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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.

Family conjecture is that Erik caved in to peer pressure amid his group of spoiled brats. Though he had once been shy and reserved, Erik was becoming more confident--and rebellious. Girls were noticing him: One friend was with Erik when he turned on his answering machine and found that a string of girl friends had left messages.

Shortly after the burglaries were solved, according to a Malibu sheriff's detective, a rented van pulled up behind the sheriff's station at the Malibu Civic Center. Jose Menendez was at the wheel, accompanied by Gerald Chaleff, now Lyle's attorney in the murder case. The two proceeded to unload the stolen property so that detectives could take an inventory. Jose was believed to be livid about this episode, although he and Kitty hid this chapter of the family's life. Jose "made Erik face the music," according to a family member. "Jose was not easy to fool." Though Erik never served jail time, a family friend says that he performed community service work with the homeless.

But Jose apparently did not blame Erik alone and complained to associates that he was worried about some of the friends his sons were making. In fact, one night in February, 1989, he confronted one of them in front of the mansion and screamed at him, " 'If I ever see you on the property again, I'll kill you!' " recalled the friend, Craig Cignarelli.

Not long after the burglaries, the family contacted a Beverly Hills psychologist, Leon Jerome Oziel, who counseled the brothers and their parents. The psychotherapist was to play a sensational role in the murder case when tapes of therapy sessions were seized amid rumors that they contained incriminating statements--possibly even a confession--by the brothers.

Jose decided to leave the area, even though the remodeling job on the Calabasas estate was almost complete, and in October, 1988, he bought a 9,000-square-foot home in Beverly Hills. It had a pool and, of course, a tennis court.

At Calabasas High, Erik had become close to Cignarelli, a brash, good-looking young man with a cresting wave of jet-black hair. Like the Menendez brothers, he was a child of Hollywood; his father is an executive at MGM.

"We could see that somehow we were different," Cignarelli says. "When we're together, we feel like we have an aura of superiority." He called Erik Shepherd and Erik called him the King . Erik, according to Cignarelli, both feared and respected his older brother, whom Craig described as being "almost as cocky as I am."

When Erik and Craig wanted to escape, they would climb to the top of one of the scrub-covered hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There, they could look down on the necklace of lights sparkling from Malibu's oceanfront homes and talk for hours at a time. Sometimes their dreams would take the form of wondering how one might commit the "perfect crime," Cignarelli says.

They decided to turn one of their fanciful ideas into a screenplay--maybe this would be the first great thing they would do. They adjourned for three days to the Cignarelli family cabin in Frazier Park in Kern County and wrote a 62-page screenplay called "Friends," the story of a self-centered son of a wealthy couple, who commits five murders, starting with his own parents.

The play, which Erik's and Craig's mothers typed, opens with the protagonist, Hamilton Cromwell, finding the family will and discovering that he stood to inherit $157 million. In the next scene, Hamilton is seen climbing the stairs to his parents' bedroom. Then:

A gloved hand is seen gripping the doorknob and turning it gently. The door opens, exposing the luxurious suite of Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell lying in bed. Their faces are of questioning horror as Hamilton closes the door behind gently, saying . . .

"Good evening, mother. Good evening, father . " (His voice is of attempted compassion but the hatred completely overwhelms it). All light is extinguished, and the camera slides down the stairs as screams are heard behind.

The murder is left to the imagination. Hamilton inherits the family estate, but in the end he is killed--and dies smiling. The screenplay might have been forgotten if not for what happened in August, 1989. Although no Hollywood agents stood in line to bid on the screenplay, there were avid readers when Beverly Hills police got wind of it. Cignarelli was frequently interviewed by detectives, and when he finally grew angry with them, he sent a fax to explain that he would no longer talk to them. He signed it "Hamilton Cromwell."

Adding yet another bizarre twist to the tale are reports that the two friends wrote a second screenplay. However, in this one, according to someone close to the case, some of the details of the murders bear a striking resemblance to the way the murders of Jose and Kitty were actually carried out.

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