THE MENENDEZ BROTHERS : Jose Menendez Gave His Sons Everything. Maybe Even a Motive for Murder.
ON A MILD SUNDAY last summer, a string of “popping sounds” drifted through the lazy night air of Beverly Hills around 10 o’clock. “I didn’t think anything of it,” said Tom Zlotow, a neighbor who soon learned that the noises he’d heard from the house right behind his were echoes of the most sensational crime in the history of Beverly Hills. “I didn’t even think it could be gunfire, especially around here.”
Only blocks from the gaudiness of Rodeo Drive, two people had sneaked into a $5-million Spanish-style mansion, once home to Elton John and Michael Jackson, and fired 15 blasts from two shotguns into one of the entertainment industry’s fastest-rising executives and his former beauty queen wife.
Apparently surprised as he snacked and watched television in the family room, Jose Menendez, a 45-year-old Cuban immigrant who ran a Van Nuys video company, was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head. Four other blasts ripped into his arms and thigh.
His wife, Mary Louise, whom everybody called Kitty, tried to run but got no more than a few feet away. The killers seemed intent on doing far more than ending a life: They disfigured her with 10 blasts: four into the head and one that nearly severed her hand. Although they had just filled the neighborhood with the sounds of shotgun fire, the killers seemed to be in no hurry to flee. They patiently gathered the shell casings from among the pools of blood on the Oriental rug and parquet floor before leaving.
About 90 minutes later, police received a hysterical 911 call from one of the couple’s two handsome, tennis star sons. “They shot and killed my parents,” sobbed the caller, thought to be Lyle Menendez, 22, who would say later that he had found his parents’ bodies after returning from a night on the town. As police arrived, neighbors heard a horrible, pathetic scream and saw Erik Menendez, 19, curled in a ball, sobbing on the lawn.
“Once we realized what had happened after we called the police,” said Erik, in an interview later, “it started sinking into our heads: These aren’t just two people. These are our parents.”
The sight of the younger brother wailing in front of the house chilled the neighbors and chased away all thoughts of sleep.
SO IT ASTOUNDED THEIR RELATIVES and electrified the community when, six months later, more than a score of police officers blocked off Elm Drive and surrounded the mansion--this time to arrest Lyle for murder. Three days later, Erik, who had been playing in a tennis tournament in Israel, flew home and voluntarily surrendered, as authorities accused the brothers not only of masterminding the murders, but also of pulling the triggers.
Lyle, the dominant, emotionally cool older brother who seemed driven to match his father’s amazing accomplishments, and Erik, the vulnerable one who dreamed of a pro tennis career, now sit in Los Angeles County Jail, having pleaded not guilty to charges that could bring the death penalty.
The motive, according to authorities, was simple: naked greed. The brothers Menendez were in a hurry to inherit their parents’ $15-million estate, police theorized. The crime could be seen as a morality lesson of biblical proportions: parricide and lust for riches set in Beverly Hills, where wealth and overstated status symbols were the epitome of 1980s-style acquisitiveness. In a detail a fiction writer wouldn’t dare, some of the most intriguing evidence comes from two screenplays written by Erik.
But greed alone seems too limited to explain the carnage caused by the 15 shotgun blasts. And it seems a particularly unsatisfactory explanation for one of the most unsettling crimes of all--a crime that violates such fundamental laws of human behavior that, in the words of one Menendez family friend, the thought of these privileged, often-hugged brothers gunning down their parents “freezes the brain.”
That’s why many people, including most of the brothers’ friends and all of their surviving family, cannot accept the official theory of the crime. Erik was extremely close to his mother, who taxied her sons back and forth to tennis practice. And Lyle admired his father so much that he bored friends by quoting him and retelling the incredible story of Jose’s rise, by sheer force of will and hard work, from an immigrant who washed dishes to an executive who wielded power in the boardrooms of America’s elite companies.
After the slayings, in fact, Lyle eerily took on his father’s role in the family and jumped immediately into a feverish string of business deals in an apparent effort to prove himself an heir not only to his father’s fortune but also to his legend.
The priest who officiated at the funeral in Princeton, N.J., also is incredulous at the police account. “I would be shocked if they could speak about their parents the way they did and be able to do that much violence to them,” says Father Brendan Scott, who watched Lyle hold a large crowd spellbound during a 30-minute eulogy built around his father’s favorite themes: success and the importance of being a good man.
There are certain patterns in parricide cases, and psychologists say some are reflected in the Menendez family history. Children who kill their parents, says Dr. Lenore Walker, a Denver psychiatrist, frequently do so because their parents exert so much control over their lives that they are robbed of their own identities. In most cases, physical abuse is involved. Crimes like this often are elaborately planned and take place in middle-class or affluent environments, where family problems can be more easily hidden, experts say. They often involve teen-age boys who seem to be reasonably well-adjusted, but whose rage erupts suddenly in a spasm of revenge. Astonishingly, said L.A. attorney Paul Mones some months ago, such killers sometimes return to normal, “happier” behavior after the crime. Although Walker cannot comment on the innocence or guilt of the Menendez brothers, she notes similarities between this case and others. “This father seemed to have an extreme need for control, to make sure the boys did it his way,” Walker says.
