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Menendez Family Run Like a Firm, Friend Says : Trial: Tennis coach testifies that the defendants’ father was strict and tried to control every aspect of the brothers’ lives.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lyle and Erik Menendez, charged with murder in the shotgun slayings of their parents, lived in a secretive family led by a father who ran his household “as if it was a company and he was the chairman of the board,” a family friend testified Thursday.

Perry Berman, who was initially Erik Menendez’s tennis coach and later became friends with the entire family, said that Erik’s father, Jose Menendez, was a disciplinarian and that his mother, Kitty, gave her husband free rein with their sons.

Called as a prosecution witness to describe the brothers’ alibi the night their parents were killed, Berman’s testimony veered off on cross-examination. Jose Menendez, Berman said, sought to control every aspect of his sons’ lives, “academically, socially, the girls they went out with.”

Berman made a point of not looking at Lyle or Erik Menendez from the witness stand, not even during breaks. Lyle Menendez, 25, leaned back in his chair and watched Berman closely. Erik Menendez, 22, only occasionally looked up at Berman.

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The brothers are charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, killings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47. The parents were killed about 10 p.m. in the TV room of the family’s $4-million Beverly Hills mansion.

Two juries are hearing the case, one for each brother, because some evidence is admissible against only one of them.

Defense lawyers said this week in Van Nuys Superior Court that the brothers will testify in their own defense and admit firing the fatal shots. The defense says that Lyle and Erik Menendez killed in self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Prosecutors allege that the brothers killed their parents out of hatred and greed and are seeking the death penalty.

In an audiotape that prosecutors played Thursday before Berman’s testimony, Lyle Menendez told a Beverly Hills police officer that he had been at the movies with his brother when their parents were killed.

On the tape, made at police headquarters about three hours after the killings, Lyle suggested that his father’s business dealings might have provoked the killings.

Jose Menendez, his older son said, had tried to “squeeze out smaller companies” and “could step on a lot of toes.”

Lyle Menendez said of his father: “His motto is ‘a deal a day.’ . . . If you’re weaker, you lose.”

Erik Menendez also was recorded in an interview that morning. Police Sgt. Tom Edmonds testified Thursday that the only thing that seemed odd about the two interviews was Lyle Menendez’s assertion that he smelled smoke from shotguns when he and Erik returned to the house and found the bodies.

“Smoke dissipates very quickly,” Edmonds said.

But, Edmonds said, both brothers seemed sincerely traumatized and had explained their whereabouts, so he decided not to test their hands for gunpowder residue and to let them go.

Under questioning by the prosecution, Berman testified that Lyle Menendez called him Sunday afternoon, told him that he and Erik were going to see a movie in Century City and would meet him that evening at the “Taste of L.A.” food festival in Santa Monica.

Berman testified that the brothers had not shown up at the food fair by 10:15, so he left. But “sometime after 11,” Lyle Menendez called from the festival, saying they had to meet. They arranged to rendezvous at a Beverly Hills restaurant, Berman said.

The brothers never appeared there, either. Prosecutors allege that the brothers went home from Santa Monica on the pretense of picking up a phony ID for Erik Menendez, then called 911 to report the shootings.

In the phone call from Santa Monica, Berman said, Lyle Menendez seemed “a little jumpy” and “anxious.”

Prosecutors say the call to Berman was part of an alibi the brothers carefully planned before the killings. Defense lawyers contend that the brothers shot their parents in panic and concocted the call and the alibi on the spur of the moment.

Berman said Thursday that he had met the brothers five years before in New Jersey. He was hired to teach Erik Menendez and came to know the entire family, he said.

A few years later, the Menendez family moved to California. Berman did, too, and saw them frequently.

In early 1989, Lyle Menendez began dating a model that he and Berman had met in the parking lot of a Santa Monica club. “Very beautiful, blonde, 5-7, blue eyes, very nice figure, she works out, in great shape--a very upbeat personality,” Berman testified Thursday.

Jose Menendez did not like the woman, who was several years older than his son, called her a “gold digger” and ordered him to stop seeing her, Berman said. Eventually, Lyle Menendez complied, Berman said.


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