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The Menendez Brothers: a Tragic Tale of Wealth, Abuse, and Murder

The two brothers murdered their parents and then spent months on a luxurious spending spree—but they argue they're not guilty.

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  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

On August 20th, 1989, José and Kitty Menéndez were shot to death in their Beverly Hills home. The culprits? Their own two children, Lyle and Erik Menéndez. 

According to Lyle and Erik, they were forced to kill their parents due to a genuine fear that their parents would kill them first. They claimed José was an abusive, pedophilic father, and Kitty, his drug-addicted enabler. The courts, however, deduced a much more likely motive: money. Upon José's death, his two sons were set to inherit millions. 

But why did the Menendez brothers kill their parents? 

The question haunts many. Their case shocked the nation and went on to become one of the most high-profile criminal trials in modern history. Don't know which side of the story to believe? Continue reading to find out all the details, and then decide for yourself!

The Menendez Brothers story

Cuban-born José Enrique Menéndez was a successful corporate executive who built his own entertainment company to provide a well-to-do life for his family. Kitty was able to quit her teaching job and become a stay-at-home mom after her first son, Joseph Lyle Menéndez, was born. And when Erik was born two years later, the family moved from New York City to a nice suburb of Gloucester, New Jersey. There, the two brothers attended the private co-ed Princeton Day School. 

In 1986, José's career took the family to Beverly Hills where Lyle and Erik attended the local public school, Beverly Hills High School. While there, Erik attained average grades, but proved himself to be an excellent athlete—he was ranked 44th in the country for players under the age of 18. Lyle went back to the East Coast to attend the highly-prestigious Princeton University, but was eventually suspended for plagiarism; this act is the only toe out of line either boy ever committed before the day of the murders. 

Trouble behind closed doors

To the outside world, Lyle and Erik Menéndez had a perfect life: they were born into a wealthy, successful family, who lived in large houses in nice neighborhoods. Their father was intelligent and hardworking, and their mother devoted her life to doting on her two sons. But according to Lyle and Erik, things were very, very different behind closed doors. 

The Menéndez brothers claim José was abusive to them and his wife, subjecting them all to emotional and physical abuse. They also allege that their father had sexually abused them, encouraging them to partake in "penis massages" from a young age. Although there is no concrete evidence to support this claim, the boys' cousin, Diane Vander Molen, attests to the fact that while visiting Erik and Lyle one summer during their childhood, Lyle confessed to her that he was being abused. When she brought this up to Kitty, Kitty accused them of lying and the conversation was never brought up again. 

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

The murder of José and Kitty Menéndez

On an August evening in 1989, José and Kitty were watching a movie in the den of their sprawling Beverly Hills mansion when Lyle and Erik walked into the room carrying shotguns. The boys then let the bullets fly. José was shot six times, including once at point-blank range in the back of the head. Kitty was shot nine times but somehow remained alive. She was found lying in the hallway following a trail of blood, suggesting that she had made a valiant effort to get away while Lyle went out to his car to reload his rifle. When he came back, he delivered the fatal shot to the side of her face. 

The boys planned to wait for the police to respond to the sound of gunshots, but they never came. So the two brothers got in the car and began to prepare their alibi. They drove to a movie theater and bought tickets to a movie, then disposed of their guns, bloodied clothing, and spent shotgun shells in different locations. After getting home around midnight, Lyle called 911 and cried to the dispatcher that somebody killed his parents. 

When the police arrived, Lyle and Erik told them an elaborate tale about wanting to see the new Bond movie, License to Kill, but the line was too long, so they saw Batman, instead. Then, they said they went to the yearly "Taste of L.A." festival in Santa Monica. When they got home, they were horrified to find their parents had been murdered by what seemed to be a hit from the mob or the cartel. After all, both had the tell-tale shot to the kneecap...

With no reason to suspect differently, the police bid the boys their condolences and let them go on their way. 

