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Coach Recounts Demands Made on Brothers : Trial: Tennis instructor testifies that Jose Menendez was the worst parent he had ever encountered.

August 21, 1993|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lyle and Erik Menendez's first tennis coach testified Friday that he never saw love in the Menendez family.

Charles P. Wadlington testified at their murder trial that their mother, Kitty Menendez, was always angry and sarcastic. Their father, Jose Menendez, was unrelentingly demanding and "the harshest person I'd ever met," Wadlington said.

Jose Menendez ran the family "sort of like his business," said Wadlington, who was the brothers' tennis coach for five years and fought back tears as he testified. "He would give the orders and they would follow him."

He added about his pupils: "I thought I was about all they had."

Listening to Wadlington, a juror wiped tears from her eyes. Lyle Menendez, 25, slumped in his chair, and Erik Menendez, 22, took his glasses off and buried his face in his hands.

The brothers are charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47. The sons shot the parents in the den of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.

Prosecutors contend that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed; they are seeking the death penalty. The defense concedes that the killings occurred but says that the brothers acted in self-defense after years of mental, physical and sexual abuse.

The fourth anniversary of the slayings passed Friday as the trial concluded its fifth week. Two juries are hearing the case, one for each brother.

Late in the day, a juror on the Lyle Menendez panel was dismissed and replaced with an alternate. Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg excused the 45-year-old Canoga Park man after a 40-minute hearing behind closed doors. "There were reasons why," the judge said, declining to elaborate.

Jurors on both panels paid rapt attention Friday to Wadlington and wrote hurriedly in their notebooks as he testified.

He said he never saw sexual abuse. But he testified that at 14, Erik Menendez--ordinarily a diligent student--suddenly stopped concentrating during his lessons and would bash balls against the opposite fence for no apparent reason.

Wadlington testified that he had no idea what had come over his pupil. Outside court, defense lawyer Leslie Abramson alleged that the change came as Erik Menendez was either suffering "torture" at the hands of his father or was having vivid flashbacks of earlier abuse.

It is not clear which, Abramson said, adding that Erik Menendez will be called to testify.

Wadlington, 39, a financial adviser living in West Palm Beach, Fla., is one of several defense witnesses who have been called to paint a portrait of what the Menendez family was like and to provide a framework for the brothers' testimony.

In the nearly five years, from 1981 through 1985, that he gave the brothers lessons, Wadlington said, he never saw Kitty or Jose Menendez show affection to their sons.

There was no "love and kindness and touching and hugging," he said.

Frequently, Wadlington said, Kitty Menendez came to watch the tennis lessons. But not once in almost five years, he said, did he see her smile.

"Was she up there booing?" Deputy Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama asked. "Did she throw rotten tomatoes at them?" Defense attorneys objected to both questions, and Wadlington did not answer either.

Jose Menendez, Wadlington said, was unusually intense and overbearing. He described the father as the worst parent he had ever encountered out of the 1,000 parents of his students.

At the father's insistence, the brothers played tennis before and after school, on weekends, holidays--even on Christmas--in the rain and even when they were sick, Wadlington said. Menendez wanted his sons to excel at the sport, Wadlington said.

Wadlington said he confronted Menendez and was fired after tiring of seeing him issue orders to his sons as a boss might to an employee. A subsequent tennis coach, Perry Berman, offered similar testimony last month.

"I just couldn't stand the guy . . . because I saw him being mean to the boys," Wadlington said.

A swimming coach also testified Friday that Jose Menendez exhibited unusual behavior.

When Erik Menendez would swim in races, his father would race up and down the sides of the pool, yelling at his son to swim faster, said Meredith Geisler, 33, of Potomac, Md.

At the end of the race, the father would yank the son out of the pool by his armpits and tell him he had to swim faster, Geisler said, adding: "It was more humiliation in front of his competitors and teammates."

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