The following article contains allegations of domestic abuse and details about suicide.
In the decades since the horrifying murder-suicide took place in the early hours of May 28, 1998, people continue to speculate on all the bizarre things about the Phil Hartman case. While there are details that are certain and known about the case, such as Brynn Hartman’s murder of her husband in the bedroom of their Encino home and the gun that was used to kill Phil, there are other details that are less tangible and which continue to puzzle and mystify.
Much has been reported about how Brynn’s toxicology report showed alcohol and traces of cocaine in her system on the night of the murder, for instance, but little is actually known about how these details may have really contributed to her murdering her husband. Likewise, it continues to remain almost unfathomable that such a grisly and shocking crime could have happened to Phil, a comedian renowned for his work on shows like “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” and who appeared to be universally adored by everyone who knew him. We all attempt to piece together what we can in order to make sense of such violence, but there are always details that stand out for their strangeness and which sometimes only bring about a further set of questions in their wake. For the Hartman case, these are those details.
An upbeat mood before murder
In the evening of May 27, Brynn Hartman had met up with producer friend Christine Zander at Italian restaurant Buca di Beppo, and by all accounts, there were no signs that she was troubled. In fact, she appeared to be quite the opposite. According to People, she reportedly “nursed” two Cosmopolitans over two hours with Zander who later told the publication, “She was in a good frame of mind. She seemed content,” and added that the two “didn’t talk about any problems” during their time together, “We made plans to see each other the following weekend.” This account is further backed up by Tony Penn, the general manager and part-owner of the restaurant, who likewise commented upon the overall mood of the two friends on the night in question. “Nothing seemed out of the ordinary,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “They were in an upbeat mood.”
The restaurant was reportedly a favorite of the Hartmans, with them celebrating Brynn’s 40th birthday just a month prior to the incident. They were well known there by staff, with bartender Todd Red suggesting that the couple “always seemed happy” when they visited the establishment. He added that on this particular night, “The only thing unusual was she was there without Phil” and that when Brynn left, she reportedly told him, “‘I’ll be back real soon, and I’ll be sure to bring Phil next time.'” (via People).
The Hartmans appeared to be a couple on the up
Following the murder-suicide, tabloids were brutally enthusiastic about digging up as much dirt as possible on the alleged “marital discord” of the Hartmans. However, those who knew the couple were quick to counter such conjecture. A statement (via Slate) shared by the couple’s respective families read, “The unbridled speculation offered in the media are unfounded. Phil and Brynn were a loving couple, devoted to each other and their children.” Friends of the couple suggested that they experienced everyday marital stressors no different from any other married couple in the entertainment industry. One friend, Andrea Diamond, told the Los Angeles Times, “He was away a lot and she and the kids were home. It was hard, but that’s what you sign up for if you marry someone in this business.”
Brynn’s brother Greg Omdahl likewise told ABC News that his sister needed reassurance that such marital issues were “normal.” He said, “Maybe she felt Phil was spending too much time with his boat or airplane… [and] not enough time with the kids.” However, Omdahl echoed sentiments shared by friends and family across various publications that the couple appeared to have moved beyond the rough patches in their marriage and were committed to moving forward together. “They had seen a counselor and both of them said that really helped and [that] they’re trying to improve for their spouse,” he claimed. “I mean, they cared that much about each other.”
Brynn Hartman's anger was so severe she apparently needed restraining
Though the perspective of many friends and family seemed to suggest that the Hartmans had regular marital issues that they were continuing to work through, others painted a less than idyllic picture centering around Brynn Hartman’s alleged anger issues. Steve Small, Phil’s friend and attorney, suggested that the two had separated on more than one occasion. Quite notably, Phil had also reportedly told him that Brynn “had trouble controlling her anger.” Small alleged to the Los Angeles Times, “She got attention by losing her temper. Phil said that he had to … restrain her at times.”
Phil’s ex-wife Lisa Strain maintained a friendship with him following their divorce and likewise told People that he had confessed to her how Brynn would “create scenes and throw fits.” However, though Strain was aware of this element within the couple’s marriage, she couldn’t consider this as the potential extreme endpoint of it, “I never thought it would go that far,” she said, “I can’t imagine someone going that far.” (via CNN)
If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.
