On August 20, 1989, José and Mary Louise “Kitty” Menendez were shot to death in their Beverly Hills home. Nearly seven years, three trials, and many thousands of hours of TV coverage later, their sons, Lyle and Erik Menendez, were found guilty of their murders and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Menendez murders became one of the most famous criminal cases of the late 20th century due to its potent mix of family drama, Hollywood connections, dramatic testimony, and cable TV’s ability to blanket the airwaves with coverage. As court proceedings unfolded, there was no doubt that Lyle and Erik had killed their parents. Why they did it was another story.

Watch the true story unfold in the drama Menendez: Blood Brothers, the NBC series Law and Order True Crime: the Menendez Murders, or the documentary Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers – American Sons, American Murders.

José and Kitty’s American Dream

The Menendez family seemed to be a perfect model of the American Dream, at least by 1980s standards. José was born in Cuba, emigrated to the United States as a teenager after the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, and lived in the attic of a cousin’s home until he earned a college scholarship for swimming. In college, he met Mary Louise Anderson, a beauty pageant queen who everyone called Kitty and was a couple years old than him. They married in the early 1960s and moved to New York City, where José earned an accounting degree from Queens College. He then rose from washing dishes to working a successful young entertainment executive.

After leading the U.S. operations of car rental company Hertz, José spent the early ’80s as the head of RCA Records and had a hand in the signing of bands such as Duran Duran, The Eurythmics, and Menudo. With their sons Lyle and Erik, the Menendez family moved from Princeton, New Jersey, to Los Angeles just a few years before the murders so that José could take a job in the movie business. The house where José and Kitty were killed was located on one of the most exclusive blocks in Beverly Hills and was at different times occupied by Michael Jackson and Elton John.

The Menendez brothers also seemed to fit the platonic ideal of Reagan-era United States. Lyle was a star tennis player and seemed destined for a career in business like the father he openly worshipped. Erik turned out to be even better at tennis, helped along by his father’s obsessive intervention, and wound up as a nationally ranked player in his age bracket. In a sense, they had no choice but to be successful; José was known as a hard-driving father who would work his children to the bone in athletics and everything else.

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“It seemed like José was so competitive, he was doing everything he could to try to make [Erik] better,” their former swim team coach told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “But he was so completely overbearing, it had the opposite effect. Erik had so much less self-confidence because everything he did was never good enough.”

After they moved to California, Erik took teenage rebellion to an extreme and took part in a string of burglaries in 1988. He avoided jail time but attended court-ordered therapy with Dr. Jerome Oziel. Lyle enrolled in Princeton University but was suspended for a year for plagiarism, portending trouble in the years to come.

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A Gruesome Crime Scene

The Menendez murders were brutal; 45-year-old José and 47-year-old Kitty were not so much killed as rendered nearly unidentifiable by 15 rounds from two 12-gauge shotguns. It was so barbaric that police thought the killings were a mob hit, and early investigations focused on business rivals and a porn executive who had a bone to pick with José.

The night of the murders, the brothers told police they’d gone out that night to see a movie but had to make a pitstop to retrieve Erik’s ID. That’s when they discovered their parents’ decimated bodies and dialed 911, they said in their interviews. The officers who responded to the 911 call found Erik, then 18, sobbing on the lawn before entering the crime scene.

The Menendez Murders: The Shocking Untold Story of the Menendez Family and the Killings that Stunned the Nation

The Menendez Murders: The Shocking Untold Story of the Menendez Family and the Killings that Stunned the Nation

The Menendez Murders: The Shocking Untold Story of the Menendez Family and the Killings that Stunned the Nation

$17 at Amazon

In the months that followed the slayings, neither Menendez brother acted like young men who had recently found both of their parents dead in a brutal, bloody murder scene. Instead, they acted like two guys who had just won the lottery. José was worth $14 million at the time of his death, and within six months, the brothers spent an estimated $700,000 of his fortune.

Lyle, who was 21 at the time of the murders, purchased a Rolex, a Porsche, lots of clothing, and a restaurant back in Princeton, where he had been living before the murders. Erik was more practical, opting for a Jeep Wrangler, a $50,000 personal tennis coach, and a $40,000 investment in a rock concert that never happened. They took exotic vacations, too, thinking they had even more money coming to them. There was also a $5 million life insurance policy on their father, though technicalities stopped them from collecting.

The Brothers’ Taped Confession

After the murders, Dr. Oziel reached out to his former patient Erik and began counseling the younger Menendez brother once more. Soon enough, Erik confessed to killing his parents. Oziel confided in Judalon Smyth, with whom he was having an extramarital affair; she would ultimately play a big part in the case.

The therapy sessions continued, and Oziel ultimately got both Erik and Lyle on tape, confessing to the murders. Erik said they’d done it to put their mother “out of her misery,” while Lyle made it clear that they were both in on the crime.

