Lyle's Lady

UPDATED 07/22/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/22/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

ONE NIGHT LAST FALL, WHILE EX-model Anna Eriksson was on the phone with her boyfriend, she stubbed a toe in her dark Los Angeles apartment and shrieked with pain. The next day he "had a little night-light sent to me," she says. "He's just sweet and kind and generous."

He also wasted his mom and dad with a shotgun, but why sweat the details? On July 1, Eriksson, 30, was about to become Mrs. Lyle Menendez—one day before the 28-year-old killer and his brother, Erik, 25, were to be sentenced for the gruesome 1989 murders of their millionaire parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez. Then, at the last minute, a supervising superior court judge overruled a superior court judge, prohibiting the ceremony—reportedly because he didn't want taxpayers to fund the would-be groom's transportation from jail to the L.A. Criminal Courts Building, where Eriksson, Lyle's longtime pen pal, stood radiant in a white linen dress. Her fiancé, she says, had "brushed his teeth, got his little hairpiece on, and waited and waited" in his cell for a sheriff's van to escort him to her side. In vain.

The next day, after almost seven years, two hung juries and a retrial, Lyle and his younger brother drew consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. Though Eriksson held back tears as her intended was led away, ultimately to a maximum security prison yet to be determined, she doesn't sound paralyzed with separation anxiety. "I have friends who are married to corporate types," says Eriksson, now a contract administrator for an L.A. record company. "They are constantly griping that work keeps them apart during the week and that on weekends, he goes off fishing." Still, she concedes, "Whenever I watch a movie, I make popcorn for two. I wish I could reach over on the couch and hold him. But I can't."

She can still marry him, however. The couple intends to proceed with wedding plans once Lyle is assigned to a prison, where officials generally have no qualms about inmate matrimony.

What kind of person would marry a murderer destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars? "People think this woman is a bimbo," Anna's friend Judy Zamos, an alternate juror at the first Menendez trial, says of Eriksson—who posed nude for a special newsstand issue of Playboy in 1993. "But she's smart as a whip. She's something special." On her part, Eriksson says even her father, Gordon, views her engagement with equanimity: "He said to me, 'All right, honeybee, I trust your judgment.' It's not conditional love in my family."

But while Eriksson boasts of having had a "perfectly happy, normal childhood," Janet Lombardi, 44, owner of a Denver hair salon where she once worked, says that "Anna had troubles in her young life." Eriksson's father and mother, Jane, whom her daughter describes as a woman who "loves to sue people," divorced when she was 9. Born and reared in Chicago, she began her modeling career at 14 by posing for a Lord & Taylor ad, then followed her mother to Estes Park, Colo. After finishing high school in 1983, she left for Europe, modeling in London, Sweden and Paris. A few years later, Eriksson returned to Colorado and married a man whom she identifies only as someone who has never been to prison.

She took a job as receptionist-manager for Lombardi's salon, Shear Productions, in 1987. "She was an intelligent and energetic young woman, a very compassionate gal," recalls Lombardi, adding that Eriksson, who had split from her husband, "never found the right guy. They took advantage of her because she was such a caring girl."

Eriksson's altruism apparently kicked into overdrive when she saw Lyle Menendez on TV toward the end of his first trial in 1993. "I was watching the lawyers thanking people for all these letters of support Erik got. I thought to myself, 'What about Lyle?' " She felt the call. "I am a fabulous letter writer," she says, although she admits her maiden effort "was just a little note saying, like, 'Hang tough.' " When the accused sent back a thank-you note, a correspondence blossomed. In 1994, Eriksson moved to L.A.—accompanied, Lombardi says, by a boyfriend who refused to commit. "It was," she observes, "another crushed relationship."

But a new one was-about to begin. Menendez soon invited his faithful correspondent to L.A.'s Men's Central Jail for a visit, and the two finally met face-to-face—albeit separated by a glass wall. "All I can say is that we've connected," she says, "even though we've never touched." Lyle began phoning her regularly. "He was always concerned about me, asking about my life," Eriksson says, adding that in lighter moments, Lyle regaled her with his favorite knock-knock jokes. Last spring they vowed to marry, and Eriksson hopes one day to have a family. "That was part of the plan," Lombardi says, "to give Lyle a child. That word again: give, give, give."

The state of California is not quite so charitable. On July 1, a court of appeal upheld a Department of Corrections ruling that lifers can no longer enjoy conjugal visits, restricting Eriksson and Menendez to supervised meetings. And so the lovers must leave something to the imagination. Eriksson is not dismayed. "What's the best sex organ?" she asks, then answers: "Your brain."

RICHARD JEROME
JEFF SCHNAUFER and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles, BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago and VICKIE BANE in Denver

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