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Size of Estate Shocked Brothers, Aunt Testifies : Trial: Judge has not decided if Menendez jurors will hear her testimony--a key piece of evidence in defense's case.

August 24, 1993|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just four days after killing their parents, Lyle and Erik Menendez seemed shocked to learn that their parents' estate was worth $14 million, their aunt testified Monday at the brothers' murder trial.

In a hearing without jurors present, Marta Menendez Cano, a financial planner, said she sat the brothers down on Aug. 24, 1989, to tell them that she had roughly calculated the estate's value at $14 million gross, $8 million net.

Erik Menendez said: "I can't believe my father had so much money," Cano testified.

Both brothers wrongly believed that they had been written out of the will, she said, and "were so honestly convinced they got nothing they were not interested in the numbers."

Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 22, listened intently Monday to their aunt, their father's sister. Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg put off until today a ruling on whether jurors will hear her testimony--key evidence in a defense bid to rebut prosecutors' allegation that greed drove the brothers to kill.

The brothers are charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, an executive with the Van Nuys video firm Live Entertainment, and Kitty Menendez, 47. The sons shot the parents in the family room of their Beverly Hills mansion.

Prosecutors contend that the brothers were driven by hatred and the lure of their father's millions; they are seeking the death penalty. The defense claims that the killings were an act of self-defense after a childhood marred by physical, mental and sexual abuse.

With Cano's testimony, the focus of the brothers' defense switched Monday from Kitty Menendez's relatives, who testified for most of last week, to Jose Menendez's family.

During the first four weeks of the trial, prosecution witnesses testified that one or both of the brothers used proceeds of the estate to buy Rolex watches, cars and a restaurant, and sought to buy a luxury condominium. But Cano's testimony marked the first time a witness said what Jose Menendez was worth.

The problem, said Cano, 51, of West Palm Beach, Fla., is that she is virtually certain her numbers-- compiled from a quick review of her brother's financial statements--are inaccurate.

Defense attorneys maintain that Jose Menendez owed millions in mortgages and loans, and was worth far less than $8 million or $14 million--but have not fixed a figure. Key probate court records remain sealed.

Included in the estimates she gave the brothers at the Aug. 24 meeting, Cano said Monday, were assets not part of the probated estate: a $650,000 insurance policy, which was paid to the brothers, and a $5-million policy, which was not paid because Jose Menendez did not take the required physical exam.

At that meeting, she said, Lyle and Erik Menendez believed that their father had written them out of his will. But Cano said she knew better because her brother had told her four months beforehand that he had not altered his will, written in 1981.

When Cano met with Lyle and Erik Menendez on Aug. 24, police were still treating the brothers as devastated victims--and would for months. Readying for a memorial service the next day, "these kids were very upset," Cano said.

"Erik wouldn't stop crying," she said. "He'd be crying and Lyle said: 'Erik, stop it! Aunt Marta's trying to talk to us.' "

In testimony Monday before jurors, Cano said that Erik Menendez, her godson, "cried at everything" when he was a little boy, and that his crying infuriated his father, who would grab him, shake him and send him to his room.

Kitty Menendez never interceded, Cano said. Constantly mocked by her husband and locked in a marriage with little affection, Kitty Menendez blamed her sons for her plight and used pills and tranquilizers to get by, she said.

"She told me she wished they had never been born because they had broken her marriage," Cano testified, adding: "She told me they had made her life miserable and separated her from Jose."

Beginning in 1985, Cano said, Kitty Menendez became "very tense, very nervous," and would "glare at things." It was "not normal," Cano said, adding that she gave Kitty Menendez the tranquilizer Valium from her prescription.

The next year, Cano's daughter--Marianne Cano, 29, of Miami--observed Kitty Menendez still taking Valium. Telling jurors for the first time that Kitty Menendez was relying on drugs, Marianne Cano, who also testified Monday, said she gave her aunt a "curious look."

In response, Kitty Menendez "said that was how she got through the day," Marianne Cano said.

In a trial that has featured the airing of the dirty laundry of the Menendez family and other witnesses, testimony Monday touched on actual dirty laundry. Marta Cano told jurors that Kitty Menendez raised her sons in "total chaos" amid "piles of dirty clothes."

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