Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Menendez Brothers

The Investigation

Detective Les Zoeller and his partner, Detective Tim Linehan, had the difficult job of trying to solve the Menendez murders. They were confronted with many suspects and a number of theories about who may have committed the murders. Jose had his share of enemies and the detectives were hearing horror stories about Jose's behavior from almost everyone that they interviewed.

Zoeller interviewed Jose and Kitty's friends from Calabasas, Peter and Karen Wiere. Zoeller asked Peter Wiere what his first impression of the case was and Wiere said, "I have no basis for this, but I wonder if the boys did it." Zoeller was surprised at this. He asked Wiere to elaborate and Wiere said that Lyle and Erik always seemed to be too good to be true. The brothers seemed too polite, too deferential to adults and to Wiere, something seemed to be off.

Zoeller and the rest of the Beverly Hills investigators watched as the brothers threw money around. Kitty and Jose were murdered on August 20, 1989 and by the end of the year, Lyle and Erik had spent more than a million dollars. The police now suspected that the brothers were behind the murders.

Computer expert Glen Stevens (AP)
Computer expert Glen Stevens

Besides the spending sprees, the police were suspicious of the brothers because they had called a computer expert on August 31, 1989 to erase the files in Kitty's computer. The police learned about Kitty's computer from Glen Stevens, a friend of Lyle's. Glen told the police that Lyle had told him that he erased the new will and called a computer expert to ensure that no one would be able to retrieve the computer file.

On October 24, Les Zoeller interviewed Erik Menendez at the Beverly Hills mansion. He told Erik that he had heard that the brothers were not getting along. Erik complained that Lyle was spending too much money. Erik also complained that Lyle was "being just like my father." Glen Stevens told Zoeller that Lyle was "trying to manipulate his brother" and get Erik's half of the money.

Although Erik appeared cool and calm to Zoeller during the interview, Erik was shaken to his core. As soon as the interview was concluded, Erik called Lyle in Princeton. He couldn't reach him. He needed someone to talk to and confide in, so he called his psychotherapist, Jerome Oziel. Erik went to see Oziel on October 31. During the session, Oziel and Erik walked around Beverly Hills. Oziel encouraged Erik to talk about his depression and suicidal thoughts. A short time later, Oziel and Erik walked back to Oziel's office. As they neared the office, Erik stopped walking and leaned against a parking meter. Oziel stopped walking as well and Erik said, "We did it. We killed our parents."

Erik told Oziel about the "Billionaire Boys Club" miniseries and how he and Lyle had watched it together. After the miniseries was shown, they talked about their shared belief that Jose was planning to disinherit them from his will and how terrible their lives were because Jose dominated them. Spurred on by the miniseries, the brothers told each other that they should kill Jose. Kitty presented a problem because the brothers did not want to kill her, but could not think of a way to kill their father without murdering her. At this point Oziel stopped Erik from saying anything more and had him call Lyle. Lyle raced over to Oziel's office. Before Lyle arrived at Oziel's office, Erik continued telling his story. He told Oziel about a trip to San Diego to purchase shotguns and how the brothers thought that they had committed the perfect crime. They had been careful and cleaned up the shotgun casings. They did not have to worry about fingerprints because the crime was committed in their own home so naturally their fingerprints would be everywhere. Once they had finished cleaning up, Lyle drove Erik's car to Mulholland Drive, a winding road that runs from the Pacific Ocean to the San Fernando Valley. Erik was too shaken to drive so he gave directions to Lyle as he drove. They stopped on Mulholland Drive and Erik waited until the area was cleared of cars and then threw the shotguns into a nearby canyon. They headed for a gas station where they dumped their blood-spattered clothing and shoes into a dumpster along with the shell casings. Then they drove home. They had intended to drive to the Cheesecake Factory to meet up with their friend Perry, but Erik was falling apart, so they went home and called the police.

Lyle was furious when he arrived at Oziel's office. He was angry that Erik had told Oziel everything. Lyle told Oziel that he thought Jose would be proud of him for committing such an effective murder. Oziel explained to the brothers the difference between a crime that takes place in a moment of heated passion, such as during an argument, and a crime committed to reach a specific goal. Oziel explained that the behavior in the latter situation was considered the behavior of a sociopath. Oziel would later testify in court that the brothers "looked at each other and said, 'We're sociopaths.'" Lyle then erupted in anger. He threatened Oziel and told Oziel that if he told anyone he would kill him too.

