The Eye-Opening Case of Betty Broderick: Rage, Deception, Divorce and Double Murder

The mother of four remains in prison for killing her ex-husband and his second wife in 1989, and is the subject of a new episode of Oxygen's Snapped

By Natalie Finn Jul 15, 2020 4:00 PMTags
Betty Broderick, Jack EarleySan Diego Union-Tribune/AP

Betty Broderick "remains an unreasonable risk of danger to society."

So maintained the prosecutor who successfully argued against Broderick's most recent chance at parole in 2017. And she has her reasons.

When Broderick shot her ex-husband and his second wife to death in their bed in 1989, the reason for her actions became a hotly debated topic, not just between prosecutors and defense attorneys, but also among the countless people who savored every sordid detail of the scandalous case as it unfolded in real time.

Broderick never claimed to have not committed the double homicide, but she maintained that she was a long-suffering, emotionally battered wife during the 16 years she spent married to Daniel Broderick III before he left her for another woman, and that she eventually snapped.

"I bought into a 1950s Leave It to Beaver marriage... and he stole my whole life," Broderick later told the Los Angeles Times. "This was a desperate act of self-defense."

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"She's a nice lady. Everyone here would like her…if they spoke with her on any topic other than my dad," Rhett Broderick, the youngest of Betty and Dan's four children, said on The Oprah Winfrey Show. "Keeping her in prison isn't really helping her. She's not a danger to society—the only two people she was a danger to are dead."

A new episode of Oxygen's Snapped, premiering tonight, will further explore the events leading up to the murder and what was really going through Broderick's head when she drove to her ex's house, gun in hand.

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"She still has not developed appropriate insight or remorse for these gruesome murders, which she committed with a callous disregard for human suffering," District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said before Broderick's hearing three years ago at the California Institute for Women in Corona, Calif. She was denied parole for the first time in 2010 and won't be eligible again until 2032.

But if it were an easily explainable turn of fatal events, the Broderick saga wouldn't be a case that has been revisited time and again, in articles, books and on TV, most recently by USA Network's Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, starring Amanda Peet and Christian Slater as the unhappy couple, which aired its season finale last night. (The series' first installment in 2018, Dirty John, about conman John Meehan, was on sister network Bravo.)

Back in the day, the Brodericks themselves were picture-perfect enough to be considered one of those enviable pairs on the cocktail party circuit in their luxurious enclave of La Jolla, Calif.

San Diego Union/U-T San Diego/ZUMAPRESS.com

Betty first met Dan in 1965 when she went with a friend to South Bend, Ind., for a Notre Dame football weekend. Dan was a senior in college and he boasted to the pretty girl from New York he met at a party that he'd be attending medical school at Cornell the next year. She was just starting out at Mount Saint Vincent, an all-girls Catholic school in the Bronx, and still living with her parents.

Dan kept in touch, wooing her via letters and telegrams, before he moved to Manhattan to start at Cornell.

"He was very ambitious, very intelligent and very funny," Betty recalled to the LA Times. "And I am those three things. We were from the same kind of background. We both wanted the same things in the future," meaning wealth, social standing and a big family. "All I wanted to be was a mommy," she continued. And Dan "promised me the moon. The guy asked me to marry him every day for three years."

They got married on April 12, 1969, at Immaculate Conception Church in New York and honeymooned in the Caribbean.

Betty recalled the honeymoon ending early for her, when Dan made it clear he expected his new bride to do all the house work—a turn of events she was not expecting. She actually threatened to leave him early on, but changed her mind when she found out she was pregnant.

Their first child, daughter Kimberly, was born in January 1970, about a month early. Betty had started teaching third grade and worked right up until she gave birth.

Around that same time, Dan decided he wanted to pursue medical malpractice law and applied to Harvard Law School. Betty was pregnant with their second child when they moved to Massachusetts, and gave birth to daughter Lee in 1971.

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Fresh out of law school, Dan was hired by a firm in San Diego, Calif., and in 1973 they moved to La Jolla, the oceanside community known for its big beachfront houses and golf courses, as well as being the home of the famed Salk Institute and Scripps Research medical center.

"I went from being accomplished, well connected and free to being isolated from family and friends... and trapped with two children for whom I was 100% responsible," Betty wrote in a 90-page synopsis of her marriage obtained by the LA Times, which she called What's a Nice Girl to Do? A Story of White Collar Domestic Violence in America.

As Dan's social life blossomed as he grew in stature on the local legal scene, so to did Betty's, at least as far as hobnobbing with the wives of her husband's friends went.

