The murder of Jose and Kitty Menéndez in 1989 was shocking and bloody. While relaxing for the night in their Beverly Hills mansion, they were suddenly caught in a hail of gunfire: Jose was shot in the back of the head, then shot four more times; Kitty attempted to escape but was shot at least ten times, her face left unrecognizable. At one point the killers had to step outside to reload before coming back in to fire more shots. Once dead, both victims were shot in the kneecaps to simulate a mafia hit. The murder was shocking and cruel even before it was discovered that the perpetrators were Jose and Kitty's sons, Lyle and Erik Menéndez. But why did the Menéndez brothers kill their parents?
At first, police didn't think it was possible for Lyle and Erik to have any connection to the murders. They were the ones who called 911 that night, hysterical and inconsolable. Lyle was sobbing on the call, and when police arrived Erik was curled up in a ball on the front lawn, weeping. Yet months later, Erik confessed the crime to his psychiatrist and the brothers were eventually apprehended. The brothers had killed their parents together, then gone out for dinner and a movie to establish an alibi before returning home to pretend to discover the bodies they had left there.
The Menéndez brothers had a very different explanation for the killings than the one put forth by the prosecution and accepted by many members of the public. According to the prosecution, it was a simple matter of greed. The brothers feared being written out of their father's will and they were sick of waiting to receive their inheritance, so they decided to move things along. However, according to the defense, the brothers were in fear for their lives.
Once on the stand, Lyle and Erik told a story of lifelong abuse at the hands of their parents. According to them, not only were they physically and verbally assaulted, told by their mother that they had ruined her life, but they were molested by both parents from a very young age. These claims were never proven. The brothers also claimed that they were convinced that their parents were going to kill them and that it was going to happen that night, so they struck first.
Both explanations were surprising for a family that had, in the eyes of those who knew them, been fairly close. In fact, the day before the murders, the family had spent an entire evening together on their boat. Immediately after the crime, the brothers spoke fondly of their father and their dreams of honoring his legacy. One LA Times article from 1990 claimed "Lyle admired his father so much that he bored friends by quoting him" and Erik was particularly close to their mother.
However, Jose was also said to be extremely controlling of his sons in an effort to push them towards success. In an interview, Lyle once said, "My father suffered from being a perfectionist. It carried over into his home life, and it was sometimes difficult for Erik and me. So much so that he really couldn't do something well enough. It wore on him tremendously mentally. And it wore on us." Lyle left Princeton after a year due to a plagiarism issue and the brothers were involved in some Bling Ring-style burglaries. Erik may have been struggling with his sexuality, and not being straight was something his apparently homophobic parents wouldn't have been very accepting of.
It is difficult to know the exact truth. Doubt has been cast on the brothers' story of abuse, but it's clear something was going on in the family that motivated such a violent crime. Just because things looked perfect on the surface doesn't mean there wasn't something rotting underneath.