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Smyth and Oziel had a rocky relationship—she claimed he was controlling and abusive—and after he allegedly attacked her, Smyth contacted the Beverly Police to reveal that the Menendez brothers confessed to their parents’ murder. She even had an audiotape of the confessions.

Lyle was arrested on March 8, 1990. Erik, who was in Israel at the time for a tennis tournament, flew to Miami and then Los Angeles, where he turned himself into police on March 11.

Figuring out whether the tapes with the confessions fell under doctor-patient privilege or were admissible as evidence in court took two full years, with lawsuits and appeals flying back and forth between the prosecution and the Menendezes’ lawyers. Finally, the Supreme Court of California ruled that two of the three tapes were eligible to be used in the trial, including one that contained Lyle’s admission of guilt.

Sensational Trials That Gripped the Nation

lyle and erik menendez sit at a table inside a courtroom, lyle is wearing a royal blue sweater on top of a yellow collared shirt, and erik is wearing a pink v neck sweater on top of a striped collared shirt

Lyle and Erik Menendez during a 1992 court appearance in Los Angeles
Getty Images

The trials began in 1993, with separate juries for each brother, and were broadcast on a relatively new cable network called Court TV, which was devoted to turning the legal system into a hybrid of entertainment and sporting event. The network carried not only the trials, but also endless hours of coverage before and after each day’s proceedings. This helped fuel a national obsession with a case that had all the elements of a great primetime soap opera: A rich family torn apart by scandal, two handsome and mysterious young men, a grisly crime, and psychodrama galore.

“[The Menendez trials] probably had the effect, maybe good, maybe bad, of demonstrating that, even if you didn’t have a celebrity, if the circumstances were dramatic enough, people will be captivated,” Steve Brill, the founder of Court TV, told Rolling Stone in 2017. “We’ve had lots of trials like that since, but that was really the one that proved that people would be interested in watching big trials.”

Bad Blood: The Shocking True Story Behind the Menendez Killings

Bad Blood: The Shocking True Story Behind the Menendez Killings

Bad Blood: The Shocking True Story Behind the Menendez Killings

$6 at Amazon

Inside the courtroom, prosecutors argued the Menendez brothers were after their inheritance, but Lyle and Erik said they killed in self-defense. They said their father hadn’t just had high expectations and doled out emotional abuse. José, they alleged, had molested them for years—Lyle from the ages of 6 to 8, and Erik from ages 6 to 18—a claim filled with graphic descriptions that shocked the nation and split friends and family members.

Erik’s lawyer Leslie Abramson, who became a star during the trial and worked alongside Lyle’s lawyer Gerald Chaleff, argued that the two were acting in self-defense after growing up in such a violent and traumatizing home. Lyle, who gave graphic testimony of his father’s alleged behavior, also said he had confronted José about sexual assaulting Erik days before the murders and he took his father’s angry response as a death threat. The defense also attacked Kitty as a husk of a woman who struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction; the broken wife and useless mother, they said, was devastated by José’s many affairs.

The first trials lasted six months, and both resulted in hung juries, who were unable to agree on whether Lyle and Erik were guilty of murder or acting in their own self-defense. Immediately, it was announced that they would be retried together.

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The second trial took place in 1995 and was far less sensational, as Judge Stanley Weisberg did not allow TV cameras into the courthouse. The judge also ruled there was insufficient evidence that José had abused his sons, which was central to the defense’s claim that the brothers had killed out of fear. Years later, a cousin of the Menendez brothers told ABC News that she believed Lyle was telling the truth about the sexual abuse because he’d told her similar things when he was a child. More recently, singer Roy Rosselló of the boy band Menudo has also accused José of sexual assault.

Oddly enough, Judalon Smyth testified for the defense during the second trial, insisting Dr. Oziel had manipulated the brothers into confessing. The effort fell short; both Lyle and Erik were convicted of two counts of first-degree murder on March 21, 1996. They were sentenced to life without parole, each receiving two consecutive life terms, that July.

The Menendez Brothers Now

Lyle and Erik were sent to separate prisons until 2018 when they were reunited and allowed to serve their sentences at the same facility in San Diego. Journalist Robert Rand, who has covered the case since 1989, told A&E True Crime that the brothers counsel other inmates who have suffered sexual abuse and that Erik leads multiple self-help groups. Lyle is now 55, and Erik is 52.

Each brother has gotten married in prison to women who aren’t incarcerated. Erik married his pen pal Tammi Saccoman in 1999. She wrote a book about their relationship, They Said We’d Never Make It: My Life with Erik Menendez, in 2005. Lyle married Anna Eriksson, a former model who divorced him when she found out he had been writing to other women, and then Rebecca Sneed, a journalist-turned-attorney who he wed in 2003. Lyle told People in 2017 that he and Rebecca try to talk every day on the phone.

Even now, 33 years since the murders first took place, the brothers’ crime continues to fascinate and perplex. There have been multiple movies, miniseries, and documentaries about the murders, and it’s been spoofed throughout the years, as well. The case ushered in a new era of true crime hype, which is stronger than ever.

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