The strange truth about the Betty Broderick story

Betty Broderick was thrust into the spotlight in 1989 when she committed the harrowing double murder of her ex-husband Daniel Broderick and his new wife Linda Kolkena. The case made national headlines, spawned a handful of TV adaptations, and still finds relevancy more than 30 years after the fact. In 2020, Betty's story became the subject of the second season of USA Network's Dirty John, a drama originally adapted from the eponymous Los Angeles Times podcast about a different, albeit just as fascinating true crime story. But who actually is Betty Broderick and what would drive a well-off housewife to murder?

According to the Los Angeles Times, Betty Boderick (née Bisceglia), shown above left and played by Amanda Peet (above right) in the series, was one of six siblings born into a cushy life in the suburbs of New York City. Her father, Frank Bisceglia, was a successful building contractor, and her family were members of the local country club. After her private Catholic school education, she pursued an English degree at Mount Saint Vincent, an all-girls Catholic College. During her freshman year, she met Daniel Broderick at a party during a chaperoned weekend visit to the University of Notre Dame. He was a senior, and thus began the torrid love affair that left Betty with a prison sentence of 32 years to life. 

Both Betty and Dan were high society in San Diego

Betty and Daniel Broderick weren't average San Diego residents. Within their community of La Jolla, Daniel was somewhat of a local celebrity. According to the Los Angeles Times, the malpractice attorney, who had degrees from Harvard Law and Cornell School of Medicine, made $1 million a year at his career's height. Betty hung back at home, where she cared for their four children, who went to prestigious private schools, and planned the family's "busy social calendar," which often included attending parties thrown by some of La Jolla's most elite. The couple held two country club memberships, as well as another at a private resort that served as a hotspot for San Diego's upper crust.  

"He always looked straight from Polo. She always had very pretty clothes — Oscar de la Renta and the like," Burl Stiff, a San Diego Union society columnist, told the Los Angeles Times in 1990.

The Brodericks' lifestyle was no accident. It was carefully designed. When they met, Betty and Dan shared the same vision for the future, which included "wealth, social standing, and a large family." Describing Dan, Betty said, "He was very ambitious, very intelligent and very funny. And I am those three things. We were from the same kind of background." She added, "All I wanted to be was a mommy. ... He promised me the moon."

Pregnancy kept the Brodericks together

Betty and Daniel Broderick married in 1969, but their relationship started to fray the second they tied the knot. The housewife told the Los Angeles Times that Dan stopped "courting her" and she felt "trapped" before the honeymoon was even over. When she got home, her mother — who was "angry" that Dan didn't wear a tuxedo at the wedding — forced Betty to move her belongings into his minuscule Cornell dorm room. The honeymoon was indeed over, and Betty threatened to leave Dan for the first time. She put that idea to rest when she found out she was pregnant.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Betty tried to hide her pregnancy and worked as a third grade teacher until the day she delivered her first daughter, Kim. Not long after Kim's birth, Dan got into Harvard Law School and the couple moved to Massachusetts. Betty felt isolated there and, once again, decided she wanted a divorce. Like last time, she found herself pregnant and chose to stay.

"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 written account of her marriage that was obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The account continued, "Dan went from being a student on his own, with no possessions, no savings, no connections or contacts, to being an MD/JD, who had many, many contacts."

No fury like a Betty Broderick scorned

Betty Broderick's marriage further unraveled after Dan Broderick hired a new legal assistant, a 22-year-old former flight attendant named Linda Kolkena. According to the Los Angeles Times, it only took about a month before Betty's mind fixated on a possible affair, which she later chalked up to "a midlife crisis" when Dan purchased "a new red Corvette."

At first, her only evidence was a cold conversation. When the pair flew from San Diego back to their old NYC stomping grounds for a vacation, Betty claimed Dan admitted he wasn't in love with her — and rather, "hated" her. She "demanded that he fire Linda," but he refused, denying the alleged affair. Betty stocked up on self help books hoping it "was a phase."

Things became hard to ignore when she tried to surprise Dan at his office for his 39th birthday. Her husband wasn't there, but evidence of a party was. The receptionist reportedly admitted that both "Dan and Linda had been gone for most of the day." That's when Betty decided to make what she claimed was the strongest statement "short of shooting him." She threw his "custom-made clothing" out into the yard and set them ablaze "as her children watched." When Dan came home, she ordered him to leave, but he refused. She told the Los Angeles Times that Dan was just stalling while building his divorce case.

The Broderick kids were fodder for Betty and Dan's fighting

When Betty Broderick's daughter, Kim Broderick (above), testified at her mother's preliminary hearing, she admitted that her mom had an awful habit of aiming her vitriol at her children — even saying she "hated" them on numerous occasions, according to the Los Angeles Times. Even worse, Betty reportedly had a history of using her four kids as ammunition against her husband. The most egregious allegedly incident occurred in 1985, a few months after the Brodericks relocated to a rental property so their Coral Reef home could get necessary repairs.