Jose Menendez was a larger-than-life character who possessed great charm and intense drive. He was in command of every situation, arrived first at every conclusion and out-hustled every competitor. He also exercised great power over his household and hammered into his sons the ethic of success and achievement.
When the boys were 12 and 9, the elder Menendez started them on a demanding regimen calculated to make them into tennis stars. He paid for coaches, supervised practices and attended many matches. He also wanted excellence off the court: He expected them to be able to hold their own in dinner-table discussions of arms control and international politics. “I was not delivered unto this world in defeat, nor does failure course in my veins,” Lyle would recite from his father’s favorite motivational text. And when Jose wanted to drive home a point to his sons, his lectures could last hours and resemble a business meeting.
As the boys grew up, he didn’t relinquish control, as most parents do: He took great interest in whom his sons were dating, how their studies were going and all the details of their lives. Walker notes that, as young people mature, they need an increasing amount of psychological freedom. “The kind of intensity between the father and the sons smelled to me of real power and control issues,” Walker says.
“My father suffered from being a perfectionist,” Lyle said in an interview last fall. “It carried over into his home life, and it was sometimes difficult for Erik and me. So much so that he really couldn’t do something well enough. It wore on him tremendously mentally. And it wore on us.”
Still, what Jose Menendez wanted for his sons was no more than what many success-oriented families want for their children. If he drove them hard on the tennis court, yelling and coaching from the sidelines, so do many others. No one can remember Jose Menendez ever striking his sons. After all, he prided himself on his insight into human nature. He wasn’t a ham-handed disciplinarian. If he was tough and prone to lecture, he also hugged his kids frequently to show that he loved them, according to friends and relatives.
“We know they had trouble on the tennis court,” says Seena Hamilton, who founded the prestigious Easter Bowl tennis tournament for junior players in Miami and who was acquainted with the family. But, she adds, the profile of Jose Menendez as a demanding, pushy father fits that of the parents of dozens of talented tennis players; the behavior of such parents verges “on the edge of child abuse.” “If, indeed, that was a cause for murder,” Hamilton says, “we would have wholesale slaughter in the U.S. in the juniors.”
“It makes you feel sad about the American dream,” says a family friend. Hard work, ambition, looking after your own--”It’s what they tell you to do, and (Jose) did it. Then this happens.”
The boys took much of Jose’s advice to heart. But there were signs of rebellion beyond the tennis court, and in the two years before the murders, the friction between Jose and his sons worsened as the brothers engaged in behavior not usually associated with model kids. Lyle was suspended from Princeton for plagiarism in the first term of his freshman year; Erik was accused of committing burglaries one summer. And Lyle clashed with his parents over his problems at school, over his girlfriends. It was not easy, the boys sometimes confided to friends, to be a son of Jose Menendez.
JOSE MENENDEZ’S STORY BEGINS in Cuba, where he was the child of well-to-do business people and star athletes. When Fidel Castro came to power, his parents shipped their 16-year-old son to America, where he lived in the attic of a cousin’s house in Hazelton, Pa.
Commanding and supremely confident even as a young man, a star swimmer in high school, Menendez won an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he wooed a vivacious beauty queen from Oak Lawn, Ill. Mary Louise Andersen was a blond communications major nicknamed “Kitty.” Friends saw her as glamorous and a trifle mysterious. She rarely talked about her past, perhaps because she was ashamed of having come from a broken home, and was a bit of a quiet rebel. Once, Kitty purposely scandalized the small town of Watseka by painting the town in a skin-tight black dress and a white wig. And if some people were shocked when she began seeing this young man from Cuba, she just smiled.
Kitty, who was two years older than Jose, fell for the charming, good-looking man, even though they were from vastly different worlds. “All of a sudden, she was hit by a bulldozer,” says Jo McCord, Kitty’s roommate at the time. Menendez’s family thought he was too young to get married, but he wrote that “if I’m old enough to live on my own at 16, I’m old enough to get married at 19.”
The couple married in 1963 and moved east, where Menendez transferred to Queens College in New York and washed dishes at the 21 Club while he earned an accounting degree. David Inerfield, one of his teachers, recalls Jose as an ambitious, struggling student who “would batter me for a better grade.”
Later, he was no different in the business world, developing a reputation as a tireless worker with a quick mind and an ability to solve problems. His first job was at the prestigious accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand. Lyon’s Container Service in Illinois was so impressed by the suggestions he made while doing its books that it hired him away to be comptroller; three years later, he was the company’s president. And by the age of 35, he had been named executive vice president in charge of U.S. operations at Hertz, an RCA Corp. subsidiary.
About a year later, in 1980, the company, after checking to see whether he could get along with a less-buttoned-down crowd, put him in charge of its record division, RCA-Ariola. Menendez ultimately directed worldwide operations as chief operating officer--at a salary of $500,000 a year. He developed a reputation for being more prepared than anyone else. “His attitude was, ‘I’m a winner. I’m going to take this dog company and make it No. 1,’ ” says John Mason, an entertainment attorney and close friend. Though that never happened, Jose was responsible for expanding the company’s Latin music line and helped to sign notable groups such as Duran Duran and the Eurythmics.
