In a scene straight out of Perry Mason, Erik Menendez apparently got caught in a big lie Friday when he testified in detail about how he and his brother went to buy handguns as protection against their parents--at a store that, it turned out, had stopped selling handguns three years before.
The dramatic moment, which could tear at the credibility of the entire defense case, was set up when the younger Menendez brother asserted under cross-examination that he and his older brother, Lyle, went to the Big 5 store in Santa Monica on Aug. 18, 1989, to buy handguns.
Erik Menendez said the handguns rested on a top shelf in a glass case. He said he “remembered specifically” how he picked one out but ended up not buying it after the clerk said there was a 15-day waiting period for such weapons.
After letting jurors soak up the confident, detailed testimony, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama paused. Then he asked: “Mr. Menendez, did you know that Big 5 stopped carrying handguns in March of 1986?”
There was not a sound in the courtroom. Erik Menendez blinked twice. He did not seem rattled--but his reply was jumbled: “Ah, Mr. Kuriyama, there were guns there, and we did look at ‘em and he did say we could not carry them anymore.”
Erik Menendez, 22, and Lyle Menendez, 25, could draw the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents in the TV room of the family’s Beverly Hills mansion.
The defense admits the killings but contends that the brothers fired in self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
But throughout the three-month trial, prosecutors have made it plain that they view the tearful stories of abuse--as well as the brothers’ account of events in the five days leading to the slayings--as fiction.
Skeptical and sometimes sarcastic, Kuriyama focused Friday on those final days--leading Erik Menendez into the trap that the prosecution clearly had been waiting weeks to spring.
To get there, Kuriyama had Erik Menendez begin with Tuesday, Aug. 15, the night he said he watched his mother, Kitty Menendez, rip off his brother’s toupee. Erik Menendez said his mother was about 5 feet, 7 inches, Lyle Menendez about 5 feet, 10 inches.
“Did she get up on her tiptoes to grab his hairpiece off his head?” Kuriyama asked.
Erik Menendez sighed and said, “She didn’t need to do that.”
There again was no hint of what was to come as the cross-examination moved to Wednesday, Aug. 16. Erik Menendez said he remembered little of the day.
Then to Thursday, Aug. 17, which Erik Menendez has described as a turbulent turning point for his family.
After a tennis lesson in the morning, he went out, then came home near midnight and headed to his room, he said, where his father, Jose Menendez, 45, began pounding on his door. His father looked “like a bull” as he charged and threw him on the bed, Erik Menendez said.
He said his father was yelling that Lyle Menendez had threatened moments before to expose him as a child molester. Erik Menendez said he escaped, ran downstairs and confronted his mother about allowing the abuse to go on. Then he ran outside to the guest house, where he found his brother, he said.
“Let me ask you this, Mr. Menendez,” Kuriyama said. “Where was your father all this time? I thought he was so intent on attacking you.”
“I never saw him again that night,” Erik Menendez said.
“Your father, who you had testified would hunt you down to the four corners of the Earth, couldn’t even find you in your own house?”
It was that night the brothers decided to buy guns for protection, Erik Menendez said.
About 9:30 or 10 the next morning, Friday the 18th, they arrived at the Big 5 in Santa Monica, he said.
A male clerk showed them the handgun display in the glass case, Erik Menendez said. “I think it was a two-shelf container . . . there were guns on the top, that’s what I remember seeing.”
Kuriyama asked two dozen questions inviting Erik Menendez to set the scene with as much detail as possible. He asked about the color of the handguns there, the type of display cabinet and the conversation with the clerk.
When the prosecutor asked if he looked at automatics or revolvers, Erik Menendez said, “I specifically remember seeing the ones that did not have a revolver.”
He said that while he had “no idea” what the clerk looked like, he did remember being shown “which (guns) were real and which ones were not.” Pellet guns and BB guns were “over to the right,” he said, while the “real ones were more in the center, where I was.”
Lyle Menendez, testifying two weeks ago, also described the visit to the Santa Monica Big 5. But prosecutors then did not press him for as many details--or confront him with what they knew.
On Friday, Kuriyama waited until Erik Menendez described how he picked out a gun. Erik Menendez did not remember its caliber or color.
Then, like Lyle before him, Erik Menendez testified that the clerk informed them they had to wait 15 days to buy any handgun--so they left the store without buying anything, anxious to have protection immediately.
“Now you’re telling the truth about everything in this case, aren’t you?” Kuriyama asked, seeking to tie Erik Menendez’s credibility on this issue to the entire defense.
“I’m telling the truth to the best that I can.”
“And even though you lied in the past, you’re telling the truth now, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Did you truly go to the Santa Monica Big 5 store on the morning of Aug. 18th to buy these handguns?”
“Definitely. Without any doubt. I did.”
Right there, Kuriyama sprang the trap, asking Erik Menendez if he knew that Big 5 stores had stopped selling handguns in March, 1986.