Per the Los Angeles Times, Betty believed the repairs were an excuse to push her out, especially because Dan — who claimed he was unhappy — moved back into their damaged house just a few months after they first left. Again, he denied having an affair with Linda Kolkena, but Betty hatched a plan to reportedly save their marriage by using the kids as bait.

Betty began unexpectedly dropping the kids off at their old house, thinking it would teach Dan a lesson in parenting (i.e. that it's not easy). Kim, who was 15 at the time, revealed it was plain old "awful." She told the Los Angeles Times that her younger siblings Rhett and Lee were "hysterical — holding onto her, crying and screaming. Crying hard, 'Don't leave us here.'" Betty didn't relent, allegedly admitting, "Your dad's not going to get away with this.'"

Betty Broderick had a history of anger issues

Betty Broderick was reportedly plagued with anger issues throughout her marriage. Her daughter, Kim Broderick, told the Los Angeles Times that her mother would constantly "get mad at" her father and lock him out of the house. "He'd come around to my window and whisper, 'Kim, let me in,'" she said. Things also frequently escalated to violence.

Betty reportedly had a habit of throwing things in a fit of rage. Once she allegedly threw a stereo at Dan. Other times, she'd "throw frozen food." Occasionally, she'd hit Kim and her younger sister, Lee (above). One time, after Lee snapped that Betty's spankings didn't hurt, the housewife graduated to a fly swatter, which she allegedly used forcefully enough that it broke. "It was just the wire and she kept hitting her. Lee had big welts all over her legs ... I'd grab Danny and hide in the closet," Kim told the Los Angeles Times.

Though Betty was reportedly prone to violence, the kids allegedly didn't fare much better in their father's care. "Lee dropped out of high school" and was "disowned" by Dan, who allegedly omitted her from his will. Kim was reportedly kicked out when she was 18 years old, though Dan changed his mind and funded her college education.

The Brodericks' divorce was the worst in San Diego history

Betty Broderick's divorce wasn't a shock to anyone on the inside. According to the Los Angeles Times, Dan Broderick's brother, Larry Broderick, estimated that Betty "threatened" to divorce his brother "a hundred times" — so much so, that Dan just started to ignore her. Kim Broderick heard the same threats as her uncle. "I was dying for dad to divorce her. I'd say to dad, 'Just take me the day you leave,'" she told the Los Angeles Times.

Weirdly enough, when the divorce finally came, it didn't come from Betty. Dan filed a few months after Betty reportedly smashed the mirrors and "spray-paint[ed] the walls" of their Coral Reef home, according to the Los Angeles Times. The battle, which went on for five years as Betty cycled through five separate lawyers, quickly devolved into what's now known as "the worst divorce case in San Diego County" — and Betty allegedly didn't let up.

As the divorce played out, the Los Angeles Times reports that Betty regularly vandalized the family's Coral Reef home to the extent that Dan filed a restraining order, which she allegedly broke. She also drove through Dan's front door, left numerous lewd messages on his answering machine, and ramped up the petty by replacing his name with "God" on their divorce papers. By the time it was finally settled, Dan was granted "sole custody of the children with no visitation rights for Betty." He married Linda Kolkena in 1989, after the divorce was finalized.

Betty Broderick was institutionalized

During their divorce trial, Dan Broderick had his estranged wife committed to a mental hospital. The whole situation devolved over the sale of their Coral Reef home. According to the Los Angeles Times, Betty Broderick was resistant. She wouldn't sign over her half, even though Dan had already bought her a different $650,000 property. He eventually went in front of a judge, who signed over Betty's portion.

When the home finally sold, Betty was reportedly so "furious" that she "drove to Dan's new home" and rammed her car into the front door. According to the Los Angeles Times, who reviewed the court documents, Dan claimed that Betty "reached for a large butcher knife" that was hidden under the front seat when he tried to pull her out of the smashed Chevrolet. After the incident, "she spent three days in the San Diego County Mental Health Hospital" – but she claimed she was never crazy until Dan made her that way to justify the divorce.

"I have never had emotional disturbance or mental illness–except when he provoked a 'disturbance,'" she told the Los Angeles Times, adding, "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?"

