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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.

Lyle, always so close to his father, had now, in a way, become a rough copy of him. He never started his sophomore year in college but became driven to make money, friends say, rising early and shuttling from one business meeting to another as he considered investment opportunities. Pierce, the country club manager, noticed a dramatic change. "His demeanor, his walk were entirely different. He was more confident."

Lyle importuned his friends to take positions in his business ventures. When Stevens expressed hesitation and a desire to stay in school, Lyle remarked, "People who are most successful are the ones who take chances."

Early this year, he paid $550,000 for Chuck's Spring Street Cafe, one of his favorite Princeton hangouts, and made plans to franchise its Buffalo chicken wings nationwide. Some people around town thought he paid too much, and family friend and attorney Mason tried to advise him against the deal. Lyle thanked him for the advice but ignored it. "Lyle Menendez thinks he can succeed at anything," Mason says.

Like his father, Lyle seemed to not consider failure possible, at least he never let it show. If a friend expressed fear that a deal might go bad, he would reply, in the best corporate shark style, "Let them sue me." When he considered instituting a delivery service for Chuck's, he stood out in front of a competing restaurant and tried to lure away its drivers with a wad of $100 bills, the rival says.

One of his student business partners recalls that Lyle had eight deals in the air at once and lost several thousand dollars in an abortive effort to promote a rock concert: "He never slowed down to do one thing properly."

Erik, meanwhile, moved out of the Beverly Hills mansion and into an apartment in Marina del Rey. He gave up plans to study at UCLA and devoted his days to getting in shape to break into the pro tennis ranks. He also traveled a lot, back and forth to Princeton and at least once to Mexico. "It's going to be a struggle," Erik admitted. "But, hopefully, in two years, you'll be doing an article on us."

At the end of the interview, Lyle said he was happy to have had as much time as he did to study at his father's knee. "These 21 years have been like a basic training for life." He admitted to feeling pressure to match his father's feats. "I would want this generation to do so much more than the last one. The last one was cut short, really. The baton has been passed. We feel that. There was always a great energy in the family and the feeling of moving forward, and it's sort of like--and I do get the feeling--like the baton was passed. I do feel like I need to carry on the burden."

But then he returned to the theme of how difficult it was to be Jose and how difficult it was for those who lived with him. "You could see the stress in his face and you could feel the stress around him," he said. "People feel stress around Erik and myself. You become very demanding. He really felt that he was always right."

POLICE MOVED IN for Lyle's arrest hours after confiscating the audiotapes of the brothers' therapy sessions. And so, the deeply unsettling issues involved in this family history have now been thrown into the lap of the legal system. Judges must decide whether the tapes should be admitted into evidence, despite a general protection for such privileged conversations. Any ruling undoubtedly will be appealed, pushing back the trial date possibly into next year.

Much of the balance of the case against the brothers seems to rest on circumstantial evidence. A friend of Lyle's found a shotgun shell casing in Lyle's coat pocket; since the guns have never been found, this evidence is of marginal value at best. The gun-purchase records, located in March after a tip, could be more damning but are not conclusive. Although the prosecutor, Elliott Alhadeff, declines to discuss strategy, it appears that he could try to weave a mosaic of incriminating activity by Erik and Lyle in the months leading up to and after the slayings, as well as a perception that they never mourned the deaths.

The family hired two of the city's premier criminal attorneys. Leslie Abramson, who has a stunning record of winning capital cases, represents Erik, and Gerald Chaleff, who defended Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono, is defending Lyle. Neither will discuss their plans at this stage.

The brothers, appearing at a series of evidentiary hearings in recent weeks, have appeared at ease, smiling at their girlfriends and relatives who show up for support. Erik looks as if he has lost weight. The brothers have been segregated and eat their meals in their cells, spending their own money to keep their fellow inmates supplied with candy and other goodies that can be brought in.

Family members are standing by their side and insist that the brothers may have been set up by a third party to take responsibility for the killings. They even speculate that Lyle and Erik may know who killed their parents but are keeping quiet out of fear.

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