“They Shot and Killed My Parents!” – The Menendez Murders
I sat on a cold, hard bench in a crowded courtroom listening to testimony about the mental state of two teenage boys who murdered their parents. This “law and order” experience was different from all the other mornings I’d spent in courtrooms, because Jeff, my fifteen-year-old son, sat beside me. Between Jeff and me sat Detective John St. John, who came because Jeff expressed interest in this case and wanted to see how a real trial worked. Was it any wonder? As Kaitlin Menza wrote in an article for Town and Country magazine September 26, 2017, the Menendez Murders “gripped the nation. After shooting their parents to death, Lyle and Erik Menendez partied, gambled and indulged in pricey shopping sprees. They wore to court what one might wear to cocktail hour at the country club.” Jeff, St. John, and I wanted to get a first-hand look at these teenage monsters/tennis players who murdered their parents in cold blood.
My decision to bring Jeff was partly St. John’s idea. Since November 1982, I’d been collaborating with St. John, an LAPD detective and serial murder expert, on a book about his Freeway Killer investigation. Because of our frequent work together, St. John had often been a weekend guest in our home. Ryan and Jeff anticipated his visits, often accompanied by “bad-guy” stories, afternoons where he’d let them try his police radio, sirens, handcuffs and all the crime-fighting gadgets in his Crown Vic. The wily detective had become a treasured part of the Howatt family–part guest and part wise grandfather who also attended their ballgames.
When Jeff expressed interest in this case, St. John arranged for us to meet the District Attorney, Pam Boscovich (prosecutor of the Bill Bradford serial murders–centerpiece of my book: Jigsaw and Jane: Thirteen Years of Murder and Mayhem with Badge Number One) who also volunteered to give us a behind-the-scenes analysis of her trial strategy including select photos and a short Q&A session. She impressed us with her sharp wit, quick humor, and easy laugh.
During a break, St. John listened to Jeff’s observations: Those tennis rackets were expensive! Not like the ones we play with. The photo of Kitty Menendez with holes in her hands while she tried to protect her face was scary. If those parents gave those kids so much, why did they kill them? What did the parents do to make their kids so mad? My question lingered. Why did the Menendez murders pique the interest of so many people? And why did it “grip the nation?”
For me, those crimes hit close to home. Tennis and teenage boys were often the center of our family’s life. Like the Menendez’s, my husband and I had two athletically talented teenagers we’d chauffeur to tennis lessons and matches. When I read how Lyle and Eric (as Menza wrote) “burst into the den of their parent’s home and discharged 15 shots into their parents while the couple was watching television on the couch. Erik fired first, but in the end, Lyle fired best: he landed the bullet in the back of Jose’s head, and shot the fatal blow into Kitty’s face,” I cringed. Why did this tragedy happen? Was the real weapon not a shotgun but a domineering father?
Jeff’s final impression of the Menendez brothers felt pitch-perfect: “Watching them walk into the courtroom dressed in those blue jail clothes felt strange. They looked like two rich, spoiled kids who thought they could get away with anything.”
St. John added, “I’ll tell you something, Jeff. After over fifty years working with killer’s like these two spoiled rich kids, my guess is they killed for greed. They couldn’t wait for their inheritance. But I’ve seen people kill for a lot less – a nickel, a dime or a dirty look.”
No one could have summed the case better than an inquisitive teenager and Badge Number One.
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