Erik Menendez: The PEOPLE Interview

After 15 years in prison, the convicted killer speaks about life (and love) behind bars

Photo: AP Photo/Nick Ut

After 15 often-hellish years behind bars, convicted killer Erik Menendez speaks to PEOPLE about life in prison, coming to grips with the crime he committed, and falling in love with Tammi – a pen pal who later became his wife.

Menendez and his brother Lyle, 37, children of privilege living in Beverly Hills, were convicted of one of the signature crimes of the last 20 years: the gruesome 1989 shotgun slaying of their mother, Kitty, and their entertainment-executive father, Jose – carried out, it appeared, so that the boys could inherit the family fortune sooner rather than later. Which is why when Erik talks these days about finding God (“this loving, merciful essence”) and how he no longer deserves to be in prison (“I would never, ever take another life”), a line of skeptics can quickly form. David Conn – the prosecutor who ultimately won a conviction against the Menendezes, who were sentenced to life without parole – dismisses such talk as blatant manipulation. “It’s only natural that Erik would want to put himself in a better position,” says Conn, now a defense attorney. “He’s a spoiled kid who got his way all his life.”

In the drab visitors’ room at California’s maximum-security Pleasant Valley State Prison, Menendez, 34, sat down with PEOPLE for his first face-to-face interview since his conviction. He tightly gripped the hand of Tammi, 44, his wife of six years, who, with her 10-year-old daughter Talia, has become Menendez’s family on the outside. “I just came to the conclusion that I never wanted to be without Erik,” says Tammi, who has written a book about their life together called They Said We’d Never Make It. “I know that is hard for people to understand.”

The following is a full transcript of the Menendez interview. For the full story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE.

Why have you written this book?
Everything that’s ever been written about me has been written by people that don’t know me. And much of that has been fabricated. I felt it was time for people to see who I was, to see my true nature. People view me as this dark guy, a killer. Emotionally, that’s been very, very hard to deal with. It’s always been a struggle for me to realize that I’m the nation’s villain. And it’s very hard for Tammi.

I’ve been portrayed as this dark, sinister person. It’s sad for me. I’m really not. I’m a good person. I like who I am.

Talia’s birth father is deceased, so we say I’m her “earth dad.” Someday Talia is going to go to high school, then to college. Who I am is going to follow her. It’s important to me to get this side of me out there. Everybody wants to be liked. The only things ever written about me have been from the prosecutor’s point of view. I’m trapped there in a moment in time, forever a murderer. I would give my life to change it. Also, the book tells how and why Tammi and I fell in love, why we got married.

Who is this book for?
It’s really for the families, wives and children of prisoners. The family of loved ones in prison have a hole inside of them. They are not treated as welcome citizens. It’s such a stigma. This book will be attacked. I’m sure Nancy Grace and Howard Stern will have a field day.

What was your first contact with Tammi?
She sent me a letter during my first trial. It’s funny, I have a visual memory of seeing her letter. I believe in soul mates. I believe in spirituality, in a religious sense. I believe in God and that nothing happens by chance. I saw Tammi’s letter and I felt something. I received thousands of letters, but I set this one aside. I got a feeling. And I wrote her back. Tammi and I continued to correspond. I enjoyed writing to her. It was a slow friendship. It was special to me because it was not associated with the trial and the media. Tammi was someone not in the craziness.

When I got convicted, Tammi and I lost track of each other for a while. Her husband had committed suicide. I had no way of reaching out. I had no one anymore to reach out to.

I was in Folsom Prison in California. By then, it had been years since I’d seen Lyle. They came in the middle of the night and separated us. They took us each away. He went in one van and I went in another. I never saw him again. And that continued to happen. Friends are transferred and you never see them again. There is nothing that you can do.

Finally, I got a letter from Tammi about her husband’s suicide, about her tragedy. In some ways, it allowed her to understand my pain. From that moment, we grew closer.

When did you and Tammi first meet and how did your relationship develop?
Tammi came to visit me for the first time in August 1997. By then we had corresponded for years, and, also, talked on the phone. I had one tiny picture of her from about 30 yards away. I had no idea what she looked like. But I liked who she was.

I was nerve-wracked about meeting Tammi. Once I did, I knew right away that I could fall in love with her. I wanted as much from her as she could give emotionally. I knew I liked her too much. I didn’t see Tammi falling in love with me. I remember that when I first met Tammi it was the most beautiful experience of my life. When she crossed the room… Wow! My body lit on fire.

