Before the police arrived minutes later, a woman living across the street heard a heart-rending scream, looked out her window and saw Erik Menendez on the front lawn. He was curled up in the fetal position, sobbing inconsolably.
The first person the brothers called after the 911 call was their tennis coach, Mark Heffernan, who rushed over to be with them. After several hours of intense grilling by detectives, they went to spend the night with Heffernan and his wife at their home in Santa Monica. Erik and Lyle did not contact any relatives until the following morning.
Detectives would later tell critics that because of their compassion for the distraught boys, they did not perform routine chemical tests that could have determined if either had fired a gun that night. Coroner’s investigators did apply paraffin exams to the hands of Jose and Kitty Menendez to see if either had fired a gun. The results were negative.
For the next six months, the police said little or nothing in public about the killings. Indeed, they turned up little or nothing to talk about for most of that time—no fingerprints, no murder weapons, not even a trace of the 14 spent shell casings, which the killers had carefully gathered up and removed. As far as the media and most of the nation were concerned, however, stereotypes were as good as facts. Jose had worked in the entertainment industry and had come from a Latino family. That was enough to convince millions of people that he had been targeted by the Mafia and that Kitty had been an innocent victim.
Then came an astonishing development. A few minutes after one o’clock on a cool March afternoon last year, Lyle’s new lifestyle as a millionaire orphan abruptly ended. The tall, athletic 22-year-old with dark hair and intense brown eyes was heading out for lunch with two friends from Princeton University. Lyle, in his brother’s tan Jeep Wrangler, was driving down North Elm Drive and found a blue Ford Taurus blocking his path. Lyle backed up. As he did, he rammed the bumper of a van directly behind him. Shotgun-toting Beverly Hills cops wearing bulletproof vests jumped out yelling, “Get the fuck out of the car and lie down on the ground.”
The friends, Glenn Stevens and Hayden Rogers, were handcuffed and forced to lie face down in the street with guns at their heads. Lyle was handcuffed and read his rights. Stevens was so unnerved it took him a few minutes to realize that his best friend had just been arrested for the murder of his parents.
Three days later, Erik, who had been playing in a tennis tournament in Israel, flew a circuitous route through London and Miami on his way home to Los Angeles, where he surrendered and was taken into custody on the same charge.
During a news conference to announce the arrests, Beverly Hills police chief Marvin Iannone speculated that greed had prompted the two murders: Lyle and Erik stood to inherit $14,000,000 from their parents’ estate.
But greed can explain only so much, and in the months since the arrest, much has been learned about Lyle and Erik, and their complex and sometimes tortured relationship with their parents—especially with their father. Whether or not it proves sufficient to convict the two brothers, or explain why the killings were so violent, this knowledge is crucially important. With all the dramatic elements to consider—big money, blind ambition, the entertainment business, mysterious tips to police and entire platoons of bizarre characters—the secrets to this case can be explained only by uncovering the hidden life of a well-to-do, outwardly happy American family.
In a place of honor on the wall over the fireplace in the Menendez home on North Elm Drive hung a large black-and-white poster in a simple gold frame. It was a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it bore the legend i HAVE A DREAM. This was not so much a tribute to the murdered civil rights leader—Jose’s politics leaned decidedly to the right—as a tribute to the power of dreaming. For Jose had turned this power to his own ends, as an ambitious young refugee from Cuba seeking his version of the American dream.
Jose Enrique Menendez was born into a wealthy and prominent Havana family on May 6, 1944. He grew up to be bright, terrifically energetic, precociously self-possessed and disarmingly arrogant. His father was a C.P.A., who also coached soccer at Havana University. His mother, Maria Carlotta Llanio, was a champion swimmer and the first woman inducted into the Cuban Hall of Fame. In 1960, soon after Castro seized power, Jose’s parents sent their 16-year-old son to the U.S., where he lived in the attic of a distant cousin’s house in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. His father told people he was not going to flee with the thousands heading for Miami. Even after his wife and children had left for the U.S., “Pepin,” as he was known, refused to go until the government seized the last property friends had left in his care.
Jose entered public high school, his bright hopes up against very long odds. Intelligent, self-confident and unquenchably bent on success, he won his scholarship to Southern Illinois University as a swimmer and was only 19 when he wooed, won and wed an American girl—Mary Louise Andersen. Called Kitty, she was an athlete herself and a former beauty queen. Pepin was outraged that Jose would consider marriage so young and fired off an angry letter to his son. Jose replied, “If I’m old enough to live on my own at 16, I’m old enough to get married at 19.”
In 1963, the couple moved to New York, where Menendez studied accounting at Queens College and supported himself and his wife by selling encyclopedias and washing dishes at a restaurant. At the age of 28, he was a $75,000-a-year comptroller for Lyons Container Services in Illinois. It took him only three years to become the company’s president. And by 35, he was an executive vice-president at Hertz, a subsidiary of RCA.
A year later, in 1980, the parent company moved him to its foundering record division, RCA/Ariola, where he became chief operating officer at a salary of $500,000 a year. He expanded the company’s Latin-music catalog and helped sign such hit groups as Menudo, Duran Duran and the Eurythmics.
By then, Jose was not merely living the American dream but, with his wife and two young sons, exploring its upper reaches: in corporate jets and limos, in his own Mercedes and, at the end of a half-mile-long driveway in the exclusive New Jersey town of Princeton, in a stone mansion once owned by that quintessential captain of American industry, Andrew Carnegie. Having proved the power of dreaming, at least to his own satisfaction, Jose insisted that his sons set ambitious goals and strive for excellence.