Just two weeks before she was accused of murder, Betty Broderick sat watching a football game in the golf lounge of an exclusive local resort. That October Sunday a heavy rain was falling on the tennis courts and horse trails that make Warner Springs Ranch a favorite of San Diego’s oldest and wealthiest families. So, when the Notre Dame-USC football game began, several guests gathered around the television to watch.
“My husband and children are back east at the game,” Betty Broderick announced to the woman who sat down next to her. Then, with little introduction, the 42-year-old divorcee related her sad story--about her divorce from prominent attorney Daniel T. Broderick III, his remarriage to a younger woman, her unsuccessful battle to gain custody of her four children and her piles of unpaid bills. By the time USC lost to Dan Broderick’s alma mater, Betty had told a total stranger that her ex-husband was “out to get her.”
“He was taking away it seemed like her soul,” the woman recalled. As Betty described it, “she felt helpless, like she was in handcuffs. Part of her identity had been taken away from her, and nothing she could do would make it any better.”
“I know that would never happen to me,” the woman added. But still, she said, she saw some of herself in Betty--a devout Catholic who had made her family her life. “If I put myself in that spot, that’s called devastation. I just heard her side, but I felt for her. She was a victim.”
During the two weeks since Elisabeth Anne (Betty) Broderick was arrested and accused of killing her ex-husband, 44, and his 28-year-old bride, Linda, those closest to the family have struggled to make sense of the slayings. Especially for those who traveled in the same well-heeled circles as Dan, Betty and Linda, the Broderick case has become a prism through which to examine their own lives.
At a recent La Jolla cocktail party, for example, two simultaneous conversations focused on the Broderick slayings. In one corner, a few married couples in their 40s swapped tales of the Brodericks’ messy breakup, including one story that Betty’s friends later confirmed: after the divorce, Dan repeatedly refused to return Betty’s family china, even when she appeared at the door to beg.
In the kitchen, another group of couples gathered--this one mostly men with their second, younger wives. The Broderick case clearly made them uncomfortable.
“I guess this is Be Nice to the Ex-Wife Week,” one man said with a nervous laugh.
Another La Jolla resident was moved enough by the case to write a letter this week to the editor of the San Diego Union.
“The recent Broderick tragedy has brought to mind the chilling reality of divorce 1980s style,” Sally Foster wrote. “The inequities in court proceedings and financial settlements are a reality that are rarely believed or understood except by the women who experience them. . . . Isn’t it time we take a good look at our courts and our system of divorce?”
The Broderick case’s ability to provoke such opposing responses does not surprise the friends of either the victims or the accused. From the moment Dan and Betty separated in 1985, friends said this week, they never again saw even the simplest things in the same way. Dan said Betty tormented him. Betty said the same about Dan. Both said they wanted the battles and the threats to be over, and each said the other was prolonging the fight.
“Many times she’d sit there and say, ‘I just want it over,’ ” one of Betty’s friends recalled.
“All I want is peace and quiet,” Dan told the Reader newspaper a year ago. “That’s all I want.”
Dan and Betty’s viewpoints were so polarized, friends said, that it was sometimes hard to recognize when they were describing the same incident. It was also increasingly difficult to befriend them both, and, as years went by, Dan and Betty’s antagonism split their friends into two distinct camps.
Now, Dan and Linda are dead and Betty is in jail, awaiting a bail hearing this week. But their dueling has continued, as confidants, colleagues and even strangers have risen to defend each against the other.
In interviews during the past two weeks, more than 2 dozen friends and associates of Dan and Betty seemed to agree on only one thing: the way things ended up for the promising Broderick family seemed inconsistent with the way they had begun.
Dan Broderick, one of several Irish Catholic children in a proud Pittsburgh family, had earned degrees from the finest schools: after graduating from Notre Dame in 1966, he attended the Cornell University Medical College and Harvard Law School. Betty Bisceglia, the sheltered daughter of a wealthy New York building contractor, attended a small Catholic women’s college before marrying Dan and immediately starting a family. The handsome young lawyer and his beautiful blond wife seemed the perfect match.
