On August 20, 1989, José and Mary “Kitty” Menendez were found shot to death in their Beverly Hills home at 722 North Elm Drive. Their sons, Lyle (then aged 21) and Erik (then aged 18), were later convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders. The Menendez Brothers case received an unprecedented amount of attention through Court TV coverage of the initial trials and as a result, many became fascinated by the story. Nearly 30 years after the murders, the Menendez brothers remain an intriguing fixture in true crime history because questions still remain. In particular, what made them do it? A new A+E limited series, The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All, premiering on November 30th (10pm ET), explores this very question embedded in the secrets of the dysfunctional Menendez family.
The Menendez Family
The patriarch of the family, José Menendez (May 6, 1944 – August 20, 1989), was a self-made millionaire who emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. when he was just 16 and worked his way up from a dishwasher to the executive vice president at independent film company Carolco Pictures. He married his college classmate, Mary Louise "Kitty" Andersen (October 14, 1941 – August, 20 1989), in 1963 at the age of 19 and they started a family a few years later. Joseph Lyle Menendez (born January 10, 1968) and Erik Galen Menendez (born November 27, 1970) grew up in a $5-million Beverly Hills Mediterranean-style mansion once rented by Elton John. They wanted for nothing but did not meet their father’s expectations. José has been described as extremely controlling and demanding of his sons, sometimes holding them to impossibly high standards. Kitty suffered from depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction.
The Menendez Brothers
The brothers experienced run-ins with the law at early ages but never suffered any real consequences due to their father’s wealth. Both were arrested for burglary and Lyle was found guilty of plagiarism during his time at Princeton. Often described as sociopathic with a mean streak and a bad temper, Lyle is thought to be the mastermind behind the murders. Erik, however, was seen as sensitive and quiet and lived in his brother’s shadow. In fact, it was Erik who eventually confessed to the killings to his therapist, L. Jerome Oziel, and Lyle who threatened to kill Oziel if he alerted authorities (Oziel later told his girlfriend, Judalon Smyth, and she told the police about the murders). During their trials, both brothers made abuse allegations against their father and mother, although these experiences have not been well corroborated.
Murder, Trial, Sentencing, and Imprisonment
On the evening of August 20, 1989, José and Kitty Menendez were watching television when they were shot to death with a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun in their Beverly Hills home. Lyle called 9-1-1 to report that he and his brother arrived home and found their parents dead. Lyle and Erik were eventually arrested in 1990 for the killings and in 1993, the brothers were tried separately by different juries, each claiming self-defense due to years of abuse at the hands of both parents. Mistrials were declared in 1994 and both brothers were tried by one jury in the retrial that took place in 1995. Both were both found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1996. The brothers are serving their sentences 500 miles apart: Lyle in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California and Erik in Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. The two remain close, writing each other regularly and even playing chess through the mail. Lyle has been married twice while in prison: to pen pal and former model Anna Eriksson in 1997 (divorced in 1998) and to magazine editor Rebecca Sneed in 2003. Erik married pen pal Tammi Saccoman in 1999. In 2005, Tammi published a book about their lives together, They Said We'd Never Make It: My Life with Erik Menendez. Conjugal visits are prohibited under California state law for those sentenced to life without parole.
Suspicious Behavior and Remaining Questions
After their guilty convictions, many were left wondering, what made them do it? Because the initial trials were televised by Court TV, the details of the Menendez brothers’ lives generated numerous points of suspicion about the motives behind the murders. For example, Lyle allegedly changed his parents’ will after their death. Erik wrote a 66-page screenplay entitled Friends about a rich, young man who killed his parents for inheritance money. Both brothers spent lavishly in the months following their parents’ death. For Lyle, a $64,000 Porsche, a Rolex, and a restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey. For Erik, a $50,000-a-year tennis coach, a Jeep Wrangler, and a $40,000 investment in a rock concert at L.A.'s Palladium.
Beyond this, many still question the abuse allegations. Both brothers claimed that their mother and father subjected them to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse starting from very young ages. Although some of their claims have been corroborated by family members under oath, none of the accusations were formally substantiated. Indeed, although some members in the initial jury trials seemed to buy into the “abuse excuse,” the retrial jury members did not.
Then there are concerns about the ways the authorities handled the case. For example, police broke protocol at the crime scene when they failed to test the brothers’ hands and clothing for gunshot residue. And, although they were initially questioned at the scene, police did not conduct formal interviews with Lyle and Erik until two months after the murders. There is also suspicion of political collusion between the judge and the District Attorney’s office in the second trial that perhaps ensured guilty verdicts.
With such lingering questions, these notorious criminals continue to spark interest in the public eye more than 20 years after their convictions.
The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All premieres on November 30th at 10/9c on A+E.