Smyth then married Mark Roy, the owner of L.A.’s premiere massage parlor, Circus Maximus. She joked with friends that she wore an off-white dress at her wedding because she was saving white for the right man. Still, she thought highly enough of Roy to give him as a birthday present a sexual-fantasy tape she had recorded, complete with color slides of her masturbating.
Roy had agreed to an open marriage but became angry when faced with her actual infidelities. An acrimonious divorce followed after three years. Smyth, according to Roy, enlisted another of his ex-wives in a campaign to get him in trouble with the IRS. They even searched through his garbage for evidence. “She’s an emotional killer,” he says now. “She lives in a fantasy world, out of touch with reality. Her life is full of deceit.”
Another ex-boyfriend of Smyth’s tells a similar tale of vengeance, though not for attribution. After a breakup, Smyth became furious, he said, and sought revenge by calling friends and business associates with outrageous stories and accusations.
One woman who knew her says Smyth appeared to be a “regular person” until she broke up with a boyfriend, then “she started talking about suicide, saying she was desperate to find somebody and settle down before she turned forty.”
Another of her friends claims that she often exaggerated her modest business accomplishments: “It was a big deal when her picture was in the paper holding one of her favorite dolls at a Barbie doll-collectors’ convention.” Smyth was a woman who yearned to be a celebrity but lacked discernible talents to celebrate.
Her previous pattern of obsessive love, followed by violent outbursts and vengeful denunciations, played itself out with Oziel, too. In the lawsuit that she filed after their final breakup, she accused him of beating, drugging and raping her. But a countersuit filed by Oziel told a different story, about a woman who was desperately disturbed, who came into their lives and held them hostage in their own home with a series of threats that included suicide. In an interview, Oziel said she also threatened to go to the police and expose him by giving out confidential information about the Menendez case.
That information about the case and how she gained access to it remains one of the most intriguing elements of the Menendez saga. In the account that Smyth gave to writer Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair, Oziel spoke with her toward the end of October 1989 and asked her to be at his office during the fateful therapy session he had scheduled with Erik. Smyth claims the doctor indicated that the door between the waiting room and his inner hallway was unlocked and asked her to listen through his office door to determine, in the language of her lawsuit against him, “whether Oziel was safe and, if she believed Oziel was in danger, to call the police.” Oziel, she said, persuaded Erik to call Lyle, who rushed to the office and was incensed at Erik’s confession, threatening to kill Oziel if he talked. She was able to hear it all, she told Vanity Fair, because the walls to the consulting rooms are “extremely thin and voices can be heard from room to room.”
Unfortunately for the prosecutors, Smyth’s various accounts of this incident are full of bewildering conflicts, which will be significant if she has to testify in court. On March 6, 1990, for example, she told the Beverly Hills detectives she had heard the session with Erik through the wall in the waiting room near Oziel’s office, rather than through the door.
For his part, Oziel denies vehemently that he has ever asked anyone to eavesdrop on any therapy session since he began his private practice. “If she was ever in my office, she was seated in my waiting room. The door to the inside hallway where the therapy offices are remains locked when people are in session.”
Some of the physical facts bear him out. I have visited the offices and it’s impossible to hear any sounds from room to room. As far as the door to the inner office is concerned, if one presses an ear directly on it, one can hear muffled sounds—perhaps a few words every now and then—but not the detailed conversations that Smyth claims to have heard.
It is also, impossible to hear anything going on in Oziel’s office from the waiting room. There is another office and an L-shaped hallway about 20 feet long between the small waiting area and the room where Smyth says the Menendez brothers made their confessions.
Wearing a conservative royal-blue dress and a string of pearls, Smyth sat down for an interview last August with Diane Sawyer for ABC TV’s news-magazine show Prime Time Live. Titled “Key Witness,” the segment opened with Smyth dramatically saying, “I heard from their own mouths that they killed their parents.” In the interview, Smyth says, “Erik said Lyle made him take the first shot.” Sawyer then allows Smyth to analyze her own remarks: “I suppose that’s because Lyle thought that if he didn’t make Erik shoot the first shot, he might not be strong enough to do that.”
Smyth also told Sawyer, “They kept shooting [the mother] because she would move and they thought that she might live.” Sawyer then told viewers, “When Judalon Smyth … told this story to the police, it was confirmed in the coroner’s report.”
