Betty Broderick at 50 years old, November 1997
Nine years ago today Betty Broderick entered a bedroom in Marston Hills and stared at the sleeping bodies of her ex-husband, Dan, and his second wife, Linda. When they became aware of her presence and moved, Betty repeatedly fired her .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. Three of the bullets ripped into the couple, and Dan and Linda died.
Betty and Dan Broderick. After the Brodericks had agreed to sell their La Jolla home, Betty balked at the last minute.
The La Jolla resident and mother of four went on trial a year later, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. A second trial began in September of 1991, and that jury found her guilty of second-degree murder. In February of 1992, a San Diego judge sentenced Broderick to 32 years to life.
She has been in the hands of the California Department of Corrections ever since, and for several years she remained in the public eye. A made-for-TV movie about the Broderick case aired early in 1992, and a sequel was broadcast that fall. About the same time, Oprah Winfrey visited Betty at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Hard Copy followed, and numerous writers made the pilgrimage. Three books about the case appeared.
Toward the end of 1995, however, the Department of Corrections began refusing to give reporters with pencils, paper, audio, and video recorders access to California inmates. Prisoners like Charles Manson were using the media to exploit their notoriety, department officials contended. Protests to the ban erupted from reporters, inmates’ rights advocates, and others concerned about potential abuses within the prison system. When the Department of Corrections failed to yield, a bill to overturn the ban passed both houses of the state legislature (54 to 19 in the Assembly and 27 to 8 in the final Senate vote). But last year Governor Pete Wilson vetoed the bill.
So it is that today if a reporter wants to know what Betty Broderick’s life as a convict is like, he or she has to visit her posing as a friend. The reporter has to listen hard, trying to memorize Betty’s words and how she looks. Only after leaving the prison walls can notes be tape-recorded or scribbled down in an attempt to reconstruct the information. I’ve done this three times in the past few months.
I’ve always been a reporter, rather than a friend, to Betty. I first heard her name in the late spring of 1988, while eating lunch at Kiyo’s on F Street downtown with Paul Krueger, now a Channel 7/39 TV news producer but then a Reader staffer, and Jim Holman, the paper’s publisher. Between bites of sushi, Krueger mentioned he had heard about a divorce case that might deserve attention as a story. The husband, Dan Broderick, had earned a medical degree from Cornell, then he’d gone to Harvard Law School. In San Diego, he’d become one of the city’s most successful plaintiff’s attorneys. He’d served as the local bar association president in 1987. This man had just divorced his wife of 17 years, but the battle over child custody and property issues was continuing. It might be the messiest divorce in San Diego history, Krueger suspected.
Holman directed the two of us to find out more, and in the weeks that followed, I met with Betty on many occasions. She was desperate to talk about her situation, and she regaled me with monologues, loaded me down with legal documents. She told me things she’d done to express her anger — piling most of Dan’s clothes in the back yard of her home and burning them, for example. Or driving her car into the front door of his house on Cypress Avenue. She acknowledged that the $16,000 per month she was receiving from him was a lot of money. But it wasn’t enough to cover her living expenses, she claimed, and Dan was earning six or seven times that amount.
Linda and Dan
Krueger contacted Dan Broderick, and he agreed to be interviewed by the two of us. In the course of our 90-minute meeting, Dan asserted that his marriage to Betty had been cursed with “real incompatibility problems” from the very start. Part of the problem, he admitted, was his failure to be the “kind of good, loving husband I could have been.” The divorce and all its sequelae had been a nightmare that continued to astonish him. All he wanted was peace and quiet, he said.
Not long after that interview, I wrote an account of the case that made no attempt to take sides with either Betty or Dan. The facts alone, I thought, constituted a cautionary tale of the suffering that human beings—bolstered by big egos and a lot of money — could bring upon themselves. The story was scheduled for publication, and Krueger and I continued to check facts with Betty and Dan. Only at the last moment did Dan’s attorney inform us that if the Reader ran the story, Dan Broderick would sue the newspaper for invasion of privacy. We were dumbfounded; he’d never hinted at this. Then we realized that Dan must have figured once we heard his side, we would conclude that Betty was crazy and there was no story. Counsel for the Reader advised that such a suit might be successful since it could be argued that the Brodericks’ divorce was not newsworthy at the time. Holman decided not to run the article.
Betty killed Dan 16 months later, and then the Reader published an updated version of my story. But I didn’t cover the subsequent trials. Other reporters were doing so. Much later, after all the books about the Brodericks had reached print, I wrote another long story in which I interviewed the three book authors. I sent Betty a note at the time asking her what she thought about these literary by-products of her actions, and she dashed off a reply. But that was all that transpired between us until I contacted her in October of last year.
“Dear Betty,” I began then. “I’m writing to you because my editor and I were talking the other day about our shared, continuing interest in you. We wonder how you’re doing. What your life is like. How you’ve changed and developed over time.” I asked if she would write back to me. Or might I visit her?
“Nice to hear from you after such a long time,” her response began. “It’s nice to see you are still at The Reader. Isn’t that amazing what Pete [Wilson] can get away with? [The governor had just vetoed the bill allowing media access to prison inmates.]
“Happy Birthday to Me!” she continued. “I am turning 50 this week [November of1997]. When I remember that I was slitting my wrists on my 36th because of the affair and Dan’s purposeful cruelty towards me, it’s amazing that I’m still alive! :-) I am perfectly fine..."
She had “so much to say and tell.... Wish I could have a lap top, cellular, fax, modem, etc. We are held incommunicado as much as possible. Do you know that I am considered the most dangerous person in this prison by the people in charge??? amazing but true. It has nothing to do with the nature of my offense, but the fact that I am extremely smart, have media access and tremendous credibility. That combination is a tremendous threat. GO FIGURE. HAPPY HALLOWEEN from a very scarey [sic] place!”
