Freshly minted NBC News star Megyn Kelly has already been coping with a jarring premiere week marred by snappish reactions to her interviewing style by Megyn Kelly Today guests Debra Messing and Jane Fonda, and now former Beverly Hills police detective Les Zoeller is adding to Kelly’s pain.
The 65-year-old Zoeller, a corporate and private security consultant, was the lead investigator in Lyle and Erik Menendez’s 1989 grisly shotgun homicides of their parents Jose and Kitty (and is portrayed by actor Sam Jaeger in the eight-episode NBC miniseries Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders).
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Zoeller said he was “outraged” by what he called Kelly’s “softball questions” of convicted first-degree murderer Lyle—while allowing him to portray the killings as a crime of passion and “fearful adrenaline” prompted by their father’s alleged sexual abuse and their mother’s complicity, despite evidence to the contrary—during that day’s installment of her eponymous morning show as well as on the Today show.
“I thought the whole thing was self-serving to Lyle, with questions like, ‘When was the last time you saw your brother Erik?’ and ‘You’re married now—how does that work out?’” Zoeller said.
A representative for NBC News and Kelly declined to respond to Zoeller’s complaint, which resounded with echoes of the criticism that befell Kelly and NBC in June when the network teased excerpts of her Alex Jones interview for her Sunday night magazine show.
Speaking by phone to the 49-year-old Menendez, who is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, Kelly also asked: “This might sound like an odd question, but is there any joy in your life?”
Touted as an NBC News “exclusive”—although the media-friendly Lyle has periodically granted television interviews about the crime, notably for an ABC News special in January—Kelly’s chat with Menendez, along with a second phone interview conducted Wednesday that was excerpted on Thursday’s Megyn Kelly Today, was in the service of a cross-promotional network campaign to gin up viewer interest in the prime-time miniseries, starring Edie Falco as Menendez defense lawyer Leslie Abramson and produced by Law & Order impresario Dick Wolf.
The Daily Mail reported that Falco had been due to appear on Megyn Kelly Today on Thursday, but the interview did not air. Kelly said the actress would appear the following week.
“Dick Wolf, to his credit, they got the entire trial transcript and put a team together to figure out what they felt exactly happened in this trial so they could be as accurate as possible in the series,” Menendez told Kelly in praise of the project.
Lyle’s endorsement and his eagerness to take part in promoting The Menendez Murders leads some—including Zoeller—to believe that beyond luring eyeballs and making money, another agenda of the Tuesday night miniseries could be to engender public sympathy for the brothers, validate their claims of parental sexual abuse and perhaps even secure a new trial for them.
Their first trial in 1993—a long-running spectacle on Court TV—ended in a deadlocked jury; the second 1995 trial, for which Judge Stanley M. Weisberg disallowed both the sexual abuse defense and television cameras (and which, in any case, was far less compelling to the media than the ongoing O.J. Simpson melodrama), resulted in first-degree murder convictions for both brothers.
Erik Menendez, 46, is serving his life sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego—hundreds of miles away from Lyle.
“I have not seen Erik in 17 years and I miss him every day,” Lyle confided to Kelly concerning his accomplice—a humanizing portion of their telephone tête-à-tête that also included Kelly’s queries about how he manages to be intimate with his third wife, defense attorney Rebecca Sneed—“It’s difficult, it’s a challenge, you have to be creative,” Lyle shared—and whether he’s “a religious man.”
“I believe in God, yes,” Lyle answers. “I hope it’s a very forgiving God.”
Menendez also repeats the claim—unchallenged by Kelly, at least in what was broadcast of their longer conversation—that the killings were spontaneous: “Yeah, there was no plan… I mean, there was no alibi, no plan... it would be a crazy plan to use a shotgun in the middle of Beverly Hills. The houses are literally 10 yards apart and the police station is a quarter mile away… There’s no sane person who would have a plan like that… There really wasn’t a discussion about killing my parents.”
“I wasn’t impressed with any of it,” Zoeller said. “There’s outrage with me…These brothers can say absolutely anything they want against their parents. Who’s going to stand up for the parents? The parents are dead.”
In an excerpt of the interview that Kelly conducted Wednesday night and aired Thursday on her own morning show, she challenged Menendez on a contradiction between what he said during the first trial—that he had told Kitty directly about Jose’s abuse—and what he’d told Kelly in the previous interview, that he had not.
Lyle, an accomplished prevaricator, answered that it wasn’t a discrepancy for reasons that made little sense.
But Zoeller was especially incensed that, at least in the excerpts that aired, Kelly didn’t grill Lyle on his claims that the killings were not premeditated, and that the sex abuse allegations seemed concocted from a book.
“I find it interesting that they are highlighting Leslie Abramson in light of the fact that the sexual abuse allegations never came out until she became the defense attorney,” Zoeller said, adding that another member of the defense team was attorney Paul Mones, a sexual abuse expert whose 1991 book, When a Child Kills: Abused Children Who Kill Their Parents, contained a chapter that bore an eerie resemblance to the circumstances portrayed in Erik Menendez’s trial testimony.
What’s more, Zoeller said, the evidence showed that two days before the murders, Lyle Menendez trekked from Beverly Hills to San Diego and used a fake ID to purchase two shotguns—an action suggesting more than a little calculation—and then, in the midst of the carnage as his parents were bleeding to death and, as Lyle claims to Kelly, he was “blinded by emotion,” had the cool presence of mind to reload and finish the job.
“She didn’t ask him any hard questions at all, where he might trip over his words… But the only way I can respond is, ‘What can I say?’ Did I roll my eyes? Yes, I rolled my eyes at each one of these things. I can’t believe how they’re portraying this unbelievable murder of these two parents.”
Zoeller noted that in recent days, the NBC-owned station in Los Angeles contacted him.
“Their catch phrase was, ‘Do you want to give your side of the story?’ And I said, as far as I’m concerned there are no sides. There’s the truth, and then there’s this bullshit that the brothers are trying to spew out.”