Tammi became my best friend. So, the first time Tammi and I kissed I was very nervous. I’d been starved emotionally. As we became closer, it became a real conflict for me whether to allow Tammi to get deeper involved. I’ve never gotten over whether it was the right thing or not. I would push her away and then tell her I loved her.

Tammi was going to move to Georgia. I convinced her to come to California instead. I knew there was so much I could not offer her. What I could offer Tammi was a deep unconditional love and support. I was comforted by the fact that she’d already been in a marriage and had children.

Tammi’s love was a major step in my choosing life. Having someone who loves you unconditionally, who you can be completely open with, is good for anybody. To know that this person loves me as I am. You can’t imagine what it was like those first five years in prison never being told, “I love you.” It makes you a colder, harder person. Tammi’s love has propelled me to become a better person. I want to be the greatest possible husband to her. And this affects the choices I make every day in prison. Tammi has taught me how to be a good husband. There is no makeup sex, only a 15-minute phone call, so you really have to try to make things work.

There is such a longing to share. It’s not sex, not the physical act you yearn for. It’s the communion, just to be able to lay with someone in naked silence. It’s hurt not being able to do that. It’s not the sex you seek, but the emotional connection.

At first, though, I did worry about not being able to give Tammi physical contact. But it wasn’t just sex I couldn’t provide. I couldn’t take out the trash, help her around the house, pick her up from work.

That is what is so, so difficult about this. You don’t know how much I would like to go to a parent/teacher’s conference, or to take care of Tammi and Talia if they are sick.

When I have to leave the visiting room to go back into the prison, I’m also spiritually reentering prison. I go back to a world of animosity. My whole thinking has to change. I have to be tough. It is a world that is very disrespectful to you as a human being.

Describe your cell and your life in prison.
The cell I live in is tiny… about 6′ by 4′. Two people live in the cell. The cell is so small that only one person can be up off the bunks at a time. There is a commode and a sink. There is a desk I sit at which faces a window that looks out onto Coalinga (Calif.). I spend a lot of time at the window. It is a beautiful scene beyond the towers with the vast sky and the mountains. I look out at the things that cannot be for me.

The thing you have to get used to in prison are the violent noises. It is very difficult to live with. It always affects you. And you have to keep to your own business. There might be 300 to 400 people in the yard at a time and at any moment a fight could break out. In the past month, two inmates have been murdered. You have to stay away from the yard bullies.

What was difficult for me when I was transferred to Pleasant Valley from Folsom six months ago was that everyone here knew who I am, but I didn’t know anybody. Everybody was watching me. I was scared and concerned. Most guys have treated me well, but I have been bullied. It’s like a small jungle. You have to stand up to them, but at the same time you have to be extremely respectful. You have to know how to apologize. After 15 years, I’ve learned the lingo on how to be a prisoner. I have gotten into fights… many fights. But I never fight first. You have to learn to be smart. There is a perpetual state of fear that exists as background noise. You always have to be aware of who is around you. You have to continually hone your survival instincts.

When I was transferred here from Folsom, the transport made a stop at a gas station. And I saw civilians walking around not paying attention to anything around them. To me it seemed an unbelievably unsafe environment. Then I stopped myself and thought, “You’ve been in prison too long.”

I live in an environment where I am surrounded by 1,000 strangers. Some have the potential to be good, but many are violent. There are three or four alarms every day. One inmate is attacking another everyday with a knife. I have to put up emotional blocks to protect myself. I know that at any moment I can be shot, beaten, killed.

The two things that make prison so awful are the level of violence and the lack of hope and love. What the prison can do to us terrifies me. They can take away our visits, so they can take away our love… when that is the thing you are most desperate for. You are desperate for love in prison. They have put Tammi and I through hell trying to break us. I’ve been to the hole (isolation) three times. But it has only made us closer.

What is your daily routine?
I get up at 6 a.m. At 6:20 I have breakfast. I meditate at 6:50. Starting at 7:30 I read and write in my journal. We’ll either have a morning yard time starting at 9:30 or an afternoon yard time starting at 2:00 p.m. At two o’clock I start my job. I will try and call Tammi in the afternoon. I’ll then work until 8:00 p.m. At 9:00 p.m. we’re locked down. I generally go to sleep around 10:30 p.m. As I said, it’s very noisy. I put toilet paper in my ears.