Despite his immersion in the entertainment business, he avoided its trappings. He rarely made an appearance on the party circuit and was something of a square, reportedly even lecturing some RCA acts to knock off the drug use. That’s not to say he shunned symbols of his new-found status; he drove a big Mercedes or rode in limos and jetted around the world.
A friend once chastened Lyle for the imperious way he treated waiters and waitresses. “I get that from my father,” Lyle replied. “They’re here to serve me.” Another friend and business associate, Glenn Stevens, said Lyle told him stories about Jose’s berating employees. “I thought, ‘How could you idolize somebody like that?’ ” The brothers were enthralled by their father’s success; Lyle, in particular, found ways to drop Jose’s connections into conversations with people he had just met.
Then, in 1986, General Electric Co. purchased RCA, and when Menendez failed to become president, he left. Menendez’s sterling reputation came in for some battering once he departed. Elliott Goldman, the new president, says he found that Menendez had engaged in a common industry practice of shipping too many units, which made immediate sales look good. Another RCA executive said in a recent interview that Menendez was not setting aside adequate cash reserves.
Menendez landed on his feet when he was quickly hired by Carolco Pictures, which made its reputation with Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies. Menendez brought his family with him to California, where his mission was to pump life into a subsidiary, International Video Entertainment Inc., a failing company Carolco had bought from a former pornography distributor named Noel Bloom. IVE had lost $20 million in 1986, but Menendez quickly turned it around by slashing the payroll and moving to isolate Bloom, who eventually left to start his own company. Morally and politically conservative, Menendez “resented Noel terribly” because of his porn background, family friend Mason says.
What’s more, in 1987 the two engaged in a courtroom battle stemming from the video rights to a never-produced film. A referee found Menendez’s conduct “highly inappropriate” in his attempted “squeeze play” to acquire the rights. Bloom was awarded $500,000, which Carolco appealed, and then settled a few days after Menendez’s death. “When he wanted to be, he was charming,” Bloom recalls. “When he had to be, he was the toughest guy you could meet.” In 1987, IVE earned $8 million after reportedly having been close to bankruptcy only a year earlier. At that time, IVE merged with Lieberman Enterprises Inc., a Minnesota record distributor, and became LIVE. Menendez was riding high again.
LYLE WOULD SOMETIMES PORTRAY HIMSELF to friends as a streetwise kid who had come up from the ghetto and knew all about hard knocks. Friends say that Kitty and Jose were indeed poor in their early days in New York. But by the time the boys were born, the family had already achieved the rank of the middle class, living in the New York suburb of Monsey. Before long, the Menendezes would leave it behind for the sylvan comforts of central New Jersey. “Lyle doesn’t know what poverty is,” says one family member.
The demands of Jose’s job meant long hours and frequent trips away from home. But even during the stressful periods when Jose was changing jobs or battling in court, family members never saw critical problems in the household. He ran it in a traditional Latin way that cast him in a dominant role. Kitty was there in a strong, supporting role: “She did more for them than any mother ever, ever did,” says a friend. Jose took parenthood seriously, and his approach seemed simple: Expect success, reward it and don’t settle for anything less.
Jose often lectured the boys “and could get mad,” the family member says. But no one can remember Jose’s brand of discipline taking a physical form. “I don’t ever remember Jose spanking those kids,” this relative says. “He should have. Maybe they were not strict enough.”
When the boys were young, they swam and played soccer and tennis, all competitively, but some outsiders remember that the boys did not seem to be having much fun. One former coach recalls that during the summers around 1980, Kitty dropped Lyle and Erik off at the pool at the Bedens Brook Club near Princeton. Though the other members were a sociable group, Lyle and Erik were notable for their standoffishness and spent most of their time with each other.
Lyle was mischievous, often getting into small scrapes. “If you said walk, he would run,” says one of the first of his many coaches. And Erik seemed painfully shy, “a sad kid,” the coach remembers.
Erik was a good breast-stroker on the club swim team. But after a race, while other parents praised children who had finished far behind Erik, Jose would pull him out of the water and dress him down. “He would practically humiliate him in front of his peers,” says this coach. “Then he would put his arm around him.” While this was happening, Kitty stood nearby.
“It seemed like Jose was so competitive, he was doing everything he could to try to make him better,” the coach allows. “But he was so completely overbearing, it had the opposite effect. Erik had so much less self-confidence because everything he did was never good enough.”
This carrot-and-stick approach appeared to be a trademark with Jose. He seemed unable to avoid pushing his sons hard. But he clearly figured that showing them love would make the medicine go down easier. “People will tell you stories of them being aggressive parents,” says one old family friend. “It’s true. In the beginning they probably were.”
When Jose decided that his young sons should excel in either soccer or tennis, they chose tennis, and Jose brought his formidable intensity to the hard court behind their big Tudor-style house in the Elm Ridge Park area near Princeton. Hour after hour, neighbors heard the sound of tennis balls being hit back and forth behind the house on Honey Lake, in the midst of New Jersey woods that were nearly as lush and green as the old family money thereabouts. As early as 6:30 in the morning, Erik and Lyle would be out in the chill air. Jose would hit balls to them, barking out instructions.
