The Menendez family estate, once valued at up to $14 million, is virtually depleted, it was disclosed Tuesday at Lyle and Erik Menendez's murder trial.
Shrunken by taxes, legal fees and other costs, Jose and Kitty Menendez's estate is worth no more than $800,000--and has debts at least that high, defense lawyer Leslie Abramson said in court.
Probate records are sealed and the defense had kept financial figures secret throughout the trial. But as the prosecution all but rested its rebuttal case Tuesday, Abramson tossed out the figures while trying to discredit one of the last witnesses, Kitty Menendez's brother, Brian Andersen.
Abramson suggested that Andersen's desire to get a share of the estate had motivated him to break from other relatives and testify against Lyle and Erik Menendez, who are accused of first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents.
If the brothers are convicted, the defense attorney said, the Andersen family might stand to inherit what is left of the Menendez estate--though, as she outlined the current balance in a series of questions, not much of it remains.
Andersen, 53, a commercial real estate developer from Downers Grove, Ill., said he did not need the money and insisted he had a simple reason tor testify: "I love my sister."
The brothers admit killing their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, an entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47, in the TV room of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.
Both brothers testified they acted in self-defense because they thought their parents planned to kill them that night.
That assertion was challenged, however, by another prosecution witness called Tuesday. Karen Farrell, 49, told jurors she and Kitty Menendez were close friends and that they had made plans to play bridge at the Beverly Hills mansion the night of the killing.
It was only that afternoon, Farrell said, that she called from Santa Barbara, where she was spending the weekend, and told her friend that she would not be back in time. Kitty Menendez was disappointed and said, "Even if you get in late, call . . . and see if it's not too late," Farrell testified.
Prosecutors sought to show that the Menendez parents hardly had plans of murder, but defense attorneys sought to undercut Farrell's believability--as they have with most prosecution rebuttal witnesses.
Farrell said she had no contact with Kitty Menendez from Aug. 15 to Aug. 20. But on cross-examination, Abramson produced phone records documenting a series of calls between her house and the Menendez home.
Farrell said she did not remember those calls.
The testimony about the family fortune came earlier in the day with the reappearance of Andersen, the only family member to testify for the prosecution. He first took the stand last week, portraying Jose and Kitty Menendez as caring, devoted parents, and was called back after the Thanksgiving holiday for cross-examination.
In a hearing without jurors present, Abramson acknowledged that her strategy for attacking Andersen's credibility by portraying him as a money-grubber was risky--presumably because a discussion of the depleted estate could lead jurors to speculate on how much has been spent on the defense.
But Abramson decided it was worth the risk, saying: "All you can do is roll the dice."
More than once in the trial, witnesses have estimated the original value of the Menendez estate at $14 million.
The brothers' aunt, Marta Cano, 51, of West Palm Beach, Fla.--Jose Menendez's sister--testified that she was the one who first made that estimate for the family. But she said she later decided the real value was far less, although she did not fix a new figure.
Among the key assets of the estate were the Beverly Hills home, which was sold, and another house in Calabasas, where Jose Menendez's mother still lives.
The brothers also split a $600,000 insurance policy, with Lyle Menendez using some of his share to make a down payment on a chicken-wing restaurant that has since been sold. A large chunk of Erik Menendez's share ultimately went to legal fees, Abramson said Tuesday.
Abramson did not detail how the bulk of the estate has been spent. Its current value is $700,000 to $800,000, Andersen estimated, almost all of that coming from the Calabasas home.
But the estate owes $600,000 in taxes and $200,000 in court costs, Abramson said.
If the brothers are convicted, she said, whatever is left would go under California probate law to Jose Menendez's mother, Maria Menendez.
But the defense attorney disclosed that Andersen had recently filed a document in probate court claiming that his side of the family might stand to inherit--if it is proved that Kitty Menendez survived Jose Menendez, as witnesses have testified at the murder trial.
Abramson suggested that Andersen grew frustrated after a Nov. 3 probate hearing, when a judge said he would not consider the claim unless the Menendez brothers are convicted, thus losing their right to the estate--and throwing it up for grabs.
"And after it was taken off calendar, you volunteered to testify?" Abramson asked.
"If that's how the chronology works out," Andersen said.
Later, under questioning from Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich, Andersen said he had agreed several years ago--as one of the senior surviving relatives--that the estate should pay part of the brothers' defense. But he did not know then that they had killed his sister, he told jurors.
He did not say how much the estate agreed to pay, but blurted out: "Ms. Abramson told me if she didn't receive the money soon, she was going to quit."
Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg ordered the statement stricken.
The estate is paying undisclosed fees to the lead lawyers, Abramson and Jill Lansing. Taxpayers are picking up the tab for two other defense lawyers, Michael Burt and Marcia Morrissey. It is common in capital cases for extra lawyers to be appointed if the defense requests it--which it did in this case.
As of Sept. 1, according to county documents, Burt had been paid $222,505 and Morrissey $88,586. Subsequent accountings have not been made available.
The government also is paying for certain expert witnesses for the defense, again a standard practice in death penalty cases, regardless of the defendants' wealth.
Prosecutors expect to rest their rebuttal case almost as soon as court resumes today. The defense expects to put on witnesses at least through this week.