Who’s Who in a Beverly Hills Greek Tragedy
(Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders)
After watching the first episode of The Menendez Murders, I’m suspecting the NBC series won’t be quite as good as last year’s FX true-crime juggernaut The People vs. OJ Simpson.
But so what? The Menendez miniseries still means eight nights of Edie Falco as defense lawyer Leslie Abramson. I’d tune in to watch Edie read aloud the Hertz Terms & Conditions Agreement.
Throw in the portrayal of Lyle and Erik Menendez — the telegenic brothers who massacred their parents and soothed their grief with shopping sprees — and it definitely merits one hour every Tuesday (10 p.m. EST on NBC) for the next seven weeks.
The Menendez Murders dramatizes the killing of Jose and Kitty Menendez inside their $5 million Beverly Hills mansion on August 20, 1989. Here’s a cheat sheet on the real-life cast of characters.
Leslie Abramson, defense lawyer
Abramson had displayed a talent for helping accused murderers avoid death row before she defended Erik Menendez. Teenage father-killer Arnel Salvatierra got off with no jail time after Abramson portrayed him as an abused child. Likewise, she defended Erik and Lyle Menendez by presenting a tale of paternal cruelty strong enough to result in a mistrial for two young men who shot their father five times and their mother nine. A second trial ended with a guilty verdict and, although Abramson wan’t allowed to speak during the sentencing, she got to see her clients spared the death penalty. She reportedly received $700,000 for her work on behalf of the Menendezes.
Fun Fact: She’s a bittersweet reminder of when it was okay to have a big frizzy perm.
Jose Menendez, father
Age at time of murders: 45
The Cuban immigrant came to the U.S. at 15 and married at 19. Jose turned an accounting degree from Queens College and an insatiable drive for success into a $500,000-a-year job in the entertainment industry at Carolco Pictures. The domineering Jose eventually amplified his ambitions and transferred them to his sons, but he was very hard on them. Erik’s high school swimming coach recalled that Jose would criticize his son harshly in front of his teammates at meets. Apparently, he took pride in his children’s physical appearance as well and urged Lyle to wear a toupee when an early case of male pattern baldness emerged.
Fun Fact: His company produced Sylvestor Stallone’s Rambo pictures.
Kitty Menendez, mother
Age at time of murders: 47
Described in some sources as a socialite, the onetime midwestern elementary school teacher was born Mary Louise Anderson. She met Jose at Southern Illinois University and married him, despite both sets of parents’ disapproval (Hers didn’t like that he was an immigrant; his were put off that she came from a broken home). After having Lyle and Erik, she gave up her career. The series portrays her as suffering from depression. Other sources have reported that she was fragile and unusually emotionally dependent on her husband. Before moving to California, the Menendezes lived in Princeton, New Jersey, where Kitty reportedly had a fulfilling social life. She wasn’t happy about relocating to the West Coast.
Fun Fact: Before the Menendezes bought their house on Elm Drive, it had at different times been rented out to Elton John and Prince.
Lyle Menendez, elder son
Age at time of murders: 21
Pressured by his father to apply to Princeton University, Lyle did attend the Ivy League school for a short time, until cheating on a test got him suspended for a year. At some point during his travails, he impregnated a girlfriend, but Jose stepped in and persuaded her to terminate. Lyle bought a $60,000 Porsche Carrera with his late parents’ funds. He and his brother expected to collect a $5 million life insurance payout on their father, but it turned out that Jose had never taken the required physical exam, voiding the policy.
Fun Fact: Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne said that Lyle’s was the only toupee that ever fooled him.
Erik Menendez, younger son
Age at time of murders: 18
Emotionally more vulnerable than his older brother, Erik exhibited grief — whether real or feigned — that included weeping, throwing himself to the ground on the front lawn of the house, and going fetal the night of the murders. He managed to pull himself together well enough to use his late parents’ money to hire his own personal full-time tennis coach at $50,000 a year (quite a nice salary in 1989).
Fun Fact: Lyle at one time expressed interest in going into commercial real estate because he admired Donald Trump’s career.
Judalon Smyth, witness
This irritating mess of a witness was an entrepreneur who owned a tape-duplicating business at the time of the Menendez drama. Smyth told investigators that she overheard Erik Menendez confess to murdering his parents while she was standing outside psychologist Jerome Oziel’s office door. Her story about her personal relationship with the doctor, who was married with two children, changed a number of times, but they both ultimately admitted to an affair. At some point, she switched to the defense side after asserting that Oziel had brainwashed her.
Fun Fact: She said she found Oziel revolting at first.
Jerome Oziel, psychologist
Born: Circa 1947
Erik Menendez first sought help from Oziel after he committed two burglaries in 1988. Oziel must have done a great job counseling Erik, because he killed his parents a year later. Erik confessed the murders to the Beverly Hills shrink, who ended up breaking his patient confidentiality agreement because, he said, he was worried Erik and Lyle might try to shut him up. But Oziel managed to suck in both boys as patients, only to testify against them later. Oziel now practices in Oregon and specializes in couples counseling.
Fun Fact: California took away his psychology license in 1997 amid a number of allegations including compelling a construction worker to do free home-repair work in return for therapy.
That’s all for this this post. Next week, the blog will resume Forensic Files recaps. Until then, cheers. — RR