Of course the real murders weren’t even remotely amusing, yet talk shows and spoof programs such as Saturday Night Live, found a great deal to joke about regarding the Menendez murders. It wasn’t the murders that people found amusing so much as the inane legal defense the brothers were advised by their lawyers to offer the jury.
Beverly Hills, California – August 20, 1989. At around 10 p.m,, shots rang out in Jose and Mary Louise (Kitty) Menendez’ palatial home at 722 North Elm Drive, a mansion where musicians Prince and Elton John once lived (although presumably not together). Joseph Lyle Menendez , 21, and his brother Erik Galen Menendez , 18, calmly drove away from the house after murdering their parents, dumped the shotguns on Mulholland Drive and went to a movie seeing, ironically, the James Bond movie License to Kill. Perhaps the boys should have purchased the latter along with the shotguns. It might have kept them out of prison.
Jose Menendez was a highly successful corporate executive in the entertainment industry. Kitty was a schoolteacher who quit her job to become a full-time homemaker after her sons were born. The family lived a lavish lifestyle. They seemed to have an idealistic existence: all four were good-looking, wanted for nothing financially and materially, and moved in elite social circles. Yet beneath the crystalline surface, trouble was brooding.
It was Lyle who contacted police after returning home at 11:47 p.m. The police suspected the two boys right away. There was something odd about the whole scene. Whoever had shot the two Menendez adults had deliberately shot their victims in the kneecap in an attempt to make the murders appear related to organized crime. Not likely. Jose was shot point-blank in the back of the head with a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. Kitty was shot in the leg, causing it to break. She ran and slipped in her own blood and fell, then was shot several times in the arm, chest, and face, leaving her unrecognizable. Nasty. In fact, after Kitty had been shot 8 times she was still living so the boys went out to the car where they reloaded one of the shotguns and returned to finish her off.
During the months after the murders, the Menendez brothers were none too smart about their behavior after the fact. They spent money lavishly; about $1 million during their first six months as orphans. Lyle bought an expensive Rolex watch; a Porsche Carrera; and Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe, a Buffalo wings restaurant in Princeton. Erik hired a full-time tennis coach and competed in a series of pro tournaments in Israel. They lived in two separate penthouse apartments in nearby Marina del Rey. They drove around Los Angeles in their late mother’s Mercedes-Benz SL convertible and went on overseas trips to the Caribbean and London. Nothing but the best for the Menendez brothers.
In spite of their high living, very few of their friends associated with the Menendez boys anymore. It was widely believed that the brothers had murdered their own parents and their behavior did nothing to deter rumors to that fact. Naturally, the media had a field day. They were eager to spread the ridiculous tales the brothers told about sexual abuse, including being raped with a toothbrush. Neighbors gave interviews to television reporters. You know what they say about everyone wanting that 15 minutes of fame. Elisia Hertz was one of those neighbors, appearing on Nancy Grace. Looking serenely at the camera, when asked by Grace why she believed the Menendez boys murdered their parents, Hertz stated, “perhaps a cumulation of post-stress disorder.” (fyi: the term is post-traumatic stress disorder). “And the victims of other kids bullying them perhaps because they were so different.” Well, she got that much right.
Grace insisted Kitty had “not wanted children at all.” In court, she was described as being a “mentally unstable, alcoholic drug addict.” Kitty isn’t here to defend herself. Perhaps this was true. Perhaps not. Hertz admitted that the Menendez showed dinner guests child pornography. “That was their entertainment.” In fact, Jose Menendez distributed the stuff. Although it was ascertained that the Menendez brothers were not sexually or physically abused by their father as they claimed, he was a bully, often humiliating the boys for their “lack of discipline” and “ignorance” about current and political events.
The brothers pled guilty of two counts of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder for reasons of self-defence, that is to say, they feared further abuse by their parents. Dr. Barbara Kirwin, a guest on Court TV, disagreed. “There didn’t seem to me to be a sense of immediacy here. I’ve had other cases, battered women’s cases, battered child cases, where it’s very clearly self-defense… and there’s a very, very high level of emotion. And that seems to be absent here. It was almost as if they came in, thought about it, and ambushed the parents…”
Lyle was arrested near the Menendez Mediterranean-style mansion on March 8, 1990, after police received information that he was preparing to flee California. Erik, who was in Israel at the time, surrendered himself three days later upon returning to Los Angeles. Very matter-of-factly, both boys admitted, “I just started firing.” Lyle stated coolly. “You could hear things breaking and you could hear ringing noises from the booms. There was the smoke from the guns. Just chaos.” It was as though he was describing the movie he’d watched that evening instead of the murder of his own parents.
