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Divorce, Death and Fury

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THE CREDIT CARDS, THE COUNTRY CLUB memberships, the Jaguar, the opulent house near San Diego—they are all just memories. Elisabeth “Betty” Broderick has a new life now, one that includes mopping floors, scrubbing toilets and taking morning walks with a convicted bank robber. Broderick, 44—heroine to some, cold-blooded killer to others—lives in a 14-by-14-foot dormitory room with five other inmates at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, 120 miles southeast of San Francisco. It doesn’t seem to bother her. “I have my little color TV my brother got me,” she told the San Diego Union-Tribune recently. “And I have my coffee and hot chocolate in the mornings. My roommates go off to school, and I clean the whole room. I don’t mind it at all.”

That is fortunate. For unless an appeals court reverses Broderick’s conviction in a sensational murder case, she will be spending at least 17½ years in prison. Just before dawn on Nov. 5, 1989, she slipped into the bedroom of her ex-husband, Daniel, 44, and his new wife, Linda, 28, and fired five shots from a nickel-plated .38-caliber revolver, killing them both. She claimed she was “a woman scorned,” divorced three years earlier by her husband, a wealthy attorney, who she said battered her emotionally with relentless legal actions (PEOPLE, Oct. 21, 1991). The prosecution, however, argued that Betty was an obsessive shrew who had terrorized Dan and Linda for years, resulting in his many Legal moves. On Dec. 10, 1991, Broderick was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder.

Even so, many women, identifying with her plight as an older woman replaced by a younger “trophy” wife, rallied to Broderick’s cause. At least three books are in the works, and a CBS movie in March 1992 received blockbuster ratings in the U.S. (28.4 million viewers) and was sold to 28 countries around the world. Now the network has scheduled an entirely new, second movie for Sunday, Nov. 1, focusing on her criminal case. Broderick intends to watch and will make a taped appearance the following day on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Since arriving at Chowchilla, Broderick “has been getting along well with other inmates,” says prison official David Lankford. Indeed, so social is Betty that she is known in the yard as “cruise director.” Yet she has not fundamentally changed. She is still unable to understand why her four children are angry at her, says one of her oldest friends, Helen Pickard of La Jolla, Calif. ” ‘I did it for I he kids,’ ” Pickard quotes her as saying. That only makes Broderick’s oldest daughter, Kim, 22, angrier. “She knows I didn’t want her to do it,” Kim says. “If she thinks we’re all better off now, she’s wrong about that.”

Prison routine allows Broderick to make collect calls from a pay phone most evenings starting at 7. It is a nightly passion for her. Her second daughter, Kathy Lee, 21, received so many complaining calls from her mother she had her home phone disconnected. And Kim, who testified for the prosecution, says she has been a recipient of her mother’s wrath. “When she gets upset, she has said, ‘If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here,’ ” Kim says. “But I think she’s handling it better now.”

Another focus of Broderick’s rancor concerns her two sons, Danny, 16, and Rhett, 13. This summer a psychologist said it would be detrimental for the boys if they visited her in prison. Broderick blamed that decision on the ghost of her influential late husband. “The f—-r is dead. My God, he’s dead, he’s cold to the wind and he still has power,” she complained to the Union-Tribune.

Now it appears there may be a truce. Betty’s recent calls to the kids have been conciliatory. The three older children, who live in California, are planning to visit her for the first time on Nov. 7, her 45th birthday. (Rhett lives in the Midwest with relatives.) “Going to a prison doesn’t appeal to me,” Kim says. “But with the trial all over with, I think that will help patch things up.”

Broderick does have other visitors. Her old and good friend Brad Wright, 38, has made it to the prison twice, talks to her regularly and from time to time sends her packages of cookies, bath oil, cosmetics, macadamia nuts and tennis shoes. Other friends are also sending care packages, and some have joined the Alliance for Divorce and Marriage Reform. a group that wants to make California’s divorce laws fairer for women. Their view is shared by private investigator Marion Pasas, who worked on Broderick’s case. “There’s inequality here,” Pasas says. “Dan Broderick fell he didn’t owe Betty anything. He took away [everything]. She had nothing left and nothing more to lose.”

But Kerry Wells, the prosecutor who put Broderick behind bars, has a different take. “I’ve had my fill of Elisabeth Broderick,” she says. “She was not a battered woman. She was getting $16,000 a month in alimony. She had a million-dollar La Jolla house, a car, a boyfriend. I see abused women even day with broken bones and smashed faces. Give me a break.”