AP Photo/Nick Ut
AP Photo/Nick Ut
On Aug. 20, 1989, at around 10 p.m., Erik and Lyle Menendez shot their parents to death in their Beverly Hills mansion, a 9,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home previously leased by the likes of Prince and Elton Johnbefore the couple bought it less than a year before the murders.
Jose Menendez, a 45-year-old entertainment executive, was shot point-blank in the back of the head with a 12-gauge shotgun and was found in the den, where he and his wife of 26 years, Kitty Menendez, 47, had been watching a movie. Kitty tried to get away, and was found lying in a pool of blood in the hallway, shot in the arms, chest and face. Both were also shot in the kneecap, which was supposed to make it look like a hit job.
Surprised to not hear any sirens after making all that noise, the brothers got in the car and dumped the guns somewhere off of Mulholland Drive, then threw the spent shotgun shells and their bloody clothes in a dumpster at a gas station. They bought movie tickets in Century City for a film they didn't see, then went to Santa Monica, where they tried to find one of Lyle's friends who could serve as an alibi; unable to find the guy, they drove back home.
At 11:47 p.m., 21-year-old Lyle called 911, sobbing to the dispatcher, "Somebody killed my parents!" (The call would later be parodied in The Cable Guy, in which the world is awaiting the verdict on a former child star accused of killing his twin brother, both played by Ben Stiller.) The brothers told police they'd gone to the movies to see the latest Bond film License to Kill, but the line was too long so they saw Batman. Afterward, they said they went to the annual "Taste of L.A." festival in Santa Monica and then returned home to find their parents had been brutally murdered.
A bodyguard Lyle hired for about 10 days testified that Lyle said his parents were "murdered by either the cartel or the mob and he was in fear for his life."
In the week immediately following the killings, Lyle—a Rolex-sporting prep school grad who had been suspended from Princeton for plagiarism—returned to New Jersey, where he test-drove a Porsche (calling the Alfa Romeo he had at home a "piece of s--t") and went shopping for clothes. He also put a put a $300,000 down payment on a restaurant that specialized in buffalo wings in Princeton, N.J., where he and Erik were born, later that year.
"'Well, I've been waiting so long to be in this position, that I'm prepared for it,'" Lyle said at his parents' wake, according to the testimony of pal and Princeton classmate Glenn Stevens.
When he fired the bodyguard, Lyle told him he'd been assured by an uncle in New York that the mob was no longer out to get their family.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Erik hired a private tennis coach and the brothers tooled around L.A. in their late mother's Mercedes convertible. They went to London and then to the Caribbean on vacation. They rented a couple of penthouses in Marina del Rey, Calif.
It was later said that the Menendez brothers blew through about $1 million in six months. ("I don't think it's understandable. People react to it, to a traumatic event like that, in different ways," Lyle later tried to explain the spending spree to Barbara Walters.)
But just in case anyone was viewing their behavior as non-suspicious or otherwise normal, the game was over soon enough, the big break in the case coming from Erik's guilty conscience—despite what appeared to be their shocking lack of remorse.
Erik ended up telling his psychologist, Dr. Jerome Oziel, on Oct. 31 that he and Lyle killed their parents. Lyle then joined them that day, and Oziel recalled the older brother acting menacing, he was so angry that Erik had told. Oziel met again with both brothers on Nov. 2, and Lyle told him that, after the previous session, the brothers had talked about killing him, the therapist testified.
It was Oziel's ex-girlfriend who ended up tipping off the police. Oziel testified that, on the night of Oct. 31, he went home and "told her what I needed to tell her."
LAPD officers arrested Lyle on March 8, 1990. Erik, playing tennis in Israel at the time, surrendered upon returning to L.A. three days later.
AP Photo/Nick Ut
Meanwhile, it would be the question of doctor-patient privilege that held the case up for years. A judge ruled that, by threatening Oziel, Lyle had voided the brothers' right to confidentiality. The defense's appeal was granted, then overturned by the California State Supreme Court, which re-allowed Oziel's tape-recorded notes, but not the confessions themselves, into evidence.
Lyle and Erik Menendez were indicted on first-degree murder charges in December of 1992. The L.A. County District Attorney's Office was seeking the death penalty.
Leslie Abramson headed up the defense for Erik, while Jill Lansing was lead defense attorney for Lyle.
Two years before the O.J. Simpson murder trial would become the most talked about televised trial of all time, the Menendez brothers' first murder trial—also televised pretty much in its entirety on Court TV—captivated the nation. A self-made millionaire Cuban immigrant and his beauty queen wife, gunned down by their two spoiled brat sons in Beverly Hills—the case had all the trappings of a Hollywood melodrama (which it would become in 1994, with Edward James Olmos and Beverly D'Angelo playing Jose and Kitty Menendez).
The real twist came, however, when the defense revealed its case: Lyle and Erik, sexually, physically and emotionally abused by their parents since they were children, had acted in tormented self-defense.
