He has spent 15 often-hellish years behind bars, but Erik Menendez has lost none of the polish or charm that made him such an object of fascination. Seated in the drab visitors' room at California's maximum-security Pleasant Valley State Prison, Menendez, 34, tightly grips the hand of his wife, Tammi, 44, and earnestly insists that he has been misunderstood. "People view me as this dark guy, a killer," he says almost plaintively in his first face-to-face interview since his conviction. "It's been a struggle for me to realize I'm the nation's villain. I'm really not. I'm a good person; I like who I am."

The problem is that a lot of people have trouble forgetting who he was. After all, Menendez and his brother Lyle, 37, children of privilege living in Beverly Hills, were convicted of one of the signature crimes of the last 20 years: the gruesome 1989 shotgun slaying of their mother, Kitty, and their entertainment-executive father, Jose—carried out, it appeared, so that the boys could inherit the family fortune sooner rather than later. Which is why when Erik talks these days about finding God ("this loving, merciful essence") and how he no longer deserves to be in prison ("I would never, ever take another life"), a line of skeptics can quickly form. David Conn—the prosecutor who ultimately won a conviction against the Menendezes, who were sentenced to life without parole—dismisses such talk as blatant manipulation. "Its only natural that Erik would want to put himself in a better position," says Conn, now a defense attorney. "He's a spoiled kid who got his way all his life."

Perhaps, but it is also true that Menendez has been more or less a model prisoner, leading prayer groups and even working closely with prison authorities to devise a system that would encourage and reward inmates' good behavior. "I want to be productive, to find some meaning in helping others," says Erik. He also expresses remorse about the murders. "I would give my life to change it," he says. "I talk to my mom. She knows my heart. I ask for forgiveness." As for the memory of his father, that is different. "Dad was a scary guy," says Erik. "He wasn't big on emotional conversations."

Caught in the middle is Erik's wife of six years, who is well aware how strange it may seem to offer her love to a convicted murderer. "I just came to the conclusion that I never wanted to be without Erik," says Tammi, who has written a book about their life together called They Said We'd Never Make It. "I know that is hard for people to understand." The couple's relationship began in 1993, against the backdrop of the sensational first trial for Erik and Lyle that held the nation riveted. Watching on television, Tammi says, she could not help but feel sympathy for Erik especially. "I could see the pain in his eyes," she recalls. "I felt so sorry for him." Married and living in Hibbing, Minn., with a teenage daughter by a first marriage, Tammi made a startling suggestion to her then husband, Chuck Saccoman, a successful real-estate developer. "I told him that I was going to write to Erik," she says. "He said to go ahead. I really didn't know if Erik would write back."

The two began corresponding about once a month, continuing after the first trial ended in hung juries. Tammi concedes that she had some doubts about Erik and Lyle's claims that they had been repeatedly sexually and physically abused by their parents and had killed them in self-defense. "I wasn't positively sure that what he was saying was true," she says. But then two events occurred that spurred their relationship on anyway. The first was that in 1996 Tammi discovered that her husband had been having a three-year sexual relationship with her daughter—his stepdaughter—starting when the girl was 15. Chuck turned himself in to the police, and then two days later he committed suicide, leaving Tammi bereft and needing to care for their 9-month-old daughter, Talia. "I reached out to Erik," she says. "He comforted me; our letters started taking on a more serious tone."

Soon enough, though, Erik had more serious worries of his own. A second jury in 1996 had convicted him and Lyle of first-degree murder, rejecting the brothers' defense. What also didn't help was the demonstrable greed the brothers had shown when they had inherited their parents' $14 million fortune. (As soon as they had gotten their hands on the first installment, the brothers had gone on a shopping spree, with Lyle buying, among other things, a Rolex and a Porsche, while Erik had started taking lots of tennis lessons.) Though many of the family members supported the brothers, Kitty's brother Brian Andersen dismisses the abuse allegations as lies. "The law has dealt with him," says Andersen of Erik. "And what the law did was the appropriate thing."

When Erik was sent to Folsom State Prison, he invited Tammi, who had been dating a doctor after her husband's death, to visit him. She flew out to see him in August 1997. "I was nervous, really nervous, meeting him that first time at Folsom," Tammi recalls. "Erik had no idea what I looked like; I'd only sent him a tiny, 1-by-l picture. But when he walked into the room, he was so full of life, he hopped down the stairs. It was like I was meeting an old friend." Originally Tammi, who had come into a comfortable inheritance from her husband, had been planning to move to Georgia with Talia. But Erik, who was also smitten, persuaded her to be closer to him. Later that year she moved to Sacramento and began commuting as many as four times a week to the prison for visits.

The following year Menendez proposed marriage, and they were wed in a ceremony in Folsom (see box). There are, of course, distinct limits to their relationship. They have had no conjugal visits and will never be allowed any. (Under California law, inmates serving life sentences are banned from such privileges.) "Not having sex in my life is difficult, but it's not a problem for me," says Tammi. "I have to be emotionally attached, and I'm emotionally attached to Erik." She acknowledges that many of her friends and family were appalled by her relationship. "My friends don't understand," says Tammi, who points out that her mother has been supportive. "When it started to get serious, some of them just threw up their hands."

For Talia, now 10, who calls Menendez her "earth dad" to contrast him with her deceased father, there has also been an adjustment. She and her mother drive the 150 miles every weekend to see Menendez, who earlier this year was transferred from Folsom to Pleasant Valley, which houses 5,000 inmates. During one recent visit, Talia seemed genuinely affectionate toward Menendez, often wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him on the cheek. Tammi contends that Talia has not come in for any hazing from kids about her notorious stepfather, but frets about the possibility just the same. "Every single time a parent would say to me, 'No, my daughter can't stay over at your house,' I would wonder if the underlying reason was Erik," says Tammi. "There is always that question in my mind."

There is also reason to suspect that Menendez's marriage has contributed to a cooling of his relationship with Lyle, who is now in Mule Creek State Prison in lone, Calif., and is himself on his second prison marriage. According to Tammi, the brothers, who still correspond, have drifted apart partly because "I wasn't getting along with Lyle's wife," who briefly lived with her.

In any event Erik's life behind bars is a far cry from the experience of living in his family's Beverly Hills mansion. He spends most of his time in his cell. "I write and read," he says, "about spirituality, about life." (He says he has devoured The Power of Now, the best-selling, New Agey spiritual guide at least 15 times.) He also has his prison job as a janitor on the cell block. "When I was transferred to Pleasant Valley, everybody was watching me," he says. "I was scared and concerned. Most guys have treated me well, but I have been bullied." Over the years, adds Menendez, "I have gotten into fights, many fights." Nevertheless prison authorities speak well of Menendez. "Erik is a good prisoner," says prison spokesperson Lt. Marion Spearman. "He does not cause problems." His lawyer Chris Pixley points out that "Erik answers hundreds of letters counseling victims of abuse."

At this point it seems a long shot that Erik will ever be sprung from prison. A federal appeals court recently rejected his and Lyle's petition for a new trial, which they made partially on the grounds that they had not been allowed to fully present their evidence of alleged abuse by their parents. The brothers are now challenging that ruling. And so he and Tammi brace for the possibility that they may never be truly together. "Tammi is what gets me through," says Menendez. "I can't think about the sentence. When I do, I do it with a great sadness and a primal fear. I break into a cold sweat. It's so frightening I just haven't come to terms with it."

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Howard Breuer.