“We were both successful, very high-achieving people,” Betty told the Reader newspaper last year. “Our relationship was what it took in the old way. I had all the skills he needed at home. He needed me to give him the legitimacy and normalcy of a wife who could entertain and have the kids and be a respectable family. And I needed him to bring home the bacon so that I could have all the kids and the car and the trips and the house. And it worked great! That was the deal.”
According to Dan, however, he and Betty had troubles from the beginning. When he moved out of their La Jolla home in 1985, Betty accused him of having an affair with his legal assistant, a stunning former stewardess named Linda Kolkena. Dan denied her charges, but, a few months later, after 16 years of marriage, he filed for divorce. Just six months ago, Dan and Linda were married.
Last week, Betty Broderick pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder. Police say that Betty, who they believe called a friend on the morning of the murder to confess to the shootings, is their only suspect. The prosecution’s case is buttressed by the many tales of Betty’s threats toward Dan.
Betty’s sometimes outrageous behavior towards her ex-husband is well documented in police reports, court documents and press accounts. She made obscene phone calls and set Dan’s clothes on fire. Before Dan and Linda’s April wedding, Betty stole their wedding invitation list. Once, when Linda baked a Boston cream pie, Betty entered the house and smeared the pie in Dan’s dresser drawers, court records show. On another occasion, she drove her car into the front of Dan and Linda’s new house. Her actions prompted Dan to obtain a court order to keep Betty away from his new wife and home, and he had her arrested several times when she disobeyed it.
But Betty’s friends say that Dan, too, made threats--to take away her money and her chances to see the children. His barbs were often more sophisticated than Betty’s desperate outbursts, friends said, but they were just as cutting.
Ouisa Louise Pillsbury, a longtime friend and a La Jolla neighbor, remembered that once Dan took Linda and the children to Vail, Colo., for a ski trip. Back in San Diego, meanwhile, roses arrived at Betty’s door.
“He sent her roses saying what a wonderful time they were having,” Pillsbury recalled, adding that Betty felt the flowers were meant to spite her. “It was sort of like a hobby for him, tormenting her. He would say, ‘Why don’t you kill me, then?'--just taunting her--and ‘I’m going to make you suffer.’ A big attorney like that, they go for the jugular vein, and he didn’t stop in his personal life.”
Dan’s friends disagreed. Marshall Hockett, an attorney who was close to Dan and Linda, said he couldn’t imagine Dan sending flowers as a jab. “If he did do it, I’m sure he did it as a nice gesture, motivated by a good intention. Not to make her miserable.”
Ed Chapin, who had known Dan since he joined the law firm Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye in the 1970s, said Dan treated Betty well, considering the circumstances.
“Here’s a woman who had done all these evil things to the man over the years,” he said. “She had everything. He was paying her tremendous support"--$16,100 a month--"and he had provided for her in a way that most men wouldn’t.”
But, behind the scenes, Betty’s friends say, Dan Broderick could be cruel.
In the face of Betty’s emotional harangues, Dan was businesslike, sending Betty formal letters addressed to “Elisabeth Anne.” In 1986, court records show, he wrote a letter to explain that he would begin fining Betty for her actions, withholding from her monthly allowance $100 for every obscene word she used, $250 for each time she set foot on his property, $500 for every entry into his house and $1,000 for every time she took one of the children without his permission.
In court documents, Betty said Dan had called her “old, fat, boring, ugly, crazy, stupid.”
“Her attitude at first (after they separated) wasn’t that bad. She said, ‘Well, I’ve been fired from my job,’ ” said another woman who called herself a very close friend. “But he kept hounding her. She’d be told she’d be getting the kids for Christmas, she’d decorate the house, and then, half an hour before they were supposed to arrive, she’d get a phone call. That happened all the time.”
At one point, Betty felt so distraught that she called a battered women’s hot line and asked for help with what she described as emotional battery and verbal threats, one hot line employee confirmed. She also poured a lot of energy into writing a book about her experience, friends said. She called the unpublished manuscript “What’s a Nice Girl to Do?”