Jose Menendez was a troubled man who had no business raising children. What disturbs me the most was his enjoyment and distribution of child pornography. It was this sick obsession that, along with his sons false claims that they were sexually abused, nearly allowed the boys to go free. Kitty couldn’t have been much better at mothering. She was present when her husband showed their friends pornography. She didn’t seem to intervene when her husband bullied their children, and it is quite possible she emotionally abused her sons, too. However, these are mere allegations and will probably never be entirely proven. Most significantly, in spite of all of the sins of the parents, and perhaps many more we will never know about, were the brothers justified in committing cold-blooded murder?
Clearly the jury that eventually convicted the two brothers didn’t think so. Jurors later said that the abuse defense was never a factor in their deliberations. They believed that the murders were committed with the intent of gaining control of Menendez’ considerable wealth. I suspect this is correct but I doubt that anything in this twisted case is that simplistic. For one thing, years of being bullied by a domineering father must have shaped the boys’ personalities in a perverse manner. Jose Menendez’ addiction to pornography and his continual threats to leave his sons penniless also contributed to the family’s significant dysfunction. It’s almost impossible to envision a healthy person emerging from the Menendez household.
25 years later, a police officer who worked the Menendez case recalled some key moments during his investigation on Nancy Grace (what is it with appearing on that tacky show)? The cop believed the boys “weren’t grieving at all.” The boys used Jose’s penchant for distributing pornography to confuse police in their search for viable suspects. However “there was absolutely no sexual abuse that we determined at all… there was mental abuse because Jose would … threaten them by saying ‘if you don’t shape up, if you don’t do what I say, you’ll be kicked out of the will….so they had to do what Jose said…”
The police felt the brothers’ motive was Jose’s controlling, emotionally abusive treatment of his sons. Although intelligent, the boys did poorly in school over the years, probably an act of rebellion against their father. Jose didn’t approve and knowing their failures could get them disinherited, this led the boys to murder their parents. The jury ultimately believed a great deal of the physical and sexual abuse that the boys alleged happened to them, most of which was untrue. In fact, initially the jury was hung and the boys had to be retried. Nothing like a good lawyer to help guilty people walk. Eventually of course, the brothers were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Even after their conviction, police noted the brothers never showed remorse for killing Jose and Kitty Menendez.
Since entering prison, both brothers married, even though California does not allow conjugal visits for those convicted of murder or for those serving life sentences. On July 2, 1996, Lyle married longtime pen pal Anna Eriksson, a former model, in a ceremony attended by Abramson and his aunt Marta Menendez, and presided over by Judge Nancy (no, not Grace) Brown. The two were divorced on April 1, 2001, after Eriksson reportedly discovered that Lyle was “cheating” on her by writing to another woman. Seriously. That’s someone’s definition of adultery. Ah, prison marriages. They never last. During 1997, Erik married in a telephone ceremony at Folsom State Prison in a waiting room. Tammi Menendez, an attractive blonde, later stated that “Our wedding cake was a Twinkie. We improvised. It was a wonderful ceremony until I had to leave. That was a very lonely night.”
In an interview with ABC News during October 2005, Tammi stated that her relationship with Erik, her husband of six years, is “something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time. And it’s just something very special that I never thought that I would ever have.” Tammi self-published a book during 2005 titled They Said We’d Never Make It – My Life With Erik Menendez, though Tammi said on Larry King Live that Erik had greatly edited the book. I bet he did.
In an interview with People magazine, Tammi Menendez stated that “Not having sex in my life is difficult, but it’s not a problem for me. 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.” Tammi also noted that she and her 10-year-old daughter drive the 150 miles (240 km) every weekend to see Erik, whom her daughter refers to as her “Earth Dad.” Erik has stated: “Tammi is what gets me through. I can’t think about the sentence. When I do, I do it with a great sadness and a primal fear. I break into a cold sweat. It’s so frightening I just haven’t come to terms with it.” Erik also stated, “(Tammi) sent me a letter during my first trial. It’s funny, I have a visual memory of seeing her letter. I believe in soul mates. I believe in spirituality, in a religious sense. I believe in God and that nothing happens by chance. I saw Tammi’s letter and I felt something. I received thousands of letters, but I set this one aside. I got a feeling. And I wrote her back.”
In November 2003, Lyle, then 35, re-married to a woman named Rebecca Sneed, a 33-year-old magazine editor from Sacramento, at a ceremony in a maximum security visiting area of Mule Creek State Prison. Lyle and Rebecca had reportedly known each other for approximately 10 years prior to their engagement. What kind of woman marries a man who is jailed for life for first degree murder? A death groupie, basically. Sondra London is a living example of this bizarre phenomenon.
A made-for-cable film, Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills, is available on Youtube. The movie portrays Kitty Menendez as a victim of her husband’s bullying as much as her boys. In 2010, A&E released a documentary on Tammi Menendez, titled Mrs. Menendez.