By Jo Berry
In the early morning of Sunday, 5th November 1989, Elisabeth ‘Betty’ Broderick let herself into her ex-husband Dan’s home – using a key she had stolen from her daughter – and walked up the stairs to his bedroom. She then fired five shots, killing him and his new wife Linda in their bed.
The story behind what led Betty to shoot Dan and Linda is the basis of the second season of true crime drama Dirty John, with Amanda Peet delivering a powerful performance as Betty, Christian Slater starring as Dan and Rachel Keller as Dan’s second wife Linda.
It’s a story that mesmerised America when Betty was on trial for the murders. Her defence was that she had been suffered years of mental, physical and psychological abuse inflicted by Dan – indeed, in the Dirty John drama it is intimated that he gaslighted her throughout their marriage and beyond – and many women sent letters of support to Betty in prison, sharing with her their own stories of betrayal by husbands and partners.
Betty became a celebrity, granting interviews from prison to newspapers, magazines and TV shows including Hard Copy and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her story was also dramatised in the TV movie A Woman Scorned (with Meredith Baxter as Betty and Stephen Collins as Dan), and used as inspiration for an episode of the long-running drama series Law & Order.
The real Betty currently resides at the California Institution For Women in Chino, California, a long way from leafy suburbs of Eastchester, New York, where she was born on November 7, 1947. The third of Marita and Frank Bisceglia’s six children, she was raised in a strict Catholic household and, as author Bella Stumbo wrote in her biography of Betty, The Twelfth Of Never, she was “programmed from birth to be a wife, not only by her parents and the girls’ schools she attended, but by her peers. For Betty, it was a world without options.”
Betty was 17 years old when she met Daniel T Broderick III at a college party in 1965. He was studying to be a doctor at the University of Notre Dame and later attended Cornell University Medical School in New York, where the couple first lived. Dan and Betty married on April 12th, 1969, (he was 25 and she was 21) and she was already pregnant with their first child when they returned from their Caribbean honeymoon.
“All I wanted to be was a mommy,” Betty said in an interview with Amy Wallace of the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “He promised me the moon.”
Betty was the breadwinner while Dan was a student, working several jobs including childcare and selling Tupperware door to door. Baby Kim was born in January 1970, and was followed by daughter Lee in July 1971, and Betty continued to work to support them all. It was around this time that Dan decided he no longer wanted to be a doctor, so he enrolled at Harvard Law School in Boston to study law and train as a medical malpractice lawyer.
In 1973, the family relocated to California and Dan became a junior partner at a law firm in San Diego. Whiles he worked long hours and became professionally and financially successful, going on to launch his own firm, Betty raised their children, adding Danny Junior (born 1976) and Rhett (born 1979) to the family.
The couple became more affluent, moving to a large house in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla, joining local country clubs and sending their children to private school. Betty claims her marriage was happy, telling Oprah Winfrey in a TV interview in 1992 that: “I thought we did have the perfect marriage. I took those marriage vows, and I believe he did at the time, too, believing that we’d be together and we’d get through everything.”
However, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, her daughter Kim revealed that family life wasn’t as perfect as her mother portrayed it. “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.’”
In 1982, a 21-year-old receptionist named Linda Kolkena was hired at Dan’s firm and in September 1983, Dan took her on as his personal assistant, despite her having no legal experience and being unable to type. Betty soon became convinced her husband and Linda were having an affair, but Dan denied it (according to Betty, he later confessed she had been right all along). When Betty turned up to Dan’s office on his birthday to surprise him only to discover he and Linda had left together earlier in the day, she went home and set his prized designer suits on fire.
What followed was a nasty, bitter divorce battle between the couple that became infamous in their wealthy community. Betty left abusive messages on Dan’s answer machine, drove her car into the front door of his house, and abandoned their children on his doorstep (there is a memorable scene in Dirty John where she smears a cake over Dan and Linda’s bed but no evidence that it actually happened). Dan, meanwhile, filed restraining orders against his wife, ‘fined’ her for her bad behaviour by deducting money from his alimony payments to her, and had her arrested and committed to a psychiatric hospital for 72 hours after one major argument.
Betty claimed she had trouble finding a lawyer to represent her in the divorce as Dan was, by this time, president of the San Diego Bar Association, and when it was finalised in 1989, Betty lost custody of her children and received $16,000 a month, which she believed was unfair following the years she had supported the family financially while Dan was studying.
She continued to harass Dan and Linda, leaving obscene messages on their answer machine – her erratic behaviour even leading one friend to suggest to Dan that he should wear a bullet proof vest during his April 1989 wedding.
In fact, it was just seven months after their ceremony (which took place without any interference from Betty on the day) that Betty killed the couple in their bed. (Betty originally claimed that she was then going to take her own life but, during a hearing in 2010, she said that she didn’t go through with it because “I didn’t have any bullets.”).
Betty turned herself into the police a few hours after the shootings.
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It took two trials – the first ended in a hung jury – to convict Betty Broderick of Dan and Linda’s murder. In 1991, she was found guilty of the second degree murders of the couple and was sentenced to a minimum of 32 years in prison.
Betty has been denied parole three times in the years since (the most recent hearing was in 2017), with Board of Prison Terms Commissioner Robert Doyle telling Betty during one parole hearing: “Your heart is still bitter, and you are still angry. You show no significant progress in evolving”. At the same hearing, two of Betty’s children argued their mother should be released, but the other two disagreed.
Betty will not be eligible for parole again until January 2032, when she will be 84 years old.