Were Millions The Motive?

The sons of a video mogul are accused of slaying their parents

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Even in Hollywood the script seemed bizarre: an entertainment mogul and his wife are cut down by multiple shotgun blasts as they sit watching television and snacking on berries and cream in their Beverly Hills mansion. Their two handsome sons return home from an evening at the movies to discover the horribly mangled bodies. The police probe the possibility of a Mafia hit but find nothing. The boys inherit their parents' fortune, estimated at at least $14 million, and a $400,000 insurance policy. Seven months later, the scenario takes a shocking twist when police arrest the orphaned sons and charge them with committing the killings.

Jose Menendez was only 45 when he was killed in August; his wife Mary Louise was 44. He had been a hustling Cuban kid sent to the U.S. by his well-to-do parents when he was 16 to avoid indoctrination by the then new Castro regime. He rose rapidly in the rental-car business but made his real mark as a shrewd operator in the record-and-video distribution business. He founded his own video- and music-software distribution company, Live Entertainment Inc., and joined the board of directors of Carolco Pictures Inc., producer of the Rambo films. The couple and their two athletically gifted sons, Joseph Lyle, 22, and Erik Galen, 19, were described as a handsome, happy family, often seen playing tennis and other sports together.

After the slayings, the sons dealt with their grief in different fashions. The elder bought a Porsche and a restaurant in Princeton, near the university from which he had been expelled in 1988 because of honor-code violations. His brother abandoned plans to enter UCLA and joined the junior professional tennis circuit.

But early on, says Lieut. Russell Olson, the Beverly Hills chief of detectives, "we had suspicions of the boys' involvement." Police had ruled out a gangland murder because of the sheer savagery of the attack. "Mob killings are 'clean'; this one wasn't," says an officer. Suspicions were further heightened when family members told police that a copy of what might have been a new will had been erased from Jose Menendez's home computer. "The focus became very clear over the past few months," said Chief of Police Marvin Iannone. There was some physical evidence, but "we were waiting for the glue binding it together."

That came when investigators learned that all of the Menendez family had been consulting a psychologist, Jerome Oziel. After several people approached the police with new information in late February, officers armed with a search warrant confiscated records and tapes from the psychologist's office. Lawyers for the Menendez brothers argued that seizure of the tapes violated the laws governing doctor-patient confidentiality. But the district attorney, Ira Reiner, said the confidentiality rule can be broken when a patient presents a continuing danger or threat. The district attorney filed murder charges against the Menendez brothers, asking for the death penalty. Said Reiner: "It's been our experience in the district attorney's office that $14 million provides ample motive for someone to kill somebody."