The chilling four-page letter sent to Phil Hartman's second wife
Sadly, Lisa Strain also reportedly had the first-hand experience of these anger issues after receiving a violent, four-page letter from Brynn Hartman in 1988. According to Strain, the letter was prompted by a card she’d sent to the couple congratulating them both on the birth of Sean, their first child. As recounted in the book, “You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman,” Strain told author Mike Thomas that Brynn had sent a terse warning that there’d be consequences if she contacted Phil again. As well as writing a threat against her life, Strain also allegesdthat the letter read that Brynn would “rip [her] eyes out” if she ever did reach back out to her ex.
Strain has described the letter to People as being “the most hideous vitriol you could imagine” and further explained to ABC News, “The gist of it was, ‘Don’t ever fu**ing get near me or my family or I will hurt you. I never want to hear from you … never, ever, ever come near us or you will really be sorry.” As Strain tells it, Phil was aware of the letter when she brought it up to him as a point of concern. Shockingly, Phil not only knew about it but also suggested he knew of an earlier draft of it which was somehow even worse, telling her, “‘You should’ve seen the letter she wanted to send.'”
Sleep was Phil Hartman's escape from Brynn's angry outbursts
Painting a more in-depth portrait of Brynn Hartman’s alleged anger issues and of the potential events that mounted to the grim ending are various accounts that describe Phil Hartman using sleep as a method for appeasing and averting conflict with his wife. Attorney Steve Small told the Los Angeles Times that the couple “had a pattern of arguing at night, and he would go to sleep and everything would be okay in the morning. I think he felt safe going to sleep, and he just shouldn’t have. I think she just lost control.”
According to the police report, Phil had been shot by Brynn in his sleep with People also revealing that the two had experienced a “heated argument” earlier that night. Small suggested that this familiar pattern may have once again taken place on the night of Phil’s murder, with the comedian opting to sleep as a way to end this potential quarrel. Small said, “He had made it very clear that if she started using drugs again, that would end the relationship.” The lawyer suggested that the couple were emotional opposites with Brynn using her temper to elicit a reaction from her often quiet, withdrawn husband. Phil apparently once told him, “‘I go into my cave and she throws grenades to get me out.'”
The 'wrongful death' lawsuit against Pfizer
Whilst tabloids had a field day with the endless onslaught of the wild speculation surrounding the tragedy and the potential motives Brynn Hartman had for killing Phil, her brother took direct action against the major pharmaceutical company who manufactured the antidepressant Brynn was taking at the time.
In May 1999, shortly before the year anniversary of the tragedy, Omdahl sued Pfizer, the makers of antidepressant Zoloft, claiming that the drug contributed side effects that caused his sister to do something so unimaginable. Per AP, Omdahl’s attorney claimed that “Zoloft is an antidepressant that in some people causes violent and suicidal side effects” and that a “rare but previously documented” side effect left her feeling “out of touch with reality” (via Salon).
Responding to the lawsuit in 1999, a representative for Pfizer responded to the insinuation that Zoloft is dangerous and that it could in some way contribute to such episodes, telling Salon, “There’s no scientific or medical evidence that Zoloft causes violent or suicidal behavior.” Regardless, the Omdahl vs. Pfizer lawsuit was settled for $100,000 that same year.
Brynn Hartman initially lied about Phil's whereabouts
After enjoying a couple of slow, placid drinks with her friend at Buca di Beppo, Brynn Hartman went on to the home of her long-time pal Ron Douglas at about 10:15. According to what Douglas told police, the two enjoyed a few beers together, and Brynn brought up some marital complaints to him. At around 12:45, Brynn headed back home (via ABC News).
But that wasn’t the last that Douglas heard from her. Sometime around 3:25 a.m., approximately an hour and a half after killing her husband, Brynn called Douglas to let him know that Phil Hartman wasn’t home. Strangely, she suggested that Phil had left her a note which read, “I’m going out for the night. I’ll be back. — Phil. Love you,'” and that she didn’t want to be alone. As well as raising concerns about the welfare of her kids if she were to leave the house whilst Phil also wasn’t home, Douglas also reportedly told her to take some aspirin and go to sleep (per Salon). She didn’t take his advice.
Bullet confusion and the drunken murder confession
Twenty minutes after hanging up on his friend, Ron Douglas was then awoken by Brynn Hartman banging on his front door and ringing his doorbell. As he told police, Brynn appeared “highly intoxicated.” Notably, during this time, she also confessed to the murder of her husband. Like any good friend would react upon hearing such a thing, however, Douglas found the admission to be completely inconceivable of her, telling police, “She said she had killed her husband, and I didn’t believe her” (via Time).