She signed it “Love, Betty,” and she enclosed the form that must be filled out by anyone wishing to visit a friend or acquaintance in state prison. I completed it and sent it back to the prison officials. A few weeks later, Betty sent me word that my request to visit her had been approved.
Corresponding with Betty proved frustrating. I wrote her several times trying to arrange a time to see her, but she didn’t answer, and other projects distracted me. It took until June for us to agree that I would visit on July 9.
The California Institution for Women (CIW) is located in a tired-looking valley about 20 miles west of Riverside. As you approach the facility, a sign announces that you’re in the San Bernardino County Dairy Preserve. Your nose also could tell you this. The odor of manure rides on the breeze wafting through cows along both sides of the road. Then the prison appears, unmistakable. A guard tower looms over the northeast corner of the property, and along the tall chain-link fence, coils of barbed wire stretch out.
From the parking lot, the scale of the place gives it an old-fashioned quality, more Midwestern reform school than 21st-century gulag. Many of the structures are low and made of red brick. They were built in 1952. Wide green lawns rimmed with mature pepper trees spread out in front of a central building. “The campus-like design was in keeping with the 1950s ‘progressive’ notion of rehabilitation,” the Department of Correction’s Web site says about this facility. On the afternoon of my first visit, the day felt like a blast furnace, but a bed of well-tended roses seemed to be thriving in the heat.
Betty at 17
To get in, I found my way to a bunker next to one of the guard towers and filled out a form. I handed it and my driver’s license to a female guard standing inside a locked portal. Five minutes later, she called my name, then radioed to someone to open an outer sliding chain-link gate. Along with several other visitors, I joined the guard inside the enclosed entranceway and emptied the contents of my pockets into a basket. Each of us visitors walked through a metal detector, and when I cleared it, the guard stamped my hand with luminous dye. She gave back my keys and money but kept the newspaper and magazine articles that I had brought.
I missed them during the hour and a half that followed. An inner gate slid open, and I went through, across a short walkway, and into an L-shaped waiting room. Around the bend, at the far end of the L, a bank of windows revealed a room that was reminiscent of a school cafeteria. Several dozen inmates milled about in it, but although it was 3:00 p.m., no one was passing in or out of the doors. The prison officials were doing “an early count,” someone in the waiting room stated. All we could do was wait.
About 17 of us — black and white, young and old, scruffy and well groomed — sat in silence. We stared at the white walls or down at the white industrial linoleum, prescuffed by design. Overhead, grimy white acoustic tile hung from the ceiling. The furniture, silver metal supporting sea green and slate blue plastic seats, was neither torn nor dirty, and that surprised me, because it looked as if it had been manufactured in the 1950s.
Around 4:30, some of the visitors began to spot their inmates on the other side of the glass windows. They jumped up and were buzzed through the door by a guard. Minutes later, Betty appeared. I sprang up to approach her, and once united inside, she hugged me.
“You look wonderful!” I remember exclaiming.
“I’m still fat,” she shot back.
But she isn’t, not really. Betty is a tall woman, and her body looks solid and formidable, as it did when I first met her ten years ago. She hasn’t regained the model-slim figure that I’ve seen in photos of the early years of her marriage. But the puffy, double-chinned zombie captured in photos right after the killings is gone. As it was in high school, her face once again could be that of a model, only now she looks like the all-American mom, still pert in middle age. Her large blue eyes remain clear and beautiful. This afternoon she wore mascara, a little eyeliner, and pale lipstick.
We veered toward the vending machines that line one wall of the visiting room, and I asked what I could buy for her. “It’s pretty pathetic that my shopping has been reduced to this,” she cracked. None of it interested her, she said, and besides, one of the torments of her life in prison had been her teeth. Two fillings had fallen out, but the prison dentist wouldn’t fill or crown them. “That’s the policy,” she declared. “The only thing I can do is to have them pulled.” (When I later asked prison officials about this, they denied that any such policy exists.) Betty said that the majority of the inmates were drug users whose teeth were so bad that they probably were unsalvageable. But hers were basically fine, she said, and she detested the idea of having any pulled. The root of one tooth had become infected and swollen and finally died. “I had a do-it-yourself root canal,” Betty said. Now the other one was bothering her. But she dismissed the topic. “Maybe it will help me lose weight,” she said, adding that some of her fellow inmates were much worse off than she, ill with breast cancer or other serious diseases. The prison system has no interest in seeing sick inmates get better, Betty claimed. “They would prefer for us to die. They need the beds. And believe me, if you do die, your bed will not be cold before they’ve found someone else to put in it!”
We settled for cans of iced tea and moved outdoors to a covered patio crammed with orange plastic picnic tables. The grip of the afternoon heat was starting to loosen. “We have so much to talk about!” she said. “It’s been ten years! Do you have time for ten years’ worth of catching up?”
Betty and Dan's wedding day
I couldn’t help sneaking glances at Betty’s arms and hands. They’re still smooth and creamy. On her fingers she wears two objects that she’s had since she was a young girl: a signet ring on her right pinkie and a gold band on her left ring finger. But her fingernails are stubby and unvarnished. She mentioned that prison officials had made recent, dramatic changes in the grooming rules. Now women inmates weren’t allowed to wear colored nail polish. Not that this bothered Betty, she had never had the patience for manicures, she reminded me. With some glee, she recalled that Bella Stumbo (the former Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote the most comprehensive and literate book about the Broderick tragedy) was disappointed when she came to La Jolla and found that Betty lacked any cadre of beauticians who might have received her confidences. “I used to joke that I got my hair cut at the barber’s in back of the Safeway in La Jolla every six months — whether I needed it or not,” Betty told me.
Today, as she has for some years, she wears a short, curly bob that she cuts herself. “I used to spend so much time blowing it dry,” she said. “I never knew that it has this natural wave.” It was blond, but an inch of brown was visible at the roots. As part of the new dictum, prison officials had declared that inmates were no longer permitted to color their hair. “In another month or two, this prison is going to start getting real gray!” a woman sitting near us interposed. Betty’s roots, by the way, are an unadulterated chocolate. “You’d think I’d deserve to have some gray, after all I’ve been through!” she said.
