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Home Australia The divorce that split America: It's the subject of a gripping new...

The divorce that split America: It’s the subject of a gripping new Netflix drama

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On a Saturday in November, 1989, Betty Broderick went shopping. The 41-year-old divorced mother-of-four bought fresh veal and swordfish, among a carload of groceries that cost $400 — more than most people in America earned in a week.

Betty could afford it. The settlement with her ex-husband Daniel T. Broderick III, a malpractice lawyer in the Californian city of San Diego, netted her almost $200,000 a year.

But she was locked in a bitter custody dispute with Daniel over their two youngest children, a war of insults and violent outbursts so uncontrolled that their split was being called ‘the ugliest divorce in California’s history’.

That shopping expedition on Saturday November 4 would mark the last normal day of Betty Broderick’s life.

For the following night, unable to sleep and consumed with anger and fear about their increasingly acrimonious legal battle, she went for a drive to the house her ex-husband now shared with his new wife, Linda, taking a .38 calibre revolver with five bullets in it. 

Rachel Keller as Linda Kolkena and Christian Slater as Daniel Broderick. The fractured family’s extraordinary story has been filmed as an eight-part series

Rachel Keller as Linda Kolkena and Christian Slater as Daniel Broderick. The fractured family’s extraordinary story has been filmed as an eight-part series

Betty had a key to his new house — she claimed her cleaner had found a keyring, probably dropped by one of her daughters.

She let herself in and climbed the stairs. The main bedroom was dark, the curtains closed, but she could hear breathing.

In a rapid burst, she fired all five shots. ‘It was such a panicked thing,’ she said. ‘It was never a thing where I even aimed. Real fast, no hesitation at all.’

In the darkness, she heard her ex-husband slump out of the bed. ‘OK,’ he groaned, ‘OK, you got me.’ Pausing only to yank the phone cable out of the wall so that he couldn’t call for help, Betty fled.

Police found Daniel Broderick dead. He had been hit once in the chest, and his lungs filled up with blood, slowly drowning him. Two more bullets had missed, one burying itself in the wall and another hitting the bedside table.

The fourth and fifth shots hit Linda. One entered her chest. The other went in through her neck and shattered her brain stem. She died instantly.

Now the fractured family’s extraordinary story has been filmed as an eight-part series starring Christian Slater and Amanda Peet, with Rachel Keller as Daniel’s second wife, Linda and will be available on Netflix next week.

Dirty John, Betty: The Betty Broderick Story, is more complex, and promises to divide audiences just as it divided America over who the real villain was in this broken marriage. Pictured, Christian Slater as Dan Broderick

Dirty John, Betty: The Betty Broderick Story, is more complex, and promises to divide audiences just as it divided America over who the real villain was in this broken marriage. Pictured, Christian Slater as Dan Broderick

It is billed as a follow-up to the hugely successful true-life drama Dirty John (starring Eric Bana and Connie Britton), the portrait of a pathological liar and control freak who set out to manipulate everything in his wife’s life … including her relationship with her children.

Dirty John, Betty: The Betty Broderick Story, is more complex, and promises to divide audiences just as it divided America over who the real villain was in this broken marriage.

At the time of the trial, there were two camps. On the one hand, those who felt Betty was the victim of domestic violence and that years of her husband’s controlling behaviour and threats to take away her children had led her to commit what amounted to a crime passionnel. 

On the other, those who regarded her as no more than a deranged killer who killed both her ex-husband and his new wife in cold blood.

The day before her shopping trip, Betty was served with a legal document by Daniel, who was demanding that their two sons, Danny, 14, and Rhett, 11, should live with him. 

Betty already felt her ex had twisted their two daughters (Kim, 20, and Lee, 18) against her.

Daniel’s reputation as a hard-ball lawyer was well-known. Aggressive, wily and highly intelligent, he made more than a million dollars a year suing medical firms for punitive sums.

Betty knew she couldn’t beat him in court. Her ex-husband was ruthless — even pressing criminal charges that had sent her into custody for three days after one heated argument.

She couldn’t win, but she couldn’t bear to lose either. The price was too high.

As long as she behaved exactly as Daniel ord-ained, she was given a substantial allowance of $16,000 a month (about £25,750 today). 

But one of the stipulations was that Betty must not leave abusive phone messages for her ex or his new wife — and as they never answered when she called to discuss the children, Betty was sometimes unable to restrain herself.

Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick. Betty was locked in a bitter custody dispute with Daniel over their two youngest children, a war of insults and violent outbursts so uncontrolled that their split was being called ‘the ugliest divorce in California’s history’

Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick. Betty was locked in a bitter custody dispute with Daniel over their two youngest children, a war of insults and violent outbursts so uncontrolled that their split was being called ‘the ugliest divorce in California’s history’

After her last tirade, Daniel petitioned to have her punished for ‘contempt of court’, or ignoring a judge’s direct instruction. She could lose her entire allowance or even go back to custody.

Her situation couldn’t have been further removed from the gilded life she had once enjoyed. The Brodericks were once the golden couple of San Diego’s legal circles. 

