuba and fled during the revolution. “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.”
The brothers didn’t spend all of their six months of freedom shopping and dreaming out loud, though. They also attended therapy sessions with Dr. Jerome Oziel. It was those sessions that would lead to their eventual arrest.
Credit: Nick Ut/AP(3)
The stress of it all was giving Erik an ulcer. So he confessed to his therapist what he and his brother had done. Oziel's mistress overheard the taped session, and she went to police. Lyle Menendez was arrested on March 8, 1990 in Beverly Hills. Erik was playing tennis in Israel at the time but came home voluntarily, and was arrested on March 11.
It was an enormous, shocking break in the case—but then it stalled, for years. A judge ruled portions of the tapes of the brothers’ therapy sessions admissible as evidence, which their attorneys appealed. The battle for the tapes dragged out for 30 months, until the Supreme Court of California intervened. Both boys were indicted on December 7, 1992 and tried separately for murder. The jury in Erik's case deadlocked on January 10, 1994; the jury in Lyle's case deadlocked two weeks later. The judge declared mistrials. It wasn’t until April 17, 1996, that a third and final jury found the brothers guilty together. The whole process took nearly seven years.
The initial cases ended in mistrial because of a convincing (and surprising, when it was introduced) argument from the defense: Attorney Leslie Abramson and her team contended that both Lyle and Erik had been molested by their father since childhood.
Abramson, whom the Washington Post called "a 4-foot-11, fire-eating, mud-slinging, nuclear-strength pain in the legal butt," helped the boys depict a lifetime of gruesome and relentless sexual assaults starting from childhood and continuing into their teens. According to her defense, the brothers finally banded together, in the weeks before the murders, to confront Jose and tell him they'd go public with the abuse and destroy his reputation if it didn't stop. They feared his retaliation, their legal teams argued. They feared for their lives. That’s why they bought the guns.
The story was impossible to corroborate because the alleged villain was dead. By the time the brothers opened up about this abuse, the public had been hating them and eating up the spoiled-rich-boys narrative for years.
“What you did was, you killed your parents and then began to spend their money. Right?” hammered Deputy District Attorney Pamela Bozanich while Lyle was on the stand during his first trial.
“Well. That’s something that happened,” Lyle said, "but I don’t think characterizing it that way is putting it in the right context.”
“Well, why did you need to buy a Rolex watch four days after your parents were killed?” Bozanich asked.
“I didn’t need to.”
“You wanted to.”
Even the brothers’ weepy descriptions of their father’s abuse earned them mockery. In a particularly dark October 1993 sketch, Saturday Night Live imitated their smoothly flat voices and the way their faces would crumple into crocodile tears. The mere appearance of host John Malkovich wearing the royal blue sweater on the stand was enough shorthand for a studio audience to begin laughing.
After the verdict in their final trial and before their sentencing, the brothers sat down with Barbara Walters for one final interview. When Walters called them spoiled, Erik protested, “I’m just a normal kid.”
The famous interviewer literally cried out in disgust and annoyance. “Erik! You’re a normal kid who killed your parents,” Walters said.
He smiled and looked up at her slowly. “I know.”
Despite their requests to be placed in the same prison, the Menendez brothers were separated and are still serving their life sentences miles apart to this day. Both have gotten married while behind bars—Lyle twice. His first wife was a former model; his current wife, Rebecca Sneed, is a magazine editor-turned-attorney. Erik married Tammi Saccoman, an attractive blonde with whom he'd been exchanging letters for six years.
The case made minor celebrities out of the brothers as well as the lawyers involved. Bozanich appeared in a 2015 episode of Murder Made Me Famous on the Reelz Channel and maintained that 20 years later, she was still completely convinced that the brothers had made up the sexual abuse.
“I am 100 percent sure that they fabricated their defense,” she said. “I’m not 90 percent sure; I’m 100 percent sure.”
How could she be so confident? “I was told during the trial by the bailiffs that the brothers would high five each other, particularly after a good day in court when they were testifying,” Bozanich said. “They would high five each other because they pulled it off.”
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