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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.

Jose's riveting interest in Lyle's excellence went beyond a parent's desire to see his son break into big-time tennis. By all accounts, Jose wanted Lyle to be the best ever. Mostly, Lyle would quietly accept the coaching of Kurtain and others, though one of his playing partners described his increasingly potent game as "joyless." But once in awhile, Kurtain says, Lyle's temper would get the best of him and he would explode. "We'd be trying to work on certain things and he'd just take five balls and he'd just blast them as hard as he could," Kurtain recalls. The stigma of losing became almost unbearable for both brothers. "They might even be winning a match; they'd miss a shot and they'd go nuts."

While Erik became a base-line player, Lyle developed an aggressive all-court game. Lyle eventually became the No. 1 ranked player in the Middle States Tennis Assn.'s 18-and-under division. But Jose kept the pressure high. One family friend told how Jose called Lyle at a tennis tournament from a commercial airplane and pushed him "very, very hard to win." When Jose hung up, his offended seat mate reportedly chastened him for being so hard on his son. "It was difficult because you had to be a great tennis player and be great in school," Erik said later.

The brothers had tennis in common, but their relationship went far deeper. "Their bond appears to me to be the best brother bond I've ever seen," says Noel Nedli, who later befriended Erik on the Beverly Hills High School tennis team. Lyle was protective of Erik, whom he called "E-Man," and Erik in turn was said to idolize his brother nearly as much as Lyle idolized his father.

They attended Princeton Day School, an exclusive private school where they were good but not outstanding students and, as they had all their lives, kept to themselves. According to a former classmate, Lyle laughed when people ate the chocolate-covered dog biscuits he'd taken to a school bake sale as a prank. "It was his own little joke," the classmate says.

But Lyle's first serious girlfriend, Stacy Feldman, another student at the Princeton Day School, saw a different side of the Menendez family. During two Christmases spent with the family, she found Kitty to be warm and sympathetic and Jose engaging and proud of his achievements. Lyle gave Stacy a big teddy bear one Christmas. She collects them now.

Lyle was a bit of a square, again like his father. He and Stacy were so strait-laced, according to Lisa Watson, whose daughter was a friend of Stacy's, that "these kids went to the prom and came home early."

With no chores to do at home, Lyle once tried working in a Princeton restaurant to earn a little extra money. But when he got his $33 paycheck, he sniffed, "I could find that going through my laundry bag." He quit after only a few days.

Stacy remembers his grand gestures: When she broke off their relationship, Lyle offered to buy her a fur, sending flowers when she declined the coat.

In the Princeton Day School yearbook, Lyle is pictured playing tennis and has included two quotations from Og Mandino, the author of one of Jose's favorite books, "The Greatest Salesman in the World."

In another part of the yearbook, students mocked one another. For Lyle, the question, "Can you imagine him . . ." was answered: "doing manual labor."

"Intrigued by . . . . " "Money," was the answer.

"Found . . . . " "In trouble," was the prognostication.

THE FAMILY'S MOVE to California in 1986 brought Jose a new level of income. He had received a big payout from RCA, and, with bonuses, was earning $1 million a year at LIVE. But Kitty, by all accounts, had a difficult time adjusting to the West Coast. If she had had her way, say friends, the family would have stayed in New Jersey, where they had recently purchased a magnificent new house.

In an effort to mollify her, Jose spent $950,000 on a beautiful five-bedroom house on nearly 14 acres in Calabasas. He even agreed to pay several thousand dollars to have the swimming pool relocated a few feet to clear the way for an entertainment area.

Life in the San Fernando Valley also had its problems for the brothers, by some accounts. Lyle and Erik fell in with a crowd of wealthy, privileged young men who were suspected of being involved in burglaries during the summer of 1988 in the upper-class neighborhoods in the western valley. None of the members of this group of Calabasas High students--who were handsome, glib and among the campus in-crowd--needed any money; these were thrill crimes.

The loot included cash, jewelry, even a 100-pound safe. Eventually, some of the property turned up in a car trunk, and the evidence, says sheriff's Detective Imon Mills, "pointed toward one individual."

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