Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Menendez Brothers

The Crime

At 11:47 p.m. on August 20, 1989 a 911 call was received at the Beverly Hills Police Department. The department runs a tape recorder continuously in order to record every call received by the 911 emergency department.

Dispatcher: Beverly Hills emergency.

Lyle Menendez: Yes, police, uh...

Dispatcher: What's the problem?

Lyle: We're the sons (caller begins to sob)...

Dispatcher: What's the problem? What's the problem?

Lyle: (Still crying) They shot and killed my parents!

Dispatcher: What? Who? Are they still there?

Lyle: Yes.

Dispatcher: The people who...

Lyle: No, no.

Dispatcher: They were shot?

Lyle: Erik, man, don't.

Dispatcher: (Talking over the background sounds of screams and Lyle shouting, "Erik, shut up!") I have a hysterical person on the phone. Is the person still there?

Second Dispatcher: What happened? Have you been able to figure out what happened?

Lyle: I don't know.

Second Dispatcher: You came home and found who shot?

Lyle: My mom and dad.

First Dispatcher: Are they still in the house, the people who did the shooting?

Lyle: (Screaming) Erik! Get away from them!

Second Dispatcher: Who is the person who is shot?

Lyle: My mom and dad!

The call was only two and one-half minutes in length. A minute or so later, Michael Butkus, a Beverly Hills police officer, and his partner, John Czarnocki, arrived at 722 Elm Drive. After walking around the outside of the mansion for several minutes the police officers heard screaming and watched as two men ran out of the front door, side by side, almost in step. The men ran past the officers and through the gate in front of the driveway and fell to their knees on the grass between the sidewalk and street. Over and over again they shouted, "Oh my God, I can't believe it!" The two cops tried to get information out of the men, but the younger one was irrational, running around and trying to ram his head into a tree. The older one was trying to restrain and calm the younger one.

Shortly after Butkus and Czarnocki discovered the bodies of Jose and Kitty Menendez, Detective Les Zoeller received a call at home from Marvin Iannone, the Chief of the Beverly Hills Police Department, informing him that he was being appointed to head the investigation of the Menendez murders. Zoeller was 38, but looked younger and was considered to be the Beverly Hills Police Department's top investigator. Until the Menendez murders, Zoeller's most challenging case had been the "Billionaire Boys Club" (BBC) investigation. The BBC was an investment fraternity and social club dreamed up by Joe Hunt. The BBC was set up to bring its members, young men from affluent backgrounds, wealth through stock and commodity market speculation. The BBC failed, but not before ringing up $900,000 in losses and spawning at least two murders. Zoeller made the case against Joe Hunt, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. A second BBC member, Reza Eslaminia, was convicted of murdering his father and also sentenced to life in prison.

When Zoeller arrived at the Elm Drive mansion, he noticed that nothing had been stolen from the mansion. Although the family room where the murders were committed was messy, it appeared that the clutter was not the result of a room that had been turned upside in a robbery. It appeared as thought the victims were acquainted with their killers and Zoeller noticed that there was no forced entry into the home.

Lyle and Erik were taken to the police department for questioning. The police did not consider them suspects and wanted to see if the brothers knew anything about the crime. Sergeant Thomas Edmonds, the police detective supervisor, questioned the brothers. During the questioning, Erik became distraught. He began to sob and was unable to sit still. Lyle was under control and answered questions methodically. After twenty minutes, the questioning ceased because Erik broke down uncontrollably.

The brothers provided the police with a chronology of how they spent August 20, 1989.

They described how they had played tennis in the morning on the tennis court behind the house, watched part of a tennis match on television and spent the afternoon shopping at the Beverly Center, a local shopping mall. Around 5:00 p.m. they made plans to get together with a friend at "Taste of LA," a local food festival in Santa Monica. The brothers said they left home around 8:00 p.m., to go to Westwood Village to see License to Kill, the new James Bond film, but the lines were too long, so they went to the Century City mall to see Batman. After Batman, the brothers drove to Santa Monica, but got lost on the way and missed their friend. From a pay phone, the brothers called their friend, Perry Berman. Berman and the brothers made plans to meet at the Cheesecake Factory in Beverly Hills. After they called Berman, the brothers drove home to get Erik's fake ID so Erik could buy alcoholic drinks.