They had met in 1965 at a party, when she was studying English at an all-women Catholic college in the Bronx, New York, and he was a medical student with round tortoiseshell glasses and sideburns: the archetypal geek.

They courted for four years before marrying. She was 21, he was 24, and they already knew what they wanted from life – children and money. Betty was pregnant within a few months, and Daniel switched to studying law, with the intention of using his medical knowledge to sue doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies for their mistakes. 

It promised to be a lucrative career. But as Daniel’s professional life blossomed, Betty found herself trapped at home with a growing family and no friends her own age.

Her husband was a controlling bully, and her only outlet was to write a memoir, the story of her marriage. She called it ‘What’s a Nice Girl to Do? A story of white- collar domestic violence in America’. It was never published.

By the time their fourth child was born in 1979, the marriage was in pieces. Betty’s resentment built until she was no longer afraid of Daniel, and she began to turn the violence against him.

Eldest daughter Kim says her father would frequently find himself locked out of the house. He became so used to having objects hurled at him that, when they missed, he would no longer flinch. Once, Betty launched a stereo record-player at his head.

Elisabeth pleaded not guilty to murder on November 15, 1989. Pictured with her attorney Mark Wolf

Elisabeth pleaded not guilty to murder on November 15, 1989. Pictured with her attorney Mark Wolf

But neither of them wanted a divorce. Both were close to their children, and Daniel’s high income guaranteed a luxurious lifestyle. They owned a Colorado ski apartment, a boat and several cars. 

They were members of the most exclusive clubs in San Diego. All the children were being expensively educated at private schools.

Everything changed when Daniel was 38. He appeared to have a mid-life crisis, swapping his Jaguar for a red Corvette sports car. And he hired a glamorous office assistant. 

Linda Kolkena was a former air stewardess from Salt Lake City who retrained as a paralegal. Betty saw the effect she had on her husband, but couldn’t believe the affair would last: ‘I am prettier, smarter, classier,’ she wrote at the time.

‘She is a dumb uneducated tramp with no background or talent. He’ll definitely get over it.’ 

But Daniel didn’t get over it, and Betty’s fury grew. When she discovered that her husband and his personal assistant had spent the whole of his 39th birthday together, somewhere away from the office, she emptied the wardrobe of all his designer suits and made a bonfire of them in the back yard.

The marriage limped on for more than a year. Betty thought they were trying to work things out —she later realised her husband was buying time while he arranged their finances so that all their savings, and their house, would be under his control. 

Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick.  When Daniel moved to a new house, Betty rammed the front door in her Chevrolet. Then she pulled a butcher’s knife from under the front seat

Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick.  When Daniel moved to a new house, Betty rammed the front door in her Chevrolet. Then she pulled a butcher’s knife from under the front seat

Just after his 40th birthday, in 1984, he filed for divorce.

Betty’s reaction was volcanic. No longer living in the family home, she broke in to vandalise it repeatedly.

Once she spray-painted the curtains, walls and fireplace. On another occasion, she took a cream pie from the fridge and smeared it all over the master bedroom. 

Then she threw bottles of wine through the windows.

When Daniel moved to a new house, Betty rammed the front door in her Chevrolet. Then she pulled a butcher’s knife from under the front seat. She was restrained, and spent three days at a mental health unit.

Daniel used all this against her. When the divorce came through, he was granted sole custody of all four children. Betty wasn’t allowed to see them.

She still had her substantial allowance, but Daniel had no qualms about using this to control her, too.

He began fining her for every swear word left in phone messages — $100 for every obscenity. That didn’t silence Betty: one month, she racked up so many fines that she forfeited the entire $16,000, plus a further $1,300.

Linda and Daniel were married in 1989, amid tight security. Linda was so frightened of Betty that she pleaded with her bridegroom to wear a bulletproof vest — convinced that he would be gunned down at the altar.

Daniel reassured her. He ex-wife was incapable of real violence, he said. And anyway, she couldn’t kill him — she needed his money. He was convinced he would always control her.

Just after dawn on Sunday, November 5, he discovered how wrong he was.

Betty did not deny the killings, and in her defence pleaded the ‘battered woman’s syndrome’ – years of wretched mistreatment during her marriage had driven her to insanity. 

Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick with Steven Culp as Bakter FKA Bibb during her trial in Dirty John

Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick with Steven Culp as Bakter FKA Bibb during her trial in Dirty John

The prosecution painted her as a deranged narcissist, who had no right to criticise her husband, never mind murder him, when she was accepting $200,000 a year in alimony.

Those two polarised viewpoints supply the fascination of the case, and of the upcoming Netflix series. It is impossible to sift the facts without forming a strong opinion — and many couples who watch the show together might find themselves on opposing sides.

The jury in Betty’s first trial were certainly divided. Some called it murder, others manslaughter, and one juror was heard to say, ‘I only wonder what took her so long.’

A hung verdict was returned. She was found guilty at the second trial in 1992 and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in jail. Betty still maintains she never set out to be a killer. 

‘All my life,’ she says, ‘I tried so hard to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good neighbour. My husband unzips his fly and screws the bimbo, and I lose all that.’

■ Dirty John, Betty: The Betty Broderick Story is available on Netflix from next Friday. 

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