Over the last 30-ish years, “the Menendez brothers” has become cultural shorthand for the extreme kind of privilege that can lead to unspeakable horror in the name entitlement, and by all accounts, Lyle and Erik Menendez were indeed rich douchebags. But the murders of José and Kitty Menendez by their sons were a little more complicated than a bratty temper tantrum.

The Menendez Family

Beverly Hills

(TobiasStage/Wikimedia Commons)

José Menendez was a wealthy record executive who lived with his wife, Kitty, and two sons, Lyle and Erik, in New Jersey before moving to Los Angeles in 1986 to break into the film industry. The 16- and 19-year-old boys had both recently gotten into trouble, the former having fallen into the only bad crowd at Beverly Hills High School, who liked to commit casual burglary, and the latter having been suspended from Princeton for plagiarism. As we said, rich douchebags.

The Dark Family Secret (Maybe)

Boy crying

(Kat J/Unsplash)

The Menendez brothers claim their seemingly charmed existence obscured a much bleaker reality: that José Menendez sexually abused his sons from the time they were little. Some family members testified that they were told about the abuse at the time, but others claim Lyle, the older brother, cobbled the story together from books he read in jail. Whatever the case, José Menendez was by all accounts a demanding father who put immense pressure on his sons to become star athletes and not what anyone would call “warm and fuzzy.”

The Menendez Murders

On August 20, 1989, Lyle and Erik Menendez claim their parents retreated to another room following a confrontation about the abuse, and they feared their parents were plotting to kill them. What they actually appeared to be doing was watching TV and eating ice cream when their sons burst into the room and literally blew their faces off with two shotguns they’d purchased two days earlier.

The Immediate Aftermath

Police tape

(David von Diemar/Unsplash)

After disposing of their guns, the brothers returned home, where Lyle called 911 in hysterics while Erik curled up sobbing on the lawn, claiming they’d come back from a movie to find their parents murdered. They may very well have been genuinely shocked by the scene that greeted them on their return, or they were master actors, but either way, the police were so convinced by their displays that they ignored protocol to test their hands for gunshot residue and didn’t even formally interview them for two months.

The Mafia?

Lyle and Erik suggested the Mafia was responsible for the crime, and considering the unusually brutal violence involved (the Menendezes were shot a total of 15 times), the police had no problem believing that. It turned out José Menendez had recently bought a film company that used to be owned by the mob, so it wasn’t a total stretch.

Spending Spree


(Erik Mclean/Unsplash)

Police started getting suspicious of the Menendez brothers after they blew through $700,000 of their father’s $14 million estate in seven months. They bought, among other things, a Porsche, a pair of condos, exotic vacations, expensive clothes, and a $40,000 stake in a music festival that never happened, as bizarre as a Menendez Brothers Fyre Fest would have been.

The Therapist’s Mistress

Therapist couch

(Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)

The tipping point came when the mistress of the therapist Erik Menendez had been court-ordered to see got sick of her doctor boyfriend’s bullshit and told police that the brothers had confessed to the murders on tape during therapy sessions. The explanation they gave on the tapes differs wildly from both the defense and prosecutions’ version of events and doesn’t even make much sense: They had to kill their dad because he was going to go into politics and make their mother’s life miserable, and they had to kill their mother because she would have killed herself without their father. But it definitely established premeditation.

The First Trial

LA County Courthouse

(Spacemountainmike/Wikimedia Commons)

It took two years for the court to rule the therapy tapes admissible as evidence, so by the time Lyle and Erik Menendez stood trial, it was a well-hyped event. They both gave tearful testimonies of their father’s abuse while the prosecution argued that they did it for money, but even after introducing the testimony of a friend who claimed Lyle Menendez told him he’d deleted his father’s updated will that left his sons much less money, the trials of both men ended in hung juries.

The Rise of CourtTV

Video camera

(KAL VISUALS/Unsplash)

The trials of Lyle and Erik Menendez were one of the first murder trials aired from start to finish on the then-new CourtTV. The response was so overwhelming that a former CNN correspondent credited it with the network’s decision to devote so much coverage to the O.J. Simpson trial the next year.

The Second Trial

For their second trial, where the judge pointedly banned filming, the Menendez brothers were tried together, which seemed to sway the jury against them. Even after their therapist’s mistress switched sides and insisted they had been manipulated into confessing, they were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Married in Prison

Wedding couple

(Drew Coffman/Unsplash)

The Menendez brothers have gotten married a total of three times behind bars. In 1996, Lyle married a former Playboy model who began writing to him during his trial and eventually left him when she found out he was writing to other women, then a journalist in 2003, while Erik married his own pen pal in 1999.

Reunited and It Feels So Good

The Menendez brothers served the first 20 or so years of their sentences in separate facilities where they were forbidden to talk on the phone, but they kept in touch via letters and chess by mail like a couple of elderly nerds. After six years of petitioning, they were tearfully reunited in 2018, and it shows an unusual level of restraint for the industry that no one has turned that into a reality TV show.

The Trading Card Fiasco

In 2018, someone on Reddit discovered that the Menendez brothers can be seen in the audience on a basketball trading card. eBay immediately banned and started taking down listings for the cards, but listen, while we’re not advocating murder memoribilia, they’re not hard to find.

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