It was a quiet Sunday evening in August of 1989 when residents of a Beverly Hills neighborhood heard a rapid succession of firecracker-like “popping sounds.” The disturbance came from 722 North Elm Drive– behind its pristine, Mediterranean-style facade was a scene straight out of a horror film. Blood spattered the walls, windows, and furniture of the family room, where the barely recognizable bodies of Jose and Kitty Menendez lay. The killers: their own sons, Lyle and Erik.
Initially, the brothers seemed to have murdered out of greed, after finding out that the parents had taken them out of their will. However, during the trials, the nation watched as Lyle and Erik agonizingly choked out details about being molested and sodomized at a young age by Jose. The brothers were not cold-blooded killers but scared children, who, having endured a lifetime of such abuse, acted out of desperation and fear. Nonetheless, in 1996, the brothers were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
This is the Menendez case that most of Gen Z and a handful of young millennials know. But stories do not simply materialize in vacuums. The Menendez story was not always about two highly troubled boy who suffered years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from their parents that culminated in a state of heightened paranoia and ultimately murder. In 1993, “the boys” (as they were commonly referred to) being tried were two spoiled rich kids who selfishly murdered Jose and Kitty Menendez in order to get their greedy hands on their parents’ money. And the narrative that came even before that hardly involved the brothers at all, at least not as the killers. In fact, the day after the murders, breaking news declared Jose and Kitty as victims of a mob killing.
In order to better understand the evolution of the Menendez story over time, I sat down over Zoom with Emmy Award-winning journalist Robert Rand, who has been covering the Menendez story for the past 31 years. You may recognize Rand from his commentary on the case for CourtTV, CBS News, iHeartRadio, Good Day L.A., Megyn Kelly TODAY, ABC 20/20’s “Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers”, Dateline NBC’s “Unthinkable: The Menendez Murders, ” or played by Josh Stamberg on NBC’s Law and Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.
Rand is the only journalist who, in addition to covering both trials (the first in 1993 and the second in 1995), also covered the original investigations– speaking with the brothers two months after the murder, before they were even suspects.
A Hollywood Hitjob?
In early August of 1989, Rand was writing for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald. He spent a week in Las Vegas at the annual Video Software Dealers’ Association convention researching a story about the home video business. Ten days later, Rand’s friend Steve Apple, editor of the Video Insider, a video trade magazine, called him in Miami and said that a prominent home video executive, Jose Menendez and his wife Kitty, had been “blown away” the night before in their Beverly Hills mansion.
At first, it seemed as if Jose’s shady dealings in the home video business and the enemies that he made along the way had finally caught up with him. In order to protect its reputation from the increasingly widespread media speculation that Jose was taken down by the Mafia, LIVE Entertainment hired a PR firm to organize the Menendez memorial service in Hollywood and even invited Rambo’s Sylvester Stallone– ironically Jose had butted heads with Stallone once or twice as a board member of LIVE’s parent company, Caroloco Picures, producers of the 1980s hit movies ‘Rambo’ and ‘Basic Instinct.’ The second memorial service brought the brothers back to their “humble” roots: Princeton, New Jersey, where they had spent their childhood and where Lyle ended up attending college at Princeton University. Lyle returned to the campus of his alma mater (the service was held in the Princeton University Chapel), showing off a gold Rolex– a recent purchase using his father’s American Express card. Both brothers were already authorized before the killings to charge up to the credit card’s $250,000 limit.
Rand attended the third memorial service in Miami, where he planned to meet with the brothers for a Miami Herald article that he was working on. By that point, the Menendez story had somewhat fizzled out in the mainstream media.
Rand: I wasn’t doing a story about the murder investigation. I was doing a biography of Jose Menendez, Cuban-American rags to riches story ends in a terrible tragedy.
However, Lyle and Erik, who were in Jacksonville, told their aunt Marta Cano (Jose’s sister) that a third memorial service was too much to emotionally handle, and instead went to Daytona Beach with their girlfriends.
Rand was able to speak with the brothers about a month later when he flew out to Los Angeles. Rand sat down with Erik and Lyle on a Friday afternoon in late October, in their Beverly Hills Mansion– yes, the same mansion in which the murders were committed only two months ago, although Rand had no reason to suspect that the brothers were the killers.
Rand: I had actually had lunch a few days earlier with the Beverly Hills police. I wasn’t writing about the murder investigation, but obviously, I was going to mention it in the story. And they were just totally blowing smoke at me. We were comparing the Colombian hitmen to Italian hitmen, I was talking about Colombian hitmen in Miami, and they were totally trying to mislead me because they actually got a phone call about 10 days after the murders from a lawyer representing the mother of one of their friends from Calabasas, who said “you really should look at the brothers.” And they were already kind of under the spotlight.