“My career was that of a wife and mother,” she said in a 1987 court declaration. “Being forced out of our marriage is like being thrown into a snake pit for me in terms of how I see my life and my happiness. . . . I just wanted Dan to get over his ‘mid-life crisis’ and continue to be the husband and father he had always been. Unfortunately, this was not to be.”
This past Halloween, just days before the killings, Betty felt slighted again, Pillsbury said.
“They said that she could have the boys for Halloween, and then they changed their minds,” she said, referring to the Brodericks’ sons, Daniel IV, 13, and Rhett, 10. “She was distraught. Those little boys aren’t going to be doing that (trick-or-treating) much longer.”
Betty’s friends all agreed that she often reacted inappropriately, in ways that hurt herself and others. None made excuses for Betty’s more violent outbursts. But they said that, although Dan said he wanted to be free of Betty, many of the divorce arrangements that he set up resulted in her being bound tightly to him. Instead of splitting up their belongings equitably, they said, he stored many of her things in the garage, occasionally doling out items when she pleaded with him.
Because of the way the divorce was settled, Betty depended on Dan for support from month to month. Dan’s monthly alimony payments were Betty’s lifeline, friends said, and she found it humiliating.
“She wanted to lead her life separately, but she was tied to him,” a close friend said. Later, “she was constantly afraid that he’d reduce the alimony and that she wouldn’t be able to pay her debts.”
Another close friend who saw Betty regularly said, “She didn’t always react in the best way, but she went through six years of hell. I was there once when one of the boys called, crying, ‘Help me Mommy, help me!’ And then the phone went dead. I was there also one time when the boy stamped his feet and cried and said, ‘I hate my father. I don’t want to go to my father. I want to live with you.’ ”
Friends of Dan and Linda acknowledged that the boys had told their father they wanted to move. Instead of attributing this to Dan’s behavior, Dan’s friends said Betty encouraged the children’s outbursts by spoiling them. After the killings, attorney Brian Forbes told police that Betty “would buy (the kids) everything they wanted, just so they would want to live with her.”
Dan’s relationship with his older daughters, Kim, 19, and Lee, 18, appeared more troubled. According to a police affidavit, the two girls left their father’s house when they turned 18. Apparently, the affidavit said, Dan had refused to pay for their college educations--which distressed their mother so much that she talked about it to strangers she met at Warner Springs Ranch.
Earlier, Dan had thrown Lee out of his house, several friends said, evidently because she had been expelled from school. The terms of Dan’s will indicate that he wanted his break with Lee to be permanent. The will, originally dated 1986, was amended in 1988, when Lee was 17, to “specifically make no provision . . . for my daughter, Lee Gordon Broderick.”
It was to Lee’s Pacific Beach apartment that Betty fled two Sundays ago, according to the affidavit. Earlier that morning, the affidavit shows, Betty had called a friend from a telephone booth and said she had just shot Dan and Linda and had intended to commit suicide, but ran out of bullets. When she arrived at Lee’s at 8 a.m., she told her daughter she had shot at Dan, but didn’t know if she had wounded him or not. She gave Lee her purse, in which Lee saw the .38-caliber revolver that police believe was used in the shootings.
Lee did not call the police.
Last week, Betty’s attorney, Mark Alexander Wolf, said she is not fully aware of the gravity of the double-murder charges filed against her. On Wednesday, after Betty was arraigned, he said Betty still refers to her slain ex-husband in the present tense, as if he were alive.
Friends are not surprised. After years of court battles and custody squabbles, they say, it was nearly impossible for Betty to imagine a life outside the shadow of her failed marriage and apart from the man she called her husband that weekend at Warner Springs Ranch.
Now Wolf says his client, bolstered by several letters of support from strangers and friends, just wants her story to be told.
“You will find there’s a great deal of prejudice in the legal community (against Betty), but there’s a big difference between lawyers and people,” he said. “People are praying for her. People understand what she has gone through, but they’re in her corner.”