September 27, 1993 12:00 PM

THF ABUSE BEGAN, LYLE MENENDEZ told a spellbound courtroom last week, with simple rundowns after sports practices. Jose Menendez would take his small son, then 6 or 7, into the bedroom a few times a week, and they would undress each other. According to Lyle, fondling quickly gave way to oral sex—then finally to rape. “He said he didn’t mean to hurt me, that he loved me,” said the weeping, barely audible Lyle. “Was that important to you?” defense lawyer Jill Lansing asked gently. “Yes, very,” he whispered, his voice tremulous. By the time he stepped down from the witness stand, several jurors were in tears.

Eight weeks into the trial of Lyle Menendez and his brother, Erik, jurors and spectators in the small Van Nuys, Calif., courtroom—and countless Court TV viewers nationwide—finally found themselves at the sordid heart of one of the most heavily publicized murder cases in years. Looking quietly preppy in his crew-neck sweater and Oxford-cloth shirt, Lyle, 25, was telling his version of the events that allegedly drove him and Erik, 22, to enter Jose and Kitty Menendez’s Beverly Hills mansion on the night of Aug. 20, 1989, and—with two 12-gauge shotguns purchased for the occasion—shoot their parents 15 times in the face and body.

At first, after Lyle and Erik were arrested in March 1990, they insisted they were innocent. But about a week before their trial began, the brothers—who have spent the last 3½ years in the Los Angeles County jail—changed their plea to not guilty by reason of self-defense. They now admit they murdered Jose, 45, a millionaire entertainment executive, and Kitty, 47, his vivacious, socialite wife. The question that remains is why, and the stakes are high.

The prosecution, which is seeking the death penalty, contends that the brothers, principal heirs to their parents’ $14 million fortune, were motivated by pure greed. Immediately after the killings, Lyle bought a $64,000 Porsche, a $15,000 Rolex and a $550,000 fries-and-chicken wings restaurant near Princeton University (which he attended for two terms). Erik opted for a Jeep Wrangler and a $50,000-a-year private tennis coach. The prosecution also noted that, 18 months before the murders, Erik had cowritten a screenplay in which a child kills his parents for their money.

In response, lawyers for Lyle and Erik are pursuing a so-called “battered wife” defense, claiming the brothers killed out of fear for their own lives after suffering years of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their parents. As Leslie Abramson, Erik’s attorney, told a reporter, “If people would just think for a minute, there are some fundamental precepts of family life. Precept No. 1 is that children love their parents. Good parents do not get shotgunned by their kids. Period.”

Prosecutors are not denying that the Menendez household was deeply troubled. “You don’t kill people you love,” Deputy District Attorney Pamela Bozanich told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re not saying this family was Ozzie and Harriet…. This was more like Father Knows Best Meets Godzilla.” Nonetheless, the prosecution’s star witness, Jerome Oziel, Erik’s psychologist, has testified that although Erik told him he and Lyle had committed the “perfect crime,” he never said anything about physical or sexual abuse. Oziel also testified that the older brother had told him that he and Erik had killed “out of the hatred they had, in particular, for their father.” (Oziel was allowed to break therapist-patient confidentiality rules because his own life had been threatened by the brothers.)

Superficially, the Menendezes had seemed “the perfect family,” according to Kitty’s niece Kathleen Simon-ton, 32, who testified for the defense. Jose, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba at 16, was a hard-driving businessman who took his family with him as he crisscrossed the country from New York to Chicago to New Jersey to Los Angeles during his swift climb up the corporate ladder. At the time of his death, he was CEO of Live Entertainment, a Los Angeles video-distribution company, earning some $1 million a year. He and Kitty sent their sons to the finest schools—Princeton Day School, Beverly Hills High, Princeton University—bought them cars and allowed them liberal use of their credit cards.

But Simonton and a procession of defense witnesses chipped away at the veneer of comfort to reveal a family that Jose Menendez ruled like a despot—one who had a relentless need for perfection in his sons. “If you were told to do something, you did it. You would follow the orders,” said Simonton. Another cousin, Brian Andersen Jr., 31, said that Jose presided at the dinner table like the emcee of a high-pressure quiz show, and Lyle and Erik had to come prepared with knowledge about history, business and current events. “The goal was for [the boys] to be as successful as him,” Andersen testified. Jose, he added, frequently beat the boys with a belt.

Jose—who attended Southern Illinois University on a swimming scholarship—was especially fixated on his sons’ athletic skills. He went through tennis coaches faster than most players go through balls, allegedly firing them whenever they disagreed with him. (Lyle said he could count some 55 coaches.) Charles Wadlington Sr., who coached Lyle and Erik in Princeton from 1981 to 1986, testified that of the difficult tennis parents he has known, Jose was “one of the worst,” forcing his children to play in the cold, the rain, on Christmas and even when they were sick. “He was just a scary guy,” says Wadlington. “You could tell he had some kind of hold over them.”