When Rand pulled out a tape recorder, Lyle stopped him, saying that he and Erik wanted to “just talk” and get to know Rand.
Rand: So we sat in the mansion on Elm Drive and talked for about an hour and a half. And about 10 minutes into the conversation, Lyle said to me, “We think our father was such a great man. We’re thinking of writing a book about him. Would you like to work with us?” You know, I kind of laughed and said, “Well, thanks. Right now, I’m just writing a magazine story, but we’ll talk.”
The brothers decided to push the actual interview to Sunday. However, when Rand arrived at the mansion two days later, he was greeted by Lyle and Erik’s grandmother, Maria Menendez who informed him that Lyle had taken a Red Eye to New York because something had come up with his chicken wing restaurant in Princeton (Chuck’s, which is still open today, but according to Rand is “not the same order”) and that Erik was sleeping. Maria offered to wake him, as it was Rand’s last day in Los Angeles, and eventually Rand was able to sit down with Erik for a recorded interview.
Rand: About two hours into the interview, I said to him, “I’m not writing a story about the murder investigation, but I want to ask you a few questions about the night you came home and found your parents.” We talked for about ten minutes and the tape ran out in my 1989 audio cassette recorder. He was kind of crying at this point. And he goes, “Can we stop talking about this? This is really hard for me,” and I said “Sure.” But I got about ten minutes of him describing coming home and saying “I would have given my life for my dad’s.”
At the end of the interview, Erik offered to show Rand the dream home in Calabasas that his parents were renovating.
Rand: So think of this– here’s a guy who did it, but he does a three and half hour interview and then he volunteers to spend more time with me. So Erik and his grandmother and I piled into his Jeep, and we drove up to Calabasas, about 45 minutes away from Beverly Hills, and we spent another three hours hanging out. So, you know, that was great for me for spending more time with him. And nine days after I did that interview with him, he went and confessed to Dr. Oziel, the therapist. And I always wondered, you know, in hindsight what impact that might have had on him, the fact you’re talking for basically six hours with the reporter about your parents, who you killed. I wondered what impact that day might have had that led him to the therapist.
Rand’s Miami Herald article “Who Killed the Next U.S. Senator from Florida” was published Christmas Eve of 1989 and was the first to implicate the brothers as suspects under investigation. Interestingly enough, the new revelation was a last-minute addition to the story. Two days before the deadline in mid- December, Aunt Marta called Rand, telling him that she didn’t want the pictures of the brothers to appear in the media– earlier, she had provided him with a portrait of the brothers and their parents for the cover of the Sunday magazine in which the article was to be published. When Rand asked if something had gone wrong, Aunt Marta told him the brothers had been threatened.
Rand: I hung up with her and I immediately called Les Zoeller, the lead investigator at the Beverly Hills Police. And I said, “So tell me about these death threats that the brothers got when they were in Beverly Hills.”
He said, “What death threats?”
And I said, “Well didn’t the brothers call you? They were coming out of the bank this morning, somebody walked by them and said, ‘you’re next.’”
And he said, “No, the brothers rarely return my calls. I really wish they would.” I didn’t know about this. So I went in the other office and saw my editor at the magazine.
I said, “Okay, so tell me if this sounds a little weird. Your parents are brutally murdered. Somebody walks by you and says, ‘you’re next.’ Don’t you go running to the police and say, ‘help, somebody threatened me this morning’?”
And my editor turned to me and he said, “they did it.”
At first, Rand was skeptical of the possibility that the brothers could have done it based on the time that he spent with Lyle and Erik in L.A.. He and his editor argued back and forth about it until the phone rang again. It was Aunt Marta.
Rand: She’s yelling at me… “Why did you call the Beverly Hills police? The brothers didn’t want them to know about their threats.”
Of course, that made no sense.
I got off with her and I called Les Zoeller back and said, “OK, so what’s going on? You’re kind of focused on the brothers aren’t you?”
Rand already knew the answer. From his past reporting, Rand had accumulated many contacts in the home video business, who all confirmed that the killings had no connection to Jose’s involvement as the chief executive of LIVE Entertainment. There were no other suspects but Lyle and Erik.
Rand: Because of those weird phone calls with Aunt Marta and Les Zoeller, we ended up adding a few paragraphs about the brothers being considered as suspects in my December ‘89 story. And that was the first mainstream media speculation that the brothers will be looked at as suspects.
Team Greedy Rich Kids
As the only journalist who covered the original investigation and had close contacts with the brothers and their family, Rand was more ready to entertain the various nuances of the case in his reporting. However, after Lyle and Erik were arrested in March of 1990, the Menendez story began surfacing again in the mainstream media– the account was much less forgiving.
