The 80 second video you’re about to see is graphic. It’s crime scene footage showing the actual victims, lying where they died, inside the family mansion at 722 North Elm Drive in Beverly Hills. The footage is from August 20, 1989, the scene of a parricide, the double murder of José and Kitty Menendez.
Instead of an axe, the Menendez parents were shot point blank with two Mossberg 12-gauge shotguns, each shotgun wielded by their two sons Lyle 21 and Erik 18. Through the Menendez case we want to get a better sense of how and why the Van Breda Axe Murders were similar, and similarly motivated, and how they were not.
It’s important to view the footage if only to get a sense of obvious, ordinary and macabre context. Initially it’s just a home. Then there are a few bloody footprints. And then reality seems to shift. In the lounge, which could be a lounge in any family home, a man is – or was – watching the James Bond film The Spy who Loved Me. It’s clear he was shot multiple times. From from the way he’s leaning, the shape of his head and the enormous red stain on his shirt, he died instantly right there on the sofa, still pretty much in a comfortable sitting position. His brain matter was on the ceiling, but José didn’t know what hit him.
José’s wife Kitty, a former beauty queen, wasn’t as lucky. She knew what was happening, and who was behind it, and she was trying to flee the scene when she was shot. She didn’t get far, perhaps one or two steps. The brothers later confessed that their father died instantly, but their mother did not. She was moaning and crying, and as Nancy Grace puts it: “She was trying to crawl away from her own sons…”
The brothers went outside, reloaded, and then returned to finish off their mother. Neighbors thought the sound of two shotguns going off were firecrackers.
Since Kitty was shot many more times than José , it’s a mercy the crime scene video isn’t very detailed. It shows a dark shape curled up into a foetus, lying on the floor beside the sofa.
I’ve described the scene in sufficient detail for it not to be necessary to view, but if you have the stomach for this kind of thing, watch the crime scene video at this link.
On May 29th, about a week after Henri van Breda’s conviction for the triple murder of his older brother and both parents, The Times‘ Tanya Faber provided a little insight into the more obvious connections between the Menendez case of August 1989, and the Van Breda case of January 2015.
Faber is right to highlight 1) the murderers were in the prime of their lives, 2) from exceedingly wealthy families and 3) also that the murders were grotesque in their brutality. Just as the meaty holocaust of an axe bludgeoning a skull and neck is extremely gratuitous, so is the overkill in not only dispatching an unarmed family member with a shotgun, but having two shotguns and taking the killing far beyond the functional point of ending someone’s life. In other words, there’s a similarity in the sadistic excess and the sheer pleasure involved in ending the oppressive control over their lives that the parents represented.
According to Wikipedia:
José was shot point-blank in the back of the head with a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. Kitty, awakened by the shots, got up from the couch and was shot in the leg as she ran towards the hallway. She slipped on her own blood and fell. While on the floor, she was shot several times in the arm, chest, and face, leaving her unrecognizable. Both José and Kitty were shot in the kneecap, in an attempt to make the murders appear related to organized crime.
Even from this brief excerpt there are tons of similarities, even if we restrict ourselves to execution. An extensive analysis would require a trilogy of chapters to do the comparisons justice, but for now, let’s gloss through a few similarities:
- José – the father – is killed from behind, and his killer aims for the back of his head when he executes. In other words, it’s a cowardly move. Henri also killed his father from behind [as the previous blog describes] and aims for the head when he executes his first blow.
- The attack on and death of the father immediately causes the mother to awaken, get up and run. This also happened in the Van Breda case. Teresa was attacked second, as she was considered less of a threat.
- Kitty slipped on her own blood. Teresa was also running barefoot in the hallway, though it’s unclear if she was running away or towards the crime scene in the boy’s room. If Teresa didn’t slip on the blood shed near the door, Marli almost certainly did.
- While the Menendez brothers further mutilated their parents bodies post mortem, in Henri’s case, he allowed both his siblings to survive in a seriously injured state for several hours. Rudi was making gurgling noises and gesticulating, and Marli was also, for hours after the actual attack. This also suggests sadism, a cold-blooded sense of enjoying the suffering one has inflicted.
- Henri’s staging involved hitting the axe into the wall, which accounted for his explanation that he pursued an intruder, but also did the job of removing sequential blood traces from the face of the axe. It’s possible Marli disarmed her brother and tossed the axe, or that when she tried to escape, Henri threw the axe, missed, and it hit the world. But Marli slipped…
- In the same way that the knee cap set-up is a trademark of organised crime, Henri also tries to simulate aspect of his story, in order to correspond to organised crime that was taking place at the time – a reign of terror by the Balaclava Gang [more burglars than murderers though].
There are also some incidental similarities, such as that José and Kitty had been out shark fishing on a chartered yacht the previous day. In the Van Breda’s case, they’d been out shark diving in Gansbaai as a family the previous day. Who knows, this idea of humans getting the better of an apex predator might have sparked something in the minds of these young men in their prime.
There’s also the perception that this was the picture perfect-family, living the South African/American dream. The Menendez family and the Van Breda’s were described as “closely knit.”
Some similarities seem to go further than being incidental. The older brother Lyle, like Henri, was on academic probation at the time he murdered his parents. If you want to mince words and say Henri was on a gap year, or expelled, fine, but the bottomline is both rich kids were in a state of disgrace in terms of their initial foray into the world.
Henri was expelled because of drug abuse, whereas Lyle was on probation for poor grades and discipline. After allegations of plagiarism during his freshman year, Lyle was suspended for a year.
Meanwhile, the other sibling, Erik, was ranked 44 in the USA as an 18-and-under tennis player. So there is a mismatch between the performances between the two siblings, and also between at least one of the children and the high performing parents.
