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NIGHTMARE ON ELM DRIVE
On a recent New York-to-Los Angeles trip on MGM Grand Air, that most luxurious of all coast-to-coast flights, I was chilled to the bone marrow during a brief encounter with a fellow passenger, a boy of perhaps fourteen, or fifteen, or maybe even sixteen, who lounged restlessly in a sprawled-out fashion, arms and legs akimbo, avidly reading racing-car magazines, chewing gum, and beating time to the music on his Walkman. Although I rarely engage in conversations with strangers on airplanes, I always have a certain curiosity to know who everyone is on MGM Grand Air, which I imagine is a bit like the Orient Express in its heyday. The young traveler in the swivel chair was returning to California after a sojourn in Europe. There were signals of affluence in his chat; the Concorde was mentioned. His carry-on luggage was expensive, filled with audiotapes, playing cards, and more magazines. During the meal, we talked. A week before, two rich and privileged young men named Lyle and Erik Menendez had been arrested for the brutal slaying of their parents in the family’s $5 million mansion on Elm Drive, a sedate tree-lined street that is considered one of the most prestigious addresses in Beverly Hills. The tale in all its gory grimness was the cover story that week in People magazine, many copies of which were being read on the plane.
“Do you live in Beverly Hills?” I asked.
He told me the name of his street, which was every bit as prestigious as Elm Drive. I once lived in Beverly Hills and knew the terrain well. His home was in the same general area as the house where Kitty and Jose Menendez had been gunned down several months earlier in a fusillade of fourteen twelve-gauge shotgun blasts—five to the head and body of the father, nine to the face and body of the mother—that left them virtually unrecognizable as human beings, according to eyewitness reports. The slaying was so violent that it was assumed at first to have been of Mafia origins—a hit, or Mob rubout, as it was called, even in the Wall Street Journal. The arrest of the two handsome, athletic Menendez sons after so many months of investigation had shocked an unshockable community.
“Did you ever know the Menendez brothers?” I asked the teenager.
“No,” he replied. They had gone to different schools. They were older. Lyle was twenty-two, Erik nineteen. In that age group, a few years makes an enormous difference.
“A terrible thing,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “But I heard the father was pretty rough on those kids.”
With that, our conversation was concluded.
Patricide is not an altogether new crime in the second echelon of Southland society. Nor is matricide. On March 24, 1983, twenty-year-old Michael Miller, the son of President Ronald Reagan’s personal lawyer, Roy Miller, raped and clubbed to death his mother, Marguerite. In a minimally publicized trial, from which the media was barred, Miller was found guilty of first-degree murder but was acquitted of the rape charge, presumably on the technicality that the rape had occurred after his mother was dead. The judge then ruled that young Miller, who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, was legally innocent of murder by reason of insanity. “Hallelujah,” muttered Michael Miller after the verdict. He was sent to Patton State Hospital, a mental institution in California.
On July 22, 1983, in a Sunset Boulevard mansion in Bel-Air, twenty-year-old Ricky Kyle shot his father, millionaire Henry Harrison Kyle, the president of Four Star International, a television-and-movie-production firm, in the back after awakening him in the middle of the night to tell him there was a prowler in the house. Several witnesses testified that Ricky had confided in them about a longstanding desire to kill his father, who was alleged to have been physically and mentally abusive to his son. The prosecution argued that Ricky was consumed with hatred for his father and greed for his fortune, and that, fearing that he was about to be disinherited, he plotted the ruse of the prowler. With the extraordinary leniency of the Southern California courts for first-time murderers, young Kyle was sentenced to five years for the slaying. Expressing dismay with the verdict, Ricky’s mother told reporters she had hoped her son would be spared a prison term. “I think he has suffered enough,” she said. Ricky agreed. “I feel like I don’t deserve to go to prison,” he said.
And then there were the Woodman brothers, Stewart and Neil, accused of hiring two assassins to gun down their rich parents in Brentwood. Tried separately, Stewart was convicted of first-degree murder. To escape the death penalty, he incriminated his brother. Neil’s trial is about to start.