Rand: When I did the first cover story for People magazine, I was one of three or four bylines. They had access to my Miami Herald reporting. The way that People magazine works is reporters send in a file of their reporting and then the editor in New York writes the final article. So I had this file about family background and… I mean, we really didn’t know that much in March of 1990. But my file, I’m sure, was more sympathetic than any of their staff writers’ files. And when I saw the article on the street, the cover was basically “greedy rich kids kill this lovely couple on a Sunday night.”
By the time the Menendez case began to attract the attention of the media in earnest a year later, Rand was already putting together a hundred-page book proposal with chapter by chapter breakdown, which eventually caught the attention of Hugh Hefner, editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine. When Rand was still reporting on the case from Miami, he sought out Anthony Glassman, a criminal defense attorney in Beverly Hills, through a mutual contact in order to better understand murder trial proceedings under California law. Glassman also happened to be Hefner’s personal attorney.
Rand: And he [Glassner] said to me, he said, “Can I show this to Hugh Hefner?” He said Playboy has actually been trying to write an article about the trial and they’ve had three of their regular staff writers write articles. And Hefner didn’t like any of the articles. They didn’t object because the people hadn’t covered the case that much and they were just kind of general articles. And so I said, “Sure.” That was kind of exciting– Hugh Hefner was going to read my book proposal. And I got a call a few days later from the editor of Playboy […] Steve Randall, and he said, “we want you to write an article about the Menendez case.”
The article was published as one of the cover stories for the March 1991 issue and ended up being 14,000 words, making it the longest piece Playboy has ever published.
Rand: And the reason they did that was Hugh Hefner was really into the story.
The prevailing narrative in the media—that Lyle and Erik were cold-blooded murderers who killed their parents out of greed—was certainly not in favor of the brothers. Perhaps it even sealed their fate during the two trials in 1993 and 1995, considering that the jury wasn’t sequestered. The second trial concluded in 1996 and the brothers were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In September of that same year, the brothers were woken up in the middle of the night and brought outside to two vans. The Beverly Hills police had filed a motion for the brothers to be sent to separate prisons, claiming that if the brothers conspired to commit murder, they would conspire to commit other crimes; Rand believes that this was simply out of spite. The brothers weren’t allowed a goodbye. Standing on opposite ends of the courtyard, about to be carted off to two separate facilities, they looked at each other with the understanding that this could very well be the last time they saw each other.
Fortunately, this didn’t end up being the case.
In July of 2016, Rand became a consultant for NBC’s Law and Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, which largely relied on his unpublished, 900-page manuscript for the book he had been working on and all of his recording files. Just like Rand’s reporting on the case in the 90’s, the book accepted the controversial idea that the brothers were also victims.
Rand: The creator of the series, René Balcer, actually told me that he read my book twice. And he took 180 pages of notes on the quarter million word, 900-paged version [of the book]. It was very validating to have these people that produce true crime read my book, look at my reporting, and then say this is our point of view—it’s your point of view.
However, Rand was still apprehensive on how the series would be received by the public, remembering how convinced everyone was that Lyle and Erik were no more than two spoiled rich kids gone terribly wrong.
Rand: I said, “Wow this is going to end trickily,” the fact that it’s going to be sympathetic to the brothers, that it was not going to be the old school “team greedy rich kids,” as we call it. I said [to the brothers], “Well, this is really going to pull the haters out of the woodwork…Get ready to take a beating on social media.”
When the TV series premiered in September 2017, the public’s reaction was just the opposite.
Rand: I was actually really surprised that… overwhelmingly, social media was sympathetic to the brothers in TV series.
What also set the reaction in 2017 apart from that of the 90’s was how other outlets and newspapers began agreeing with Rand’s account. Every week, the day after each episode, The New York Times published a summary of the episodes by Austin Considine.
Rand: He was becoming more sympathetic as the series went on, just as the narrative in the series went. And I ended up reaching out and talking to him, helping him out with background on the real story.
The last episode of the NBC series aired in mid-November of 2017. Three months later, prison officials approved Lyle’s transfer application and in April 2018, he was transferred to the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility, where Erik had been housed since 2013. The brothers, who had been in their twenties when they last saw each other, were middle aged men when they reunited.
Rand: I absolutely believe that the TV series had an impact on the prison officials…Lyle had applied for six or seven years in a row to get a transfer to be with his brother. And the February following the end of the TV series in November 2017, so in February 2018, they approved his transfer, which was, you know, astonishing to everybody.