When the brothers’ private coaches arrived, Jose would keep a watchful eye from the picture window in the living room. Sometimes, he would anger the instructors by giving orders in the midst of a lesson. “He (Jose) would actually come out on the court while I was teaching Lyle and be telling Lyle things to do,” says Bill Kurtain, a former coach. “I resented that.” Finally, Kurtain quit.
Jose’s riveting interest in Lyle’s excellence went beyond a parent’s desire to see his son break into big-time tennis. By all accounts, Jose wanted Lyle to be the best ever. Mostly, Lyle would quietly accept the coaching of Kurtain and others, though one of his playing partners described his increasingly potent game as “joyless.” But once in awhile, Kurtain says, Lyle’s temper would get the best of him and he would explode. “We’d be trying to work on certain things and he’d just take five balls and he’d just blast them as hard as he could,” Kurtain recalls. The stigma of losing became almost unbearable for both brothers. “They might even be winning a match; they’d miss a shot and they’d go nuts.”
While Erik became a base-line player, Lyle developed an aggressive all-court game. Lyle eventually became the No. 1 ranked player in the Middle States Tennis Assn.’s 18-and-under division. But Jose kept the pressure high. One family friend told how Jose called Lyle at a tennis tournament from a commercial airplane and pushed him “very, very hard to win.” When Jose hung up, his offended seat mate reportedly chastened him for being so hard on his son. “It was difficult because you had to be a great tennis player and be great in school,” Erik said later.
The brothers had tennis in common, but their relationship went far deeper. “Their bond appears to me to be the best brother bond I’ve ever seen,” says Noel Nedli, who later befriended Erik on the Beverly Hills High School tennis team. Lyle was protective of Erik, whom he called “E-Man,” and Erik in turn was said to idolize his brother nearly as much as Lyle idolized his father.
They attended Princeton Day School, an exclusive private school where they were good but not outstanding students and, as they had all their lives, kept to themselves. According to a former classmate, Lyle laughed when people ate the chocolate-covered dog biscuits he’d taken to a school bake sale as a prank. “It was his own little joke,” the classmate says.
But Lyle’s first serious girlfriend, Stacy Feldman, another student at the Princeton Day School, saw a different side of the Menendez family. During two Christmases spent with the family, she found Kitty to be warm and sympathetic and Jose engaging and proud of his achievements. Lyle gave Stacy a big teddy bear one Christmas. She collects them now.
Lyle was a bit of a square, again like his father. He and Stacy were so strait-laced, according to Lisa Watson, whose daughter was a friend of Stacy’s, that “these kids went to the prom and came home early.”
With no chores to do at home, Lyle once tried working in a Princeton restaurant to earn a little extra money. But when he got his $33 paycheck, he sniffed, “I could find that going through my laundry bag.” He quit after only a few days.
Stacy remembers his grand gestures: When she broke off their relationship, Lyle offered to buy her a fur, sending flowers when she declined the coat.
In the Princeton Day School yearbook, Lyle is pictured playing tennis and has included two quotations from Og Mandino, the author of one of Jose’s favorite books, “The Greatest Salesman in the World.”
In another part of the yearbook, students mocked one another. For Lyle, the question, “Can you imagine him . . .” was answered: “doing manual labor.”
“Intrigued by . . . . “ “Money,” was the answer.
“Found . . . . “ “In trouble,” was the prognostication.
THE FAMILY’S MOVE to California in 1986 brought Jose a new level of income. He had received a big payout from RCA, and, with bonuses, was earning $1 million a year at LIVE. But Kitty, by all accounts, had a difficult time adjusting to the West Coast. If she had had her way, say friends, the family would have stayed in New Jersey, where they had recently purchased a magnificent new house.
In an effort to mollify her, Jose spent $950,000 on a beautiful five-bedroom house on nearly 14 acres in Calabasas. He even agreed to pay several thousand dollars to have the swimming pool relocated a few feet to clear the way for an entertainment area.
Life in the San Fernando Valley also had its problems for the brothers, by some accounts. Lyle and Erik fell in with a crowd of wealthy, privileged young men who were suspected of being involved in burglaries during the summer of 1988 in the upper-class neighborhoods in the western valley. None of the members of this group of Calabasas High students--who were handsome, glib and among the campus in-crowd--needed any money; these were thrill crimes.
The loot included cash, jewelry, even a 100-pound safe. Eventually, some of the property turned up in a car trunk, and the evidence, says sheriff’s Detective Imon Mills, “pointed toward one individual.”
Family conjecture is that Erik caved in to peer pressure amid his group of spoiled brats. Though he had once been shy and reserved, Erik was becoming more confident--and rebellious. Girls were noticing him: One friend was with Erik when he turned on his answering machine and found that a string of girl friends had left messages.
Shortly after the burglaries were solved, according to a Malibu sheriff’s detective, a rented van pulled up behind the sheriff’s station at the Malibu Civic Center. Jose Menendez was at the wheel, accompanied by Gerald Chaleff, now Lyle’s attorney in the murder case. The two proceeded to unload the stolen property so that detectives could take an inventory. Jose was believed to be livid about this episode, although he and Kitty hid this chapter of the family’s life. Jose “made Erik face the music,” according to a family member. “Jose was not easy to fool.” Though Erik never served jail time, a family friend says that he performed community service work with the homeless.