Another grooming change was that the women no longer could wear their hair long, she told me. They had to either cut it short or wear it in a ponytail high enough to elevate it above their shirt collar. This resulted in the ludicrous — in Betty’s eyes — and now commonplace occurrence of guards checking the positioning of the women’s ponytails. “For this the taxpayers are paying these people $24 an hour!”
Because she cuts her own hair and it looks good, she said, other inmates beseeched her to cut theirs. “I keep telling them I’m not a hairdresser. But they insist.” She’d made some very cautious cuts, she said. “When a woman has thick hair it often looks good no matter what. But some don’t and then,” she shrugged, “oh well!”
The rules regarding prison clothes were complex, I learned. For decades, California inmates have had to wear denim, while visitors are prohibited from doing so. That helps the guards to tell the two apart However, Betty said that part of the time women in CIW are permitted to wear their own clothing — sent in from the outside. At other times, when they are working, for example, or when they enter the visiting room, they have to wear institutional attire. Prison-issued blue jeans are ugly, Betty explained, baggy, ill-fitting things with elastic waistbands and big pockets. She shrugged, saying that this wasn’t a big deal to her. But she said it demoralized many of the women.
Shoes seemed a sorer point for Betty. “We have to wear these,” she said, lifting a foot clad in plain white sneakers. They looked inoffensive, but Betty said she’d rather wear her own footgear. Moreover, she refused to wear socks. Tm sorry. I’m from New York, and cool people don’t wear socks. It’s a New York thing.” This had led to many arguments with the guards. “I say the rule means that if you’re going to wear socks, they have to be prison socks. But it doesn’t say you can’t wear no socks.”
I got the impression she relishes such minor skirmishes. On the other hand, she told me that her behavior was rated “A-1A” — the best possible. She also said that something like 97 percent of the guards were extremely nice to her. She claims that some have asked for her autograph. She says the other 2 to 3 percent hate her and do everything possible to make life hard.
I wondered if some of the friendly guards were turning a blind eye to the blouse that she was wearing: a loose, housewifely garment with short sleeves and a Peter Pan collar. Decorated with pale pastel flowers, it didn’t look like any sort of prison garb.
“It is prison-issue!” she said. “I’m so slick. Here’s what; happened.” She said that when her prison term began, she became aware of these blouses, which years ago served as maternity tops for pregnant inmates. Betty somehow obtained about 20 of them. When the officials restricted attire from the outside world, “These blouses became like gold!” Betty said. She added that she gave some away to friends, but she kept six and now wears them daily.
While Dan was at Harvard Law School
I asked how prison authorities informed inmates when a change in the rules had occurred “They scream it down the hallways of the units at night,” she answered; notices might later be posted on the walls. It was common, she said, for quite ridiculous advisories to be announced in this manner. As an example, she described how the guards on one recent night bellowed that inmates had to discard every plastic bag in their possession. Anyone caught with one would “get a 115” — a disciplinary action, for which the penalty might be immediate transfer to another facility. Betty said indescribable panic ensued, with women dumping all their possessions out of the baggies in which they had organized them, as well as discarding all the other plastic bags they had been issued.
“I thought it was so absurd that I ignored it,” Betty told me. She knew that all her plastic bags were legal prison-issue, she said, and she figured she would go to battle over the matter if she had to. Sure enough, a day or two later, the guards announced that only one type of garbage bag was being confiscated (this because women had been using them to cook with and later flushing them down the already overtaxed toilets).
If this incident was too ridiculous to merit anything but her contempt, Betty made it clear that the thought of being transferred does fill her with fear. California has two other large women’s prisons, and both are located in Chowchilla, a rural community northwest of Fresno. Getting there is difficult, making visits from friends and family members much less likely for an inmate from Southern California. The two Chowchilla facilities are newer than CIW, and Betty says they’re harsher environments. She compared living in CIW versus Chowchilla to the difference between living in an old La Jolla bungalow versus a huge apartment complex in Poway. CIW is old and small, but the windows in every living unit can be cranked partway open—a tremendous blessing, according to Betty. “They let in fresh air,” she said. “You can hear the rain fall. You can hear the birds sing.”
Betty claims that when she first was sent to prison, she managed to get a judge to order that she be kept at CIW. This was supposed to ensure that her children would be able to visit her. But just a week or two after her arrival, guards showed up at her door in the middle of the night and told her she was moving. She says they hustled her into the back seat of a car, two guards in the front, and whisked her northward.
“I didn’t have a roommate at the time, so for a while no one knew where I was!” she said. At the central California facility, she protested that the court had ordered her to stay in the south. Betty said her older son, who was around 17, fired off a polished legal argument in favor of her return to Southern California. But it nonetheless took her about two and a half years to win a transfer back.
The rooms in Chowchilla were large and each housed eight roommates, she told me. They contained two sinks, two mirrors, a shower, and a toilet, enabling the guards to “lock down” the prison for extended periods.
In contrast, Betty said, the CIW rooms are tiny, with brick walls and tiled floors. “Not real tiles!” she interjected, as if Mexican pavers or Indian slate might have come to mind. Cheap linoleum tiles. The rooms contain high-school-style lockers, she said, as well as a metal desk. “But people usually reserve the desk for cooking and use their beds as their desks.” There’s also a sink, a mirror, and an exposed toilet. “My current roommate is about to go home, and I was joking with her that she can take this decorating idea home with her: put a toilet in the middle of the living room, so you can just pull down your pants and go whenever nature calls,” Betty said. “You don’t even have to interrupt the flow of conversation!”