Finally, Smyth got the celebrity she had been looking for. No one else seemed to have as many answers to as many questions about the murder of Jose and Kitty. How she gained that information has yet to be fully explained, but the answer clearly lies in her complicated relationship with Oziel.
Like Smyth, Oziel was born in Seattle. He’s a gregarious man in his early 40s with a round face and sandy hair. He was a member of the attending faculty at the University of Southern California School of Psychiatry and Behavior, where one of his supervisors, Dr. William Crary, describes him as “a very good clinical psychologist with excellent skills.” Oziel also has a private practice in Beverly Hills that boasts a handful of celebrity patients, and even before the murders, he was well known in L.A. media circles as a shrink eager to grant interviews and get publicity.
Laurel, his wife of 21 years, is a licensed clinical social worker and family and marriage counselor. She has remained steadfastly by his side, even though this is not the first time a woman has taken legal action against him. In fact, Smyth’s attorney claims that there are “two other similar civil actions pending against Oziel.”
Oziel claims he and his wife have never had an open marriage, been separated nor planned divorce. However, in discussing his marriage, he speaks elliptically of “complex emotional needs” and says, “In the most loving relationship within each marriage are a thousand divorces.”
Within very few marriages, however, is there a Judalon Smyth.
According to Oziel, his relationship with Smyth became intense when she started camping out in his waiting room by the hour in order to see him. While Smyth described their relationship as a “timeless love that occurs and reoccurs from lifetime to lifetime,” Oziel speaks in milder terms: “Over time, our business relationship evolved to include a social relationship,” he admits. “I was involved in an emotional entanglement.” Oziel claims that in mid-October, after he tried to extricate himself from this entanglement, he walked into Smyth’s apartment and found her groggy from a suicide attempt. A note on the table said she couldn’t live without him.
The couple’s affair continued. It was after her suicide attempt, she says, that Oziel asked her to listen in on his session with Erik. The next month, she wrote to him, “What I want is forever and I don’t want to let you go.” On December 9, 1989, Smyth’s father, who was visiting, called Oziel to say his daughter appeared to be very sick. Oziel says he went to her apartment and, at a doctor’s suggestion, took her to a hospital emergency room. The doctors there were unable to diagnose any medical problems; according to Oziel, they did say that Smyth had “expressed depressed and suicidal feelings.”
Two days later, he says, Smyth called him, pleading that she felt frightened, begging to stay just a few days at his home. In part of the conversation, she sounded fragile, like a little girl; minutes later, however, she ominously reminded him of her threat to go to the police and tell them what she knew about Lyle and Erik. Reluctantly, the Oziels told Smyth she could stay in their guest quarters for a few days until she felt better. Smyth happily made herself at home. Smyth would later claim in her lawsuit that Oziel continually reminded her that she was depressed and suicidal, telling her she would be committed to a state mental hospital if she moved out of his house. The Oziels claim that the opposite was true.
In January 1990, Smyth—who Oziel says was broke—signed a promissory note after he lent her $5000. Smyth made only one payment on the loan, and now claims she was in a drugged state when she signed the legal paper. When asked if he was being blackmailed, Oziel shrugs his shoulders. “It’s hard to know,” he says. “She told me she needed the money.”
In mid-February, the Oziels say, Smyth rearranged the furniture in the house while they were at work. Oziel says that in an ensuing argument, Smyth suggested that Laurel and the children leave the house and she would stay with him. In her lawsuit, Smyth claims that Oziel became angry, attempted to choke her and pulled her hair before forcing her to have “unconsented sexual intercourse.”
Oziel says, “Things were at a point where our lives were going to be destroyed if we let her stay in the house.” He asked her to leave, repeating as he had many times before that he loved his wife. At that point, he says, Smyth became hysterical and made what Oziel calls “major threats.”
In early March, Oziel’s 13-year-old daughter told her parents that Smyth had been having “secret talks” with her ten-year-old sister. Smyth had told the little girl that she was involved with her father and implied that she might be replacing her mother. She told the young girl that “this is our little secret—don’t tell Mommy and Daddy.” When his older daughter went to him with this information, Oziel says he became enraged and ordered Smyth out of the house immediately.
Oziel talks freely about his problems with Smyth, but he is less forthcoming about her amazing inside knowledge about the Menendez murders. “She might have gotten some information from other sources and then tried to place herself center stage as the person who held the truth in this matter and was a critical witness,” he says cryptically. “So many of the things she has alleged.to have heard are absolutely false in relationship to what any patient ever said to me in any session. Throughout the time I knew her, she never claimed to have overheard anything. Only when this became public, all of a sudden, she overheard everything.”
