When they arrived in California, Jose bought a beautiful home on 14 acres of wooded land in Calabasas near Malibu to make Kitty feel better about being uprooted. She started a two-year project to extensively remodel the house, adding 3000 square feet. Jose even agreed to pay thousands of dollars to move a swimming pool a few feet to open up space for an entertainment area.
They rented a home not far away while waiting for the work to be completed. Erik enrolled at Calabasas High School, where he was an average student but a star on the tennis team. Lyle was accepted at Princeton, which had rejected him the year before, and he enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 1987.
Both Jose and Kitty rejoiced in their son’s admission to a top Ivy League school. Lyle’s victory was especially sweet to Jose, who imagined his son shining both as a tennis star and as a scholar. But this vision of a double-barreled triumph was doubly doomed. On the tennis court, Lyle ranked last among the six-man starting team; teammates described him as often being late for practice and rarely apologetic for it. In the classroom, he was charged with plagiarizing a classmate’s notes for a psychology paper. He was given a choice of accepting suspension or being expelled.
An outraged Jose flew in from California to meet with the university president. Heartbroken and humiliated, he tried to appeal his son’s case, but to no avail: Lyle was suspended for one year.
When he returned to Los Angeles, uncontrite and clearly unbowed, Lyle—driving a Mercedes—delivered Domino’s pizzas for pocket change, whacked tennis balls beneath a warm, forgiving sun and worked in his own leisurely fashion for a while at his father’s firm.
Soon both brothers fell in with a crowd of privileged young men who all seemed cut from the same synthetic cloth: glib, within the impoverished vocabulary of Valley-speak; indifferent to what passed for the real world around them; and perpetually, poisonously bored. One way they relieved the boredom was to go off on what they called “hot prowls”—burglarizing homes, just for the thrill of it, often while the residents were at home asleep. According to a detective in semirural Calabasas, “It’s very boring for kids out here. Kids like to live on the edge.”
In the summer of 1988, Erik was implicated in a pair of burglaries involving jewelry, cash, a 100-pound safe and some exercise equipment. The total haul was valued at more than $100,000. The victims, who had been on vacation, were parents of some of his close friends. Family members believe Erik confessed to having committed the burglaries after caving in to peer pressure.
Some of the stolen goods were eventually returned, while Jose paid $11,000 for loot that couldn’t be recovered. Erik, as a juvenile with no prior arrests, was put on probation and ordered to do a few hours of community-service work with the homeless.
Many people in Calabasas believe that Lyle was also involved in the burglaries. Rumor had it that the boys’ father cut a deal with the district attorney’s office: a slap—perhaps more of a caress—on the wrist of the underage Erik so that Lyle could walk away without a criminal record and eventually return to Princeton. But there was one more stipulation in the agreement: that both boys undergo psychological counseling. Kitty’s therapist recommended a psychologist in Beverly Hills, a man named Jerome Oziel, who would later play a sensational part in the brothers’ murder case.
According to a relative, Oziel told Jose and Kitty—who were included in the counseling—that Erik’s involvement in the burglaries was an attempt to get attention. Unfortunately, that attention extended beyond the family—the story of the Menendez brothers’ burglaries was widely known in Calabasas. Embarrassed, Jose decided to move the family again—away from the scene of their disgrace and into the thick of the materialist fray in Beverly Hills. The new house, on North Elm Drive, cost $5,000,000 and had previously been occupied by Prince, Hal Prince and Elton John. In addition to a red-tile roof, a swimming pool and a cozy guesthouse, the mansion came equipped with a tennis court. In a city where land is the most precious commodity, tennis courts constitute the most conspicuous consumption.
A few months after her arrival on North Elm Drive, Kitty treated herself to a face lift. This did not, to be sure, guarantee a convincing smile. She told friends that she would rather have stayed in suburban Calabasas, which reminded her, however wistfully, of Princeton. But she was determined to make a go of Beverly Hills. She started replacing her old clothes with $5000 designer outfits and exercised her body so it would deserve them. She had been putting on weight lately, and her attempts to retrieve her athletic figure were not successful. Her autopsy report would contain the eerie description. “fairly well-nourished” and would give her weight as 165.
Jose’s business fortunes continued to improve. Under his aggressive, tightly disciplined stewardship, LIVE Entertainment, which had lost $18,800,000 the year he joined it, posted earnings of $2,300,000 in 1987 and more than $20,000,000 in 1988; he’d become so valuable to LIVE that it took out a $15,000,000 key-man policy on his life, with the company as the beneficiary. LIVE maintained an additional $5,000,000 life-insurance policy on Jose, with the beneficiary chosen by him. Presumably, he had named Kitty, just as he had named her in his will. And in that will—written in 1980—he had also provided that if anything happened to his wife, his entire fortune would go to his sons. Whether Lyle and Erik knew of this proviso can only be guessed.
Erik spent his senior year at Beverly Hills High School, where he was a B student and a member of the tennis team. Most of his classmates saw him as a loner, a quiet kid sauntering through life in tennis shorts and carrying a tennis racket for effect, practicality and security.
Lyle, back East, was going through the motions of preparing to re-enter college. In the fall of 1986, while playing in a tournament in Alabama, he had met Jamie Pisarcik, an attractive blonde from Pittsburgh who was some five years older than he and who was trying to make it on the pro circuit. The following summer, the couple announced their engagement, though they set no date for their marriage. Jose didn’t like the idea of his son’s marrying at 19—ironically, the same age he had been when his father told him he was too young to marry. In April 1988, Lyle asked his father for money to accompany Jamie on a three-month, 12-city tennis tour in Europe. Jose refused, insisting that he enroll in summer school.