Lyle testified in September 1993 that both parents sexually abused him, his father when he was between 6 and 8 years old, and Kitty would bathe him and have him get into bed with her up until he was 13, after which she continued to "harass" him and be inappropriate. His parents continued to be violent with him into his late teens, Lyle said. When he started dating, Kitty would call his girlfriends "gold diggers" and "bimbos," he added.
One of the most memorable pieces of testimony, one that made it into the TV movie, was Lyle's recollection of Kitty ripping off his hair piece during an argument five days before the murder. He claimed that was the first time Erik saw him without his toupee, after which the teen cried and revealed to him that Jose was still sexually abusing him, Lyle testified. (An ex-girlfriend of Lyle's, Jamie Pisarcik, would testify that Erik had talked about Lyle wearing a hairpiece much earlier that year. Pisarcik and Lyle reconciled after his parents were killed, but she ended it in December after finding out he and his brother had pulled the triggers, after which she sold a ring he'd given her and kept the cash. She also testified that when Lyle told her about the abuse in a phone call from jail, she said she didn't believe him.)
"I had dismissed what had happened to me as something that happened to little boys," Lyle said in court. Together, they planned to confront their dad.
When he confronted Jose and warned him to leave Erik alone or he'd expose him, his father replied, "'We all make choices in our life. Erik made his. You made yours,'" Lyle said. The defendant added, "I thought we were in danger. I felt he had no choice. He would kill us. He'd get rid of us in some way. Because I was going to ruin him."
Asked why they didn't go to the police, Lyle said he didn't believe they could help him because "my dad is a rich guy with a lot of power."
On the night of Aug. 20, Kitty told them they couldn't go to the movies and Jose told Lyle to wait alone in his room upstairs. Convinced their parents were planning to kill them, they decided to strike first, Lyle testified. They grabbed the shotguns out of their car, headed into the den and started blasting away.
Asked why they didn't confess right away when they were interviewed early the next morning, Lyle said, "We had decided before that we wouldn't."
Outside of the jury's earshot, Ozriel had told the court that the brothers seemed "immensely pleased with the excitement of pulling off these...crimes without being caught."
Oziel then testified before the jury in August 1993 that the brothers told him that they had planned to kill their father because of his domineering ways, but realizing their mother would then be a witness, decided to kill her too. (That July, the State Board of Psychology moved to revoke his license over the unauthorized taping of the conversations and some unrelated violations involving other patients.)
The brothers thought they had committed the "perfect crime," Oziel said on the stand, relating how they had told him about going back outside to reload their guns as their mother tried to crawl away.
The brothers were tried simultaneously but with separate juries—both of which ended up deadlocked at the end of the first trial, unable to agree on whether Erik and Lyle were cold-blooded killers or tragic abuse victims.
After the first trial, Abramson told reporters that the $14.5 million estate Lyle and Erik inherited had dwindled to almost nothing and asked that concerned citizens donate to the Erik Menendez Legal Defense Fund for trial No. 2.
According to the Los Angeles Times in April 1994, probate records showed that there was less than $700,000 in cash left, in addition to the family's Calabasas home, a condo in New Jersey and some furniture and jewelry. Almost $4 million had gone to taxes, while another $4 million went to upkeep and mortgages on the Beverly Hills and Calabasas properties. Criminal defense fees amount to $1.495 million at the time.
The brothers were back on trial by August 1995 and, though the retrial was by all accounts much more focused on the gruesome crime scene, as the prosecution really tried to hammer home just how cruel these murders were, the proceedings played a distant second fiddle to the O.J. Simpson case playing out across town.
Moreover, Judge Stanley Weisberg did not allow cameras in his Van Nuys courtroom, depriving the world of insider access to round two. Erik testified again, but Lyle did not.
AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
And at the end of the second trial, on March 20, 1996, Lyle and Erik were both found guilty of two counts each of first-degree murder, with special circumstances, and conspiracy to commit murder. A jury decided to spare their lives during the penalty phase, voting for life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"Lyle is relieved because he wants to live," defense attorney Charles Gessler told reporters after hearing the jury's decision.
"On the good side, I would say that they're such considerable human beings that they're going to find a way to be productive," added Abramson. "And in fact some of the jurors were saying that too. It was their expectation that they would both find a way to contribute to society."
"We did think there was psychological abuse to some extent. I think most of us believed that," juror Lesley Hillings told the LA Times afterward. "Sexual abuse? I don't think we'll ever know if that's true or not."
Abramson, meanwhile, was accused of misconduct during the penalty phase when a psychiatrist enlisted by the defense to meet with Erik claimed that she had asked him to exclude information from his session notes. She was cleared by the state Bar in 1999.
Meanwhile, after they had murdered their parents together and sat through two trials together, their lives hanging in the balance, the state of California opted to separate the Menendez brothers, sending Erik to Folsom State Prison (he was later transferred to Pleasant Valley State Prison) and Lyle to Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.