Even if Oziel is telling the truth, and he never asked her to eavesdrop nor confided in her, there is still no doubt that she somehow got access to the information. While the real answer may not come out until the trial—if it comes out at all—the most likely possibility is that Smyth snooped through files while alone at Oziel’s house or that Oziel simply told her, whether as pillow talk or as part of their business relationship regarding audio tapes.
Oziel will not even mention the Menendez brothers by name, though he insists that most of the information presented by Smyth in Vanity Fair and on Prime Time Live was false. He has filed a defamation suit against Vanity Fair—he says the writer never made any attempt to get his side of the story—and is considering legal action against ABC.
Smyth is no longer available for interviews. Her attorney describes her as “emotionally distraught” and “post-traumatic,” unable to discuss the Menendez case or Oziel. He says she suffers nightmares as a result of what she endured.
The day after Smyth’s six-hour interview with officials, Erik’s close friend and screenwriting partner Craig Cignarelli was summoned to Beverly Hills police headquarters, where he tape-recorded a statement about a conversation he had had with Erik the previous November. Erik hadn’t actually confessed, Cignarelli said, but he had discussed the killings in some detail, interjecting himself in the events hypothetically, and sort of “What if this or that had happened?”
The next morning, March eighth, Laurel Oziel was just out of the shower when she answered the front door in a bathrobe and was greeted by a group that included detectives, prosecutors and a court-appointed special master armed with a search warrant. They said her husband had evidence related to the commission of a felony and they wanted the key to his safe-deposit box.
Normally, under California law, conversations that take place between a therapist and a patient are confidential, and that confidentiality can be waived only by the patient. The therapist is obligated to “assert the privilege” of confidentiality if the patient is not there to assert it personally. One of the few exceptions to this law is when the patient is a threat to the therapist or to others. Oziel maintains that he protested the search at his house, repeatedly telling officials he was asserting the privilege on behalf of his patients.
Nonetheless, California superior-court judge James Albracht issued an early ruling that the Menendez tapes could be admitted as evidence: “I have ruled that none of the communications are privileged. I have found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Dr. Oziel has reasonable cause to believe that the brothers constituted a threat and that it was necessary to disclose those communications to prevent the threatened danger.” Neither the judge nor Oziel will say to whom he disclosed that information.
In fact, Oziel will say nothing else about the search, but reporters have been buzzing for months about an unconfirmed report of what took place after the tapes were seized. According to one account, the special master—a court-appointed attorney who is supposed to seal the tapes in an envelope without playing them before delivery to a judge—wanted to hear the recordings to make sure they had the evidence named in the warrant. The search party then reportedly gathered around a table and listened to most of the tapes. Oziel, the defense and the prosecutors will not comment on this report.
Meanwhile, a few hours after police searched Oziel’s house, Lyle Menendez was taken to the L.A. County jail. On the day he checked in, there were eight other prisoners named Menendez. Two of them were named Jose. Across town in Van Nuys, the board of LIVE Entertainment was voting on a settlement proposal with the Menendez family. Difficult negotiations had been going on for months. One sticking point was a $5,000,000 personal life-insurance policy that would be paid to the boys; the company claimed it was not in effect because Jose had never taken the required physical. However, $8,000,000 from Jose’s $15,000,000 key-man insurance policy was paid, providing the company with a healthy profit.
Before the vote was taken, somebody rushed into the room to announce the arrest of Lyle Menendez. The decision on the family settlement was postponed. A few days later, the law firm of Kaye, Sholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler delivered a 220-page confidential report to the board. When it was being battered by media reports that labeled the killings a “Mafia hit,” Carolco Pictures had commissioned its own investigation. The report concluded that “there was no credible information that in any way linked the business of LIVE with the murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez.”
The second week of March will mark the one-year anniversary of Lyle and Erik’s stay in Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. They are being held without bail in separate cells and are allowed to see each other only in court or when their lawyers visit.
“It’s hard being separated,” says Lyle, speaking from behind the thick Plexiglas partition that separates inmates from their visitors. His tennis tan has given way to a chalky pallor, but he has maintained his weight, despite a prison diet of rice, beans, starches, processed food and too many candy bars. In a fit of pique earlier in his stay, he shaved his head. He’s letting the hair grow back—he didn’t like the image of being a crazy guy who hacks off his hair—but the wispy growth now covering his head makes him look much older. When he talks, he smiles frequently, and he seems to have lost none of his confidence.
