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Till Murder Do Us Part : Dan and Betty Broderick's Divorce, Played Out Over Five Vicious Years, Was the Talk of La Jolla. Betty Finally Put an End to It All--With a .38-Caliber Revolver.

June 03, 1990|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace is a reporter for the San Diego edition of The Times.

EVERYBODY IN LA JOLLA knew the Brodericks. Daniel T. Broderick III and his wife, Betty, seemed to have a classic society-page marriage. Dan was a celebrity in local legal circles. Armed with degrees from both Harvard Law School and Cornell School of Medicine, the prominent malpractice attorney was aggressive, persuasive and cunning--a $1-million-a-year lawyer at the top of his game. Betty spent her days shuttling her four children to and from music lessons and soccer games, planning the couple's busy social calendar and tending to the yard and housework.

In the early '80s, Dan and Betty were regular guests at the parties of the La Jolla in-crowd. "They both were almost central casting for early yuppie," recalls Burl Stiff, the society columnist for the San Diego Union. "He always looked straight from Polo. She always had very pretty clothes--Oscar de la Renta and the like."

But in 1983, the facade began to crack when Betty suspected that Dan was having a romance with his office assistant. In 1985, after 16 years of marriage, Dan filed for divorce, sparking five years of battles so violent that Broderick vs. Broderick became known as the worst divorce case in San Diego County. The jilted wife spray-painted the interior of the $325,000 hillside home they had shared. She rammed her car into Dan's front door, left obscene messages on his answering machine and defaced court documents, writing "God" where his name should have been. Betty says Dan used his legal influence to win sole custody of their children, sell their house against her wishes and bilk her out of her rightful share of his income. More than once, Betty told her children that she would kill their father.

Dan countered by having Betty arrested, jailed and briefly committed to a mental hospital. He tried to control her by withholding from $100 to thousands of dollars a month from her support payments, docking her for behavior he deemed inappropriate, and he obtained a temporary restraining order to keep her out of his house. When she threatened him, he wrote her curt letters in the coldest legalese. If she tried to kill him, the letters warned, he would make Betty regret it.

On the first Friday in November, 1989, four days before Betty's 42nd birthday, yet another round of legal papers arrived at her door. Dan was threatening to file criminal contempt charges unless she stopped leaving lewd messages on the answering machine he shared with his new wife, Linda. Betty recalls that she was exhausted by the near constant court battles, likening them to "putting a housewife in the ring with Muhammad Ali." And late Saturday night, as the threats pounded "like hammers at my head," she decided that she couldn't fight anymore.

Just before dawn on Sunday, she dressed, got in her car and drove from her ocean-view home in La Jolla Shores to Dan and Linda's Georgian-style house in Marston Hills, near downtown San Diego. She used her older daughter's key to let herself in.

She climbed the stairs and slipped into the master bedroom, standing over the bed where Dan and Linda slept. Her eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness as she pointed her 2-year-old .38-caliber, five-shot revolver toward the Colonial print bedspread and began firing--"real fast" she recalls, "no hesitation at all."

One bullet hit a bedside table. Another pounded into the wall. But three bullets struck the sleeping couple. One pierced Linda's neck and lodged in her brain. Another hit her in the chest. A third perforated Dan's back, fracturing a rib and tearing through his right lung.

"OK, OK, you got me," Betty heard Dan say. He dove to the floor, landing near the bedside telephone, and Betty says she thought, "Oh my God! He is going to be on that phone before I'm down the stairs."

She yanked the phone out of the wall and fled.

THE KILLINGS SHOCKED San Diego's legal community, for which the deaths of Dan and Linda were unwelcome reminders of the law's limits. As Dan had told friends many times, if Betty was determined to kill him--and was willing to pay the consequences--nothing would stop her. The murders also resonated in La Jolla, where tales of the Brodericks' messy divorce were as common as the sight of Betty's four-wheel-drive wagon with the "LODEMUP" license plate.

Overnight, Betty became a symbol of the rage--and desire for revenge--so familiar to divorcing couples. At one La Jolla cocktail party soon after the killings, a man who attended with his second, younger wife on his arm joked: "I guess this is Be Nice to the Ex-Wife Week." But many women saw themselves in Betty--a wife who refused to be broken when, at her husband's whim, she was deprived of family, friends and a way of life.

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