It was a murder that stunned the nation almost 30 years ago, and continues to fascinate us today. On August 20, 1989, brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez killed their parents Jose and Kitty in a hail of gunfire. The two—who were 21 and 18, respectively, at the time— were tried and convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They each received life in prison without the possibility of parole and are currently serving out their sentences at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California.
Emmy-winning journalist Robert Rand has followed the Menendez murders from the beginning and has investigated and interviewed sources—including the brothers themselves—for almost 30 years. In his new book, The Menendez Murders, (BenBella Books; September 2018) Rand shares never-before-revealed details about the case, including the unlikely friendship the Erik and Lyle stuck up with O.J. Simpson (who was arrested, charged and ultimately acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman) while they were all inmates at the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail.
Excerpt from The Menendez Murders, by Robert Rand (BenBella Books; September 2018), used with permission.
Erik Menendez knew something was up. On Friday afternoon, sheriff’s deputies ordered him to scrub the floors and walls of the entire seven-cell pod. Erik had been preoccupied for weeks writing a science-fiction novel. As he scoured the floor on his hands and knees, he watched the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase on TV. “It was very depressing, very sad,” said Erik. “I almost cried when his suicide letter was read on TV.” Just before 10:30 pm, a group of deputies escorted the former football hero to the empty cell next to Erik Menendez.
The first night was rough. “I didn’t see him cry, but I believe he was,” Erik told me from jail. “I could hear him moaning.”
Shortly after his arrival, Erik overheard Simpson talking about his case with one of the deputies. A deputy and a sergeant were stationed on suicide watch on chairs directly outside O.J.’s cell. A few minutes later, Simpson called out to his neighbor.
[Watch The Menendez Brothers: Sins of the Children on A&E Crime Central.]
“Hey, Erik, it’s O.J.!”
“Okay, O.J., let me explain a few things about jail to you,” Erik whispered back.
“I told him not to talk to the deputies or inmates about his case. I told him not to worry—just calm down and relax. After that long chase, you can imagine what shape he was in.”
By Saturday morning, the impact of his ex-wife’s death was consuming the despondent Simpson. “He wasn’t happy to be in jail like anyone else,” said Erik. “He wasn’t any worse than I was or Lyle was. He was real delusional, thinking that he was going to get out in three weeks.” Erik still occasionally heard moaning. Simpson spent hours making calls on a portable phone that was brought to his cell.
At one point, Erik told O.J. that he and Lyle had met the football star when their father was a Hertz executive in the late 1970s. Later that day, the two neighbors spoke again through the flaps in their doors. O.J. told Erik he was worried about the loss of his prestige.
“I guess I won’t be working for NBC anymore,” said Simpson.
“He said it in a very sad way,” said Erik. “He was worried about his reputation and that he’s being slandered. I just told him that you’re going to have to deal with the media.” Throughout the day, Simpson and Menendez peered out through the flaps in their doors and watched the continuing TV news coverage. O.J. groaned every time he heard something new.
By Sunday morning, the two neighbors saw their cases linked together by Gil Garcetti. The D.A. was on a weekend media blitz. “Well, it’s not going to shock me if we see O.J. Simpson say, ‘Okay, I did it, but I’m not responsible.’ We’ve seen it in Menendez.” Robert Shapiro, who had represented Erik early on, called the D.A.’s public relations offensive “unconscionable,” something that “undermined the presumption of innocence.”
Erik was angry that Garcetti compared the two cases. “He kept bringing it up as if my name is becoming—my defense is becoming synonymous with some sort of thinking—here’s another ‘I did it but don’t blame me kind of thing’ or ‘Here’s the reason why,’ ” said Erik. “It was really aggravating.” Simpson was devastated—worried that people would stare at him the rest of his life.
Erik Menendez wanted to help. It was difficult to have a conversation with the jail guards right outside their cells, so Erik wrote a lengthy letter to O.J. that he left in a shower stall down the hall. “I told him a lot of things. ‘This is his life,’ I said. ‘When you cry—remember those tears. Hold them because you’re crying for your children, you’re crying for everything you’re losing.’ I said remember who’s doing it to you and fight—continue to fight. I told him you’ve got to start worrying about your life, not your reputation.”
Simpson thanked him. The letter had helped.
On Father’s Day, Erik heard O.J. speaking “baby talk” to his young children on the phone. The football star was improving but still morose after little sleep. Old football injuries made it difficult to relax without an orthopedic pillow.
That afternoon, Erik and O.J. had a conversation about lawyers. Menendez was unhappy about his own surrender, which Shapiro arranged in March 1990. After he voluntarily surrendered in Los Angeles, Erik discovered that he should have turned himself in while he was in London. Britain has no capital punishment—the death penalty would have been ruled out as a condition of his extradition. He blamed Shapiro for the mistake.
Deputies constantly stopped by to ask for the football star’s autograph. “I had to continually tell him, don’t talk about your case,” said Erik. “The sergeant actually had to tell him too.” O.J. repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. “He kept talking about how the spousal abuse wasn’t true,” said Erik. “He said he never really hit [Nicole] except for that one time. He said that she was actually very abusive toward him. She would throw things at him and hit him.”
Although they’d been talking for five days, the only time Erik actually saw O.J. was on the way to the shower. “It was sad to see O.J. Simpson on the other side of that wall. I told him to be courageous. Every time he walked by my cell, he smiled and gave me a wink.”
A week after Simpson’s arrest, Erik was moved. He didn’t know why.
“They were giving him good food—the officer’s food (roast beef, pork chops, burritos), and they were letting him use the phone all day. They kept his cell open all the time,” said Erik. “They were treating him like royalty. Everyone was in awe of him. Everyone wanted to talk to him…”
Lyle Menendez met O.J. Simpson in the L.A. County Jail’s attorney room. Inmates would meet with their lawyers and material witnesses at long Formica tables separated by dividers. O.J. and Lyle began talking frequently while they were waiting for their lawyers. They had more than one hundred conversations. In the early days after his arrest, Lyle advised Simpson to consider a plea bargain.
At one point, Lyle wrote O.J. a long letter. “I told him I thought the public would understand,” Lyle told me. “I expressed my concern that Robert Shapiro wouldn’t let him tell the truth. I said I knew it obviously wasn’t planned, and that he had snapped in the heat of passion.” Lyle thought the case was a manslaughter.
The pair discussed the difference between manslaughter and murder. “I told him you don’t have to expose the painful part of his life,” said Lyle. But O.J. was preoccupied and “worried that his reputation would not survive” if he admitted he was responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman.
I asked Lyle if Simpson gave him the impression he was responsible for the murders. “Absolutely,” he told me. “He knew Erik and I and trusted us.”