The True Story Behind 'Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story'

The real-life case of Betty Broderick, whose true story inspired 'Dirty John' season two. Played Amanda Peet, Betty Broderick is still in prison for the murders.

In its much-anticipated second season, Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story covers a prominent 1980s divorce case that led to the murder of two people. If you're not familiar with the case (and what led to it), you might not know exactly what's in store beyond the trailer. But at the time, Broderick vs. Broderick was known as one of the most litigious and acrimonious splits of its time—and then the ensuing murder gripped the whole country. So who is Betty Broderick, once happily married mother-turned two-time convicted killer?

Betty met Daniel T. Broderick III when she was just 17. She was visiting the University of Notre Dame while on break from college in New York, and he was attending (calling himself an MDA—an MD, almost). Both were from Catholic families, and both hoped to be successful and have kids. "He was very ambitious, very intelligent and very funny. And I am those three things. We were from the same kind of background. We both wanted the same things in the future," Betty later said.

Betty's family in particular was strict about her behavior—that she should work to be the perfect housewife and mother. She and Daniel married at a young age in 1969; "All I wanted to be was a mommy,” she said. “[Dan] promised me the moon. The guy asked me to marry him every day for three years." In all, Betty had five children—one died shortly after he was born—and actually worked as the primary provider after Daniel returned to school to pursue a law degree at Harvard. Once he completed his second degree, he became one of the most successful medical malpractice lawyers in San Diego, and Betty fit right in as a socialite wife and mother.

And then. In 1982, Daniel hired a 22-year-old personal assistant named Linda Kolkena—and the two began a relationship, although they said they only got together after Daniel was separated from Betty. During a trip soon after Linda was hired, according to Betty, "On the walk, he told me he didn’t love me anymore—in fact, he hated me." She started becoming more volatile, even setting fire to his clothes, and when the couple separated she dumped each of their four children on his doorstep one at a time.

The resulting divorce, Broderick vs. Broderick, became one of the most well-known divorce cases of its time. Daniel used his legal connections and skills to immediately retain custody of the children and obtain court orders sealing their divorce records. Betty called it "putting a housewife in the ring with Muhammad Ali."

In turn, Betty harassed and threatened the couple, even going so far as to drive her car into the front door of the new couple's house while some of her children were inside. During the divorce, Daniel got protective orders to keep her away from the house, which she regularly disregarded.

The divorce was finalized in 1989; Linda was apparently so frightened that she urged her husband to wear a bulletproof vest to their wedding (he did not, and Betty didn't show up to the event).

In the lead-up to the wedding, Linda said she felt like her and Daniel's lives were threatened. "Books were disappearing from Linda’s bedside stand, right next to the bed,” said friend Marshall Hockett to the L.A. Times. “She indicated to me they were surprised by the ex-wife in the house one night. It scared the hell out of her, and she asked me to speak to Dan about it. I didn’t, which I’ll probably regret for the rest of my life."

On November 5, 1989, seven months after they got married, Linda and Daniel were shot in their own bed—Linda twice, Daniel once.

Betty was taken into custody and never denied what happened, saying when she testified that she was startled and just started shooting. Her defense was that the action wasn't premeditated, although she also admitted she yanked the phone out of the wall so he couldn't call for help.

She also maintained, "I bought into a 1950s ‘Leave It to Beaver’ marriage...and he stole my whole life.” She added, “This was a desperate act of self-defense." The first trial ended in a hung jury and a mistrial, but the second convicted her for second-degree murder.

Betty was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 15 years to life for the killings, and is now serving them in the California Institution for Women. She was denied parole as late as 2017 for lack of remorse or understanding of wrongdoing, and should be eligible again in 2023.

Betty's daughter Kate eventually wrote a book about her experiences, saying that her mother felt no remorse for what she'd done and had asked her children for letters of support to advocate for an early release (the children are split about whether she should go free or not).

Dirty John, which premieres June 2 on USA, will dive into the Broderick's early lives, as well as both sides to the story that led to tragedy.

Katherine J. Igoe
Contributing Editor

Katherine’s a contributing syndications editor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle. In her role, she writes stories that are syndicated by MSN and other outlets. She’s been a full-time freelancer for over a decade and has had roles with Cosmopolitan (where she covered lifestyle, culture, and fashion SEO content) and Bustle (where she was their movies and culture writer). She has bylines in New York TimesParentsInStyle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Her work has also been syndicated by ELLEHarper’s BazaarSeventeenGood Housekeeping, and Women’s Health, among others. In addition to her stories reaching millions of readers, content she's written and edited has qualified for a Bell Ringer Award and received a Communicator Award. 

Katherine has a BA in English and art history from the University of Notre Dame and an MA in art business from the Sotheby's Institute of Art (with a focus on marketing/communications). She covers a wide breadth of topics: she's written about how to find the very best petite jeanshow sustainable travel has found its footing on Instagram, and what it's like to be a professional advice-giver in the modern world. Her personal essays have run the gamut from learning to dress as a queer woman to navigating food allergies as a mom. She also has deep knowledge of SEO/EATT, affiliate revenue, commerce, and social media; she regularly edits the work of other writers. She speaks at writing-related events and podcasts about freelancing and journalism, mentors students and other new writers, and consults on coursework. Currently, Katherine lives in Boston with her husband and two kids, and you can follow her on Instagram. If you're wondering about her last name, it’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.