After a pause, then Erik Menendez’s fumbling answer, Kuriyama did not press the issue. Having made his point, he moved on to the trip the brothers took that Friday to San Diego, where records show they did buy weapons--two shotguns.
An official of the El Segundo-based Big 5 chain confirmed in a telephone interview Friday that the chain did stop selling handguns in 1986.
“In Santa Monica, it would have been impossible to buy a handgun in 1989,” operations manager Gabriel Friederichsen said.
While the scene in Van Nuys Superior Court was the type played out frequently on “Perry Mason” or “L.A. Law,” it is hardly ever seen in real life.
Courtroom testimony, especially from a defendant in a high-profile murder case, is gone over and over beforehand--with defense attorneys spending weeks trying to anticipate every possible question the prosecution might ask.
Defense attorneys would not say whether they had recognized the opening provided to prosecutors by the Menendez brothers’ account of their trip to the Big 5 store.
Erik Menendez’s lawyer, Leslie Abramson, said after court Friday that she would not comment on anything he said on the stand until he concludes testifying, sometime next week. She said only, “You’ll hear all the answers.”
Kuriyama also declined to comment.
The concluding testimony of the day, about the purchase of the weapons, seemed almost an anticlimax--even though the prosecutor continued to hammer at Erik Menendez.
He testified that he and his brother left for San Diego immediately after leaving the Big 5 in Santa Monica, arriving between noon and 1 p.m. He said they first went to an unnamed gun store “with racks of guns,” didn’t buy anything and went to eat.
About 5 p.m., he said, they went to a Big 5 in San Diego, where the female clerk at “the counter on the right” showed them a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun. She fiddled with it, he said, and even showed them how to load an extra shell.
Using a fake ID, he said, he bought two of the shotguns. Then the brothers left for Los Angeles, he said.
The clerk, Amanda Adams-Geier, 28, gave a different account when she testified July 27, saying that the sale took place about 8 p.m. and that she remembered it because there was no fiddling.
She testified that the customer pointed to two shotguns and said, “That’s what I want,” then paid cash for the guns and left.
From the Courtroom
Excerpts from Erik Menendez’s testimony about trying to buy handguns from a Big 5 sporting goods store in Santa Monica on Aug. 18, 1989:
Erik Menendez: There were guns on the top, that’s what I remember seeing.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama: These were handguns that you were seeing?
Menendez: Yes. . . .
Kuriyama: You recall seeing--you know the difference between an automatic and a revolver handguns? Like the revolver would be the kind you see on Western movies?
Kuriyama: Did you see those as well as the other kind that you see in the more recent movies, what they call an automatic?
Menendez: I, I don’t remember seeing revolvers. I don’t remember. I specifically remember seeing the ones that did not have a revolver. . . .
Kuriyama: At some point you picked out a handgun that you thought was appropriate, is that right?
Kuriyama: And did your brother also pick out one?
Menendez: Ah, I suppose, I don’t remember.
Kuriyama: You suppose but you don’t remember? Was your brother right next to you. . . ?
Menendez: Yes. . . .
Kuriyama: OK. Do you recall the caliber that you decided on?
Menendez: I, ah, I, I really don’t, it wasn’t. . . . As soon as we said, “That one looks good,” and that, that type of thing, we talked about, “Can we get it now?” Um, “How do you go about buying it?” That’s when (the clerk) told us we had to, we had to, there was a, there was some sort of waiting period. So we didn’t. It wasn’t an in-depth discussion.
Kuriyama: Now had your brother also selected one at that point when you selected yours? Did you indicate to him that you needed to buy two, not just one?
Menendez: Yes. . . .
Kuriyama: Mr. Menendez, do you recall your brother stating in his testimony that you had basically selected the guns, you were ready to purchase the guns and then you found out that you couldn’t leave the store with the guns because you had the 15-day waiting period?
Menendez: I don’t remember him testifying to that, but that’s roughly what happened.
Kuriyama: Now you’re telling the truth about everything in this case, aren’t you?
Menendez: I’m telling the truth to the best that I can.
Kuriyama: And even though you lied in the past, you’re telling the truth now, aren’t you?
Menendez: Yes, I am.
Kuriyama: Did you truly go to the Santa Monica Big 5 store on the morning of Aug. 18th to buy these handguns?
Menendez: Definitely. Without any doubt. I did.
Kuriyama: You and Lyle did?
Kuriyama: You and Lyle looked in this case and you selected these guns and you were told you couldn’t leave the store with these handguns because there’s a 15-day wait?
Kuriyama: Mr. Menendez, did you know that Big 5 stopped carrying handguns in March of 1986?
Menendez: No, I don’t know that. (Pause) Ah, Mr. Kuriyama, there were guns there and we did look at them and he did say we could not carry them anymore.
Amid a hushed courtroom, Kuriyama then turned to another subject--the brothers’ trip to San Diego to purchase shotguns.