Further elaboration is not necessary: the point has been made. One other case, however, on a lesser social stratum but of equal importance, under the circumstances, should be mentioned: the Salvatierra murder, which received international attention. In 1986, Oscar Salvatierra, the Los Angeles—based executive of a newspaper called Philippine News, was shot while he was asleep in bed, after having received a death threat that was at first believed to be tied to the newspaper’s opposition to former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. Later, Arnel Salvatierra, his seventeen-year-old son, admitted sending the letter and killing his father. In court, Arnel Salvatierra’s lawyer convinced the jury that Arnel was the victim of a lifetime of physical and psychological abuse by his father. The lawyer, Leslie Abramson, who is considered to be the most brilliant Los Angeles defense lawyer for death-row cases, compared Arnel Salvatierra to the tragic Lisa Steinberg of New York, whose father, Joel Steinberg, had been convicted of murdering her after relentlessly abusing her. “What happens if the Lisa Steinbergs don’t die?” Abramson asked the jury. “What happens if they get older, and if the cumulative effect of all these years of abuse finally drives them “over the edge, and Lisa Steinberg pulls out a gun and kills Joel Steinberg?” Arnel Salvatierra, who had been charged with first-degree murder, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and placed on probation.
This story is relevant to the Menendez case in that the same Leslie Abramson is one-half the team defending the affluent Menendez brothers. Her client is Erik Menendez, the younger brother. Gerald Chaleff, with whom she frequently teams, is representing Lyle. On an earlier burglary case involving the brothers, Chaleff, who gained prominence in criminal law as the defender of the Hillside Strangler, represented Erik. It is rumored that Abramson and Chaleff are each being paid $700,000. Psychological abuse is a constant theme in articles written about the brothers, and will probably be the basis of the defense strategy when the case comes to trial. There are even whispers—shocker of shockers—of sexual abuse in the Menendez family.
Jose Enrique Menendez was an American success story. A Cuban émigré, he was sent to the United States by his parents in 1960 at age fifteen to escape from Castro’s Cuba. His father, a onetime soccer star, and his mother, a former champion swimmer, stayed behind until their last properties were seized by Castro. Young Jose, who excelled in swimming, basketball, and soccer, won a swimming scholarship to Southern Illinois University, but he gave it up when he married Mary Louise Andersen, known as Kitty, at the age of nineteen and moved to New York. He earned a degree in accounting at Queens College in Flushing, New York, while working part-time as a dishwasher at the swank “21” Club in Manhattan, where, later, successful and prosperous, he would often dine. Then began a career of astonishing ascendancy which took him through Hertz, where he was in charge of car and commercial leasing, to the record division of RCA, where he signed such high-earning acts as Menudo, the Eurythmics, and Duran Duran. By this time he and Kitty had had two sons and settled down to a graceful life on a million-dollar estate in Princeton, New Jersey. The boys attended the exclusive Princeton Day School and, urged on by their father, began developing into first-rate tennis and soccer players. Their mother attended every match and game they played. When Jose clashed with a senior executive at RCA in 1986, after having been passed over for the executive vice presidency of RCA Records, he uprooted his family, much to the distress of Kitty, who loved her life and house in Princeton, and moved to Los Angeles. There he leapfrogged to I.V.E., International Video Entertainment, a video distributor which eventually became Live Entertainment, a division of the hugely successful Carolco Pictures, the company that produced the Rambo films of Sylvester Stallone as well as some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action films. Jose Menendez’s success at Live Entertainment was dazzling. In 1986 the company lost $20 million; a year later, under Menendez, Live earned $8 million and in 1988 doubled that. “He was the perfect corporate executive,” I was told by one of his lieutenants. “He had an incredible dedication to business. He was focused, specific about what he wanted from the business, very much in control. He believed that whatever had to be done should be done—with no heart, if necessary.”
The family lived at first in Calabasas, an upper-middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, inland beyond Malibu, where they occupied one house while building a more spectacular one on thirteen acres with mountaintop views. Then, unexpectedly, almost overnight, the family abandoned Calabasas and moved to Beverly Hills, where Jose bought the house on Elm Drive, a six-bedroom Mediterranean-style house with a red tile roof, a courtyard, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and a guesthouse. Built in 1927, rebuilt in 1974, the house had good credentials. It had previously been rented to Elton John. And Prince. And Hal Prince. And a Saudi prince, for $35,000 a month. Erik Menendez, the younger son, transferred from Calabasas High to Beverly Hills High, probably the most snobbish public school in America. Lyle was a student at Princeton University, fulfilling one of the many American dreams of his immigrant father.
They were the ideal family; everyone said so. “They were extraordinarily close-knit,” an executive of Live Entertainment told me. “It was one big happy family,” said John E. Mason, a friend and Live Entertainment director. They did things together. They telephoned one another several times a day, about tennis matches and girlfriends and the results of exams. They almost always had dinner together, which, in a community where most parents go to parties or screenings every night and leave their children to their own devices, is a rare thing. They talked about world events, as well as about what was happening in Jose’s business. On the day before the catastrophic event, a Saturday, they chartered a boat called Motion Picture Marine in Marina del Rey and spent the day together shark-fishing, just the four of them.