Just as the Van Breda’s were perfectionists with high standards, so were the Menendez parents. They wanted the best for their sons, but it seems their sons resented the pressure and expectations, especially when they felt entitled to what was already there – and why couldn’t cauldrons of treasure be given to them now when they needed it, now that they were coming of age? Why did they have to study anyway?
Another parallel is how the media and the courtroom players humanised these murderers. Many people said they liked them, felt sorry for them and couldn’t imagine they were capable of such cruel atrocity. What it really was was a shallow media, and a shallow public, that liked the look of the murderer/s.
So did the opposite sex, and that gave the story an added dimension. Both Menendez brothers married behind bars [post conviction]. Danielle’s attachment to Henri remains part of the mystery that clouds his case.
To put the absurdity of feeling sympathetic or worse, attracted to a mass murderer of one’s own flesh and blood in perspective, have a look at this excerpt from Barbara Walters interview:
ERIK: I’m just a normal kid [smirking].
WALTERS: Oh, you’re a normal kid who killed your parents!
ERIK: Yeah, I know.
A final parallel to draw is the use of movies to create an alibi. In the Menendez case the brothers committed the murders at about 22:00, went to watch the ironically titled License to Kill at a local cinema, and then after returning home “discovered” the crime at 23:47. When Lyle called 911 he sounded frantic.
I’m not sure whether the Van Breda uncles watched this documentary [see above] – “Snapped” – because the word itself, an English word, has come up a few times to describe what happened to Henri even in Afrikaans newspaper columns covering the case. I don’t think the handsome and privileged Menendez brothers snapped, and I don’t think Henri snapped. Snapping doesn’t involve premeditation, and it doesn’t involve postmeditation. If you snap, then when you come to your senses there is shock, remorse and regret. I don’t get a sense that Henri – or the Menendez brothers – have any remorse for what they did. If they had to do it again, probably they’d do it again with fewer mistakes.
That’s where the similarities end.
Although there are two surviving siblings in the Van Breda case, one is very clearly the victim, while the other acted alone. In the Menendez case, the two siblings worked together as accomplices and accessories before, during and after the crime.
During the Menendez’ appeal, the brothers showed extraordinary emotion as they claimed their parents sexually abused them. I expect in Henri’s appeal, we’ll also see more emotion. Or perhaps not. I doubt whether Henri will claim sexual abuse though, but this brings us to motive.
We can see why the older brother Lyle may have hated his parents. He was a university dropout at the time, and with their high standards, they expected more. But many kids are dropouts and don’t murder their nagging, disapproving parents. So what was the thing really chewing on the bone here?
We get a clue in the other brother Erik, who was a homosexual. His parents were strident homophobes. So now we have a strong motive in the younger brother that goes to the core identity that’s under threat.
In effect we have the older brother whose career and life is under threat in terms of his education and reputation, and the younger brother whose career and reputation is perceived to be under threat because he’s homosexual. Juxtaposed besides these anal straitjackets is the life-giving elixir that is family treasure. This can release them both with their deathly insignificance, only their parents in their anality and sadism, won’t let them have any money.
After murdering their parents, the Menendez brothers went on a huge spending spree, buying apartments, cars, a restaurant, racking up gambling debts etc.
Henri didn’t go on a spending spree, although he did buy a white BMW within six months of the murders, and it didn’t take long with his parents gone for him to get himself arrested for drugs. He also hooked up with his first serious girlfriend, although that took longer.
According to the not particularly reliable Son newspaper, Henri and Danielle became an item virtually immediately when he started chef school at Capsicum Culinary Studio, in February 2016.
Another sharp contrast to the Menendez brothers is how their appearance in court over several months is the same, whereas Henri and Danielle sport every look imaginable, from the Neanderthal to no hair, and in Danielle’s case, from cute to pudgy to pink hair to anorexia.
In sum, the similarities between the Menendez Shotgun Murders, and the Van Bred Axe Murders boils down to two basic scenarios on both sides. There’s incredible wealth and privilege on the one side, but also a sense of discipline and high standards from perfectionist parents. That’s not unusual.
On the other side of the equation is a sense of low-performance, low-standards, and something critically undermining the perfect family image. The parents are humiliated, but so are the children. Again, many families have Bart Simpson teenagers and over-expectant parents. What’s unusual here is the learning curve of the parents in both scenarios – both sets of parents were extremely are working and very self-disciplined. What’s more they were moral figures. In a situation like that, simply being a failure, or not measuring up would be humiliating enough, being told or taunted that one is falling short when one’s peers are subjected to more casual codes of conduct, well that might feel intolerable.
Add to that a perception, whether secret or not, that makes this hole feel impossible to climb out of, given these impossible standards, and add to that the critical phase when young men must assert their manhood, and you have your recipe for wanting bloody revenge, you have your motive for cold-blooded sadistic mass murder.
The murder is the young human male trying to assert his power over a controlling male lion that won’t let him. It’s overkill because the young male isn’t your average insecure male, but is extremely insecure about something central to his identity that the older male lion cannot abide. This frustrates him, then it awakens a rage.
For Erik it was his homosexuality. For Lyle it was the double humiliation of being caught cheating and getting kicked out of university. For Henri I believe it was his epilepsy. The anxiety around the epilepsy, the stuttering and being thrown out of the University of Melbourne made him feel less-than next to his more polished Golden Boy brother. And this made him seek solace in drugs. And it was all downhill from there.
When the penny dropped, Henri realised he could never compete, could never meet the standards set for him in father’s eye. His brother could, but not him. And he made them pay for that.