by Natalie Finn | Tue., Sep. 26, 2017 4:00 PM
Dominating what most people think of when they think "Southern California," Los Angeles County is a humongous place, comprising more than 4,700 square miles, dozens of cities—including its sprawling namesake—and countless neighborhoods.
Five years before O.J. Simpson sent polarizing shockwaves throughout the city of L.A., the former football hero's murder trial showing just how the City of Angels experience differed for people depending on their race, background and income, not to mention their zip code, Erik and Lyle Menendez committed a shocking crime that turned all eyes toward the one of the region's most privileged enclaves.
But murdering their parents in one of the most famous cities in the world was only the beginning.
Starting tonight, NBC's Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders will be chronicling the brothers' puzzling journey, from their days as spoiled and troubled rich kids to prison inmates serving life sentences.
First, however, this is a look at the tortuous road Erik and Lyle took—around L.A. and miles beyond—in their feeble attempt to escape the inevitable.
Melissa Hebeler / E! Illustration; Map not to scale.
On Aug. 20, 1989, Mary Louise "Kitty" Menendez, 47, and her husband Jose Mendendez, 45, were murdered by their two sons in their $5 million, 9,000-square-foot mansion at 722 North Elm Drive in Beverly Hills. Zip code 90210, just like the hit teen drama that would premiere the following year.
In 1986, the family had moved from Princeton, N.J. (Erik was born in New Jersey, while Lyle was born in New York) to the San Fernando Valley city of Calabasas (to be made world famous a couple of decades later by the Kardashians). They had purchased the house in Beverly Hills in October 1988 while their 5-bedroom Calabasas mansion the Menendezes bought for $950,000 was undergoing renovations.
The Menendezes "were extraordinarily close-knit," an executive of Live Entertainment, the video company owned by Jose Menendez, told Vanity Fair's Dominick Dunne in 1990. Another friend said, "It was one big happy family." Erik was said to be exceptionally close to his mother, while Lyle seemingly admired his father's business prowess to no end.
Yet Jose Menendez, while charming and charismatic, was also said to be a controlling man who micromanaged his sons' lives. "My father suffered from being a perfectionist," Lyle told the Los Angeles Times' John Johnson and Ronald L. Soble, who were working on a book about the case, in the fall of 1989. "It carried over into his home life, and it was sometimes difficult for Erik and me. So much so that he really couldn't do something well enough. It wore on him tremendously mentally. And it wore on us."
The brothers acted out accordingly, with Lyle getting suspended for plagiarism during his first year at Princeton University, while Erik was accused of being involved in a series of burglaries in the summer of 1988, a sort of pre-Bling Ring caper perpetrated by bored Calabasas High School students.
According to the L.A. Times, once the case was cracked, Jose and his attorney drove up to the Malibu Sherrif's Station to return a load of stolen property. Erik performed community service. It was after this episode that Jose moved the family to Beverly Hills, and Erik transferred to Beverly Hills High School. The teen and one of his Calabasas buddies, Craig Cignarelli, wrote a 62-page screenplay called Friends, in which a spoiled son of wealthy parents commits five murders, starting with his mom and dad, after finding out their estate is worth $157 million. The killer inherits the estate but dies in the end.
After Lyle and Erik shot their parents to death at around 10 p.m., they dumped the two Mossburg 12-gauge shotguns Erik had purchased at a Big 5 sporting goods store in San Diego, Calif. (about a three-hour drive south from Beverly Hills) off the road on Mulholland Drive. From Elm Drive, one of the canyons would have been their quickest route to Mulholland, Beverly Glen or Benedict Canyon (where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson family in 1969) perhaps.
The brothers dumped the spent shotgun shells and their bloody clothes at a gas station and then proceeded to make a loop around the city, arcing away from the murder scene. They drove south to Century City, maybe taking the 405 freeway or Beverly Glen, to buy movie tickets to establish an alibi. Then they headed further west to Santa Monica, where they looked for a friend of theirs at the Taste of L.A. festival to bolster their story, but, as they told police later, they never found the guy.
That night being a Sunday, the brothers apparently didn't hit much traffic, because they were back at the house on Elm Drive by 11:47 p.m., when Lyle made a hysterical-sounding call to 911. "They shot and killed my parents!" he sobbed to the dispatcher. When police arrived, Erik, 19, was curled up crying on the front lawn.
Lyle gave a 30-minute eulogy at the funeral, which was held in Princeton, N.J. While in town, he hired a bodyguard and told people that the mob had killed his parents. The 21-year-old was chauffeured around in a limousine, put a down payment on a restaurant in the area and bought a $64,000 Porsche, a Rolex and $40,000' worth of clothes within a few weeks.
Erik remained in L.A., and when his big brother returned—suddenly, to erase his father's most recent will from his computer, Jose having apparently restructured his estate in a way less beneficial to his eldest son—they drove around in Kitty's Mercedes convertible, rented penthouses in Marina Del Rey and booked trips to London and the Caribbean.
But the ruse only lasted two months. On Oct. 31, Erik confessed to his therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel, that he and Lyle had killed their parents. Lyle wasn't happy about that and, feeling threatened, Oziel confided in his girlfriend that night. She ended up telling police, and on March 8, 1990, Lyle was arrested while leaving the Elm Drive home. Erik, an accomplished high school tennis player, was playing in a tournament in Israel (with his $50,000-a-year instructor) and he surrendered upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport three days later. (First, however, he flew to Miami, where relatives advised him to go home.)
Lyle and Erik were booked into Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A., 45 minutes and a world away from Beverly Hills.
AP Photo/Nick Ut, File
The brothers were arraigned at Beverly Hills Municipal Court, each charged with two counts of first-degree murder in December 1992; the L.A. County District Attorney's Office was seeking the death penalty.
Both murder trials—the first ended in a mistrial—took place at the Van Nuys Courthouse in the San Fernando Valley, Van Nuys also being where their father's business, Live Entertainment, was located. Two years before the O.J. trial would become must-see daytime viewing, the Menendez trial took center stage on Court TV.
Before the first trial got underway in 1993, Lyle and Erik claimed self-defense, saying they had been physically, emotionally and sexually abused by their parents. Leslie Abramson headed up the defense for Erik, while Jill Lansing was lead defense attorney for Lyle. Both brothers testified during the first trial, Lyle saying on the stand that their father had molested him between the ages of 6 and 8 and their mother would bathe him and have him get in bed with her until he was 13.
Lyle maintained that, on the night of the murders, he was convinced that their parents were going to kill him and Erik. So they went out to their car, grabbed the guns they claimed to have bought for their own protection, and shot Jose five times and Kitty nine times, including once each in the kneecap, to make it look like a mob hit.
Lyle and Erik were tried together but had separate juries—both of which deadlocked on a verdict, unable to decide if they were greedy monsters who killed their parents or abuse victims who acted out of desperation (or, if one brother had just gone along with the other out of fear). By then, the $14.5 million estate the Menendez brothers had stood to inherit had dwindled to about $700,000.
The second trial started in 1995 and, with no cameras in the courtroom for round two, the nation's eyes were almost solely on the Simpson murder trial unfolding in downtown L.A. Erik took the stand again, but Lyle did not. On March 20, 1996, both were found guilty of two counts each of first-degree murder with special circumstances, as well as conspiracy to commit murder. Each was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Now, 21 years later, Lyle Menendez is residing at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., near Sacramento. Erik, after a stint at Folsom State Prison, is behind bars at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, located in Central California.
They couldn't be further away from Beverly Hills.
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)