Beds were in such demand that she would get a new roommate in hours, Betty predicted. And she would immediately adapt her ways to accommodate the newcomer, she added. “I am so codependent.” She was always like that with Dan, she said She’d leave the lights on and the door unlocked for him when he was out late, but on the rare occasions when the tables were turned, she’d come home to find the house dark and locked. I expressed surprise that this compliant aspect of her personality hadn’t changed. But when I pressed her, she insisted that she had no desire to change it. She seemed to see her willingness to subordinate her own interests to those around her as a fundamental part of her being, one that she valued. She’d be tiptoeing around the room and taking care not to flush the toilet when the new roommate was sleeping, she asserted.
She usually needs only about four hours of sleep a night, she told me. “I have too much energy for prison life!” Since her sense of courtesy prohibits her from turning on her light and reading at two in the morning, she said she had discovered a television channel that at that hour broadcasts films on nature, accompanied by soothing music. She often listens to this on the headphones of her small TV set, she said, covering the screen with a cloth to minimize the light.
Broderick family, November 1984
At night, Betty says, the guards flip a switch that locks the doors of the inmates’ rooms; there are no bars. This is the only time the women are routinely confined. During the day, after the doors have been opened, “We can go anywhere in the prison,” Betty said. Women can visit each other in their rooms. They can stroll the grounds or head for breakfast in the mess hall, known at CIW as the Village Cafe (or “VC”).
Mention of this reminded me to ask Betty about the food. “It’s like I told my mother shortly after I was sent to Chowchilla: the food in prison is like everything else. If you have money and can buy alternatives, you’re fine, but if you have to survive on the regular stuff, God help you.”
Maybe the food wasn’t really any worse than that found in most institutions, she amended a moment later. But for all her Catholic education, none of it had been at boarding school, so she’d never experienced such fare. In the prison, she said, you have no choices. Everyone receives the same portions; you can’t ask for more of one thing and none of another. You don’t even see the food servers; otherwise they would dole out bigger and better helpings to their friends. Often the dishes being served are unidentifiable, according to Betty.
Whenever something better appears on the menu—anything that resembles food one might consume in the outside world—Betty says the inmates are issued tickets that they exchange for their trays. “Tacos are a ticket item,” she declared, “but they’re not like any taco you’ve ever seen. There’s no lettuce. No tomatoes.” Pork chops and chicken are served under the tight controls, even though Betty says the pork chops are so thin you can snap them in two, and the chicken is “pitiful.” Despite the dismal quality, guards are posted at the end of the line to make sure no inmate has two trays. “Which is ridiculous!” Betty exclaimed. She says you can see the food-service workers slipping trays bearing the special items out the back door to their friends.
The presence of the guards does have comic value, she indicates. Betty told me that she often manages to dumbfound them by looking serious and voicing some complaint such as “They forgot my guacamole!” This caught them off-balance; she laughed at the recollection of their momentary confusion.
Sometimes weeks went by without any ticket items appearing, she said. Once in a while, they might show up two days out of seven. Betty indicated that food sent by friends and supporters helps her to survive the grim spells. Rice cakes were wonderful, she said, “because they taste good and they’re very lightweight” (The prison imposes strict limitations on the number and weight of food packages.) She loves canned tuna or sardines or shrimp, as well as M&Ms, plain and almond (though her dental problems were prohibiting her from doing more than sucking on the latter). She also receives instant soups and hot chocolate and instant chocolate pudding. She uses an electric tea warmer — a “stinger,” in prison parlance— to warm these up. “That’s how the whole prison cooks. Think double boiler,” she said, explaining that the women fill pots or other receptacles with water, which they heat with the electrical devices. They then put the food to be cooked into another container (such as those confiscated garbage bags) and immerse it in the hot water. Betty said other inmates joke that no one but an inmate would know what the stingers were for. But she said she learned about them in Catholic grade school.
I asked if I could send her food, but she said no. She says many friends offer to do so, but these days inmates can receive only one 30-pound package every three months. She added that the rules have changed a lot during her half-dozen years within the system. When she arrived, she said, inmates could receive all kinds of goods, though at Chowchilla care packages had to be shipped in boxes of a certain size—10 by 11 by 17 inches, I think. (The first box that Betty’s daughter Kim sent had the size printed on the side as 10 by 17 by 11 inches — and a guard refused it, a case of pure stupidity, as Betty tells the story.)
Betty and La Jolla friends
Since then, the shipments have been limited to one package per quarter, and Betty said the inmates fear that more restrictions will come. In some California institutions, she said, prisoners cannot receive any item that’s available from their prison canteen. For example, if the canteen carries a cheap brand of toothpaste, a friend can’t send you Mentadent (Betty’s brand). If the canteen carries one brand of cookies, your family no longer can send your personal favorites (Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos, in Betty’s case).
Inmates buy items from the prison canteen with money that friends or family have put “on their books.” But Betty says the state takes 22 cents of every such dollar. (California Department of Corrections officials say they do this when a court has ordered that restitution or a fine be paid, something that is done with about half of all inmates.) Betty says inmates can order items from catalogs such as Avon or JCPenney. “But nothing is ever on sale in catalogs,” she pointed out. You have to pay for shipping, plus an additional prison-related tax is imposed, she asserted. As a result, she says, for the most inferior goods inmates pay what free citizens pay for the very best items. She recently paid $62 for $37 worth of catalog merchandise.
She says inmates used to be able to receive “stationery packages” as long as they didn’t exceed three pounds. The packages could include stamps, greeting cards, envelopes, pretty writing paper, and clear pens. But this privilege, too, had been severely restricted. “The rules change from moment to moment, person to person,” she asserted.
As for reading material, she told me she’d received different magazines at different times. She’d gotten Martha Stewart Living for a while, “but Martha’s gone now.” She’d enjoyed Vogue and Esquire off and on and was receiving W at the moment. But she added that she was going to let that subscription lapse because she couldn’t bear to think of all the trees that were wasted to print it. She also voiced scorn for what she sees as the tasteless clothing that so often passes for high fashion.