What is your prison job?
I work as a janitor on the block. I work the third watch.

How do you spend your off time?
I write and read about spirituality, about life. A book that strongly affected me was The Power of Now. I’ve read that at least 15 times. In a broader sense, I mostly search for a meaning to my life. I try to find love and meaning.

How do the guards treat you?
The guards are a touchy issue. Some treat you compassionately, others are purposefully mean. I have been attacked and kicked by them. My notoriety works dramatically against me. My goal is not to be noticed, to be invisible in the shadows. As “Erik Menendez,” I am always under a microscope, available to be harassed and singled out, though this was truer for me when I was at Folsom. Some of the guards just plain hate me. They won’t treat me like a human being. There will be one nice guard out of four or five. The inmate never is in control of his life. But really, it’s not the guards so much who are difficult, it’s how the administration decides to treat you and how they have tried to separate me from Tammi.

Are you in contact with Lyle?
We haven’t seen each other in nine years. I haven’t talked to Lyle in nine years. We are able to correspond. He is my brother and I’ll always love him. But my first priority now is my wife and my little girl.

My brother took my beatings for me as a kid. So I will always love him deeply. But we’ve been apart for so long, we no longer have shared experiences. I do know that he has also had to fight in prison and prove himself as a man. Though we correspond, all our correspondence is read. It’s not private. So how much can you share?

How have you sustained yourself all this time in prison?
I wanted to carve a life for myself in prison. I wanted to be productive, to find some meaning by helping others. At first I hoped to work in some way with abused children, but there was really no way for me to do that. One of the things I noticed when I first arrived was the level of depression among the inmates. Every prisoner had this fog around them. Also, about 70 percent of guys getting out of prison were coming back.

At the prison library I read a book called, Learned Optimism. And I immediately understood that prison taught a learned helplessness. Nothing you do affects you. I started interviewing inmates and saw that you had to know there was a possibility of developing, otherwise you will crumble. Another inmate and I formed a group and presented an idea to the warden. It was called “The Ladder System.” It was a system that rewarded positive behavior with improved conditions in ones prison life. The warden was receptive and allowed us to continue. We worked for two years developing the concept and then put it into writing. But then we got a new warden and he and other prison officials were not happy with five prisoners trying to reform the prison system. They raided our cell and confiscated all our materials, putting an end to our work. At the time I was crushed. I thought I had failed. I was broken. All my dreams were dashed. I had nothing to hope for.

How do you deal with the reality that you will be in prison for the rest of your life?
It’s still not conceivable to me. I could live until I’m 84. That’s another 50 years. I have a fear that it will break me. Tammi is what gets me through. My day-to-day existence is about trying to maintain contact with Tammi. I can’t think about the sentence. When I do, I do it with a great sadness and a primal fear. I break into a cold sweat. It’s so frightening. I just haven’t come to terms with it.

Do you feel you deserve this sentence?
No, I don’t deserve it. I’m not saying what I did was right or justifiable. I needed to go to prison. But place another child in my life and see what happens. I felt it was either my life or my parents’ life. It’s as if there was kerosene all over the floor that a match could light at any time. And my soul was burnt to death. The way I reacted was so destructive to all. It was the most awful devastation. I killed the two people I loved the most. I loved my dad. Listen, how much anger can you have towards someone after killing them? I loved my parents. And that is my real prison. I look forward to dying. Oh, people say that I had everything, that I was rich and lived in Beverly Hills. But if you had photos of the events of my childhood, they would be crime photos. I was dying long before the night I killed my parents. I don’t justify what I did. I needed to go to prison. And I can’t be okay without it.

I believe I am a good person. I’m good to Talia, my daughter. I would never, ever take another life, not even a fly’s. I believe I can be a beneficial member of society. Why keep me in prison? I am not a danger to society. Or is it to punish me? I do know that it would be very politically difficult for me to ever get out. So my family is the reason I can still smile in life.

I don’t believe that I deserve to be here. And I may well get out of prison one day. I am still working on my appeal. I don’t know if that is realistic. But the death of hope is the death of the heart. I can’t think about it. If I was serving any good purpose in being here for life, then I could say it was the right thing. But I’m not.

Do you worry that Tammi will leave you?
I can’t think in those terms. If I could have five years free to be with Tammi, I would take that and I could then leave the world. It is excrutiating to see the sacrifices she makes. But I don’t have the strength to push her away.