Adding to Douglas’ dismissal of her confession is his discovery of Brynn’s Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, upon it falling out of her bag. According to Salon, though the weapon was an obvious concern, he recalls the gun appearing to be fully loaded when he first checked it — as though no bullets had been used. Sadly, his first appraisal of the piece seemed to be incorrect. When following Brynn back to the home she shared with Phil, Douglas had an opportunity to check the barrel of the gun once more and upon doing so, saw that two of the bullets were missing. He’d later discover that even this was incorrect: Brynn had used three bullets to kill her husband.
The bed Brynn Hartman chose to die in
In one of the most bizarre details of the case, Brynn Hartman crawled into bed next to her dead husband and decided it would be where she would die. Not long after Ron Douglas had entered her home and discovered Phil’s dead body, Brynn’s horrified friend called the police to report the incident whilst she locked herself in the bedroom she once shared with her now-deceased husband (via Salon).
After calling her sister and having a brief phone conversation with police, Brynn took her spot next to Phil and shot herself in the head using a different gun than the one Douglas had earlier confiscated. The Hartman case autopsy report describes the two bodies as lying side by side, with Phil’s body on the right and Brynn’s on the left. The bullet Brynn used was reportedly lodged into the wooden headboard of the bed when responding officers entered the house and found the two bodies together.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The safety of the Hartman kids and the final gunshot
As recalled by the responding officers at the scene of the crime, the Hartman’s two children were thankfully mostly oblivious to the violence of the night with only Sean Hartman –- 9-years-old at the time of the incident -– later sharing that he heard sounds like “the slamming of a door” when his father was killed (via ABC News). After calling the police, Douglas was able to grab Sean from his bed and take him outside where LAPD officers were waiting.
As told by The New York Times, officers took the boy to their squad vehicles for safety and went inside the house to get the couple’s daughter, Birgen, who was only 6-years-old. As police officers tried to get her out of the front door, Lieutenant Alba of the LAPD said that the gunshot believed to have killed Brynn could be heard from the rear of the house, where the bedroom was located. That means there is sadly potential that the youngest child of the couple may have heard the gunshot that also killed her mother, as she was making her way out of the family home.
Hartman’s children were later raised by Brynn’s sister Katherine and her husband Mike in Wisconsin, and they’ve managed to maintain a quiet life for themselves despite the public tragedy of their parents.
Phil Hartman's haunting statement before his death
By all accounts, Phil Hartman was renowned for his incredible talent for maintaining a convivial public persona and committing his life to a successful career dedicated to making people laugh and smile. Following his tragic death, anecdotes from dear friends of his, as well as associates from the comedy community he was well respected within, spoke of his well-deserved success and of being “one of the good guys” (via The New York Times).
From the sounds of it, this wasn’t something that he took for granted either. ABC News reported that in a 1998 interview given before his death, Phil unwittingly provided a prescient proclamation about how much he loved and appreciated his life, and how he understood the immense delicate nature of it all too. Phil reflected, “I think in my old age, I’ve come to realize just how precious everything is and I try to value the many blessings that have been bestowed upon me. But there’s also this sense of vulnerability if fortune took a turn for the worse, and that you live with the awareness that anything could happen in this world.”
Phil Hartman's brother begged people to forgive Brynn
As the tabloid furor surrounding the incident all too harrowingly proved, when a tragedy such as a murder-suicide happens, there can be a temptation to jump to conclusions and to point fingers in a bid to find simple answers to unfathomably complex questions.
Bizarre only because of how unusually kind the gesture is following a crime of this nature, at the private memorial service for the couple, Phil Hartman’s brother John urged loved ones to be kind towards Brynn as they processed their grief. He told his fellow mourners, “They were victims of the same accident. There is no one to hate and no blame to be laid. I beg you to forgive her. So put this incident in your past and close the door. Forget –- if you can.” (via New York Post)
In a 2013 interview with CBS Los Angeles, John further reflected on his brother’s death and his decision to forgive rather than hate Brynn for it, admitting that “it took a lot of hard work” to heal emotionally from the incident. As John recalls, the instant the coroner explained to him that Brynn “was on Zoloft and drinking alcohol” and “did not know what she was doing, or why she was doing it,” he didn’t doubt it for a second. “I took that as true,” he explained, “And I forgave her in that moment.”
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