On November 2, the brothers met with Oziel again. Lyle threatened Oziel again, telling him that he and Erik had considered killing him in order to keep their secret. Oziel could have reported Lyle and Erik to the police because they had threatened him and this threat erased the patient-therapist confidentiality barrier, but he did not. Instead, he made notes and tape recordings of his sessions with the brothers.

On November 17, Zoeller and Linehan interviewed Erik's friend Craig Cignarelli. Cignarelli told the detectives that shortly after the murders had occurred, he had visited Erik at the Beverly Hills mansion. Erik had asked Craig if he wanted to know how it happened. Craig knew immediately what "it" was. Erik told Craig that on the night of the murders, he and Lyle had come home to get his fake ID. As Erik was walking toward his car, after finding his ID, Lyle met him with their shotguns. "Let's do it," Lyle said. According to Craig, the plan was that Lyle was to shoot Jose and Erik was to shoot Kitty. Craig told the detectives that Erik told him he and Lyle went into the family room, Lyle pointed his gun at Jose and shot him. Lyle then went behind Jose and shot him in the head. Erik told Craig that he was unable to shoot his mother and that when she tried to get away, Lyle shot her. Craig recalled that Erik said, "after it looked like my mother was dead, I shot her twice with my gun." Craig told the detectives that he didn't know whether to believe Erik or not. Zoeller and Linehan were delighted by the details of Craig's story. The only problem came when Craig told the detectives that, "it could have happened." Apparently, Craig and Erik played mind games with one another and Erik saying, "it could have happened," was Erik's way of playing with Craig. After hearing this, the detectives were unsure what to make of Craig's story. Zoeller met with Pam Ferrero, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney assigned to the case. She told Zoeller that he didn't have enough to file criminal charges yet, but the information he was assembling sounded promising. Another attorney in the district attorney's office suggested that Craig wear a body wire and meet with Erik to get the story on tape. Zoeller didn't think that Craig would do it, but surprisingly Craig agreed to it.

Craig set up a dinner meeting with Erik for November 29. The meeting took place at Gladstone's 4 Fish on Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. At the dinner, Erik told Craig that he had been lying and the he and Lyle had nothing to do with their parents' murders.

Although the detectives felt that the meeting between Craig and Erik had been a failure, Pam Ferrero felt otherwise. It convinced her that Craig was telling the truth when he had spoken to the detectives on November 17.

As weeks turned into months, Zoeller, Linehan and Ferrero began to worry. Soon Jose's estate would be probated and the brothers would wind up with their parents' fortune. The detectives began to search for the shotguns knowing that the shotguns would tie the killers to the crime. Zoeller contacted the Department of Justice for a list of shops selling shotguns in Los Angeles County. He received a list that was 80 pages long. Zoeller did not believe he would find the shop that sold the guns to the brothers. Zoeller believed that Lyle and Erik were clever and probably purchased the guns using one of their friend's names. Zoeller and Linehan searched and searched, but came up with nothing.

On March 5, 1990, the detectives received a break in the case from a woman named Judalon Smyth. Smyth was an attractive 37-year-old woman who owned an audiotape duplicating business. Smyth was also Dr. Jerome Oziel's lover. She told the detectives that Oziel had asked her to eavesdrop on a therapy session he had with the Menendez brothers on October 31, 1989. Smith told the detectives she overheard a shouting match between Lyle and Erik in which Lyle shouted, "I can't believe you told him!" "We've got to kill him and anyone associated with him." According to Smyth, Erik screamed back, "I can't stop you from what you have to do, but I can't kill any more." The session ended when Erik ran out of the office sobbing. Smyth saw Lyle leave the office, followed by Dr. Oziel. Smyth told the detectives that she witnessed Lyle threaten Oziel. Smyth said she heard Lyle say, " I can kind of understand Erik, but he shouldn't have done this..." Oziel asked Lyle if he were threatening him and Lyle shook his hand and said, "Good luck, Dr. Oziel."

Smyth told the police that Oziel continued to have the brothers come in for counseling, telling them that he might be able to help them piece together events in their family's history that had caused them to kill their parents. Smyth also told the detectives that Oziel told her that he had everything on tape, the confessions to the murders and explanations for why the brothers had committed the crimes.

On March 8, 1990, Zoeller obtained a search warrant for Oziel's tapes based on the information that Smyth told him. Oziel handed over 17 audiotapes and seven pages of notes to Zoeller and Linehan. Oziel played portions of the tapes for the detectives and they finally heard the details of what happened on August 20, 1989 from the killers. Afterward the tapes and notes were sealed into a police evidence bag and taken to the Los Angeles County courthouse in Santa Monica. A judge would later rule whether the patient-therapist confidentiality barrier applied to the Menendez brothers.

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