She said Brad Wright, her former boyfriend, had once gotten her a subscription to the San Diego Business Journal—a choice she thought was insane. She hadn’t read it when she lived in San Diego, she said, and she certainly had no interest in reading it in prison. She does get and read the San Diego Union-Tribune, though it often arrives weeks late. Her favorite way of keeping up with the popular culture, however, is to watch Good Morning America and Regis and Kathie Lee. “I just love them!” she said. She enjoys passing on insights to the less well-informed For example, she recently urged a doctor in the prison’s mental health clinic to buy one of the albums of Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor. The doctor had protested that she didn’t like opera much, but Betty had insisted that she try. “Just the other day, she told me that she bought one of his CDs, and she absolutely loved it!” Betty beamed.
Betty said she started working in the prison’s mental health unit early this year. Between 200 and 300 inmates receive regular treatment there, and it is Betty’s job to schedule the appointments with the dozen or so psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, as well as to generate the paperwork that notifies everyone what they’ll be doing when. It sounds like a high-pressure job, from her description. She says someone brings her printouts at six in the morning, and she starts working on them in her room, then she continues at a high pitch in the mental health office until three or four in the afternoon. For this she earns $17 a month.
“That’s a high-paying job,” she said. “Many don’t pay any money.” But there were other sources of motivation. Betty said that for each day nonlifers work, they get one day off their time, up to half of their sentence. As a lifer, this benefit didn’t extend to her. But all the patients loved her, she asserted. “They tell me I’m like the mother they never had. They do things for me that they won’t do for anyone else.” They hug her, she says (and she worries about getting lice from them). She says the doctors want to keep her happy because so few inmates are competent to do this job. And she does sound satisfied with it. She says she’d be glad to do it every day, but the unit is closed on weekends.
Betty and Brad Wright
I asked Betty what she does with weekend time, and she said she devotes most of it to trying to reduce the huge stack of correspondence on her bed. “It goes up and down,” she said of the volume. An average day might bring in ten new letters. “But Court TV keeps re-airing my second trial, and every time it does, the number increases.” Stations also rerun the made-for-TV movies, and then she gets more mail. She says viewers have sent her “Free Betty Broderick” T-shirts. Betty told me that she tries to answer as many letters as she can. On the weekends she also plays Scrabble with friends or does crossword puzzles or knits. She goes to Mass on Sunday mornings, and every week she rounds up inmates to deliver the day’s liturgical readings.
On Monday morning, the workweek begins anew. As much as she likes her current job, it’s not her favorite prison work, Betty told me. She says for years she worked as a janitor, and “I absolutely loved that.” Best of all were the hours. She says they were supposed to be from 2:00 to 10:00 p.m. More often than not, however, she’d be sent to her room for the night at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. Since most of the inmates work between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., starting at 2:00 p.m. gave her the mornings and early afternoons to watch her TV shows and read and attend to personal chores. “I could shop and use the phone and eat meals and see visitors at the least crowded times,” she explained.
The janitorial work never bothered her. “Hey, I’m the queen of housework,” she said at one point. “That’s what I did in life!” She says that’s one reason she never has paid other inmates to do personal chores for her. “People mocked Leona Helmsley because she hired other people to do her laundry. But they don’t realize how desperate people in prison are to make money.” Betty says when she arrived, women begged her to hire them for such work.
She declined, even though doing the laundry herself has hardly been easy, by her account. For a long time, the CIW facility had no washing machines. Betty says the inmates washed their personal items in the toilets. Prison officials finally installed wash basins and machines two years ago, but there’s still only one machine per 110 women. Betty says the washers aren’t the industrial sort but household models, so they often break. When that happens, the women use the sinks. “I used to see pictures of primitive women washing clothes in streams and think they were charming,” she said. “I don’t anymore!”
Drying the clothes also presents challenges, she says. “You’re supposed to dry them outside on a clothes line.” But even prison-issued garb, if new, is often stolen, she claims. To avoid this, she says she dries her clothes in her room, hanging the wet items on a towel rack. They dry, but she’s found them covered with little black spots. “It’s fly poop! This prison is in the middle of a cow pasture. So in the summer there are flies everywhere.” She added that an old friend from La Jolla had recently sent her a small room fan that was helping both to dry the clothes and to chase away the flies.
Besides tending to her clinic job and routine chores, Betty mentioned engaging in a half dozen volunteer activities. In one letter, for example, she told me that she recorded books once a week for the Braille Institute. On my first visit with her, she talked at length about how she tutored fellow inmates and had helped several pass the General Educational Development (GED) test, enabling them to get a high school equivalency certificate. She ticked off other prison groups in which she was active: an organization for women with long prison sentences, another called the California Women Against Abuse, still others that I don’t remember. The busy soccer mom who crashed and burned back in La Jolla had sprung up from the ashes, it seemed.
Murder arraignment, November 6, 1989
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Betty’s and my conversation leapt around so much on that first day that (because of my inability to record it or take notes) I can’t reproduce how it unfolded. I can tell you, however, that she returned to certain subjects again and again. She talked a lot about her children. They’ve all developed into wonderful people, she says. Her elder son just graduated from Stanford, and Betty told me she’s been urging him to go to Harvard Law (“so he can have the New England experience”). Her younger son started this fall as an undergraduate at Berkeley. Her daughter Kim got married, lives in La Jolla, and was expecting her first baby this month. Her other daughter, Lee, the child most like her, the one whom Dan disinherited, also lives in San Diego. She’s a computer wizard, according to her mother. But Betty worries that Lee hasn’t yet found her path in life.
All her children have visited her throughout the years, she says, though she’s told them to stay away during Christmas and school holidays. “I didn’t want for all their memories of those times to be of visiting Mom in prison,” she said. Instead, Betty says she’s asked them to come for her special occasions: her birthday in November, Mother’s Day, and usually once in the summer.