Son Daniel was born in 1976 and Rhett arrived in 1979. They lost another child, a boy who died two days after he was born, in 1973, according to Bryna Taubman's Hell Hath No Fury: A True Story of Wealth and Passion, Love and Envy, and a Woman Driven to the Ultimate Revenge. Betty also told the Times that she had an abortion in 1974.

The Brodericks belonged to country clubs and sent their kids to private school, drove sports cars and took ski vacations in Colorado. But they also fought, sometimes violently, and Betty threatened to leave countless times.

"Mom was always kind of weird," Kim Broderick, then 20, told the Times. "Mom would get mad at Dad all the time. Once Mom picked up the stereo and threw it at him. And she locked him out constantly. He'd come around to my window and whisper, 'Kim, let me in.'"

Her mother was "always telling me they were getting a divorce," Kim said. "She'd say, 'Who are you going to live with?' I was dying for Dad to divorce her. I'd say to Dad, 'Just take me the day you leave.'"

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"He didn't pay much attention to her," Larry Broderick, Dan's brother, told the Times. "The more it happened, the more he would tune out."

In jail, Betty called her former brother-in-law "detestable."

In 1983, Dan hired 22-year-old Linda Kolkena as his personal legal assistant, a few months after she joined his firm as a receptionist. It didn't take long for Betty to suspect her husband was having an affair.

Not least because, on a trip to New York, Dan "told me he didn't love me anymore—in fact, he hated me," Betty recalled.

But he didn't leave her, and he didn't admit to any affair.

"The people who knew me before 1983 knew the real me," she told the Times. "1983 was like an ax through my life."

On Dan's 39th birthday, according to the Times, Betty went to surprise him at his office and saw champagne bottles and other apparent remnants of a party, and the receptionist told her that Dan and Linda had been gone for most of the day. Betty went home and proceeded to have a bonfire using her husband's clothing for kindling in the backyard.

Betty said she told him to get out, to just leave, but he didn't.

In September 1984, the family moved into a rental house after Dan discovered a crack in the foundation at their home in Coral Reef that required extensive repairs.

In February 1985, Dan moved out of the rental and back to the Coral Reef house. Just to be alone, he told Betty, but she didn't believe him. On Easter, she dropped Kim off at the house, where the 15-year-old waited for a few hours for her dad to come home. A few days later, Betty brought Danny over. A month later, she left Rhett there and, finally, Lee, too.

"Your dad's not going to get away with this," she told them.

Joe Klein/ZUMAPRESS.com

That June, she spray-painted the master bedroom at the Coral Reef house.

In September 1985, he filed for divorce.

Over the course of almost five years, the Brodericks' acrimonious divorce proceedings would become the stuff of local legend. Betty vandalized the Coral Reef house again, smashing glass doors and throwing a cream pie in the bedroom. She would scribble out his name on court documents and write in "God."

She alleged that he had sold the Coral Reef home out from under her in February 1986 using a legal trick; Dan said he took action after she refused to sign the sale papers, twice. She promptly drove her Chevy into the front door of his new house, a butcher knife under her front seat. She spent three days at the San Diego County Mental Health Hospital.

Dan ended up with sole custody of their children when the divorce was finalized that July, with no visitation rights for Betty. She claimed there wasn't even a hearing, that Dan worked out a deal with the judge. 

Michael Franklin/U-T San Diego/ZUMAPRESS.com

 

Yet the divorcée lived comfortably, in an ocean-view home in La Jolla Shores that Dan bought her. Her personalized license plate read "LODEMUP." She had a boyfriend (she claimed to the Times that he was just a friend, though they had vacationed in Acapulco together a week before the murders), and her real estate license and a teaching credential. Dan was paying her more than $9,000 a month in alimony.

"She was the mother of his children, and he really didn't take the strong measures he could have taken," Ned Huntington, a friend of Dan's and a fellow attorney, told the LA Times. "He didn't want the guilt of being punitive toward her. So he let her get away with a lot of atrocious acts. He just wouldn't punish her."

But the animosity was running both ways. Dan withheld arbitrary amounts of child support depending on how offensive he felt her behavior had been, obtained a temporary restraining order to keep her away from his house and  put it in writing that she'd be sorry if she tried to kill him.

According to both Betty and Kim, Linda refused to return Betty's wedding china, even though she bought her own. Someone sent Betty a photo of Dan and Linda in the mail with a note reading, "Eat your heart out, bitch!"

