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Menendezes’ Call Turned Psychologist’s Life Into a Trial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By anyone’s measure, psychologist L. Jerome Oziel was living the good life.

He had a home in a canyon in Sherman Oaks, 6,000 square feet of house. He was married, to another psychologist, with two young daughters.

He saw patients only three days a week, sometimes four, at his office over the hill in Beverly Hills. There was a waiting list of others eager to see him--and willing to pay $150 for 45 minutes of his time. He was often on TV as an expert on human behavior and was mulling a plan to market psychology audiotapes.

Then, in the fall of 1989, Erik Menendez called. And four years later, largely because of that call, it’s not such a good life anymore for L. Jerome Oziel.

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He finds himself facing state disciplinary proceedings, dogged by civil litigation and enduring long days on the stand as the key witness for the prosecution in the murder trial of Erik Menendez, 22, and his brother, Lyle, 25.

The brothers are charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47.

They were killed in the TV room of the family’s Beverly Hills mansion, just blocks from Oziel’s old office, where he once counseled the brothers.

Oziel testified for three days last week and takes the stand again today in Van Nuys Superior Court. For the Menendez brothers, their lives are on the line. For Oziel, it is his reputation that is on trial.

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Erik and Lyle Menendez purportedly confided their roles in the killing during counseling sessions with him on Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, 1989. Oziel said the brothers hated their parents, particularly their domineering father, and told him they planned the “perfect crime.”

For the prosecution, he provides the only detailed re-creation of the slayings--purportedly in the brothers’ own words. In addition, he undercuts the defense strategy of portraying the killings as an act of self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Oziel, the brothers’ psychologist, said he believes they endured mental abuse. But he has said nothing of beatings or molestations.

Defense lawyers contend that the brothers did not trust Oziel quite enough to confide those shameful episodes--even though they trusted him enough to share a secret that could lead them to the gas chamber.

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Before Oziel took the stand, defense attorney Leslie Abramson vowed that she would discredit the psychologist in “every way known to man and God.”

So she has tried, forcing Oziel to detail in public not merely his chilling counseling sessions with the brothers, but his own private life--including marital infidelities.

Oziel, Abramson said outside the presence of jurors, had an “exploitative, manipulative, sexualized” relationship with patients and with the many women in his life.

By the end of the week, the psychologist would acknowledge that it was no fun--merely fate--that his own life had become an open book.

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Oziel, 47, received his doctorate in clinical psychology from Arizona State University in 1972. He moved to South Carolina for two years, then to Beverly Hills, where he began a private practice while teaching for a while at the University of Southern California.

He is an expert in phobias of various sorts, but the majority of his professional articles, he testified, have dealt with sex-related disorders and sex therapy.

In Beverly Hills, there was no shortage of would-be patients. Oziel testified that he has a waiting list. And his billing rate, $150 per hour in 1989, has since gone up, though he declined to say how much.

When Abramson asked whether his practice brought home between $300,000 and $500,000 a year, prosecutors objected--and Oziel never answered.

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With his Beverly Hills cachet, Oziel was a natural for TV shows seeking experts in psychology.

Seeking to portray him as a self-promoting TV hound, Abramson asked if he recalled appearances on programs ranging from “The John Davidson Show” in 1980 to “48 Hours” in 1990.

Oziel replied that TV producers sought him out, not the other way around--and that his appearances had nothing to do with the Menendez case.

The Menendez family also sought him out, he testified, after Erik Menendez was implicated in a pair of burglaries in Calabasas in 1988.

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When he met the family, he acknowledged, he did not tell them that his license was then on probation, for what the State Board of Psychology considered an improper “dual relationship.” According to court documents, Oziel had once exchanged therapy for work done around his house by a patient, a construction worker.

He had been treating the Menendez brothers--mostly Erik--for more than half a year when his life took on messy complications.

In June, 1989, a woman named Judalon Smyth called him out of the blue, wondering if he might be interested in going into business with her, he said. She had a tape-duplicating business, he had expertise in psychology and she pressed him to work together to make and distribute educational and informational tapes, he said.

