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Slain Entertainment Executive : Jose Menendez's Conflict and Controversy

August 25, 1989|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writer

Exactly who was Jose Menendez?

The Hollywood community and police investigators have been furiously pressing that question since Menendez--a relatively little known entertainment executive whose career nonetheless connected with some of the biggest names in show business--was shot dead with his wife, Mary Louise, in their Beverly Hills home last Sunday night.

Extensive interviews with associates reveal the Cuban-born Menendez to have been an extremely aggressive boss and deal maker, in whom friends saw a charismatic leader--and in whom adversaries sometimes saw an over-reacher who cut jobs, cut corners and occasionally broke his word on the way to the top.

"If you took a poll, a lot of people whose oxes were gored by Jose would have to tell you they didn't like him," offers Robbin Ahrold, an officer of Broadcast Music Inc. who worked with Menendez several years ago at RCA Records in New York.

That characterization is disputed by Peter Hoffman, president of Carolco Pictures Inc., an independent movie company of which Menendez was executive vice president at the time of his death. After the murders, Hoffman became acting chairman of Live Entertainment, a video firm, 49% owned by Carolco, of which Menendez had been chairman and chief executive.

"He can often be insensitive," Hoffman admitted, still speaking of Menendez in the present tense during a Thursday afternoon interview at Carolco's West Hollywood headquarters. "He's a guy who reaches for every advantage in a transaction. He's very self-conscious, self-confident and charismatic in the way he deals with things. . . . In my judgment, these are assets, not liabilities."

The Beverly Hills police have publicly identified no suspect in the murders and have put a tight clamp on details of the crime, refusing to disclose even the caliber of bullets used or the number of times the Menendezes were shot. The police also haven't said whether they believe the crime to have been a robbery.

Official silence has led to widespread speculation that the Menendezes died in an execution-style slaying that could somehow have been related to the executive's business activities. ("Please, please, tell me he was a drug lord!" one of the Menendezes' shocked neighbors, herself an entertainment executive, said one day after the murders.)

Carolco executives adamantly refuse to discuss any aspects of the slaying. "We don't care to discuss anything (about it). It's a dangerous, vicious world we live in, and we're all subject to bizarre events," Hoffman said.

Yet the apparent homicides have cast a powerful spotlight not only on Menendez's fast-track performance since becoming involved with Carolco in 1986, but also his somewhat spottier record as a top executive in RCA Corp.'s Hertz and RCA Records divisions, where he left under a cloud as questions rose about his accounting methods.

According to several former RCA Records executives, Menendez was edged out as executive vice president and de facto chief operating officer of that company shortly after General Electric Co. purchased RCA in 1986.

Elliot Goldman, who became president and chief executive of RCA Records five days before the GE purchase, says a clash of styles between him and Menendez was largely responsible for the latter's departure. "He was very bright, very energetic. But he really kept a very tight rein on everything. I felt (that style) was not appropriate to the kind of company I wanted to build."

'Aggressive Businessman'

Goldman, now an officer with Personics Inc. in New York, says he stripped Menendez of his chief operating officer's duties but offered to let him remain as head of a division. Menendez, who was "very disappointed," instead chose to work out the remaining months of his contract doing various tasks with the RCA corporate staff before joining Carolco.

At the same time, Goldman confirms reports by other ex-RCA executives that Menendez was discovered to have engaged in a common record industry business tactic, shipping too many units, which makes immediate sales look good, even though heavy returns will deflate the numbers again within a year or two. According to the executives, the aggressive shipping resulted in an unusually large $25 million in written-down returns in the first six months after Menendez left the company.

"It's absolutely true," Goldman said. "He's was a very aggressive businessman who was not afraid to take risks. But who's to say who's right and who's wrong?" Goldman said.

Another RCA executive said Menendez was not setting aside adequate accounting reserves for future returns of unsold records and tapes.

Carolco's Hoffman finds the charges of questionable practices at RCA "laughable." He attributed the claims to "personality clashes" among RCA executives.

Ahrold, who worked with Menendez for three years as a public relations officer at RCA, remembers him as being "very fair, one of the quickest finance people I've ever met."

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