But Jose apparently did not blame Erik alone and complained to associates that he was worried about some of the friends his sons were making. In fact, one night in February, 1989, he confronted one of them in front of the mansion and screamed at him, “ ‘If I ever see you on the property again, I’ll kill you!’ ” recalled the friend, Craig Cignarelli.
Not long after the burglaries, the family contacted a Beverly Hills psychologist, Leon Jerome Oziel, who counseled the brothers and their parents. The psychotherapist was to play a sensational role in the murder case when tapes of therapy sessions were seized amid rumors that they contained incriminating statements--possibly even a confession--by the brothers.
Jose decided to leave the area, even though the remodeling job on the Calabasas estate was almost complete, and in October, 1988, he bought a 9,000-square-foot home in Beverly Hills. It had a pool and, of course, a tennis court.
At Calabasas High, Erik had become close to Cignarelli, a brash, good-looking young man with a cresting wave of jet-black hair. Like the Menendez brothers, he was a child of Hollywood; his father is an executive at MGM.
“We could see that somehow we were different,” Cignarelli says. “When we’re together, we feel like we have an aura of superiority.” He called Erik Shepherd and Erik called him the King . Erik, according to Cignarelli, both feared and respected his older brother, whom Craig described as being “almost as cocky as I am.”
When Erik and Craig wanted to escape, they would climb to the top of one of the scrub-covered hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There, they could look down on the necklace of lights sparkling from Malibu’s oceanfront homes and talk for hours at a time. Sometimes their dreams would take the form of wondering how one might commit the “perfect crime,” Cignarelli says.
They decided to turn one of their fanciful ideas into a screenplay--maybe this would be the first great thing they would do. They adjourned for three days to the Cignarelli family cabin in Frazier Park in Kern County and wrote a 62-page screenplay called “Friends,” the story of a self-centered son of a wealthy couple, who commits five murders, starting with his own parents.
The play, which Erik’s and Craig’s mothers typed, opens with the protagonist, Hamilton Cromwell, finding the family will and discovering that he stood to inherit $157 million. In the next scene, Hamilton is seen climbing the stairs to his parents’ bedroom. Then:
A gloved hand is seen gripping the doorknob and turning it gently. The door opens, exposing the luxurious suite of Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell lying in bed. Their faces are of questioning horror as Hamilton closes the door behind gently, saying . . .
“Good evening, mother. Good evening, father . “ (His voice is of attempted compassion but the hatred completely overwhelms it). All light is extinguished, and the camera slides down the stairs as screams are heard behind.
The murder is left to the imagination. Hamilton inherits the family estate, but in the end he is killed--and dies smiling. The screenplay might have been forgotten if not for what happened in August, 1989. Although no Hollywood agents stood in line to bid on the screenplay, there were avid readers when Beverly Hills police got wind of it. Cignarelli was frequently interviewed by detectives, and when he finally grew angry with them, he sent a fax to explain that he would no longer talk to them. He signed it “Hamilton Cromwell.”
Adding yet another bizarre twist to the tale are reports that the two friends wrote a second screenplay. However, in this one, according to someone close to the case, some of the details of the murders bear a striking resemblance to the way the murders of Jose and Kitty were actually carried out.
WHILE ERIK MADE HIS troubled adjustment to life in Calabasas, Lyle was struggling through his first year at Princeton. After one semester in the fall of 1987, he was accused of plagiarizing a paper for a psychology class. The university asked him to leave.
In a four-hour hearing, Lyle defended himself before a disciplinary committee, explaining that he did not intend to cheat and reading a note from his father on ethics. This time, however, invoking Jose’s name did not save him, and Lyle was suspended for a year.
Jose dropped everything. He requested and received a private audience with the university president but failed to budge him. According to some accounts, Jose was more peeved at the college than at Lyle’s transgression. But when Lyle asked Jose to finance a long trip to Europe, Jose refused. Lyle went anyway, traveling with his fiancee, a tennis pro who was about five years his senior. He accompanied her on a 12-city, three-month tennis tour and took in the sights while earning a little cash by stringing rackets.
When the couple returned to New Jersey in early 1989, Lyle resumed his studies, and his fiancee, too, settled in Princeton, working as a waitress. There she met another just-hired waiter, Donovan Jay Goodreau, a free-spirited, well-mannered Californian who found a temporary home near the college while traveling around the country. She and Donovan shared a small apartment on a platonic basis, and she introduced him to Lyle.
Until mid-May, three months before the murders, “I was Lyle’s best friend,” says Goodreau, who became a kind of ex-officio member of a small circle of friends whose orbits revolved around Lyle’s reserved but powerful personality. Lyle, according to Goodreau, talked to him for hours about his father’s achievement-oriented philosophy and encouraged him to memorize whole passages from the Mandino book, a kind of cult work about a camel boy of 2,000 years ago who becomes a super salesman.