For Betty, some of those visits sound like they’ve been idyllic. She says the CIW prison has a number of “family living units.” (She calls them flu’s.) These are small cottages on the prison grounds. Prisoners who’ve worked a certain number of hours can reserve them for extended visits with their immediate families. Although the accommodations are shabby and lack style, Betty says this never bothered her. Some of the units have two bedrooms and a kitchen and a small patch of grass outdoors with a barbecue. Most importantly, they enabled her to commune in private with her children — usually from Friday afternoon through Sunday.
“My kids — being my kids — always showed up with something like $800 worth of groceries.” She says they would bring all the foods that she missed: Swiss cheese and ham and Häagen-Dazs bars and fresh fruits and vegetables and more. They made up gigantic Cobb salads that Betty describes eating nonstop. She says the authorities often wake inmates up during the night, but when this happened during one of the visits, “at least I could console myself with a Haagen-Dazs bar!”
In 1996, however, family-living-unit visits were discontinued for lifers (a group that includes those like Betty, sentenced to a period ranging from a certain number of years to life). “It was mainly aimed at men who were using them for sex,” she said, suggesting that the ban may have made sense in some cases. A woman had just married Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, and if he killed her during a conjugal visit, the State of California might be liable, Betty pointed out. But applying the ban too broadly imposed a gross hardship on the women lifers who had used the visits to stay close to their children. Now, for the first time, she confided, she was worrying about maintaining her relationship with hers. How could Kim bring her baby to this crowded, noisy patio? It was no place for a child, Betty said.
Nonetheless, her children have continued to see her there. She says on one recent visit she asked if she had ever done anything to them when they were small for which they hated her. She says one of the girls answered, “Yeah, Mom. You made us wear those matching outfits.”
Telling me this, Betty giggled and admitted it was true. Every year she would buy them matching outfits that she made them wear in a formal photograph. She would swear that she’d never do it again. But she would. She loves photographs, always has. “That’s all we have left as proof that we were once a happy family,” she wrote me in one letter. She says she’s always nagging her children to note in pen on the back of each photo when it was shot and what the subject is. “You think you’ll remember, but you really will forget,” she harangues them. “My friends are always telling me, ‘You’re such a mom!’ ” she said, buffing her fingernails on her shirt.
I asked if Betty had seen the videos shot at her older daughter’s wedding — elaborate celebrations that stretched over three days. She answered that she wasn’t allowed to have videos brought in. She added that they — or any other contraband she wanted — would nonetheless be very easy to obtain. Lots of inmates had packages sent to guards or other personnel who brought them in. And there were video players in a number of locations. But when I questioned why Betty didn’t do this, she grew vehement. “I’ve always been very ethical,” she said. “I don’t break the rules about things like that.” Another time she told me she was so square that “my corners have points.”
The other thing that Betty talked about a lot, that she kept returning to, was her shooting of Dan and Linda. She brings up the events of that morning and rehashes them in detail, insisting that she never intended to kill the couple. She went to their house to shoot herself in front of them. Or “to have control of the situation and keep them from calling the police.” (She’s told me both things.) When they moved and she fired, her action was as involuntary as a newborn’s “startle” reflex, she maintains. “Isn’t it obvious that if I had any intention of shooting them, my actions before, during and after would have been very different and the evidence of bodies, bullets and phone would have been very different as well?” she asked in one letter.
Viewed more broadly, the killings resulted from Dan’s having driven her crazy, she says. When the divorce finally came, she was ready to put it behind her and move on with her life. But Dan couldn’t bear to relinquish his dominion over her. “He wanted me to disappear and not speak up for myself, the kids, our rights or the truth.” He was a lot like O.J. Simpson, according to Betty. “Just like O.J., Dan could never let go of his total control! He could use the kids and the money as weapons,” she wrote me. “Nicole had to be nice to O. J. to keep the child support coming. At the time of the murder she had returned a diamond bracelet and dashed his hopes of getting her back in his control where he could continue his abuse of her verbally, emotionally and physically.”
Betty sounds so sincere when she says these things that she almost made me feel this is what happened. It took quite a bit of effort for me to recall that when I investigated the situation ten years ago, what seemed to be going on then was something different. Then it appeared to me that Betty was the one who could not let Dan go. She was furious about his rejecting her and breaking the marital contract between them. Her anger was an uncontrollable inferno.
But Betty now remembers the events otherwise. That’s why when someone asks her if she has any regrets, she says she doesn’t — if regret means thinking back and wishing she had made a different choice. At every step in her life where she made choices, Betty claims, she remains comfortable with the choices she made. But she never chose to go shoot two people, let alone kill them, she says.
The light was fading. At five minutes before eight, guards began calling out that it was time for visitors to leave. Betty was still talking at top speed. I asked if I could visit her again in two weeks, and she assented.
Deputy District Attorney Kerry Wells
On this second occasion, a different guard was stationed in the portal, a short young man, trim and dapper in a uniform that looked as if it had been carefully ironed. “Have a nice visit,” he encouraged each of us visitors.
Inside, the waiting room seemed less malodorous, perhaps because the heat outside was less oppressive. And only a few minutes passed before Betty appeared on the other side of the glass. To my surprise, and Betty’s, another woman stood up to move toward her. Betty motioned both of us in and introduced me to the woman, whose name was Pat. She had met Betty while working as a prison chaplain at Chowchilla. She was down in Southern California on business, she explained, and she had decided on the spur of the moment to visit Betty.
The three of us gravitated toward the vending machines and again Betty declined food. Her lower right molar had reached a state of crisis. She explained to Pat that it had been bothering her for months. One of the prison doctors kept telling her that she was suffering from a sinus infection, she said. She’d taken antibiotics, and the pain and swelling had diminished somewhat. But it had flared up again, badly, and according to Betty the dentist had reiterated that he only was permitted to pull the tooth, rather than to refill or crown it.