But what started as a business proposition turned personal, he said.

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“When did you start having sex?” Abramson asked.

“I don’t recall,” Oziel said. “Certainly not a matter of days. It may have been months. I don’t recall.”

By October, Oziel said, he wanted out. But that proved difficult. For a few months, Smyth moved in with Oziel and his wife, Laurel.

In 1990, Laurel Oziel said her husband was honest with her about the affair. At a news conference, she said she believed Smyth would be a passing fancy, “but we were held hostage by this woman in our own home.”

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In court last week, Oziel said that Smyth became “extremely involved with me.”

Oziel said that at the close of the fateful Oct. 31, 1989, session with Lyle and Erik Menendez, when he realized he might be the only outsider to know who committed the celebrated Menendez slayings, he first warned his wife and had her and the children stay with a neighbor. Then he went to Smyth and confided in her.

According to an appeals court opinion issued two years ago, Smyth claims she eavesdropped on the Oct. 31 session--at Oziel’s instruction. And in a complaint filed two weeks ago, the State Board of Psychology alleged that he allowed her to secretly tape the brothers’ therapy.

Oziel denies the state board’s charges, which could cost him his license. The board also alleges that he improperly gave Smyth prescription drugs and assaulted her.

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In court Friday, without jurors present, defense attorney Michael Burt accused Oziel of drugging and hitting Smyth “to shut her up.”

When jurors are present, Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg has not permitted defense attorneys to ask Oziel anything about Smyth that does not involve the Menendez brothers.

The other matters, though “melodramatic and theatrical,” are not relevant to the murder trial, the judge said.

Consistent with her vow to discredit Oziel, however, Abramson did ask him--with jurors present--if Smyth had sued him in Los Angeles Superior Court and if he had settled the case for $400,000 to $500,000.

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Smyth’s suit, filed in May, 1990, alleged that Oziel assaulted, raped, kidnaped and medicated her. He denied all charges and filed a countersuit a few months later, alleging that she had developed a “bizarre fixation and obsession with him.”

“I didn’t settle it,” Oziel said on the stand. “My insurance company did.”

The state psychology board also accuses Oziel of engaging in a sexual relationship with another woman who served as a housekeeper, of improperly giving her prescription medicine and of assaulting her.

Those charges, which Oziel also denies, have not come up in court. But Abramson asked the psychologist if he had a bag of love letters from various women. Yes, he said, though one of his lawyers had them now.

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Prosecutors have complained that such defense cross-examination amounts to “character assassination.” But Oziel has endured the assault gracefully.

Even as Abramson leans back with both palms against a wooden court railing and shouts questions, seemingly trying to provoke an outburst, he has remained calm, answering in a clear, strong voice--usually looking her right in the eye.

And she has not yet shaken him on his damning account of what the brothers told him about their “perfect crime.”

Abramson’s primary strategy in this area has been to question the accuracy of his recollections of the alleged confessions. Oziel said he never made written notes of the Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 sessions, which together lasted more than eight hours, but tape-recorded notes a week, or possibly two weeks, later.

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By that time, he said, he had seen between 33 and 54 other patients. Nevertheless, he insisted, his memory of the details was fresh.

At the same time, Oziel said he could not remember who his secretary was in 1989, though she had been working for him eight years. He was not even sure of his current secretary’s name.

“Actually,” he said after a pause, “I think her name is Dolores.”

Nearing the end of her questioning Friday, Abramson asked if Oziel, as he assessed his life, felt “harmed” by his contact with the Menendez brothers.

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“Obviously there’s been a lot of distress in relation to all this, fear and things like that,” Oziel said.

Such as publicity he did not like, Abramson asked.

“I would think that would be a truthful statement,” Oziel said.

Like a “fair amount” of litigation, Abramson asked.

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“I think that’s a very fair statement,” he said.

“Do you blame yourself for all these troubles?” she asked.

“I blame no one for all these troubles,” he said.

“Just fate?”

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“To a great extent,” he said.

The face-off resumes today.


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