The book contains a number of “scrolls” of philosophy designed to be a blueprint for success. To this day, Goodreau can quote with reverence lengthy passages from the book, which Lyle often carried in his tennis bag. “I will persist until I succeed,” he recited during an interview. “I was not delivered unto this world in defeat, nor does failure course in my veins. I am not a sheep waiting to be prodded by my shepherd. I am a lion and I refuse to talk, to walk, to sleep with the sheep. I will hear not those who weep and complain, for their disease is contagious. Let them join the sheep. The slaughterhouse of failure is not my destiny.”
At his father’s urging, Lyle tried to live these lines. And yet, he could never crack the elite circle of top junior tennis players. And he seemed to develop a problem with authority. “Don’t ever tell Lyle what to do,” says one of his friends, who would caution new acquaintances that Lyle would lose his temper if someone insisted on giving him advice.
One of Lyle’s favorite movies was “Scarface,” which portrayed a Cuban immigrant who rises to the top of Miami’s drug underworld. He liked it not so much for the bloodiness, but for the single-mindedness the Al Pacino character showed in taking on the world and winning, at least for a while.
“There was a lot of pressure on him” to excel and to be like his father, Goodreau says, and Lyle was eloquent in describing the need he felt to be somebody. A few weeks after the two met, Lyle took Donovan to the grave of Jose’s father in northern New Jersey. For three hours in the bitter cold, the two stood in the cemetery while Lyle confided to him about the burden of emulating his father. “Lyle said he was the only son who could make it in his father’s image,” Goodreau says.
“His family was willing to do anything and everything so he would be that person,” he says. Lyle’s mother helped him write his papers all through high school. Yet, Lyle knew he fell short. “Sometimes he said he knows he’s not the best role model, especially for his brother.”
By April, Lyle had had a falling out with Jamie over his friendship with Goodreau, who then moved into Lyle’s small dorm room in Gauss Hall at Princeton’s Wilson College. Lyle had introduced Donovan to his close relatives and, over spring break, brought him home to Beverly Hills. Goodreau says it was a unique experience.
Lyle would bone up for dinner, he says, knowing that Jose would question him about world affairs and what he was studying at Princeton. “Lyle said dinner was like a debriefing session,” Goodreau recalls.
“When Jose arrived at the door, (the brothers) would greet him with an embrace and a kiss,” says Flor Suria, 28, the maid who worked at the mansion for about 10 months. She says that when Jose wasn’t traveling, the family would eat together every night between 7:30 and 8. No matter where the brothers were during the day, Erik and Lyle always made an effort to be on time for dinner.
Sometimes, Lyle would find himself enmeshed in a discussion on the merits of the Trident missile program or U.S. policy toward Bangladesh. “I was overwhelmed by this,” Goodreau says. Still, he reflected, “being in a $5-million house, I accepted everything as normal.” Once when he got up from the table for a glass of milk, Lyle cautioned him to “let the maid do that.”
Goodreau found Lyle’s relationship with his father to be oddly careful. “He would never tell his father he wasn’t doing well,” even if he wasn’t. If Lyle was in serious trouble at school, he would present the situation in the best light, with a plan of action already laid out.
Goodreau says his short friendship with Lyle was like living in an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” There were lavish parties at the house for the brothers’ friends, and he and Lyle spent time at the home of one of Lyle’s girlfriends, a 30-year-old Los Angeles model who lived at the beach.
There were tensions building, however, as Jose and Kitty worried about Lyle’s dating older glamour girls. Kitty, remembering the opposition to her own marriage, tried to bite her tongue. But one friend recalls her asking, “Don’t you know any cute, nice girls for Lyle?”
Another friend, Irene Elkins, detected “something wrong” in Kitty’s voice during a conversation in June. And then there was Kitty’s decision to accompany Jose on business trips to New York. She had always been protective of her relationship with Jose, calling him “my husband” even in the presence of his mother, but now she seemed especially so. Perhaps, friends speculate, she was fighting for her marriage, and her desire to fly to New York with him may have been her way of ensuring his fidelity. The most she would ever say, according to one former tennis coach and friend, was that “it’s difficult because Jose travels so much.”
The spring of 1989 brought other problems, both with Lyle’s behavior and plans. Jose was piqued because Lyle was considering a transfer from the Ivy League to UCLA. Also, Jose couldn’t have been happy the day Lyle invited Goodreau to the Bedens Brook Club and took him on a joy ride in a motorized golf cart across the course’s rolling hills--and over several of the course’s well-manicured greens. “They ruined the hell out of everything,” says Shelly Pierce, the club manager. The Menendez family’s golf privileges were suspended for a year.
Despite continuing troubles, the family remained extremely close. Erik graduated from Beverly Hills High School and began competing in a series of United States Tennis Assn. tournaments around the country. Showing sudden promise, he won six matches in the consolation round of the junior clay court championship in Louisville, Ky. The tournament was held in oppressive heat during the last week of July, and Erik became fatigued, according to a relative’s account.
Jose, who had accompanied Erik, rose early so that he could warm up Erik on the court. Then, when a dehydrated Erik dragged himself back to his hotel room after a hot day of intense competition, Jose was there again to give his son a massage to relax him before the next day’s events.
On Aug. 5, just two weeks before the murders, the family accompanied Erik to the important USTA national tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich. Erik won his first round in the 18-and-under singles event but was defeated in the second round. Erik, the relative says, was looking forward to trying out for the UCLA varsity tennis team when he started his freshman year in the fall.