Betty told us that she knew the tooth could be saved, and she finally decided to seek treatment from her longtime dentist, who practices near Balboa Park. In order to do this, she explained, she would have to pay for guards to accompany her to his office. This would cost “thousands of dollars,” she said. But she’d heard of one woman sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole who had hired guards to go out with her and get contact lenses. (Prison officials acknowledge that this is possible, but they say that such outside excursions are rare.)
Betty said she told her children to send her the money set aside to pay for her funeral. She says they disliked this idea, but somehow she came to believe that her ex-boyfriend, Brad Wright, would send her the money. She thus made plans to see her San Diego dentist early in the morning. “That way I wouldn’t disturb his other patients,” she said.
No money had arrived, however, and on July 17, overwhelmed by the pain, Betty had agreed to have the tooth pulled. Three days later, someone slipped an envelope under her door. She says she thought that maybe the money from Brad had been there all along but reached her too late. Indeed, it was a letter from him, she said, and it expressed concern about her tooth problems. But it contained no money.
Recounting this incident launched her into a long discussion of her former boyfriend. He really needed to come up for a visit, Betty said, indicating that he hadn’t done so for some time. In fact, she disclosed that she’d begun having trouble reaching him by phone. Whereas they once had talked at least three to five times per week, she had recently found his telephone numbers blocked to her calls. Betty had concluded that Brad’s current girlfriend was jealous of and insecure about her.
“Does this sound familiar?” she asked us. She added that she wasn’t jealous in return; it would be fine with her if he married the girlfriend. But Brad had been taking care of Betty’s property, and she wanted to make sure she got it all back. She said he’d told her, for example, that he was storing some of her expensive Sèvres porcelain in a toolshed at his construction company. “I love Brad.” Her voice was thick with sarcasm. “He’s such a blonde!” At other times she sounded grateful to and appreciative of him. It’s been Brad, she confided to me later, who has put $ 150 on her books every month that she’s been in prison. Without that money, she couldn’t survive, she stated. The thought of it ever ending filled her with anxiety.
Betty with court papers
Pat asked about Betty’s life at CIW, and Betty announced that she had a new roommate. Imprisoned on drug charges, this woman had the most staggering body odor imaginable, according to Betty, who added that she’d been using her little fan to blow the smell out the window. Besides being foul-smelling, “Miss B.O.” (as Betty called her) seemed to be retarded. “I asked how soon she was going home and she held up three fingers and said three days,” Betty said. Later on, however, she had seen papers that stated the woman’s release date as several days later.
The three of us chatted for about an hour, then word came that the guards were starting the afternoon count. For this, the inmates were herded onto the patio, where they lined up and checked in one by one with a guard sitting at a desk. After each of them had registered her presence, the guards made the women leave the patio and join us in the visiting room, which then was locked. We weren’t permitted to go outside again until 5:30. In the meantime, the guards worked at reconciling the numbers. If they didn’t add up, the counting process would start all over again.
Whenever someone went “over the wall,” Betty said, three blasts of an alarm would sound, and everyone was expected to race back to her room for a lockdown. That had happened the other day about ten in the morning, she said, and the inmates hadn’t been let out until two. The would-be escapee (soon captured) had been scheduled to leave the prison the next day, but something had delayed her release, and the woman had flipped out, Betty thought.
Security was much higher up in Chowchilla, Pat and Betty agreed. Up north the prisons have five layers of fencing, instead of two, and barbed wire at the bottom as well as at the top. “Plus the whole thing is electrified,” Pat added.
The two women discussed a load of prisoners who had just been shipped down from the north. Pat explained that repeated bomb threats had been made at a living unit there. Furthermore, when one of the medical workers had failed to lock the clinic office, 90 syringes had been stolen. Although 80 or so had been recovered, repeated lockdowns and searches had failed to unearth the rest. For both those reasons, the living unit had been shut down and the women sent to other institutions, according to Pat.
“We’re supposed to be getting 80 more new prisoners at any moment,” Betty commented.
“Where will they put them?” Pat asked.
“They’re gonna have to open up another dorm to house them all,” Betty replied.
From letter to author
A subject that caused both Betty and Pat to bristle with indignation was the large number of women who were “violated” — that is, released on parole, then made to return to prison for an alleged parole violation. (This is true for about half of the women parolees, California Department of Corrections statistics indicate.) The vast majority, Pat and Betty believed, did nothing wrong. Betty mentioned one woman who had a metal nail file that was found and declared to be a weapon. Pat told me about another woman whose relatives kept ceremonial swords on the wall. This decorative detail resulted in her being returned to prison. Yet another woman was peeling potatoes in front of the TV set in her living room. “You can have a knife in the kitchen. But not in the living room,” Betty said. So back she came.
Bringing the inmates back creates job security for the prison officials, Pat and Betty asserted. They added that the prisons — like the public schools — get a certain amount of money for each body housed. So there’s pressure to keep the numbers high. And high they are. Designed for 1026 inmates, the CIW facility held 1745 in September. The two Chowchilla prisons, designed for a total of 3984, held more than 7400.
At another point, Betty commented that before she was sent to prison she would not have thought that the best-behaved prisoners would be the lifers. Yet they were the ones who never caused problems, she asserted, and Pat said that was true. I expressed surprise, but Betty pointed out that prison was home for the lifers. They have a reason to want it to be clean and well-run and predictable. In contrast, the short-termers often never “arrived” psychologically, Betty said. She elaborated that the typical short-termer might be imprisoned for three years. “But it takes a good 15 months to start to feel like you’re here,” she said. At that point the three-year prisoner has.to begin preparing for her reentry into society. Betty said prison officials make an effort to help women get ready for release. But the prospect of freedom was still stressful, and inmates often became ill-tempered (“short and shitty,” inmates call this, according to Betty).
