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Everything You Need To Know About The Menéndez Brothers Before Thursday's Doc Airs

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On Thursday night, ABC will air a new documentary special about Lyle and Erik Menéndez—the infamous Beverly Hills brothers who murdered their parents in 1989. The two-hour Truth and Lies: The Menéndez Brothers - American Sons, American Murderers special will include Lyle's first interview in two decades, as well as previously unseen home movies and pictures, plus interviews with the brothers’ best friends and neighbors, detectives, lawyers and jurors on the case, according to the Daily News.

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. But what exactly happened, way back when? Here's a primer before tonight's doc 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 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.

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:

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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.

"They shot and killed my parents," a caller thought to be Lyle Menéndez sobbed to a 9-1-1 operator about 90 minutes later. Lyle would later say that he had returned home to find the grisly scene after a night on the town. The brothers, according to Rolling Stone, "performed grief so convincingly that first responders thought it unnecessary to test their hands and clothing for gunshot residue, instead allowing the young men to emote and console each other in what seemed like genuine shows of despair."

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, 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."

Yes, that's right, the Beverly Hills brothers were undone by a confession to their shrink. According to Rolling Stone, Erik had been meeting with the psychologist after getting in trouble for "burglarizing neighbor's homes for fun."
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The brothers alleged that they had been abused and molested by their parents, although none of the claims were ever formally substantiated. It ultimately took two trials and three juries to convict the brothers of murder, with the first trial televised. On April 17, 1996, a third and final jury convicted the brothers of murder, and recommended a life sentence, with no possibility of parole.

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"Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers — American Sons, American Murderers,” airs from 9 to 11 p.m. on ABC 7 on Thursday, January 5.