Then on Friday, Aug. 18, someone used Goodreau’s driver’s license for identification to buy two 12-gauge shotguns in a sporting goods store in San Diego. Police believe that the shotguns, which never have been recovered, were the murder weapons. Information on a federal form that was filled out during the sale had Goodreau’s license number but a phony San Diego address.
Goodreau says he lost his driver’s license in the spring of 1989. The last time he saw it, he says, was two days before he was asked to move out of Lyle’s dorm room in a dispute over some missing cash. Donovan says he sometimes kept his wallet in a box on Lyle’s dorm room desk. He also says he and Lyle had used each other’s identification from time to time in Princeton and used to practice each other’s signature.
SUNDAY, AUG. 20, 1989, was another mild summer day in Beverly Hills. The Menendez family was up early and on the tennis court. They passed the day lazily until the afternoon, when Erik and Lyle made plans to go out.
They say they went to see the movie “Batman,” then stopped off at a food fair. They had planned to meet a friend late that night, but Erik said he needed his identification card, so they stopped at home. And when they walked into the family room, they say, they came upon a bloody scene they’ll never forget.
A recording of the 911 call made from the scene captures the hysteria that followed. “They shot and killed my parents,” says the frantic caller. As dispatchers ask repeatedly, “They were shot?” the caller screams, “Erik, shut up!” and later, “Erik! Get away from them!”
Erik said he spent the night of the murders “going through convulsions. . . . We’d never seen our dad helpless before. To see him in such a helpless stage, gave such revenge . . . in our hearts.” Police officers questioned both brothers for several hours that morning, but relatives say police never performed a special chemical analysis of the brothers’ hands and clothing designed to show whether either had fired a gun.
Police suspected that the crime had been perpetrated by mobsters and characterized the murders in first reports as a “gangland-style killing.” And early in the investigation, Lyle suggested the name of someone who might harbor a deep grudge against his father: Noel Bloom, Jose’s former business rival. Bloom has repeatedly denied any involvement in the murders, and authorities say they think the brothers could have planned all along to make the murders look like a mob hit.
Almost immediately after the slayings, the brothers’ behavior began to attract the attention of police. Lyle went on a shopping spree, picking up several thousand dollars’ worth of clothes, and was seen cruising around Princeton, N.J., in a rented limousine, with a bodyguard. Within a few weeks after the deaths, he bought a $64,000 special edition Porsche Carrera. A friend who asked Lyle how he was bearing up was flabbergasted to hear his answer: “Well, I’ve been waiting so long to be in a position like this that the transition came easy.”
Then police heard that Lyle had made a sudden trip back home from Princeton and destroyed something in the family computer, one week after the killings. According to an expert hired by Lyle to help him access the family’s computer files, this was a reference to a new will Jose had prepared that conceivably would have left less to his sons and something for other members of the family. A relative says Jose had only that summer been discussing ways to restructure his growing estate.
Lyle told his friend Glenn Stevens what happened. According to Stevens, Lyle said a relative “found a new will and I went there and erased it,” a dumbfounded Stevens remembers Lyle telling him. “I was in disbelief. I just laughed.” Stevens says Lyle displayed signs of nervousness as he discussed the incident. And in a somber moment, Stevens recalls, Lyle said: “My father wasn’t very happy with me.”
Two months after the murders, as police continued to follow leads, Erik and Lyle Menendez sat down for their first detailed interview in the family mansion. Erik sat stiffly at one end of the sofa in the sunken living room, while Lyle, dressed in a stylish blue-and-white exercise outfit, slouched with athletic nonchalance in a chair, doing most of the talking.
Lyle said he and his brother would like to put the grisly episode behind them. “Finding out who it is, Erik and I are probably not going to be able to do anything about it. To find out who it is and not be able to do anything is probably worse (than not knowing). So it’s a hard thing for Erik and I to decide whether or not we want it solved. It would be great if whoever did it went to jail. But it really doesn’t help us in any way. The loss is much greater than the benefits of finding out who did it,” he said in a flat, unmodulated tone.
(This same distant way of talking would bother Beverly Hills detectives, but relatives say someone who didn’t understand Lyle could easily misinterpret him. “He doesn’t display emotion,” says his uncle, Brian Andersen of Chicago. “He is very unique in that regard. He would retain all the emotion inside him.”)
Then the brothers began to relive the night of the murder. “There was initial hysterics and then, after that night was over, I just sort of entered into my dad’s sort of mode,” Lyle said. “Sort of like an ESP sort of thing. You just sort of take over his position in the family.”
According to Stevens’ computations, Lyle spent $700,000 in the first weeks after his parents were killed. A relative put the figure closer to $500,000. Whatever the amount, that included the Porsche, a Rolex watch, as much as $40,000 in clothes and a Princeton cafe. Asked about the purchases, Lyle replied: “It’s consistent with the way I’ve led most of my life. I like quality things. . . . I don’t feel it’s ostentatious; I just enjoy it more.”
Andersen explains Lyle’s spending spree as the only way he knew of acting out his rage over the loss of his parents. “My speculation is that . . . a little of what we’re seeing in (him), trying to move too fast, is sort of a way to reach out because he’s angry.”
