Menendez Tapes Crucial, Reiner Says

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tape-recorded conversations between two Beverly Hills brothers and the psychologist who treated them after the savage shotgun slaying of their parents are crucial evidence in the case against the pair, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said Monday.

Reiner defended the prosecution's attempt to use the tapes, which were seized by police last week and precipitated the arrests of Lyle Menendez, 22, and his brother, Erik, 19. The brothers had been suspects since the slayings last August.

However, defense attorney Gerald L. Chaleff, who represents Lyle Menendez, said later that "It is our position that the material taken from the psychotherapist is privileged and cannot be used in any way."

At a news conference at his office, Reiner said the confidentiality usually accorded therapist-patient exchanges does not apply "where there is a continuing threat of violence to others and, understand, this is a case of murder."

Although Reiner did not amplify on his comment about a threat, Deputy Dist. Atty. Elliott Alhadeff said later that threats were made against L. Jerome Oziel, the Beverly Hills psychologist who made the tapes.

Oziel, who had been counseling the Menendez family, is cooperating with authorities, the district attorney's office said.

The Menendez brothers, who are being held without bail, were to have been arraigned Monday afternoon, and the district attorney's office moved to unseal a search warrant affidavit revealing details about the controversial tapes.

However, at the defense's request, the arraignment, affidavit decision and bail motions were postponed by Beverly Hills Municipal Court Judge Judith O. Stein until March 26. The prosecution turned over a four-inch stack of evidence to the defense.

Defense attorneys said they need time to prepare their argument that the therapist-patient relationship was violated by the seizure of psychotherapy records and to determine whether statements in the affidavit are privileged and should remain sealed.

Robert L. Shapiro, who represents Erik, said his client--who was playing in a professional tennis tournament in Israel when he learned that he was wanted--was "quite concerned. I think his actions (in returning to surrender voluntarily) show great character and great strength."

The two young men, somber-faced and dressed in business suits, appeared briefly in the packed Beverly Hills courtroom to hear the charges, as family members, who have rallied behind them, looked on.

Each brother faces special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, killing for financial gain and lying in wait. If convicted, they could be sentenced to death.

"We are alleging as a motive financial gain," Reiner said at his news conference earlier. "I don't know what your experience is, but it's been our experience in the district attorney's office that $14 million (the estate the sons stood to inherit) provides ample motive for someone to kill somebody."

The victims, Jose Menendez, 45, chief executive of Live Entertainment of Van Nuys, a video and music distributor, and his wife, Kitty, 44, were found dead in their Beverly Hills mansion last Aug. 20, hit numerous times with blasts from two 12-gauge shotguns fired at close range.

The sons told authorities they found their parents' bodies when they returned from a night out.

There was no sign of forced entry into the home. Nor was there any indication of a robbery, and no murder weapons were found.

Shotgun shell wadding was found at the scene of the murder and police later obtained an expended 12-gauge shotgun shell casing that sources said had been found in one of Lyle's jackets.

Although speculation immediately after the killings centered on the possibility that it was an organized crime hit, police said they also began looking at the sons' possible involvement early on.

"From the very outset we had suspicions of the boys' involvement," said Lt. Russ Olson, the Beverly Hills Police Department's chief of detectives. "As more evidence developed, it pointed only in one direction."

According to the terms of a 1980 will, Menendez, in the event of his and his wife's simultaneous deaths, left his entire $14-million estate to his two sons. After estate taxes were subtracted, the brothers stood to receive $3 million each.

Additionally, a $400,000 life insurance policy on Jose Menendez already has been distributed to Lyle and Erik.

During their investigation, detectives also discovered that the family's home computer had been tampered with after the murders to delete a reference to a will. They believe that the will, whether old or new, was intentionally destroyed by Lyle, according to several sources familiar with the police investigation.

Relatives told The Times that in recent years Jose Menendez was discussing changing his will to take into account his rapidly growing wealth. But relatives said there was no evidence that a new will was ever written.

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Correction

Mary Louise (Kitty) Menendez was 47 when she died, not 44.

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