“I wish I could see Erik more often,” he says. But Erik has problems of his own. After three razor blades were found in his cell, he was temporarily thrown into solitary and deprived of all books except the Bible.
Lyle has been luckier. He spends his days reading Stephen King thrillers or books about politics. He plays chess with another inmate several cells away—they shout their moves to each other and keep track on their individual chessboards. Lyle is considered a “high security” prisoner, so he can’t mix with the general population. He is allowed out of his cell for a half hour of phone calls a day, and many of them are spent trying to find an attorney to take his case.
“I look forward to getting my defense team together and being able to discuss everything with you,” he tells me before our ten-minute visit is up. Keeping the boys out of the gas chamber will not be easy. At one time, both Lyle and Erik shared a high-powered defense attorney, Gerald Chaleff. But Erik has since hired his own counsel, and that left Chaleff with a problem. In the unlikely event that one brother turns against the other, Chaleff, because he has been privy to confidential information from both boys, has a potential conflict of interest and cannot defend only Lyle.
Erik’s attorney is Leslie Abramson, who’s a minor legend in California legal circles. She has defended 600 felony cases ranging from drugs and extortion to murder. She lost one high-profile execution-style murder case back in 1981—her client was sentenced to death—but in the ten years since then, she has won all of the six capital cases she has tried.
Her opposition has already shown signs of disarray. Deputy District Attorney Elliot Alhadeff was the first on the case, and he came on strong, winning the initial battle to get the tapes introduced as evidence and telling NBC news last May, “It really was the boys.” He maintains that the brothers tried to make the crime look like a Mafia hit, but “the evidence conclusively and exclusively points to them.”
Alhadeff’s boss, Los Angeles County district attorney Ira Reiner, in a tough-talking interview with ABC, scolded Diane Sawyer for even bringing up the Mafia theory. “This is not television, this is not movies,” he blustered. “This is real life. This is not an organized-crime killing at all.”
Shortly after the original hearings on the Oziel tapes ended, Reiner abruptly replaced Alhadeff. It was not a popular move—Alhadeff had just been named 1990 Prosecutor of the Year—and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys voted to censure Reiner for yanking Alhadeff off the case. Reiner’s spokeswoman will say only that it’s his responsibility to appoint the best prosecutor for the job; Pamela Ferrero, a veteran prosecutor who had worked on the case before the arrests, took over. Ferrero grew up in Palos Verdes, an upscale community just south of Los Angeles, as ritzy as but much lower in profile than Beverly Hills. She is considered slick, articulate and tough. Physically, her designer outfits and good looks present a very different image from Alhadeff, who is in his 50s, balding and sports a walrus mustache.
Ferrero’s job will be tougher if the tapes are not allowed as evidence. Since the original court ruling that favored the prosecution, the issue of confidentiality between Oziel and the brothers has been wending its way through the courts toward a final decision. Prosecutors claim they still have a strong case without the recordings, but if the tapes aren’t admitted, the trial may well become an old-fashioned whodunit.
Oziel will probably be forced to testify either way and says he is “in a tremendous amount of pain” at the idea of testifying against former patients, but “if the court orders me, I am obligated to do it. I am not aligned with the defense or the prosecution. I have to be objective, ethical and moral and make sure everything I say is the truth as I know it.”
Erik and Lyle have told friends that both Oziel and Smyth lied repeatedly during last summer’s closed-door hearings dealing with the tapes. In her amended complaint, Smyth charges that Oziel “maintained the secret of the Menendez brothers’ murder confession … enabling Oziel to improperly obtain moneys from the Menendez brothers.” Oziel dismisses that as “ludicrous.”
Without the tapes, the prosecution would be forced to rely on such witnesses as Smyth, who might not strike a jury as a model of integrity, but who did, after all, provide the crucial information that cracked the case, and Cignarelli, the friend who collaborated with Erik on the prophetic movie script.
Cignarelli has had a capricious relationship with the police. At one point, he was cooperating with officials, but then he became angry after a search warrant was executed on his mother’s home. The object of the search: Cignarelli’s personal diary. Ten pages were ripped out of the notebook detectives found, but Cignarelli insists the missing pages contain his history notes from school and nothing more.