The brothers' last memorable appearance together was a jailhouse interview they gave to Barbara Walters which aired June 28, 1996, just a few days before they were formally sentenced. The interview where Erik insisted, "I'm just a normal kid," prompting a bemused response from Walters.
"I was terrified that they would give either one of us death...It's scary," Erik said. Lyle said it was "very important" to them that they get to stay together in prison. "That is what has gotten us through these last six years, and through our life," he said.
"What we did is awful, and I wish I could go back..." Erik acknowledged. "We will spend the rest of our life in prison. But if I'm not with--but if we're not put in the same prison, there's a good probability I will never see him again and that...that I...there are some things you cannot take and there are some things you can endure. With everything taken away, [that would be] the last thing you can take."
Asked about the common public perception that he and his brother were monstrous spoiled brats, Erik said, "That's not who I am, but I can't defend that. Because I came from a family of wealth, that doesn't make me spoiled."
"I would be surprised if anybody who was present at the trial and saw the whole thing, rather than snippets on the news, would feel that," Lyle added.
And yet the 12 people who mattered didn't buy the brothers' victim routine and in turn sent them off to prison for the rest of their lives.
Now, 28 years after the murders and 21 years after the Menendez brothers were found guilty of murder—neither a round anniversary number but right in the thick of the true crime boom on TV and in film—the case has been dusted off and is once again being mined for, if not exactly new, then the same shocking details that gripped, horrified and ultimately baffled the world in the first place.
But there are always new ways to look at things, and new ways to present what we may already know but will never really understand.
The Lifetime movie Menendez: Blood Brothers, starring Courtney Love as Kitty Menendez, premiered June 10. And the first season of the new NBC anthology Law & Order: True Crime, starring Edie Falco Leslie Abramson and Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper as murder-age Lyle and Erik, premieres tomorrow on NBC.
"This is taken from the headlines—and we've done some great shows taken from headlines, but this is on a different level," executive producer and Law & Order franchise creator Dick Wolf told reporters during the 2017 TCA summer press tour. "It's also the only time we've had sort of a collective agenda."
And for the presumable handful who are thinking there's nothing new to be shocked (and entertained) by, Wolf promised, "Your mind is going to receive a lot of information that I think will change a lot of people's attitudes."
Having spent the last 27 years in prison, including the time when he was awaiting trial, Lyle recently said he feels more "at peace" than he ever did on the outside.
"It's shocking to think...that I could have been involved in taking anyone's life—and my parents' life," Lyle told ABC News by phone from Mule Creek for the 2-hour special Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers—American Sons, American Murderers, which aired in January. "It seems unimaginable because it seems so far removed from who I am. But I found that my own childhood prepared me surprisingly well for the chaos of prison life."
He continued, "I am the kid that did kill his parents, and no river of tears has changed that and no amount of regret has changed it. I accept that. You are often defined by a few moments of your life, but that's not who you are in your life, you know. Your life is your totality of it...You can't change it. You just, you're stuck with the decisions you made."
But not everyone thinks he's a monster. Lyle married former model Anna Eriksson on July 2, 1996, the day he was sentenced to life in prison; they divorced in 2011 he was reportedly caught "cheating" (writing letters to another woman). He married Rebecca Sneed in 2003 and they've been together ever since, despite the fact that California doesn't allow conjugal visits for prisoners convicted of murder and/or serving life sentences.
Chris Morton/Online USA
Erik also married in June 1999, finding love with single mom Tammi Ruth Saccoman, who had been writing to him since his first trial.
"Not having sex in my life is difficult, but it's not a problem for me," Saccoman, who penned the 2005 book They Said We'd Never Make It: My Life With Erik Menendez, told People. "I have to be physically detached, and I'm emotionally attached to Erik... My family does not understand. When it started to get serious, some of them just threw up their hands."
Though the more taciturn of the two lately, Erik said in 2005 that he didn't feel that he deserved to be in prison for the rest of his life.
"I'm not saying what I did was right or justifiable," he told People with Saccoman by his side. "I needed to go to prison. But place another child in my life and see what happens. I felt it was either my life or my parents' life. It's as if there was kerosene all over the floor that a match could light at any time. And my soul was burnt to death."
Erik said he felt he deserved to go to prison, but "I don't believe that I deserve to be here. And I may well get out of prison one day. I am still working on my appeal. I don't know if that is realistic. But the death of hope is the death of the heart. I can't think about it. If I was serving any good purpose in being here for life, then I could say it was the right thing. But I'm not."
He said he had read The Power of Now at least 15 times, he meditated daily and he had spent the last 14 years building his relationship with God.
During his first year in prison, however, he was too afraid to try to speak to God.
"But I could talk with my mother," Erik said. "She still loved me. I would love me if I was her. After this forgiving stage I was able to acknowledge my mother again in my life."
Law & Order: True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 10 p.m. on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)
(A previous version of this story was originally published April 25, 2017, at 4 a.m. PT)