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Backers of ‘Betty,’ the Curious, Media Gather for a Show

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They began showing up at 7:15 a.m., lining up in front of Department 27 on the fourth floor of the County Courthouse. The matter that got them out of bed and into the maw of Monday-morning rush hour was one they had waited for and read about for months:

The People of the State of California vs. Elisabeth Broderick.

It is, as one woman put it, “San Diego’s most-celebrated murder trial in ages. I wasn’t about to miss it.”

It drew the media--the made-for-TV-movie people, the journalist writing a book, and Ladies’ Home Journal, focusing on the “trauma” of a middle-aged woman. Representatives from tabloid TV shows “Hard Copy” and “Current Affair” are expected later in the week.

It also drew dozens of women who said they identified with “Betty” and dozens more simply attracted to the theater of a prominent murder trial.

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Monday’s behind-the-scenes action at the trial of Elisabeth (Betty) Broderick--arrested on Nov. 5, 1989, and accused of murdering her ex-husband, Daniel T. Broderick, and his second wife, Linda Kolkena Broderick--was described by many on the fourth floor as a “zoo.”

The courtroom of Judge Thomas J. Whelan seats 36 observers, eight of whom are reporters covering the trial. Several of the remaining were taken up by friends and relatives, leaving little room for the more than 100 onlookers who gathered outside in the hope of getting in. A TV monitor outside the courtroom gave them some idea of what was going on inside.

After a morning recess and a lunchtime break, several were allowed to enter. The wait, they said, was worth it.

Wearing faded jeans and black cowboy boots, a woman named Ellen was at the front of the line. She, like many of the middle-aged to elderly women who came to watch, said she was there “out of sympathy for Betty” and because she “identifies so strongly with what the woman went through.”

“This trial is a perfect illustration of how badly women are treated in divorce,” Ellen said. “I, too, went through a bitter breakup and divorce. The man to whom I was married seems very similar to her husband. My ex-husband would call the police and have them come to my house, telling them I was abandoning our child, which wasn’t true. He had bullies harass me. I can relate totally to what Betty went through.”

Betty, Ellen said, was like a refugee from a Tammy Wynette song. She “stood by her man,” Ellen said, and all it got her was an extramarital “slap in the face"--Daniel Broderick’s relationship with his then-unmarried secretary, Linda Kolkena. In addition, Ellen said, “the woman lost her house, custody of her children” and a privileged place in society.

It didn’t seem to matter to many of those in attendance whether Elizabeth Broderick was, as Deputy Dist. Atty. Kerry Wells said, guided by “hate, revenge and murder” or that she had pulled the trigger on a man and woman who were, at the time they were killed, sound asleep in their own home, which she had entered illegally.

“A lot of us really believe he drove her to it,” said Barbara Harbin, a resident of Chula Vista, who frequently attends celebrated trials. She listed the Sagon Penn and Craig Peyer trials as ones she had “very much enjoyed.”

Another woman, who asked not to be quoted by name, said she had been a legal secretary for 30 years, until she retired, and found murder trials “the best theater going.”

Iris Mann was first in line Monday morning. A student at Palomar College, she’s attending the trial for credit in a criminal evidence class. She said she’s fascinated with the goings-on.

“I’m supposed to be like the jury and decide whether the sentence should be lenient or harsh,” Mann said of her project. “Right now, I like the defense. I prefer a lenient sentence for Betty. I just don’t think she poses a threat to society, which should be the criteria, right? She lost her mind--not that it justifies what happened. . . . It doesn’t justify taking away two lives. But life in prison for Betty? I think she should be allowed to come out and start a new life.”

Several in attendance, willing to be interviewed, were unwilling to be quoted by name. One woman, who attended the Oliver North “Contragate” trial, showed up at Department 27 well ahead of time and got a seat. (Several Broderick family members were turned down.)

The woman said she makes it a practice to attend celebrated court proceedings around the country. She called the Oliver North trial “the best courtroom experience I’ve ever had, by far.”

Why?

“Because I believe in Ollie North,” she said.

She wore a bright blue cardigan, pinned with a small American flag. She said she first became a “courtroom watcher” in Honolulu and “just kept going after that.”

Asked her feeling about the Broderick trial, she looked startled and vaguely offended, and replied, “I have no feelings.” She then walked away.

Bella Stumbo, a longtime reporter for The Times who is on a leave of absence, said she is writing a book about the Broderick case. When asked what intrigued her about the story, Stumbo, who declined to be interviewed, answered: “All of it.”

Another woman, who asked not to be quoted by name, said she works for the production company that is working with CBS to complete a made-for-TV movie about the case. She, too, declined to be interviewed.

Kathleen Neumeyer, a free-lance writer on assignment for the New York-based Ladies’ Home Journal, said her editors were intrigued by the story of a housewife who had “spent virtually her entire adult life taking care of her children,” but who then is left for another woman.

“Statistically, very few women commit murder,” Neumeyer said. “The public is always fascinated when it involves the upper echelon of society, as this one does.”

Neumeyer said people are amazed when they hear that Betty Broderick was being paid $16,000 a month in support from her ex-husband. They don’t realize, she said, “it was just a fraction of what he was making.”

Defense attorney Jack Earley argued the same point, saying that Daniel Broderick, who had a medical degree as well as a law degree, and who had been president of the San Diego County Bar Assn., was paying his ex-wife only 10% of his monthly income. He, Earley argued, was wearing tailored suits and driving a Jaguar even when his family was sleeping in a rat-infested apartment.

As the six women and six men entered the jury box Monday morning, one person in attendance whispered, “Not a one of them has ever seen a $100 pair of shoes.”

Neumeyer said it was the wealth of the Brodericks, their place in society and the bitter loss of what had once seemed their American dream, that led journalists around the country to focus on “this real-life ‘War of the Roses.’ ”

But a few onlookers were drawn by more than the money being talked about. Glenn Adams waited patiently for a seat, clutching his copy of “Deep Cover,” a story about the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“I like this scene for a lot of reasons,” Adams said of the Broderick trial. “Like, it’s the ultimate ‘Fatal Attraction,’ man.”

Some people came to wait--and, if they were lucky, to watch--just for entertainment. One nattily dressed man, who asked not to be quoted by name, said he came for “the pure theater of it.”

“I have my choice,” he said. “I can go to New York and see a Broadway play for $35. Or, I can come here. I’ll take here. This is a much better show than anything on Broadway.”


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