From the outside, Jose and Kitty Menendez had “this quality of power, like movie stars,” a former neighbor testified Monday, but up close they were cruel, intimidating people guarding a secret life.
“How would you describe the Menendez family regarding being secretive?” asked Jill Lansing, a defense attorney in the trial of the two brothers accused of murdering their wealthy parents.
“Hermetically sealed,” said Alicia Hercz. “Whatever they wanted you to know you knew.”
Hercz, who was defendant Lyle Menendez’s teacher in Princeton, N.J., said she and her husband lived a few blocks from the family and were part of a small social set that the Menendezes occasionally joined for canasta and dinner parties. She recalled them as strange but explained why they were accepted.
“They were attractive in the sense that we talked about them. They were going somewhere,” she said. “They had this quality of power like movie stars or something. They had this aura.”
Lyle Menendez, 25, and his brother, Erik, 22, are charged with murdering Jose and Kitty Menendez in their Beverly Hills mansion on Aug. 20, 1989. They claim that they were driven to kill by years of abuse that culminated in the parents threatening to kill them.
“Joe was extraordinarily good at intimidating people,” Hercz said of the father. “He was abusive and cruel. I found him destructive at times. If a party was going on, he had an edge that could destroy the mood.”
Hercz remembered Lyle Menendez as the quietest student in her Spanish and English classes at Princeton Day School. She said he would rush into class late, dressed in tennis clothes, and she knew that his father was pushing him toward a tennis career. He never spoke in class and it was clear that his parents were doing his homework, she said.
“Lyle was a total robot,” she said, “very much like a robot.”
Twice, she said, he came to her office and sat staring at her for half an hour but refused to speak. Other teachers spoke of strange behavior by the Menendez boys but never confronted the parents about it.
“Kitty could be fierce,” Hercz said. “You knew that your job could be at stake. They were intimidating people. They intimidated all of us.”
She said the mother also could be “needing, pathetic, kind of suspicious of people, disorganized, spacey.”
Once, she said, she and her husband arrived for a dinner party at the Menendez home and found that dinner had not been made. She said the guests pitched in and cooked. The house, she said, was disorganized and smelled of animals.
After dinner, she said, the couple showed a pornographic movie called “Pixote.” Prosecution objections prevented her from telling jurors its content.
Hercz, who had family in California, said she visited the Menendezes after they moved to Beverly Hills. The last time was Aug. 1, 1989, she said, when she and her son saw Kitty briefly at her home.
“How did she seem?” Lansing asked.
“Strange. The strangest I had ever seen her,” Hercz said. “She kept saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to call Lyle,’ and she would leave. Then she’d come back and tell us about the fish she was frying. She said she was going to South America in a very short time.”
Hercz was preceded to the witness stand by tennis coach William Kurtain, who joined a parade of instructors who have taken the stand to describe a demanding, overbearing Jose Menendez pressuring coaches to make his boys into ranked tennis players.
He said that Jose Menendez would force son Lyle into practicing for hours, even in the rain, and that he would interrupt lessons to bark instructions at his son and the coach.
“Was this unusual?” he was asked.
“It was unusual and insulting,” he said.
The trial was likely to be in recess Tuesday.