When Pat departed, I asked Betty if she felt safe in prison society. She hadn’t felt safe in her life with Dan, she exclaimed. Prison, in contrast, was a haven. Never had she feared for her physical safety, she declared. “There are only two things that ever cause problems,” she said. “One is not paying your drug debts, and the other is lesbian love triangles.” I asked if those developed often, and Betty said yes but not on any big scale. And if you weren’t involved in either — as she was not — you could avoid them.
Betty said that sex between the female prisoners and the male guards was common. What else could you expect? she asked. With the guards responsible for keeping an eye on the women at all times — in bed, in the showers — the temptation was unrelenting. Betty thinks the recent confiscation of “prison muumuus” may have been aimed at reducing the incidence of sexual encounters. She says the muumuus were long, loose, sleeveless garments with pockets. “They were cool, and everyone wore them as nightgowns.” One night, however, the guards hollered down the corridors that everyone had to turn in her muumuu or be transferred. “It removes the crotch access,” Betty explained. “We threw away so much fabric in those muumuus that we could have clothed the entire country of Brazil!” (When I later asked a ClW official how common sexual encounters were between inmates and guards, he told me that no CIW guard had been fired for “overfamiliarity” for five years.)
Betty says now she sleeps in her clothing. Sometimes in winter she also dons a sweat suit. The units weren’t insulated, she said, and inmates piled on jackets and other outerwear to keep warm.
From letter to author, July 10, 1998
We were talking in the visiting room. At a nearby table, a weary-looking Hispanic woman, another lifer, took a seat. Betty told me that a judge had released her on bail while a writ filed by her attorney was adjudicated. But the district attorney had gotten an extension to appeal the writ, and another judge had just sent the woman back.
Noting our glance, she said, “Hi, Betty,” and smiled. Betty gave her a sympathetic wave.
One of the fascinating things about visiting Betty Broderick in prison is seeing how different she looks from the other inmates. So many of them — even ones who are decades younger — look worn and defeated. Betty, blond and animated, crackles with energy. She’s quick and funny and attractive. If she ever gets out, she could support herself as a standup comic.
If she’s a different breed from her fellow inmates, she nonetheless seems to get along well with them. During my visits, several people came up to her to introduce family members. Betty was warm and gracious with them all. She claims that everyone respects her. “If you can be rich in prison, I am rich,” she says, “with respect.”
I asked if she had low moments, and she didn’t deny it. But she made a big speech about how, when she considers the global picture and what life is like for people in war-torn areas, she realizes that her life is a lot better in prison than it is for legions of people elsewhere. She continued that when she first arrived in prison, many things struck her as absurd. “Now I think it’s quite hilarious,” she declared. As an example, she mentioned seeing a sign the other day that toilet paper had to be checked out from the guard station. She says she asked if that meant they wanted it back when she was through with it. She says she laughs all the time, and it drives some of her jailers crazy.
“Look, if I could be married to Dan Broderick for all those years without showing how miserable I was, prison has got to be a piece of cake,” she said at one point. She didn’t miss having money, she claimed. Though it had been great to have it, she was equally happy without it.
Besides her children, I asked, what did she miss? She thought only for a few seconds before answering, “Cooking.” She loved entertaining and making people happy. “Cooking was my creative outlet, my art form,” she repeated in a note to me a few days later.
In that same note, she informed me, “The stinky roommate went home yesterday :-) The prison is full of petty vilators [sic] like her (30 days) that overload the system and serve NO LEGITIMATE PURPOSE!!! just cost the taxpayers huge sums of money!! She’ll be back and back and back again on violations (under the influence) and she won’t give a damn because she gets free room and board and gets to lay around, sleep and eat all day and just get in our (the ones who work) way!”
A week or so later, she felt the need to elaborate on her blithe demeanor. “As you see I try to put the horror of all this behind me but I can easily dissolve into tears whenever I really remember any of it. As long as I keep it a logical thing I can talk about it, but when I start to really remember how it all felt I dissolve into tears and sobs because the hurt and pain of all we went thru will never go away. Dan was very cold and cruel to all of us. Even his very very best friends could only describe him as COLD. He had no feelings at all. Everything was about domination power and control and when I no longer gave him that power he became insane about subjugating me to it anyway! I am so happy to be free of that terror and fear.”
Along with that letter, she enclosed two empty sugar packets printed with the name and insignia of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. These baffled me. I couldn’t recall that she had ever mentioned sugar. I wrote her asking what they meant, and she replied that they were an example of “my crazy sense of humor —you thought I was in prison, but I’m really on a cruise!! We get assorted funny sugar packets at our meals. For the longest time they were giving out La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club sugars!! That was a little close to the bone!!! :-)
“What about all this Clinton stuff?” she went on. “Like Dan, it really wasn’t what he did, but how he conducted himself after he was caught!! Slimy Horntoad! Just look everyone in the eye and LIE, LIE, LIE thereby insinuating that all those women were in fact the liars, not he! Don’t even get me started ' on how a supposedly smart man could do something so pathetically STUPID! Oh! The male ego!!”
I visited Betty one more time on the first day in October. For the most part, I tried to review with her things she’d told me on previous visits. We also chatted about some of the minor news of the prison. Betty’s hair was looking as blond as ever, and I asked about the grooming rules. No one seemed to be enforcing the hair-dye prohibition, Betty indicated. But one sergeant had made her remove her 24-karat-gold earrings (because they weren’t “institutionally approved”). Betty had kept them off for a while but had donned them again that very morning and had not been told to take them off. On the other hand, she had. lost a round in the Great Sock Battle. “I just hate them!” she said of the thick white foot coverings, visible under her white sneakers. She had applied colored polish to her toenails in defiance.
I asked her on that final visit if she thought she’d ever get out of prison. “I don’t know,” she answered. She just lived day by day, she added. “And usually I manage to have a pretty good time.” She bent over, laughing. “And that pisses them off.”