Everything You Need To Know About The Menéndez Brothers Before 'Law & Order True Crime' Airs
On Tuesday night, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers will premiere on NBC. The eight-episode limited series from the powerhouse Law & Order franchise will dramatize the notorious murder case of Lyle and Erik Menéndez—the infamous Beverly Hills brothers who murdered their parents in 1989. The Menendez Brothers will be the first installment in the Law & Order franchise's planned true crime anthology series, with each season focusing on a different real-life crime. The show stars Edie Falco as defense attorney Leslie Abramson, Gus Halper and Miles Gaston Villanueva as Erik and Lyle, respectively, and The Good Wife's Josh Charles as Erik’s therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel. Heather Graham plays Judalon Smyth, Oziel's former mistress.
The Menéndez brothers' names have become synonymous with wealth-gone-wrong and a curdled American dream, and the notorious incident of parricide dominated headlines for years after the murders.
Law & Order uber-producer Dick Wolf first tackled their story more than 25 years ago, on the very first season of OG Law & Order. In "The Serpent's Tooth"—which aired in March 1991, five years before the real Menéndez brothers would be convicted—two sons emerge as likely suspects after their wealthy parents are murdered. "The details were sanded off, but the voyeurist rush of peering into a scandal remained," according to Variety.
The gruesome story and ensuing trial riveted Los Angeles and the nation for years, and interest in the brothers has recently been rekindled. Earlier this year, the two-hour Truth and Lies: The Menéndez Brothers - American Sons, American Murderers special on ABC included Lyle's first interview in two decades, where he said "still has sleepless nights" thinking about the double murder.
But what exactly happened, way back when? Here's a primer before tonight's first episode airs.
In 1989, Lyle and Erik Menéndez, then 21 and 18, respectively, shot their parents in their family's Spanish-style mansion. At the time, Lyle was a Princeton student and Erik was UCLA bound. The case riveted the nation, especially because of the family's affluence, and the fact that the brothers avoided suspicion until months later, and spent almost a million dollars of their parents' money after the double slaying.
On the night of August 20th, 1989, Jose Menéndez, a Hollywood executive, and Mary Louise "Kitty" Menéndez, a former beauty queen, were watching TV in the den of their $5 million home, enjoying ice cream and berries. The The Spy Who Loved Me was in the VCR. The mansion, which had once housed both Elton John and Michael Jackson, was blocks from tony Rodeo Drive. The Menéndez clan was "described as a handsome, happy family, often seen playing tennis and other sports together," according to a 1990 Time story. "They were extraordinarily close-knit,” an entertainment industry colleague of Jose's would tell Vanity Fair chronicler Dominick Dunne.
When "a string of 'popping sounds' drifted through the lazy night air of Beverly Hills around 10 o'clock," neighbor Tom Zlotow didn't think anything of it. "I didn't even think it could be gunfire, especially around here," Zlotow told the L.A. Times in 1990. Zlotow couldn't have been more wrong; the noise he heard was the sound of 15 blasts being fired from two shotguns, setting the stage for one of the most notorious trials in modern history. Here's how the L.A. Times described the carnage in that same 1990 article:
Apparently surprised as he snacked and watched television in the family room, Jose Menéndez, a 45-year-old Cuban immigrant who ran a Van Nuys video company, was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head. Four other blasts ripped into his arms and thigh. His wife, Mary Louise, whom everybody called Kitty, tried to run but got no more than a few feet away. The killers seemed intent on doing far more than ending a life: They disfigured her with 10 blasts: four into the head and one that nearly severed her hand. Although they had just filled the neighborhood with the sounds of shotgun fire, the killers seemed to be in no hurry to flee. They patiently gathered the shell casings from among the pools of blood on the Oriental rug and parquet floor before leaving.
"I've seen a lot of homicides, but nothing quite that brutal," Dan Stewart, a retired police detective hired by the family to investigate the murders, would tell Vanity Fair. "Blood, flesh, skulls. It would be hard to describe, especially Jose, as resembling a human that you would recognize. That's how bad it was."
The grieving brothers also inherited their parents' fortune, estimated to be at least $14 million, along with a $400,000 insurance policy. They didn't wait to start spending that money: in the weeks after their parents' demise, the brothers Menéndez spent somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000, according to Rolling Stone. A Porsche, a restaurant in Princeton, and a Rolex were all among Lyle's more ostentatious purchases. Erik, who by that point had decided not to attend UCLA, began to use his portion of the fortune to bolster his burgeoning tennis career, hiring a $50,000-a-year coach and spending more on travel.
Meanwhile, police continued to investigate the horrific crime, which some had initially thought may have been a mob hit. But even in the early days of the investigation, Beverly Hills police had their suspicions about the brothers, as Lieut. Russell Olson, the Beverly Hills Police Department chief of detectives, told Time in 1990. Here's what the story said then:
Police had ruled out a gangland murder because of the sheer savagery of the attack. "Mob killings are 'clean'; this one wasn't," says an officer. Suspicions were further heightened when family members told police that a copy of what might have been a new will had been erased from Jose Menéndez's home computer. "The focus became very clear over the past few months," said Chief of Police Marvin Iannone. There was some physical evidence, but "we were waiting for the glue binding it together." That came when investigators learned that all of the Menéndez family had been consulting a psychologist, L. Jerome Oziel. After several people approached the police with new information in late February, officers armed with a search warrant confiscated records and tapes from the psychologist's office. Lawyers for the Menéndez brothers argued that seizure of the tapes violated the laws governing doctor-patient confidentiality. But the district attorney, Ira Reiner, said the confidentiality rule can be broken when a patient presents a continuing danger or threat. The district attorney filed murder charges against the Menéndez brothers, asking for the death penalty. Said Reiner: "It's been our experience in the district attorney's office that $14 million provides ample motive for someone to kill somebody."
The brothers would later allege that they had been abused and molested by their parents, although none of the claims were ever formally substantiated. During the first trial, Leslie Abramson, the brothers' lawyer (played by Falco on the show), "ripped into the reputations of the parents, describing Jose as a pedophile who subjected his family to years of emotional and physical abuse, and Kitty as an alcoholic and drug addict who didn’t protect her children," according to Newsweek. It ultimately took two trials and three juries to convict the brothers of murder, with the first trial televised.
During the re-trial, the Washington Post described Abramson as some who'd "spent her working life building a reputation as a 4-foot-11, fire-eating, mud-slinging, nuclear-strength pain in the legal butt." On April 17, 1996, a third and final jury convicted the brothers of murder, and recommended a life sentence, with no possibility of parole.
"Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers" will on Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Further Reading: "Nightmare on Elm Drive" (Dominick Dunne's Vanity Fair account from 1990; see more of his Menendez coverage here, here, here and here)
"Sentenced to Silence" (Legendary Hollywood reporter and founder of The Wrap Sharon Waxman's 1996 Washington Post trial-coverage-cum-profile of defense attorney Leslie Abramson)
"Jose Menendez Gave His Sons Everything. Maybe Even a Motive for Murder" (The L.A. Times' 1990 deep dive on the case, and the brothers' potential motives)
"How the Menendez Brothers' Trial Changed America" (Brenna Ehrlich's Rolling Stone piece from earlier this year takes a broad look at how the Menendez trial was covered—and how it helped create our reality TV nightmare)
An earlier version of this post ran on the site in January 2017.