More than two decades have passed since Lyle Menendez has spoken to his younger brother, Erik, who he last laid eyes on in 1996 — shortly after they were both convicted of murdering their wealthy parents and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But Lyle says the years apart have done little to diminish the relationship of the two brothers from Beverly Hills, California, whose brutal crimes in August 1989 both captivated and repulsed the nation.
“Our relationship has never changed,” Lyle, now 49, tells PEOPLE in a rare interview from California’s Mule Creek State Prison.
“It’s very close. We write each other regularly,” Lyle says. “We even play chess through the mail, but it’s a little slow.”
Both brothers — Lyle was 21 and Erik was 18 at the time of the murders — testified that they were armed with 12-gauge shotguns when they burst into the den of their home and fatally shot their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez, while the couple watched TV.
The killings, their attorneys claimed at trial, were done in self-defense after years of sexual abuse by their father — abuse that they insisted had been ignored by their mom.
But prosecutors rebuked that, arguing the brothers’ motive was purely financial and their claims of abuse were concocted to avoid the death penalty.
The brothers, both married, are incarcerated in prisons in different parts of California, separated by nearly 500 miles. (Lyle is in the northern part of the state and Erik is behind bars at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near the Mexican border.)
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“I miss my brother every day,” Lyle says. “We’re not twins, but when you’ve gone through the kind of chaotic childhood that we had, it’s almost like you are. You have that bond and that shared experience. I think he and I are as close as any brothers can be, even though we’re apart.”
Erik said something similar when he spoke to PEOPLE in 2005: “My brother took my beatings for me as a kid. So I will always love him deeply.”
Lyle insists that he and Erik have attempted to “find meaning beyond the tragedy” — their crimes — that landed them in prison for the rest of their lives.
Erik spends time with terminally ill prisoners; Lyle has been president of the inmate government for 15 years and runs a support group for prisoners who have endured childhood sexual abuse.
“We just keep trying to find something positive from the experiences that we had,” Lyle says.
He hopes to one day be reunited with his younger brother, now 46: “To me it’s a remarkable achievement that [Erik] hasn’t committed suicide in prison, which is something I was originally worried about.
“The fact that he’s a regular guy, walking around as a functioning adult, is a triumph.”