The brothers told the police that when they returned home, they noticed smoke in the house, especially in the family room. This seemed odd to Zoeller because Butkus and Czarnocki had not seen anything like that. Lyle told Edmonds about his mother's nervous mood and her locking doors. Lyle said that his mother was on the verge of contemplating suicide and that she "was very edgy and suicidal in the last few years." Lyle didn't explain that Kitty had emotional problems for many years and that she had made a half-hearted suicide attempt two years earlier using prescription drugs. Edmunds asked Lyle who hated his parents enough to want to kill them. Edmunds was surprised when Lyle answered "maybe the mob."

Lyle and Erik Menendez (AP)
Lyle and Erik Menendez (AP)

Because the brothers were not suspected of killing their parents, the police did not administer gunshot-residue tests. These tests can determine whether a person has recently fired a weapon. In Beverly Hills, detectives are trained to perform these tests by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department. It is left up to the discretion of the Beverly Hills detective assigned to a particular case to determine whether to administer the test or not.

Three days after Jose and Kitty Menendez were murdered, Dr. Irwin Golden of the Los Angeles County Coroner's office conducted their autopsies. Jose's autopsy took place first. The first wound that Dr. Golden examined was the shotgun wound to Jose's head. Golden described the wound as a "gaping laceration," that was five inches by four inches, large enough for an adult to thrust his fist through the wound. The brain had been pulverized. There was also a "deformity of the face" caused by multiple fractures of the facial and jawbones. Soot was also found in the wound, indicating that when the fatal shot was fired, the gun had literally been placed against the back of Jose's head.

The remainder of Jose's wounds would not have been immediately fatal, although all resulted in much loss of blood. There were two shots to the right arm, one below the shoulder that fractured the humerus and the other to the right forearm. There was a shot to the left elbow. The trajectory of the shot was from back to front, indicating that this shot could have been one of the first shots fired at Jose as the killer walked around to the front of the couch to face him. Jose was shot in the lower left knee, creating a three-inch wound that fractured left femur. Golden discovered that there was bleeding into Jose's body tissues along all of the wound paths. This meant that Jose's heart had been pumping blood and that the wound at the back of his head, which investigators initially thought was the first shot fired at Jose, was not. Golden said he could not determine the order of the shots fired at Jose.

Kitty's autopsy revealed that she had been shot in the left cheek which caused a one-inch hole in her face that had fractured her upper jaw and dislodged four of her upper teeth. There were additional wounds to Kitty's skull, fractures to her lower jaw, and pellet wounds to her tongue. A shot had also lacerated her brain. Dr. Golden found birdshot in Kitty's wounds which confirmed the investigator's suspicions that Kitty's killers had reloaded their weapons. None of Jose's wounds contained birdshot. Kitty had three wounds to her face. The most damaging was four inches and extended from Kitty's right cheek across her nose to her left cheek. Golden also discovered that Kitty's right thumb was almost severed. Investigators theorized that Kitty had extended her hand to block the shotgun blast that caused the four-inch wound in her face as a last effort at self-preservation. The only problem with this theory was that the wound to Kitty's hand was on the palm side, not the back of her hand. Most people extend their hands palms out when attempting to defend themselves. Kitty's wound indicated she extended either her blocking hand in a strange position, or she did not want to see who was shooting at her. Kitty also had shotgun wounds to her right forearm and left breast and three wounds to her left leg. The final wound was to her left knee. The shot was from front to back and that was odd because it came from a different angle than the other shots fired at her leg. Investigators theorized that this might have been the last shot fired at Kitty and an attempt to make the murder appear to be a mob hit.

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