Lansing’s tone was maternal as she led Lyle through his testimony. (Lyle and Erik have different lawyers but are being tried simultaneously before separate juries, though so far the brothers have stuck together.) She posted pictures in the courtroom—of naked little boys photographed from the waist down—which Lyle said Jose had taken of him and Erik. There was also a photo of Lyle in a soccer outfit, and of a tiny Lyle wielding an enormous tennis racket. “Do you have a lot of nice memories from your childhood?” Lansing asked. “No,” Lyle replied.

He told the court that he started playing tennis around age 6, and that Jose often attended practice sessions and matches. Lyle was not allowed to make friends with other players, he said, because Jose told him that “mediocrity was a disease that was contagious.” Lyle also said Jose would mock him cruelly for his flaws—his stutter or the way he walked. Erik, as the second-born son, Lyle testified, barely existed for Jose.

Lyle broke down when he began to describe his father’s sexual proclivities. In addition to the physical abuse, Lyle claimed that Jose showed him pornographic videos filled with “sexual violence” and lectured him about “soldiers having sex with each other before they went into battle as a way of bonding.” After Jose stopped sexually abusing Lyle, when the boy was around 8, Lyle testified that he himself look Erik out into the woods and fondled him. As Lyle spoke of this, Erik, sitting just a few feet from his brother in the courtroom, began crying quietly.

Even if all that Lyle says is true—and he has yet to be cross-examined—the defense must also show that Jose posed such a threat to his sons that they had to kill him. And they need to justify the brutal murder of Kitty, whose corpse bore more shotgun wounds than her husband’s. Born Mary Louise Andersen in Chicago, she met Jose while they were students together at SIU. A former Miss Oak Lawn, she married him soon after she graduated from college in 1963. By most accounts she was a typical suburban mom, chauffeuring her kids to their lessons, working in the Princeton Day School development office and playing tennis at the Menendezes’ New Jersey country club. According to a friend, Kitty stuck by Jose during his numerous affairs with other women. (According to some reports, this came at great personal cost and drove Kitty to drug and alcohol abuse; friends of Kitty’s dispute this.)

She also worked hard, Lyle said, at denial. When he tried to tell Kitty that “Dad was touching me,” Lyle testified, “she told me that I was exaggerating and that my dad has to punish me when I do things wrong.”

Kitty was also capable of doling out harsh punishments, said Lyle. She would regularly abandon him in shopping malls or be late picking him up from school, he testified. When he wet his bed, she would “nib my face in the sheets,” or “she’d abuse my stuffed animals,” Lyle claimed. He also described Kitty’s sexual behavior: how when he was 11, she wanted him to fondle her, or how she would “call me into the room when she was changing and ask me if she was pretty.” Her mental state throughout his childhood, Lyle said, was “deteriorating.” She would fly into rages, he said, lose control and drag him by his hair or force him under her bed.

Outside the courtroom, some friends of Kitty and Jose simply couldn’t recognize the portraits being painted by their sons. Bill Meshel, a music-publishing executive who worked with Jose at RCA in the mid-’80s and remained close to him until his death, says, “The Kitty and Jose being described in the trial are people I’ve never met. And Kitty was a dynamo in her own right.” Karen Lamm, an actress-model who befriended Kitty in the last year of her life and is now producing a movie about the Menendez saga, describes a bright, energetic woman who “loved Jose more than anything else in the world.”

Except, says another friend, her sons. Karra Kestian, a classmate from Oak Lawn Community High School, says, “Kitty thought those kids could walk on water. That’s all she talked about.” And her oldest brother, Milton Andersen, a builder, told a reporter that he thinks the defense case is “bull” and that Kitty simply spoiled her children. Lamm agrees. “If Lyle and Erik were true victims, why didn’t they just move out?” she asks.

The answer, to others in the Menendez clan, is not so simple. Most of Jose’s relatives have rallied around Lyle and Erik. Says one close family member: “There are certain things in life people do not make up.” Adds Jose’s first cousin, L.A. real estate agent Henry Llanio, 44: “I’m 5’10”, but my cousin was 35 feet tall. That man was greater than any living thing, and there was no getting away from him.” Llanio believes that if Jose and Kitty were alive today, even they would “want what’s best for their children. The love of your children transcends all, even parricide.”

The trial is expected to last well into October, and the defense has promised still more shocking testimony from Lyle and Erik. If the boys are convincing enough, the juries could find them guilty not of murder but of voluntary manslaughter, which will save them from the gas chamber. But the prosecution has not yet begun to dismantle the brothers’ story. Whatever happens, many of the people who have met the Menendez brothers will continue to be haunted by the case. Charlene Elmore, nurse at the Princeton Day School who spent a great deal of time with Lyle, says she has been asking herself, “Why didn’t we pick up on something that had gone astray?” She begins to cry. “The thing that hurls me most is to think that a kid that I watched grow up could go to the gas chamber. And a kid that seemed like a normal kid. How did we miss something?”


LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles, ALLISON LYNN in Princeton, LUCHINA FISHER in Oak Lawn and DON SIDER in West Palm Beach

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