For most journalists reporting on the case, the Menendez story ended when the brothers were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Lyle and Erik would live and die as the 18 and 21-year-old sons who brutally shot and killed their parents.
That seemed to be a reality for the longest time after the sentencing. In 2005, when the Menendez case was appealed in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Justice Alex Kozinski put forward the possibility that the L.A. County District Attorney’s office, humiliated after losing the O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, and McMartin trials, may have colluded with Judge Stanley Weisberg to make sure that the brothers were convicted in the second trial, in which much of the testimony on the Menendez family history that the defense relied on was limited.
Despite the fact that Justice Kozinski’s statement carried glaring implications challenging the fairness of the second trial, the media was hardly interested.
Justice Kozinski ultimately voted to turn down the appeal.
Rand’s book, The Menendez Murders: The Shocking Untold Story of the Menendez Family and the Killings that Stunned the Nation, was published in September 2018– a condensed version about a third the length of the 900-page manuscript that the NBC TV series was based on. The book wasn’t just an extraordinary culmination of nearly three decades of reporting on the Menendez case– it also revealed new evidence that could get the brothers an appeal or potentially even a retrial.
When Erik was ten, he confided in his cousin, Andres “Andy” Cano about the molestation. Although Andy wanted to ask his mother, Aunt Marta, about it, Erik swore him to secrecy by “pinky promise”. After the brothers were sentenced to life in prison, Andy began having recurring nightmares, haunted by the guilt of not telling his parents about Erik’s sexual abuse. He was prescribed sleeping pills, which he inadvertently overdosed on and passed away in 2003.
In 2018, Rand and Marta were going through Andy’s possessions, when they found a letter that Erik had written to Andy in 1988:
Erik: Every night I stay up thinking he might come in. I need to put it out of my mind. I know what you said before but I’m afraid. You just don’t know dad like I do. He’s crazy! He’s warned me a hundred times about telling anyone. Especially Lyle. Am I a serious whimpus? I don’t know I’ll make it through this.
Donovan Goodreau and Glenn Stevens were close friends and roommates of Lyle’s during his time at Princeton. Lyle opened up to them about the molestation a few months before the murders. But on the witness stand both Goodreau and Stevens sold out their old friend in their testimonies, denying that Lyle had ever mentioned the abuse.
Attempting to bust Goodreau for perjury but also avoid a subpoena from the defense, Rand approached a local TV station, per advice of Glassman (Hefner’s personal attorney, as previously mentioned, who also became Rand’s during the trial), with a taped interview in which Goodreau admitted that he and Lyle both shared experiences from being molested as young children.
The following morning, the prosecution handed Rand a subpoena, arguing that he used leading questions to subconsciously persuade Goodreau into saying what he said on the tapes.
Rand: It was the strangest experience of my life to be covering a trial, and all of a sudden you’re on the witness stand testifying in the trial you’re covering. My dad, who lived in Ohio, was watching me Court TV life. So that was fun.
Even after the book was published Rand began looking through the hundreds of taped interviews that he had accumulated since the beginning of the investigation in 1989, in which he found a taped interview with Glenn Stevens that he hadn’t before. Glenn had called Rand about a conversation that he had with Goodreau at a Los Angeles Times photoshoot in Princeton for the Sunday magazine story– it was the first time they had spoken in a year and a half.
Rand: He says to me, “I didn’t realize that we made a big difference. I thought I was the only one that knew about the molestation going on in the family. Then Donovan told me that he knew and I almost fell off my chair in the restaurant.”
Both the letter and the tape recordings could serve as crucial evidence in an appeal, as they substantiate the fact that the defense didn’t simply come up with sexual assault as a convenient way to avoid a murder conviction.
Su: This is completely speculative, but do you think that the brothers will one day walk free?
Rand: Yes, I remain hopeful that there will be a new appeal because the resolution in the case should have been manslaughter, not murder…
My attitude is that as long as they’re in jail, I will keep doing reporting.
To continue following the Menendez story visit Rand’s website: http://menendezmurders.com
An earlier version of this article stated “Lyle returned to the campus of his alma mater (the service was held in the Princeton University Chapel), showing off a gold Rolex—a recent purchase using their parents’ generous life insurance payout.” Actually, the brothers didn’t receive the life insurance pay out – $250,000 cash each – until late September 1989, after the second funeral in Princeton. Instead, they used Jose’s American Express card, which they had been authorized to charge.
Additionally, Rand used an 1989 audio cassette recorder, rather than a 1998 audio cassette recorder as written in a previous version.
Finally, there has been a slight wording change from “…but I want to ask you a few questions about the night you came home on your parents” to “but I want to ask you a few questions about the night you came home and found your parents” for clarity.