However, if the tapes are admitted and prove to be incriminating, the defense will likely paint a picture of Jose as a monstrous father, abusive and overbearing, who pushed his sons over the edge and into a murderous rage. When Vanity Fair reported the often-repeated rumors that Lyle and Erik had suffered sexual abuse, the boys told friends they were outraged. Some sources think those rumors are merely a trial balloon floated by the defense. Others aren’t so sure; and the charge that Jose molested one or both boys could still become an explosive issue at the trial.
There is also the question of greed. One of the early revelations about the case centered on a mysterious new will. The media speculated that Jose was working on a new will that was less favorable to the boys and that Lyle, after the murders, had it erased from the family computer. Prosecutors believe he was deliberately trying to destroy evidence, but other sources say Jose had merely discussed a new will with family members but never started writing it.
One piece of evidence that gained much publicity right after the arrest probably never existed—the shotgun-shell casing that was supposedly found by a friend of Lyle’s in one of Lyle’s jackets. The friend, who had a falling out with him over a business deal, has reportedly recanted. Prosecutors simply say he will not be a witness.
Unless the boys decide to plea-bargain and avoid a trial, the proceedings promise plenty of surprises. Several former friends of both boys have now provided information to detectives.
One of those friends, Glenn Stevens, felt particularly torn. He had been close to Lyle at Princeton, where they had roomed together, had been with Lyle during his arrest and continued to manage Lyle’s chicken-wing restaurant while he was in jail. In May 1990, a couple of months after the arrest, Stevens watched a TV-news report that discussed the fact that Donovan Goodreau’s driver’s license had been used to buy the two guns in San Diego. Stevens remembered that Lyle had shown him the license after Goodreau had been kicked out of the dorm room, and he called the Beverly Hills police to tell them. “I am ethical,” Stevens says, with a pained expression. Unfortunately for him, police taped the call, and a transcript was turned over to Lyle’s attorney as part of normal court procedure. A few days later, Stevens received an angry call from Lyle, who knew—word for word—what he had told police. A month later, he was fired from his job at the restaurant.
Another friend of Lyle’s—who refuses to be identified at this time—reports an even more incriminating conversation. Lyle told his friend that Oziel was one of the best psychologists in Beverly Hills. Somehow, the conversation turned to a tape recording Oziel had made of the brothers. Lyle said he was confident the police would never be able to get their hands on the tapes because of confidentiality laws. The friend told Lyle that there were loopholes to those laws, especially when it came to violent crimes. According to the friend, Lyle turned ashen. “If they get their hands on those tapes, I’m fucked,” he reportedly said.
Jose Menendez loved the idea of family, and he would probably take some pleasure in watching how his own relatives quickly gathered around the boys, protecting them, fending off the media, trying to defend the family honor.
On the weekend after Lyle’s arrest, the entire family gathered in Beverly Hills. Erik had arrived from Israel just before two Ant. on March 11. At four A.M., his 72-year-old grandmother, along with his uncle, Carlos Baralt, and his wife, Terry—Jose’s other sister—were shown into a small room at Beverly Hills police headquarters, where Erik was being booked on first-degree-murder charges. Officials “bent the rules” and allowed the family a moment together. There was to be no touching. Erik reassured everyone, as he had on the phone from Israel, that he was innocent.
Later that day, family members, exhausted and still in a state of shock, talked quietly together. Relatives were torn between keeping quiet as the defense attorneys had ordered and stepping outside to speak about the close relationship the boys had always had with their parents. This proud, dignified Cuban-American family had been unwillingly thrust into a fishbowl of international publicity.
Despite the mounting evidence, the family members still stand behind Erik and Lyle, believing that the brothers should be tried by a court arid not by the media. “We still don’t know what happened,” says one relative. “We still think things are missing. This whole thing makes no sense. Money is definitely not the answer. They had no value of money. They thought it grew on trees. People like that don’t kill for money.”
The sheer brutality of the crime makes it seem illogical that greed would haveleen the only motive. But no one is exactly sure what other forces might have been at work. At the news conference announcing the arrests, Beverly Hills police chief Marvin lannone was asked why the two privileged, pampered young men had not simply waited until their parents died.
Iannone, a former Los Angeles Police Department commander who has seen numerous murders, shook his head, shrugged in bafflement and replied, “Who knows what really goes on within a family?”
- This article first appeared in the March 1991 issue of PLAYBOY. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.