They are two of the most infamous killers in American history—Lyle and Erik Mendez. The affluent, handsome brothers murdered their parents, Kitty and Jose, more than 25 years ago. What would make these two young men, who seemed to have it all, turn into murderers?
The brothers had claimed they were driven to the killings due to years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by their parents. But prosecutors argued that they were instead calculating killers intent on collecting their $14 million inheritance early.
On this week’s True Crime Tuesday we reexamine the 1989 case that captivated the nation and dive deeper into the brothers’ real motives with an exclusive interview with Erik’s former girlfriend Tracy McEneney.
Late at night on August 20th, 1989, Lyle Menendez screamed “someone killed my parents!” on the phone with a 911 operator. At first, when the police arrived the brothers were treated like victims. Lyle and Erik performed grief so convincingly the police did not even test their hands initially for gunshot residue—which was standard police protocol. Lyle and Erik blamed the Mob at first, but the gruesome overkill pointed more to a crime fueled by emotion than the handiwork of the Mafia. Nonetheless, it would take seven months to uncover who that criminal – or criminals – were.
On that warm and seemingly idyllic Sunday night, Jose Menendez, 45, and Kitty, 47, were settling in for a comfortable evening of television in the family room near the rear of their mansion. Jose was in shorts and a sweatshirt; Kitty was in a sweatshirt, jogging pants, and sneakers. They had bowls of ice cream topped with strawberries on the coffee table, when Lyle and Erik Menendez entered their parents living room with two Mossberg 12-gauge shotguns.
According to the autopsy report, one blast caused “explosive decapitation with evisceration of the brain” and “deformity of the face” to Jose Menendez. For Kitty Menendez, the first round of shots apparently struck her check, right arm, left leg and hip. Her sons then reloaded and fired straight into her face, causing her face to be unrecognizable. Investigators counted over a dozen gunshot wounds between the victims.
In the following days, a theory emerged that it was a Mob hit. Tracy, Erik’s former girlfriend recalls the brothers expressing fear that the Mob might be after them as well, causing them to move into a Beverly Hills hotel and hire heavily armed security guards.
Inadvertently, the boys brought suspicion upon themselves when they embarked on a buying blitz just weeks after the murders. Estimates of their spending have gone as high as $700,000. Erik turned in his Ford Mustang and bought a tan Jeep Wrangler, Lyle bought a Porsche 911 Carrera. In addition to the cars, they hired tennis coaches, opened a restaurant business, bought Rolex watches and even purchased swanky condos in Marina Del Rey.
It wasn’t until March 8th that Lyle Menendez was flagged down by over a dozen Beverly Hills policemen as he was leaving the house on Elm drive and arrested. His arrest came after the police were notified by the mistress of their therapist that there were audiotapes with the brothers’ confessions. At the time Lyle was arrested, Erik was in Israel playing in a tennis tournament. Upon hearing about his brother’s arrest, Erik flew to Miami where several of the Menendez family members live. Erik’s family urged him to fly back to LA to turn himself in.
It took seven years, two trials, and three juries to convict the Menendez brothers of murder.
The killings, the brothers and their attorneys claimed at the trial, were committed in self-defense after years of sexual abuse by their father—abuse they insisted was ignored by their stay-at-home mom Kitty. Lyle claims his father sexually abused him between the ages of 6 and 8 and continued to molest Erik up until his fathers murder. During their first trial, the jury couldn’t decide if they were guilty of first-degree murder, manslaughter, or unintentional manslaughter. Many felt that the abuse they allegedly suffered could have given them a reason to feel as if they had no other option but to kill their parents. Others felt that they were adults and could have moved from their parents home to their own apartment and created some distance from their father. The jury couldn’t agree on a charge, so the Menendez brothers had to go back to court for another trial.
In 1996, the brothers’ second trial began. The judge decided to keep television cameras out of the courtroom. He also decided to not allow the defense to imply that Jose Menendez abused his sons in any way. As many are well aware, the abuse was the foundation of the defense’s case. They lost the case and the brothers were declared guilty of first-degree murder. The judge handed them a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Now, because of a new California law, the Menendez Brothers may get a third trial if they submit an appeal before the year 2020. If the judge finds them innocent, Erik and Lyle may end up going free, twenty two years after their initial conviction.