Life after the murders

Over the next six months, Lyle and Erik managed to blow through almost a million dollars. They went on luxury vacations to London and the Caribbean. Lyle bought a restaurant, a Rolex, and a Porsche; Erik hired a full-time tennis coach and began participating in the international tennis circuit. They left their Beverly Hills mansion uninhabited and rented a few penthouses in Santa Monica, instead. 

As the investigation progressed, the police began to suspect that Lyle and Erik could be responsible for the murders, namely because of the money they inherited and their extravagant spending spree. In an attempt to extract a confession, the police ordered one of Erik's friends to wear a wire and ask his friend about his involvement in the murders. Erik vehemently denied it.

However, Erik's resolve wasn't as strong as it seemed to be, and it didn't take much longer for the truth to come to light. 

The confession and arrest of the Menéndez brothers

Overcome by guilt, Erik confessed to the murders of his parents during a session with his psychologist, Dr. Jerome Oziel. Lyle was furious. When he took part in a later therapy session, Lyle was so menacing that Dr. Oziel genuinely feared for his life. It turns out his suspicions weren't unfounded. When Lyle and Erik conferred in their car after the session, Lyle asked Erik how they should go about killing the psychologist since he knew the truth about their parents' murder—and they told him so during their next session. 

Fearing for his life, Dr. Oziel confessed to his girlfriend what the boys told him, and she's the one who went to the police with the information. Lyle was arrested on March 8th, 1990. Erik was in Israel for a tennis tournament at the time but turned himself in to the police upon his return on March 11th.

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Lyle and Erik Menéndez are tried in court

The question of doctor-patient confidentiality held up the case for nearly two years. However, it was eventually ruled that because Lyle had threatened Dr. Oziel directly, he had voided any right to confidentiality the brothers might have had. 

The two boys were tried simultaneously but with different judges. The trials were broadcasted on TV and quickly became a media sensation. Erik and Lyle's defense argued that the brothers had no choice but to murder their parents. Erik testified that after confronting his parents about the sexual abuse he'd suffered at his father's hands since childhood, José threatened to kill him if he didn't keep it a secret. In court, Lyle stated: "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.."

They also had family members who knew about the pedophilic abuse—cousins Andy Cano and Diane Vander Molen—testify to support them. Additionally, a photograph of Lyle and Erik's genitalia they claim was taken by their father when they were children was presented as evidence. 

On the other side, the prosecution made a strong case about the brothers' carefully devised plan to stage the murder of their parents and then live a life of luxury and prosperity with the inheritances they would receive upon their parents' death. They weren't exactly the picture of grief or remorse as they seemingly celebrated getting away with murder by treating themselves to everything their hearts desired. 

Both trials ended with deadlocked juries. During their retrial, the judge limited testimony about the sexual abuse. He also did not permit the jury to vote on manslaughter charges instead of murder charges. This jury, as a result, was much less sympathetic to the brothers' struggles at the hands of their parents. Lyle and Erik Menéndez were convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit a murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Life after the trials

The brothers made several attempts to get their case appealed, but the Supreme Court of California, the United States District Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit all refused. 

For most of their incarceration, the boys were kept in separate prisons. Both men married while in prison; Lyle to Anna Eriksson (1996) and then to Rebecca Sneed (2003), and Erik to Tammi Ruth Saccoman in 1999. 

In 2018, the two brothers were finally reunited after over 20 years apart, and are said to have burst into tears of joy upon seeing each other. They now both reside in a prison for inmates who agree to partake in a rehabilitation and education curriculum. 

The Menéndez case in the media

Since the Menéndez case originally hit television screens 30 years ago, it has made numerous appearances in popular culture. The case has been the subject of SNL jokes, a Law and Order episode, multiple documentaries, and true crime television specials. 

Most recently, it was announced that the second season Netflix's hit show Monster will focus on the Menéndez brothers. The brothers hope that the renewed interest in their case, in addition to new evidence proving their father sexually abused an underaged member of the boy band Menudo, could result in a retrial with their charges being dropped.