Lyle, always so close to his father, had now, in a way, become a rough copy of him. He never started his sophomore year in college but became driven to make money, friends say, rising early and shuttling from one business meeting to another as he considered investment opportunities. Pierce, the country club manager, noticed a dramatic change. “His demeanor, his walk were entirely different. He was more confident.”
Lyle importuned his friends to take positions in his business ventures. When Stevens expressed hesitation and a desire to stay in school, Lyle remarked, “People who are most successful are the ones who take chances.”
Early this year, he paid $550,000 for Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe, one of his favorite Princeton hangouts, and made plans to franchise its Buffalo chicken wings nationwide. Some people around town thought he paid too much, and family friend and attorney Mason tried to advise him against the deal. Lyle thanked him for the advice but ignored it. “Lyle Menendez thinks he can succeed at anything,” Mason says.
Like his father, Lyle seemed to not consider failure possible, at least he never let it show. If a friend expressed fear that a deal might go bad, he would reply, in the best corporate shark style, “Let them sue me.” When he considered instituting a delivery service for Chuck’s, he stood out in front of a competing restaurant and tried to lure away its drivers with a wad of $100 bills, the rival says.
One of his student business partners recalls that Lyle had eight deals in the air at once and lost several thousand dollars in an abortive effort to promote a rock concert: “He never slowed down to do one thing properly.”
Erik, meanwhile, moved out of the Beverly Hills mansion and into an apartment in Marina del Rey. He gave up plans to study at UCLA and devoted his days to getting in shape to break into the pro tennis ranks. He also traveled a lot, back and forth to Princeton and at least once to Mexico. “It’s going to be a struggle,” Erik admitted. “But, hopefully, in two years, you’ll be doing an article on us.”
At the end of the interview, Lyle said he was happy to have had as much time as he did to study at his father’s knee. “These 21 years have been like a basic training for life.” He admitted to feeling pressure to match his father’s feats. “I would want this generation to do so much more than the last one. The last one was cut short, really. The baton has been passed. We feel that. There was always a great energy in the family and the feeling of moving forward, and it’s sort of like--and I do get the feeling--like the baton was passed. I do feel like I need to carry on the burden.”
But then he returned to the theme of how difficult it was to be Jose and how difficult it was for those who lived with him. “You could see the stress in his face and you could feel the stress around him,” he said. “People feel stress around Erik and myself. You become very demanding. He really felt that he was always right.”
POLICE MOVED IN for Lyle’s arrest hours after confiscating the audiotapes of the brothers’ therapy sessions. And so, the deeply unsettling issues involved in this family history have now been thrown into the lap of the legal system. Judges must decide whether the tapes should be admitted into evidence, despite a general protection for such privileged conversations. Any ruling undoubtedly will be appealed, pushing back the trial date possibly into next year.
Much of the balance of the case against the brothers seems to rest on circumstantial evidence. A friend of Lyle’s found a shotgun shell casing in Lyle’s coat pocket; since the guns have never been found, this evidence is of marginal value at best. The gun-purchase records, located in March after a tip, could be more damning but are not conclusive. Although the prosecutor, Elliott Alhadeff, declines to discuss strategy, it appears that he could try to weave a mosaic of incriminating activity by Erik and Lyle in the months leading up to and after the slayings, as well as a perception that they never mourned the deaths.
The family hired two of the city’s premier criminal attorneys. Leslie Abramson, who has a stunning record of winning capital cases, represents Erik, and Gerald Chaleff, who defended Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono, is defending Lyle. Neither will discuss their plans at this stage.
The brothers, appearing at a series of evidentiary hearings in recent weeks, have appeared at ease, smiling at their girlfriends and relatives who show up for support. Erik looks as if he has lost weight. The brothers have been segregated and eat their meals in their cells, spending their own money to keep their fellow inmates supplied with candy and other goodies that can be brought in.
Family members are standing by their side and insist that the brothers may have been set up by a third party to take responsibility for the killings. They even speculate that Lyle and Erik may know who killed their parents but are keeping quiet out of fear.
Whatever the outcome of the case, the most resonant questions--whether love and an obsession with success can become toxic, whether parents who try to shape their offspring can inspire hatred, not loyalty--defy pat answers. As friends say over and over, Jose Menendez may have been a pushy, aggressive, give-no-quarter father, but he was no fool. He tried to show love in the hope that his sons would understand him and what he was trying to do, even if they wound up resenting him for being so tough. As the family friend said, Jose did “what they tell you to do . . . then this happens.”
The Princeton Cemetery, where President Grover Cleveland and Vice President Aaron Burr are buried, also is the final resting place for Jose and Kitty Menendez. There were no headstones in the extreme northeast corner of the cemetery when visitors saw the graves this past spring--just two simple markers and some wilted flowers.
A member of the Menendez family says Lyle was considering buying an adjacent parcel and building a mausoleum there. He even wanted to move the body of his grandfather from another New Jersey cemetery to the cemetery corner. Like his father, Lyle was planning ahead, in the knowledge that the cemetery was running out of space. “It was not a matter of burying them and goodby,” the relative says. “Lyle had all kinds of plans”--plans now indefinitely deferred.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.