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Actor Phil Hartman, Wife Killed in Murder-Suicide

Tragedy: The comedian is apparently shot by spouse in their Encino home.

May 29, 1998|SOLOMON MOORE and GREG BRAXTON and T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ENCINO — Former "Saturday Night Live" comic Phil Hartman was shot to death early Thursday, apparently by his wife, who killed herself as police were shepherding the couple's two children from the family's million-dollar Encino home.

Officers responding to a call of shots fired at the home arrived to find the couple's 9-year-old, Sean, fleeing out the front door. They took the boy to safety, then returned to get his 6-year-old sister, Birgen. A single shot was heard--Hartman's wife, Brynn Hartman, 41, apparently killed herself as police took her daughter from the home.

Upon searching the home, police found the Hartmans dead in the couple's upstairs bedroom in their home in the 5000 block of Encino Avenue, a tree-lined street of pricey homes just north of Ventura Boulevard.

Phil Hartman, 49, clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, was lying on his side on the bloody bed.

Brynn Hartman, in a two-piece sleep suit, was on her back.

There was no sign of a struggle, police said.

The two young children, who police said suffered no physical injuries, were distraught as they were escorted away in their pajamas to a police station for questioning, authorities said. A family spokesman said relatives were flying into Los Angeles on Thursday evening to take custody of the children.

Although the coroner's office did not release a time of death, police believed that Brynn Hartman killed her husband before they reached the house at 6:20 a.m.

"Mr. Hartman had been dead for a while," police spokesman Lt. Anthony Alba said.

The apparent murder-suicide shocked fellow stars and longtime friends of Hartman, a gifted mimic who was known for masterful impersonations of such figures as President Bill Clinton and Liberace.

Hartman starred in the current NBC situation comedy "NewsRadio," provided voices for "The Simpsons," and appears in "Small Soldiers," a movie set for release next month. He joins Chris Farley, John Belushi and Gilda Radner in the ranks of "Saturday Night Live" alumni who have suffered untimely deaths.

"This is a tragedy in so many ways," said Mike Scully, executive producer of "The Simpsons," the animated series for which Hartman supplied the voices of such recurring bit characters as washed-up actor Troy McClure and lawyer Lionel Hutz. "Phil was just tremendous fun to work with. The minute he said hello, you were laughing."

Some close to the family said the slayings seemed a shocking final burst of anger from Brynn Hartman, who they described as having a mercurial temper.

"She had trouble controlling her anger," said Steve Small, an attorney who handled Hartman's two previous divorces and stayed in frequent contact with Hartman.

"She got attention by losing her temper," said Small, adding that the two had separated more than once. "Phil said he had to . . . restrain her at times."

Police said they were unaware of any previous visits to the Hartman residence. The couple had been married since 1987.

Reached at their home in North Dakota, Brynn Hartman's family declined to comment. "We're still in shock," her mother, Constance Omdahl, told the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald.

Stan Rosenfield, a spokesman for Brynn Hartman's brother and sister, said the family was concerned for the welfare of the children.

"This a situation that occurred that redefines tragedy in every conceivable way," Rosenfield said. "There are two very young children and their needs must be attended to."

Craig Harvey, the coroner's chief investigator, said police told him that a man was at the home when police arrived and that the man had placed a 911 call. Police declined to confirm the account.

Harvey said police took two revolvers from the scene. A woman who described herself as a friend of Brynn Hartman said the former model, who recently changed her name from Vicki Jo, bought a gun upon relocating from New York to Los Angeles about six years ago because she felt unsafe in the family's four-bedroom, five-bath, 4,000-square-foot home.

"She had guns in the house, but I begged her to get rid of them," said the friend, who met Brynn shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles. "She didn't feel safe in this house" because he worked long hours and she was alone with the children so much, the friend said.

The woman and her sister said they talked frequently with Brynn and knew of no marital discord. Both described Brynn Hartman as a doting mother who took great pride in her two children.

But other friends and neighbors said there were clues of trouble in the marriage, Phil Hartman's third.

Andrea Diamond, who said she had been a friend of the couple for six years, said Brynn had spoken to her about problems in the marriage but "I didn't take it seriously--he's in the industry, those kinds of things happen all the time."

"There were rumors," Diamond said. "But you should have seen how he used to look at her. You could tell he loved her. I don't know why she would do this to the kids." Lisa Strain, Hartman's second wife, said she was "completely shocked" when she heard about the deaths.

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