What to Know About the Menendez Murders Before Law & Order: True Crime Begins

Sep 25, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Image: Justin Lubin/NBC

Every now and then, a crime is committed that truly grips the nation. And right up there among the most infamous are the Menendez murders — the brutal killing of José and Kitty Menendez by their own sons, Lyle and Erik.

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It's hard to believe it's been almost 30 years since the crime occurred, which makes the recent spike in interest surrounding it all the more intriguing. Has something been overlooked? Does this case merit a re-exploration?

Quintessential crime show Law & Order is set to put their spin on the story on Sept. 26, when Law & Order: True Crime premieres. Since the miniseries is devoted entirely to the Menendez brothers, here's a briefer to jog your memory before the show tackles the troubling case.

How it all began

Late in the night on Aug. 20, 1989, a call came through to 911. "Someone killed my parents!" a seemingly frantic 21-year-old named Lyle Menendez screamed to the operator. His 18-year-old brother, Erik, was with him at the time.

Who were the Menendezes?

José Menendez, 45, was a Hollywood executive and self-made millionaire. His wife, Kitty, 47, was a former beauty queen-turned full-time homemaker. They had two children, Lyle and Erik, who were born into a life of privilege. From the outside looking in, it appeared they were living the idyllic American dream.

However, rumors circulated that José frequently had extramarital affairs and that Kitty turned to prescription drugs and alcohol to help her cope with the stress. She reportedly tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills in 1987.

Where did the trouble with the sons begin?

It is rumored that José held the boys to extremely high and often unrealistic standards, so one can imagine his anger upon learning his sons had been caught robbing houses in the neighborhood for fun. Although he shielded them from trouble, he did reportedly greatly reduce their inheritance in his will.

Where there any signs of what was to come?

Shortly before his parent's murder, Erik collaborated with his friend and tennis coach, Craig Cignarelli, on a screenplay about a man who kills five people — starting with his own parents.

How were José & Kitty found?

According to the brothers, they came back after a night at the movies to find their parents assassinated mob-style. There were over a dozen gunshot wounds between the two, including headshots.

When did people start to suspect Lyle & Erik?

Unfortunately, the brothers were able to pull the wool over everyone's eyes at the crime scene by acting extremely distraught. Due to this, investigators let them slide and didn't wind up investigating them until two months later. In the weeks following their parents' deaths, though, the brothers went on a major shopping spree, spending half a million dollars or more.

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Lyle also confided to a friend that he had deleted his parents' revised will (the one that reduced his inheritance) from their computer. Things began to fall apart shortly after. Erik first confessed to Cignarelli and later to his therapist.

What was their possible motivation?

Aside from the potential inheritance being a benefit, Lyle and Erik claimed in court as their defense that they were "punched and belt-whipped" as children. Furthermore, they accused José of molesting them from a young age. Even family members testified to this, claiming Kitty knew about the abuse and did nothing.

There was doubt

Despite compelling evidence they were guilty of the crime, the juries for both brothers couldn't make a decision during their first trials. Retrials had to be held for Lyle and Erik, at which point the juries decided they were guilty.

Where are they now?

The men were spared the death penalty by their juries, so they are both in prison to this day. Lyle is serving his sentence out at Mule Creek State Prison in California. He reportedly runs a support group for inmates who were victims of sexual abuse. He has been married twice: to model Anna Erickson in 1996, and to Rebecca Sneed in 2003.

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Meanwhile, Erik is serving his sentence at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, also in California. According to Lyle, Erik works with terminally ill and handicapped inmates. In 1997, he married Tammi Saccoman, his prison pen pal.