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THE MENENDEZ BROTHERS : Jose Menendez Gave His Sons Everything. Maybe Even a Motive for Murder.

July 22, 1990|JOHN JOHNSON and RONALD L. SOBLE | John Johnson and Ronald L. Soble, Times staff writers, are working on a book about the Menendez case for New American Library.

ON A MILD SUNDAY last summer, a string of "popping sounds" drifted through the lazy night air of Beverly Hills around 10 o'clock. "I didn't think anything of it," said Tom Zlotow, a neighbor who soon learned that the noises he'd heard from the house right behind his were echoes of the most sensational crime in the history of Beverly Hills. "I didn't even think it could be gunfire, especially around here."

Only blocks from the gaudiness of Rodeo Drive, two people had sneaked into a $5-million Spanish-style mansion, once home to Elton John and Michael Jackson, and fired 15 blasts from two shotguns into one of the entertainment industry's fastest-rising executives and his former beauty queen wife.

Apparently surprised as he snacked and watched television in the family room, Jose Menendez, 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.

About 90 minutes later, police received a hysterical 911 call from one of the couple's two handsome, tennis star sons. "They shot and killed my parents," sobbed the caller, thought to be Lyle Menendez, 22, who would say later that he had found his parents' bodies after returning from a night on the town. As police arrived, neighbors heard a horrible, pathetic scream and saw Erik Menendez, 19, curled in a ball, sobbing on the lawn.

"Once we realized what had happened after we called the police," said Erik, in an interview later, "it started sinking into our heads: These aren't just two people. These are our parents."

The sight of the younger brother wailing in front of the house chilled the neighbors and chased away all thoughts of sleep.

SO IT ASTOUNDED THEIR RELATIVES and electrified the community when, six months later, more than a score of police officers blocked off Elm Drive and surrounded the mansion--this time to arrest Lyle for murder. Three days later, Erik, who had been playing in a tennis tournament in Israel, flew home and voluntarily surrendered, as authorities accused the brothers not only of masterminding the murders, but also of pulling the triggers.

Lyle, the dominant, emotionally cool older brother who seemed driven to match his father's amazing accomplishments, and Erik, the vulnerable one who dreamed of a pro tennis career, now sit in Los Angeles County Jail, having pleaded not guilty to charges that could bring the death penalty.

The motive, according to authorities, was simple: naked greed. The brothers Menendez were in a hurry to inherit their parents' $15-million estate, police theorized. The crime could be seen as a morality lesson of biblical proportions: parricide and lust for riches set in Beverly Hills, where wealth and overstated status symbols were the epitome of 1980s-style acquisitiveness. In a detail a fiction writer wouldn't dare, some of the most intriguing evidence comes from two screenplays written by Erik.

But greed alone seems too limited to explain the carnage caused by the 15 shotgun blasts. And it seems a particularly unsatisfactory explanation for one of the most unsettling crimes of all--a crime that violates such fundamental laws of human behavior that, in the words of one Menendez family friend, the thought of these privileged, often-hugged brothers gunning down their parents "freezes the brain."

That's why many people, including most of the brothers' friends and all of their surviving family, cannot accept the official theory of the crime. Erik was extremely close to his mother, who taxied her sons back and forth to tennis practice. And Lyle admired his father so much that he bored friends by quoting him and retelling the incredible story of Jose's rise, by sheer force of will and hard work, from an immigrant who washed dishes to an executive who wielded power in the boardrooms of America's elite companies.

After the slayings, in fact, Lyle eerily took on his father's role in the family and jumped immediately into a feverish string of business deals in an apparent effort to prove himself an heir not only to his father's fortune but also to his legend.

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