How does it feel when Talia calls you “Daddy?”
The first time Talia said it, I just stopped and stared at her. It was absolutely thrilling. And I love being her “Daddy.” It was something I was born to be. How do you live with the fact that you killed both your parents?
I try to deal with it by meditating. I talk to my mom. She knows my heart. And that’s really good for me. I ask for forgiveness.

The first year after my parents’ death I had a dream. I dreamt I was in a restaurant alone. I was devastated by loss. In my dream I saw both my parents coming towards me. They hugged me. They said they loved me. I was crying. And I believe that was their spirit. This dream started me being able to reach out to them, to talk to them and ask for advice. I didn’t talk to God because I couldn’t bear to face God. But I could talk with my mother. She still loved me. I would love me if I was her. After this forgiving stage I was able to acknowledge my mother again in my life.

And your father?
My father is different. Dad was a scary guy. He wasn’t big on emotional conversations. Now I just feel more comfortable with my mom.

What are your dreams like?
Half my dreams take place outside of prison. For a long time I had flashbacks on my childhood. Not so much anymore. I will tell you that for three years after the date of the killings, no night went by without dreaming of those events or of my parents. Maybe it was healing.

You say you were afraid of God?
Yes, I had committed a Cardinal Sin. I was afraid to talk to God.

When I was in the county jail during the trials something happened to me. I had a James Dean poster on the wall of my cell. He was wearing a red coat and his hair was red and he was leaning against a red car. One day I was standing looking out of my cell when I felt a terrible chill throughout my body. I felt an evil presence all around me. I was terrified. I almost had a heart attack. I shut my eyes and whispered a prayer my Aunt Marta had taught me, “Satan in the name of the Lord Jesuse Christ, I command you to go where he sends you.” At that moment this poster filled with red fell to the ground. This frightening spirit left my body. And I knew then that God existed. I spent the next 14 years in a journey to God, discovering who he is, this loving, merciful essence. God knows me through and through and he loves me. I don’t wrestle with that.

Have you spoken with Tammi about your crime?
Yes, I have gone over the killings with Tammi. Being able to share those horrible details with someone who loves you was vital. I had to share the most awful deeds of my life with someone.

Have you spoken with Talia?
I’ve tried to be honest with Talia. Kids are trusting of their parents. That’s what makes abuse so awful. Talia has never known me free. I plan on sitting with her and being the person who tells everything. It’s vital that she knows everything about me. It allows her to see the underside of humanity. It will keep her grounded.

You have spent significant time in isolation. Why?
They didn’t like the fact that I was working on prison reform. They didn’t like the fact that I had found Tammi. And after Tammi and I went on Barbara Walters I was put in the hole for eight months.

What was that like?
You are kept in your cell all day. You have no contact with anyone. There is no TV. You go through a sensory deprivation. You lose yourself psychologically. It is a brutal form of punishment. It is designed to break the spirit and the mind and it succeeds. What have you learned through all of this?
I have changed spiritually. I want to be the most compassionate person I can be. At some point, life began to change for me. More than anything else, I wanted to be a kind person. This began in the year after the killings. I couldn’t live with myself. I had dreams of the killings. I was terribly afraid. I didn’t want to live. But I didn’t have the courage to kill myself. I went to a psychologist and told him what happened. This led to my arrest. Then everything I had been taught as a child from my dad began to dissolve. The whole world turned to ash. I needed to come alive again, to form a life.

Being arrested was such a relief. My life was over and I was glad. I didn’t want the money. I had thought about giving it all away but I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. He wouldn’t have liked that.

As a child, I was the kid who stopped the other kids from shooting the bullfrog with a BB gun. Once I was arrested and put into prison, that person who I was began to emerge again. I had to find it for myself.

Have you ever been on the outside these last 15 years?
Once, about six months ago when they transferred me to Pleasant Valley from Folsom. Prison is a world of gray, black and steel. Seeing all the vibrant colors of the world was so uplifting … and soul wrenching. My heart longed to be free. There were so many reminders of that that it is not possible for me to describe.

Have you and Tammi ever grown apart?
I had a crisis on whether she could endure a life with me. I was dealing with the fact that Tammi was still hiding her relationship with me. I didn’t want to see her suffer. Tammi deserved life married to someone else, maybe a doctor. I was seriously conflicted. Ultimately, I got over this because I got emotionally needy. But I wanted to know that I was still good for her. Tammi decided to come out publicly and this was a major step for her towards committing.

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