Dan got engaged to Linda Kolkena in 1988 and married her on April 22, 1989.

Betty continued to leave obscene messages on the couple's answering machine, having come up with creative unprintable nicknames for both of them.

On Nov. 3, 1989, Dan told Betty he'd file a criminal complaint against her if she didn't stop leaving the messages.

Lillian Kossacoff/U-T San Diego/ZUMAPRESS.com

In the early morning hours of Nov. 5, before dawn, Betty got in her car, drove to Dan and Linda's house, let herself in using daughter Kim's key, and went upstairs, into the master bedroom.

Standing beside the bed, she emptied her five-chamber .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. Three of the bullets hit the sleeping couple, killing Linda instantly and Dan within a few minutes. He attempted to reach for the phone on his nightstand but Betty quickly pulled the cord out of the wall.

Cold-blooded killer? Or mad as hell and she just couldn't take it anymore, having devoted 16 years of her life to Dan, only to be dumped for a younger woman? Or, both?

San Diego society couples, let alone people all over the country, were torn, and the name "Betty Broderick" became synonymous with revenge that, while not condoned outright, was certainly understood and even sympathized with by some, mainly women.

But the law was more clear.

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"Mental illness was not discussed enough," Amanda Peet told E! News when asked what the wildest thing she learned about the story was while making Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story. "She really behaved in an abusive way for a long time and so did he. Hopefully in today's day and age someone would have intervened."

Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network

Peet didn't meet Broderick behind bars, but she credited Alexandra Cunningham's script for the fleshed-out portrayals of both Betty and Dan. She's not "condoning or justifying," the actress explained. But "it's a story worth exploring why this happened, what were the components and factors that lead someone to becoming insane."

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Rhett, who was around 10 when his mom killed his dad, recalled waking up at Betty's house on the morning of his father's murder (her two sons were staying with her) and sensing when the police showed up that his mother had done something.

"I kind of suspected that my mom was getting into trouble," he told Oprah Winfrey, who was granted the first prison interview with Broderick back in 1992. "Every time she went over to my dad's house, he would immediately call the cops, and she'd be violating her restraining order. So that's what I figured had happened."

"On multiple occasions [my brother and I] went to my dad and said to him that we wanted to live with my mom, and that not having her kids was driving her crazy—and that she could do something extremely irrational if she didn't have us," Rhett recalled.

Howard Lipin/U-T San Diego/ZUMAPRESS.com

Betty has been behind bars since her arrest on Nov. 5, when after shooting Dan and Linda she called her daughter Lee and then turned herself in to local police.

The defense, headed up by attorney Jack Early, maintained that Betty had been a psychologically abused wife and ex-wife, living in fear and driven to a desperate act of self-defense by Dan's brutality.

Prosecutor Kerry Wells argued that Betty had been living a cushy life and was simply mad and humiliated, driven to take revenge by her own narcissism.

Betty first told the Los Angeles Times three weeks after the killings that, if Dan hadn't acted the way he did while they were getting divorced, "I would've been fine. I would've had my house, my kids. I would've still worn a size 6. I could've done my 'superior' dance."

She continued, "I have never had emotional disturbance or mental illness—except when he provoked a 'disturbance.' My 'emotional outbursts' were only a response to Dan's calculating, hateful way of dealing with our divorce. He was hammering into me and everyone else that I was crazy...How long can you live like that?"

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The first trial ended in a hung jury when two jurors thought she should be convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, believing that the killings weren't premeditated.

But the prosecution won guilty verdicts on two counts of murder at the retrial in 1991, and Betty was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison, 15 years to life for each victim, plus two years for illegal use of a firearm. 

Law & Order ripped the case from the headlines that same year, guest-starring Shirley Knight as the woman who kills her ex-husband and his new wife. She was nominated for an Emmy. In 1992, Meredith Baxter-Birney was also nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Betty in the TV movie A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, which was followed by Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter, which dramatized the trial, that November.

CBS

Asked why she thought the story has stayed so compelling for decades, Peet told E! News, "Part of the reason this story was worth retelling is because the social situation Betty grew up in in the '50s was so repressed.

"Betty had intellectual promise but gave it up to be a mother, and as a result she suffered a really rude awakening. The fact that Dan was part of the good ol' boys club of lawyers in San Diego, the cards were really stacked against Betty from the beginning."

Snapped: Betty Broderick premieres Wednesday, July 15, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Oxygen.

E! and Oxygen are both members of the NBCUniversal family.

(Originally published June 9, at 4 p.m. PT)