In 1989, Lyle and Erik Menendez fatally shot their wealthy parents in the den of their Beverly Hills mansion. Jose, a 45-year-old Hollywood executive, was shot point-blank in the back of the head. Kitty, 47, was shot 15 times, including once in the face. At the time, Lyle was 21. Erik was 18.
The brothers initially blamed the killings on the mob, but later claimed they shot their parents in self-defense after years of sexual abuse by their father. Prosecutors said the brothers were after the couple’s $14 million estate. The brothers were eventually convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
For more than 27 years, Erik and Lyle Menendez have been locked away — but they haven’t escaped the public eye. But what is life really like for the notorious brothers?
For one thing: they’re housed in separate institutions more than 500 miles apart. Lyle is housed at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California — a small town near Sacramento. Erik is incarcerated at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
But despite the distance, the brothers insist they remain close. In a rare jailhouse interview, Lyle told PEOPLE that the brothers still keep in touch. “We write each other regularly,” he says. “We even play chess through the mail, but it’s a little slow.”
Both brothers are active in prison life. Erik spends time with terminally ill prisoners; Lyle has been president of the inmate government for more than 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 told PEOPLE.
Both brothers remain married to women they wed after their incarceration.
Lyle married Rebecca Sneed in 2003 — and he says that the marriage is “healthy.”
“Our interaction tends to be very free of distractions and we probably have more intimate conversations than most married spouses do, who are distracted by life’s events,” Lyle said. “We try and talk on the phone every day, sometimes several times a day,” Lyle says. “I have a very steady, involved marriage and that helps sustain me and brings a lot of peace and joy. It’s a counter to the unpredictable, very stressful environment here.”
Erik is also married; he wed wife Tammi Ruth Saccoman in 1999. The couple had been pen pals for several years before finally deciding to wed in jail. Their wedding cake was a Twinkie.
“Tammi’s love has propelled me to become a better person,” Erik told PEOPLE in a 2005 face-to-face interview. “I want to be the greatest possible husband to her. And this affects the choices I make every day in prison.”
There’s one thing missing in their relationships: the couples are not allowed to have sex. Conjugal visits are prohibited for those sentenced to life without parole in California.
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So do the brothers feel remorse for the violent crime that resulted in their incarceration? Both of them have said that they are sorry for their actions.
“I would give my life to change it,” Erik told PEOPLE in his jailhouse interview. “I talk to my mom. She knows my heart. I ask for forgiveness.”
“You are often defined by a few moments of your life, but that’s not who you are in your life,” Lyle said. “Your life is your totality of it. you can’t change it. You’re stuck with the decisions you made.”