Dan Broderick docked Betty Broderick's spousal support for bad behavior

After the divorce, Betty Broderick was receiving $9,036 a month in spousal support, but the Los Angeles Times reported that she still continued to harass her ex. She even reportedly made up "obscene nicknames" for Dan Broderick and his then-girlfriend Linda Kolkena, and admitted that the messages she left on his answering became "more and more crude." Dan reportedly took matters into his own hands, penalizing Betty by fining her for each alleged infraction.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Dan would dock Betty's spousal support by $100 every time she used an obscene word. She'd lose $250 each time she trespassed "on his property," and $500 each time she entered his home. For the biggest infraction — taking their children "without his permission" — Dan reportedly docked Betty's support check by $1000. She claimed that one month, she had racked up so many fines that Dan owed her "minus $1,300." This didn't last for long, probably because it's not actually legal. A judge upped Betty's spousal support to $12,500 a month, then $16,100 a month.

Betty Broderick claimed the long legal battle made her snap

Betty Broderick had threatened her ex-husband's life in the past. According to the Los Angeles Times, she "told her children that she would kill their father" numerous times. Linda Kolkena suspected that Betty was serious, and the couple "hired undercover security guards" when they got married. Kolkena wanted Dan Broderick "to wear a bullet-proof vest," but he wouldn't. On numerous occasions, Kolkena asked a lawyer to prepare a restraining order, but "Dan wouldn't let her file them."

Though Dan didn't expect that Betty would actually follow through with her threats, his ex-wife reached a breaking point after "another round of legal papers arrived at her door" in November 1989. It was a Friday, and the non-stop legal battles started feeling like "putting a housewife in the ring with Muhammad Ali." Betty described Dan's alleged threats as "like hammers at [her] head." She couldn't ignore it. She just wanted it to stop, so before the sun rose on Sunday, she took her daughter's house key, drove to Dan's home in La Jolla Shores, and crept into the bedroom he shared with Kolkena.

After "standing over" the sleeping couple's bed, Betty shot the pair with a .38-caliber revolver. Linda, who was shot in the neck and chest, died instantly. Dan died shortly after a bullet fractured his rib and punctured his lung. Fearing he'd call the police, Betty "yanked the phone out of the wall" before fleeing the scene.

Is it possible to kill two sleeping people and claim self-defense?

Betty Broderick's first trial ended in a hung jury, but according to an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the troubled housewife was ultimately convicted of two second-degree murders, and could very well spend the rest of her life in prison. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, she still claimed to have never intended to kill her ex-husband or his new wife, but her parole was denied for a second time in 2017.

Even with all this, Betty maintained the fact that her crimes were self-defense. The way she sees it, all she was doing was finally putting an end to Dan Broderick's alleged psychological attacks. "My lawyers hate it, because there's no law that says I can defend myself against his type of onslaught," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, adding, "He was killing me — he and she were still doing it — in secret."

In addition, Betty all but blamed her ex-husband for his own murder. In that same interview, she said the whole thing wouldn't have happened if Dan just went along with what she wanted in the divorce. "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 said.

Despite her story's obvious holes, Betty Broderick had mass support

Betty Broderick's highly publicized murder trial — which was "the first San Diego court case to be broadcast on the Court TV" — actually split the local community, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. Surprisingly, the housewife had a number of supporters, hundreds of whom wrote into local papers to voice their support.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Betty's supporters were mostly women, who "didn't condone murder," but sympathized with Betty's alleged domestic situation. "Lawyers and judges simply refuse to protect mothers against this type of legalized emotional terrorism," claimed one supporter, who also said, "I believe every word Betty says — because I've been there."

Despite the support, Betty's story was riddled with contradictions. She claimed Dan was a "chronic" alcoholic, but the Los Angeles Times reported that his autopsy didn't show the liver damage that's commonly linked to alcohol abuse. Betty also alleged that it was unfair Dan got to spend five years with another woman while she still felt "married" to him without the closure of a "(final) settlement" — but Betty wasn't alone. For years, she had allegedly been seeing a man named Bradley T. Wright, who was six years her junior and claimed to be her boyfriend. Wright was asleep in Betty's bed when the murders happened. Wright discovered the bodies after a friend called and told him Betty had shot her ex. He stayed by her side for years afterwards.

Betty Broderick wasn't fond of her TV portrayal

Season 2 of Dirty John isn't the first time Betty Broderick's harrowing story has been dramatized by Hollywood. CBS premiered a made-for-TV movie called The Betty Broderick Story shortly after her conviction and sentencing. According to the Los Angeles Times, the film starred Family Ties actor Meredith Baxter, who ended up winning an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the troubled housewife — but Betty didn't think Baxter was deserving of such accolades.

"In one scene, I'm in a negligee, or something feathery, doing my nails. But I've bitten my nails my whole life," she told the Los Angeles Times, adding, "According to the movie, I am exactly what Dan Broderick told everybody I was — an unstable, crazy b**ch that went around doing crazy things. And Dan and Linda are these simple, innocent people that just want peace. Ha!"

After the success of the first film, CBS followed up with Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter. Betty's case was also featured in an episode of Deadly Women and inspired a 1991 episode of Law & Order.